City of Sleight-of-Hand

The bridges over the Neva River in St. Petersburg go up every night to let oceangoing ships pass. I’d heard that staying up until 1:30 a.m. to watch them was a magical experience. But the night I went, we were inexplicably out of luck. There were plenty of other people standing on the embankment, also waiting for the bridges. But, we stayed up until almost two and nothing happened. The two bridges we could see were covered in beautiful lights, but refused to open. Every car seemed like a cop car, every pedestrian seemed like the one who would open the gates. But eventually, we gave up and went home grumpy, only to wake up for class 6 hours later.

I felt like this was a fittingly anticlimactic experience, right in line with the St. Petersburg literature I’ve read. Without exception, these narratives are about illusions and broken dreams. In The Bronze Horseman, The Overcoat, Crime and Punishment, Nevksy Prospekt, and The Double, things are not what they seem. The heroes chase an image of St. Petersburg, which always turns out to be just a front for a flawed reality. This seedy underbelly drives characters like Akaky Akakievich and Katerina Marmeladova to insanity.

In St. Petersburg this city’s dual nature is apparent–in contrast to Moscow, which is less dazzling but with (quite literally) firmer foundations. When you visit St. Petersburg, you can feel its unique character and its history. We stayed in the center of old Petersburg, in a hotel where just climbing the stairs made me feel like I’d traveled back in time.

We took a boat tour of the canals at sunset that was truly amazing.

But the colorful, light-filled magic of the city center isn’t the whole story. We also saw a different reality of this city, when we saw the museum and cemetery dedicated to the blockade of Leningrad during the Second World War (in Russian, the Great War of the Fatherland). More than half a million people died in the 900 horrific days of the blockade, of starvation, bombing, disease, and every possible cause. In this cemetery are interred 500,000 bodies in mass graves, like the one below.

Our few days in Petersburg were fun, but I think it was a thoughtful time for a lot of us as well. The sequence of my experiences fell into an interesting arc, from tsars’ gilded palaces to the bridge disappointment to the blockade memorials, from superficial to deeper aspects of the city. I think I got a taste of St. Petersburg in all its complex glory.

Article written by braulickjim

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