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The Aura of St. Petersburg

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“I stuck around St. Petersburg
When I saw it was a time for a change
Killed the Czar and his ministers
Anastasia screamed in vain
I rode a tank
Held a generals rank
When the blitzkrieg raged
And the bodies stank”

– ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ by The Rolling Stones

It’s very difficult to comprehend how much of a culturally and historically significant city St. Petersburg is until one sees and experiences it for oneself.

Nevertheless I will in what I hope will not be a futile attempt try and convey the feeling one gets when walking through this city, and along with this conveyance try and illustrate the unique and classical character the city has.

Walking its streets it is hard to believe that Petersburg was built up from swamp and marshland some 300 years ago. Formerly Petrograd and Leningrad respectively, St. Petersburg is clearly modelled after the classical European cities of the day. Saint Isaac’s Cathedral for example, which reminded me of the Notre Dame in Paris, was designed by a French-born architect appointed by Tsar Alexander I.

The hotel my party and I were staying in (my fellow travellers were my older brother Dez, his girlfriend Kristina, Kristina’s mother Elona, and her partner Markku) was on the Nevsky Prospekt which is a short walk from the famous and splendid Winter Palace.

From the get-go we were warned by the hotel staff about pickpockets operating around said popular tourist destination. However we never had such trouble. I heard talk about Putin’s ‘iron fist’ against crime. This brought to mind the tough measures Putin took in the early 1990s when he was appointed head of the Committee of External Relations of the Saint Petersburg Mayor’s Office, where his duty was to ensure law and order did not collapse amidst the widespread chaos and confusion that followed in Russia in the immediate aftermath of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. About criminals Putin stated the below – which clearly illustrates the hardline stance he planned to have enforced:

If criminals have attacked authority there must be an appropriate punishment, it’s a policeman’s duty to be severe and cruel if necessary. It’s the only way to reduce criminality, the only way. We hope to eliminate 10 criminals for each [police] officer killed…within the law of course.

The port areas of St. Petersburg in particular have been the sites of a large and ongoing turf war between Putin’s supporters and the Russian Mafia.

When talking and thinking about the city of Petersburg (and Russia in general) it’s hard not to think about war, oppression, and revolution. A lot of the latter is symbolically encased in the Russian cruiser Aurora. This ship fired the first shots of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and is still moored in St. Petersburg as a relic of the revolutionary days as well as a very salient reminder of the communist days of yore.

Looking at the Aurora it can be difficult to comprehend how significant and symbolic this one early-20th-century warship is. In 1975 for example the officers of the Soviet naval frigate Storozhevoy planned to mutiny and start a revolution. They saw Leonid Brezhnev and his elites decaying from senility and as a result were clearly more interested in their own affluence and hold on power than on upholding the true values of the people’s revolution. It is fitting that to start what was in all regards a reformation of the Soviet system (rather than a revolution) the captain of the Storozhevoy planned to park his frigate beside the Aurora’s permanent mooring site in St. Petersburg where he’d then attempt to address the people to start such a reformation. Although his ship was boarded by commandos before he could complete this plan it is interesting, and very telling in retrospect of how symbolic the Aurora was to communism and the Red October revolution.

On the subject of war and oppression one cannot omit the historically infamous and brutal 872-day siege which saw then Leningrad subjected to the most lethal siege in world history, where a German policy of deprivation, starvation, and extermination was employed to break the will of the city’s residents.

Over a million Russians were killed and perished in Leningrad during that horrible time and much of the city was levelled. Those inhabitants who lived through it must have known what hell was like; apart from the starvation they had to endure, those who survived were permanently scarred by memories of what they had to do in order to make it through the brutality and conditions of sheer terror Hitler’s besieging armada was afflicting on them.

Hitler saw no need to leave Leningrad standing, a secret directive shows that he had “decided to raze the City of Petersburg from the face of the earth,” to clear the way for the Wehrmacht on its march to Moscow.

The diary of a young girl named Tanya Savicheva is probably the most famous artifact remaining from that horrific siege, simply a log of the time and dates her family died. Like Anne Frank she’d previously had a real diary; however she burned it when there was nothing left to keep the family stove lit during the dreaded Russian winter. It is striking in its formality considering its horrific subject matter. And it is a reminder of what essentially every resident of Leningrad went through, and the scarring effects those years had on the survivors.

There is a magical moment in Michael Jones’s book Leningrad: State of Siege where he brilliantly describes how the starving, weary, frightened, freezing, exhausted, and dying residents of that city mustered all their strength and civility by getting together to see a live orchestra play the Symphony No. 7 “Leningrad” by Dmitri Shostakovich, broadcast through loudspeakers all over the city and over the radio. It has been said by many veterans from the German side – who visited years after the war – that once they picked up the sound of that orchestra they knew they could never break the spirit of the people of Leningrad.

It is quite fitting that the orchestra in some respects marked the symbolic turning point of the war, as the date it was played was the same date that Hitler had chosen to celebrate the projected and predicted date that Leningrad would have fallen. This setback was symbolic in the gradual turning point of the war, which would see the Soviet Army successfully bring an end to the siege, turn the tide of war, and within a year go on the offensive against the Third Reich.

Well into the postwar years my traveling companion Markku had visited then Leningrad during the Soviet era. His recollection is of a much different Petersburg (circa 1976) than of the one there today. The most noticeable differences he stated were the relatively small amount of traffic in comparison to the clogged streets there today, and a lack of individualism. The Soviet propaganda of the day often asserted that individualism was one of the more primitive aspects of man, like the equally corrupting greed and lust that embodied the reality of the American dream as they saw it.

Markku reflected that the women of the day always seemed to find an underlying way of publicly showing some signs of defiance to Soviet rules and regulations. He added furthermore that women always seem to possess an innate ability to express themselves more than men. One needs to look no further than the various women’s rights movements which daily find new and innovative ways of defying strict Islamic laws against them in the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia at present to vindicate his observation.

I must not have been very imaginative, as I could not for the rest of that day (and until present in retrospect) visualize St. Petersburg having ever been a bland and conformist kind of a place. That night I found it progressively more difficult when taking a scenic river tour across the city.

From the great vantage point the river boat tour offers from the beautiful Nova, you can see some of the most historically significant sites in Petersburg, each one unique and quaint in its own regard and each one contributing in one way or another to the overall aura of this city.

And speaking of character, following our disembarkation at the quay by the Winter Palace we stumbled upon a large conglomerate of people cheering a local street band, which was quite good, as was the lively, friendly, inviting atmosphere – especially considering this was 3 a.m.

Another sight to behold is the frequency in which you see people with small pet bears just sitting or strolling around watching the world go by. Again just another one of the little things that all add together to give this place its uniqueness and its charm.

St. Petersburg is a periphery city, right on the edge of Russia and Europe, and because of this unique location it seems to have been able to take in the best of both worlds, and in the process rival the great big European cities like Berlin and Paris whilst also simultaneously rivalling Moscow as Russia’s cultural centre.

I don’t think there was a more fitting way to leave Petersburg than by train from Finland Station, where Vladimir Lenin arrived from Germany on the 3rd of April to start the October Revolution in a symbolic hinge moment heralding the Soviet epoch in Russia.

We took from our visit to Petersburg fond and rich memories of a city steeped in culture and history.

Approximately 20 years ago Leningrad was once again renamed St. Petersburg, symbolic of the ushering in of a new era, which begun with the city impoverished and on the brink of famine. To this day it has remained as a hub (or shrine) for Russia’s intellectuals and historians who themselves can only vaguely ponder where this significant and historically peculiar city will be 20 years from now.

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