Petropolis as an idea

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Marking the 320th anniversary of St. Petersburg

Kirill Privalov

We love cities when they love us. But St. Petersburg does not need that. This city knows that under any circumstances it will remain the object of, if not universal admiration, then at least enthusiastic contemplation. Noble mansions and palaces of dignitaries built in the Baroque and Empire, accurate tenement houses in the Art Nouveau Modern style, majestic temples of all denominations… And bridges with their cast-iron support structures, carefully detailed canals, grooves wrapped in granite and leading to the full-flowing Neva… “Let’s go along the Moika, along the Moika…” calls one poet. “And over the Neva – the embassies of half the world, the Admiralty, the sun, silence!” another one echoes.

Of course, the cities built on high water have a special position. Especially, the capitals. And St. Petersburg is the great capital of Russia. Moreover, it is the capital among all capitals, although the youngest in Europe. It is not only due to its harmonious beauty as a single ensemble, but also because no other European capital would ever endure such trials. It is impossible to imagine, say, Paris, Rome or London choking and freezing in the blockade which lasted for almost nine hundred days. Or tell me, what other major city of the continent was renamed three times?.. But Petropolis – no matter how you call it! – is becoming only more meaning, moreover – meaningful. And no one and nothing are able to shake this meaningfulness of St. Petersburg – Petrograd – Leningrad for Russia, Europe, the whole civilised world. Neither the moisture falling from the sky and stubbornly refusing to choose between snow and rain, nor the endless wind impudently blowing like over a rotten swamp, nor the heavy sky, which looks like it threatens to fall on the ground with wet, ankle-deep slurry, nor hordes of barbarians surrounding the city walls… That’s what it is, the city of Peter the Great!

This issue of Russian Mind remarks the 320th anniversary of St. Petersburg, the city about which it seems that everything has been said – especially over the past two centuries – by writers, politicians, thinkers… What is worth the mere revelation of the Frenchman Frédéric Beigbeder, “Night does not come in St. Petersburg, and only at six in the morning the sky becomes a little purple. You are standing on the banks of the Neva with strangers. Suddenly someone starts to sing and you sing too, without understanding the words. There is a feeling of something eternal, which you experience only in Russia. And only in Russia and nowhere else can one feel this grace; I know that as I have travelled all over the world. It is some kind of magical secret. We, foreigners, are going to your disorganised, noisy and completely insane country, because we expect to live a moment of bliss and eternity, a magical spark that will certainly flare up. But we will have to pay a very high price for that feeling. I think Russia is a drug. The most dangerous of all!”

It seems to me, the brilliant literary provocateur from Paris is right, but not completely. The magic of Petropolis is rather cold than intoxicating or burning. It attunes to an exalted state, coming from the bowels of the earth. From the wet, tightening depths that were staked, paved, covered by hundreds and thousands of bodies of Russians – from the time of Peter the Great and up to the trials of the blockade. These people were given as a message to us. I remember the words of Nikolai Nekrasov, “And on the sides, all the bones are Russian…” The city of Peter is a concentration of victims and self-sacrifice. These are the souls of heroes and martyrs, frozen in stone. This is the Russian Logos: both the Word of God and at the same time the eternal necessity of the difficult Russian existence. For the nation, formed in heavy searches from the Baltic to Sakhalin and from the Crimea to the Altai, is spiritually nourished in St. Petersburg to this day.

Having laid it on the site of the Chukhon swamps, Peter the Great determined the future of the country, or rather, the direction of its development. The Russian eagle, which reached us from afar, from the ancient Assyrians through the Byzantines, is two-headed. The first Russian emperor practically balanced the two crowned heads, decisively cutting through the window to Europe. And for three centuries, the city of Peter remains primarily a European polis, open to the western and northern winds.

And this is not only a location, but also a symbol. “On May 16 (old style), 1703, on Hare Island, Peter the Great founded the city of St. Petersburg in honour of St. Peter,” the chronicle says. It is unlikely that the tsar was fully aware of the burden he then threw upon himself. More precisely, not even upon himself and his supporters, but upon the whole of Russia, which was entering a new century and a new era. According to historians, about 227,000 people actually worked on the construction of St. Petersburg in the first ten years. It’s no laughing matter: in 1714 Peter issued a decree on a nationwide ban on stone construction to let all Russian stone go to the construction of St. Petersburg. The decree remained in force for fourteen years! Over those years, the first outlines of the city were determined to form a unique construction site, an exquisite laboratory of creative genius. For creative people, the city of Peter means a secret interlocutor for dialogue, it is a declaration of love for a mythical creature, moreover, a living one: from Derzhavin and Pushkin to Akhmatova and Mandelstam. “I don’t want to choose either a country or a graveyard – I’ll come to Vasilyevsky Island to die,” Joseph Brodsky confessed to Petropolis, however – alas! – he was not given a chance to follow his reckless promise.

“The most abstract and deliberate city on the entire globe,” as Fyodor Dostoevsky described St. Petersburg in Notes from Underground. It is a fact. Sometimes, when visiting St. Petersburg, I catch myself thinking that this city is almost virtual. It is so ghostly and filled with a certain detachment, fatal inaccessibility… Its mysterious unsteadiness is multiplied by urban perfection. That emphatically classical sense of proportion forms the mind of everyone who reaches the banks of the Neva, Moika, Fontanka… The chaos of the world around us acquires healthy, conscious boundaries under the influence of St. Petersburg’s noble, Nordic snobbery and fills the soul with peace and breath. Yes, the very one that has come to us through the centuries. The city is only more than three centuries old – which is not comparable to Athens or Constantinople, – but it is easy to get lost in the abyss of time. One can see such dreams in it, where reality is effortlessly confused with phantoms, with such ghosts as Gogol’s The Nose and Pushkin’s Queen of Spades and Bronze Horseman.

Alexander Sergeyevich subtly felt the fabulousness of St. Petersburg, its unreality. Do you remember? “A hundred years have passed, and the young city, // The beauty and wonder of midnight countries, // From the darkness of forests, from the depth of swamps, // It ascended magnificently, proudly…” Indeed, it was impossible not to add up a host of myths about St. Petersburg. Everything in it is conducive to this – the cult of the white nights, the chronicles of the monstrous floods in old times, and the abundance of real heroes of the past: tsars and architects, writers and pirates…

Once I was walking along Gorokhovaya Street, and at the corner of Bolshaya Morskaya Street I saw a memorial plaque with an inscription in Russian and English, “John Paul Jones, admiral of the Russian Navy, national hero and father of the United States Navy lived here from 1788 to 1789.” What a miracle! I put some effort, dug into the archives and discovered that the Scot John Paul Jones, who had previously fought with the British under the flag of the young United States, entered into the service of the Empress Catherine the Great and became Rear Admiral Pavel de Zhones in Russia. He led the squadron of the Russian Navy in the Dnieper estuary and selflessly beat the Ottomans along with Potemkin and Kutuzov. However, being too hothead and simple-hearted, he did not fit into the Petersburg’s crown realities. Disappointed, he asked the Empress for a two-year vacation and left in May 1790… Guess, where to? Of course, to France! France continued to fight with England, which was exactly what the admiral was looking for himself. But it did not happen… On June 18, 1792, John Paul Jones died in Paris at the age of forty-five. Doctors considered the cause of death to be kidney disease, but the friends of the naval commander were sure that he was poisoned by the vengeful British. The Scot managed to make a will. It was specific: Jones asked to place his body in a hermetic coffin and fill it with alcohol.

After the death of John Paul Jones, he remained in oblivion for a long time. The man called the founding father of the US Navy in American encyclopedias, was not reburied until 1905. The naval commander found his last refuge in the coffin installed in the Naval Academy Chapel in Annapolis. Today, future US Navy officers take the oath at his grave… It is unlikely that they are told that when the sarcophagus was opened, John Paul Jones laid in it as if alive. He was in the full dress uniform of an admiral of the Russian fleet, with the Order of St. Anne on his chest and a Peter’s faceted glass (it was also called naval drinking glass) in his hand. What can a man do, Russian vodka was his favourite drink.

You can’t throw words out of a song: St. Petersburg was created, next to the Russians, shoulder to shoulder, by the French and Germans, Italians and the British… It is a European city with Russian blizzards, cataclysms and passions, with a Russian combination of non-Russian straight streets and squares. This emphasised dualism – the sophisticated symbiosis of the West and the East – is the principal meaning of the Northern capital founded by Peter the Great. Petropolis is a breakthrough into the future promising good and honest relations between people from different states, it is a brilliant idea of unification timelessly embodied by Russians. And not only for ourselves – wherever we live and wherever we work, – but for the whole of Europe. For the whole world.

The Publishing House “Russian Mind” expresses gratitude to the Foundation for Supporting and Protecting the Rights of Compatriots Living Abroad for the support and financial aid provided to the “Russian Mind” magazine for the purpose of the Special Issue, to mark the 320th anniversary of Saint Petersburg.

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