Петербург, ХХ век, фрагменты: from The Other St. Petersburg by John Nickolson

История Петербурга, ХХ век, фрагменты


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From "" by John Nickolson

A few curious facts

First, a few facts.

Maps and official statistics give St Petersburg the appearance of a large city with a population of almost five million. This is misleading: St Petersburg is essentially small. Its true population, after deduction of tourists and foreign businessmen and visiting Caucasian and Asian market traders and guesting mafiosi and banditi, is nearer to 900 thousand. Of this figure, which is still too high, about a third are suburbians, living in the white multi-storey coffins built by the Great Soviet Undertaker on the city's edges. Another third are home-grown millionaires or businessmen, existing in this city only notionally (or for purposes of tax evasion) - being in fact already Volvo- or Mercedes-owning citizens of the International Capitalist Community. Which leaves only 300 thousand or so ordinary citizens of St Petersburg. This figure is probably still too high.

The city's cartographical profile is similarly in need of correction. Take a map of St Petersburg and a large pair of scissors and snip off all districts of the city north of Petrogradskaya Storona, east of the eastern arc of the Neva, south of Ligovsky Prospekt on one side of Nevsky and of Suvorovsky Prospekt on the other. In addition, enlarge and emphasize the following structural pivots: Nevsky Prospekt, Mikhailovsky Garden, the embankments of the Moika, House No. 10 on Pushkinskaya Street. Next, take a map of the Crimea, identify and cut out Koktebel (on the Black Sea coast) and paste onto the city's southern boundary, next to Ligovsky Prospekt. Koktebel, as every sun-loving native of this city knows, is St Petersburg's southernmost point. St Petersburg should now look something like this (see map on previous page).

This is a small city; a city which holds forth the prospect of intimacy. The fit tourist could walk round it in little more than an hour and a half. The native Petersburger would take a little longer - detained by inevitable unplanned collisions with friends, acquaintances, cups of coffee, bottles of portwine (1) or vodka (the true Petersburger, in fact, could never walk more than fifteen yards on Nevsky Prospekt without meeting one or another of the above-mentioned obstacles; Nevsky Prospekt is the channel through which all St Petersburg flows two or three times a day).

It is a city of well-hidden depths, where there are two entrances to everything: the formal front entrance or paradnaya, and the chyorny vhod (literally: the black entrance), the way in from the courtyard at the back of a building. The only sure way of getting to know St Petersburg is through the chyorny vhod. From the street front, the inquirer's gaze is returned blankly, coldly even, by tall, well-bred classical facades lining the street edge. But go through the arch set in each house, and you find yourself in an intricate internal space - deep, sunless, dirty, surrounded on all sides by the backs of different wings of the house and by back entrances or staircases leading up to flats. This is the courtyard or dvor; here the real life of the city is measured out in empty bottles and endless labyrinthine conversations. Children play at football or hopskotch; women stop to exchange the latest news from the shops; cats climb proprietorially over rubbish piled in skips; people of all kinds sit and talk and drink and drink and sit and talk. All this in the very centre of St Petersburg, within shouting distance of Nevsky Prospekt.

It is an odd feature of this city that its geographical and spiritual hearts coincide. Unlike almost any other major European city, the physical centre of St Petersburg is inhabited, lived in, slept in, walked through day and night by its essential population.

The other curious fact about St Petersburg is that it ought not to exist.

St Petersburg; Petersburgers

St Petersburg ought not to exist because it has been built in the wrong place (intended as Russia's capital, yet surrounded by Sweden and overlooked by Finland); on the wrong terrain (in the middle of a bog); and in the wrong climate (a place where winter lasts nine months of the year and where summer, airless and suffocating, comes as but small respite).

The same can be said for Petersburgers. Strictly speaking, they too ought not to exist. Not here. Not in the middle of this bog. Not against the backdrop of these buildings, this stage-set of classical facades improbably transplanted from a different clime, a different culture. This is no place for Russians, or, for that matter, for any other human race.

But the point about Petersburgers, of course, is that they are people of muddled nationality. They live within the physical boundaries of Russia. They have Russian blood in their veins. They speak a language which is practically indistinguishable from that spoken by people in Moscow or Volgograd. And yet Russian they are not. Somehow, without crossing any borders, they have left their motherland - but without arriving anywhere else, without becoming citizens of any other country. They are internal emmigrants, emigres jamais arrives: a strange, displaced, stranded people tied to a city which they love, but in which they can never quite be at home.

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