St. Petersburg’s Summer Days and White Nights
Text Neil McGowan
Photos Sergei Koshkin
“Step out onto the pavements of Nevsky Prospekt, and you step into the atmosphere of a fairground,” wrote Gogol, and it’s hard to disagree with him — after all, these very sidewalks were the first in Europe to be paved with flat paving-stones purely for the convenience of ladies in high heels.
St. Petersburg was the world’s first purpose-built city, springing from nothing at the behest of its creator, Emperor Peter I (the Great): a city intended as the acme of European style and civilization, built on a mosquito-infested bog in Finland. As a young man Peter had made the Grand Tour of Europe, a trip that had impressed upon him how Russia lagged in sophistication, culture, and the arts. He returned to Russia with a mission — not only to bring the splendors of Versailles, Amsterdam, Vienna, and London to his native land but to outdo them. The scheme was audacious. Building it relied on bludgeoning his errant nobility for funding and exploiting a huge labor force of Swedish prisoners-of-war for muscle power. Quite when the plan to secure the mouth of the River Neva from Swedish marauders turned into the idea of a European-style capital for Russia isn’t clear. Peter’s blueprint for the city mixed elegant boulevards and Dutch canals with a garrison and military shipyards in one grand design.
Peter’s personal enthusiasm for the project can be clearly seen at one of the most modest of all the early buildings in the city, Peter’s Hut, a wooden cabin near the Peter & Paul Fortress from which the tsar himself supervised the city’s construction. However, when a rebellion in distant Moscow needed Peter’s personal intervention, he left the building work in the hands of his companion and drinking partner, Prince Menshikov. Menshikov was later to confess himself unable to remember exactly what had happened to most of the money entrusted to him for the project, but severe alcoholism, advanced syphilis, and a large palace for his personal use provided some retrospective clues. Yet even the embezzlement of city’s entire construction budget couldn’t spoil a friendship clinched over many a cup, and “Menshikov will be Menshikov” was the extent of Peter’s ire.
Three hundred years later Petersburg may no longer be the official capital of Russia, but as the “intellectual capital” it now supplies Russia’s leaders. Both Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev are natives. Although it is tempting to romanticize the Russian Empire’s glory days, there’s iron in the soul of the “Northern Capital,” too. During World War II, the city was besieged for 900 days by the German army, and a quarter of the civilian population died of famine or disease. If there’s a glorious city today, it’s due to the implacable perseverance of its people.
The White Nights Festival celebrates world-class achievement in the performing arts — theater, ballet, opera, and classical music. Book ahead or miss out; the list of those appearing is a pantheon that rivals Covent Garden, the Met, or La Scala, and many events sell out in a few hours. The scurry for hotel rooms in a city that’s woefully underprovisioned in this respect anyhow is even more intense, so kiss goodbye the hopes of a “late bargain” or “deep discount.” Unless you especially want the arts festival, the Nights are just as White on the weeks either side of it, and the city’s aesthetic and sybaritic pleasures are just as accessible.
Of course, the panoply of riches in St. Petersburg’s museums and galleries is legendary, whether your taste runs to priceless artifacts in the Hermitage, the finest of Russian fine art in the Russian Museum, the gritty realities of the Museum of the Political Police, or odder offerings like the Museum of Bread or the Musical Instrument Museum. Similarly, the apartments of cultural figures like Anna Akhmatova or Fyodor Dostoyevsky will lure bookworms from afar, and why not? Your evenings open up with new chances to take bright sunlit walks in the small hours to leafy groves like Kamenny Ostrov (try to find the Buddhist monastery), or to watch the flotilla of pleasure cruises duck through the bridges when they open at 1 am. Just make sure there’s no open bridge between you and home when they raise as there’s no other way home in many cases. The Summer Garden, landscape-lined with classical sculpture, have been a modish setting for promenade for over two centuries. However, unlike 200 years ago, the paths are no longer swept clean by arrested prostitutes, who were, according to 19th-century edicts forced to do this penance before being released to err again the following evening.
To See and Hear This Summer In St. Petersburg
Four centuries of Russian painting: Works by Roerich, Aivazovsky, and Vereschagin from private collections.
Slavinsky Gallery, June 1-15
Paintings of Ivan Shishkin
The Russian Museum,
Through July 20
In Palaces and Tents:
The Islamic World from China to Europe
Through September 7
June 3 at 19:00
Roger Waters (Pink Floyd)
June 6 at 19:00
StereoLeto St. Petersburg
Main Square, Elagin Island
June 11 at 21:00
16th International Stars of the White Nights Music Festival marking the 225th of the Mariinsky Theater
May 10 – July 27
Grand Concert Hall
June 24 at 19:00