Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Reflecting on our first day in Saint Petersburg

It's hard to believe our stay in Russia is over. It was short in reality, but felt much longer than it was. I don't quite know what to say, other than that I am still processing my feelings on the matter, now that I am home. To give a bit of background, here is my journal from the first day - a day full of great experiences, but also a feeling of being overwhelmed by such a mass of people.

Saint Petersburg was quite an experience. Between the Hermitage and the Peter and Paul Fortress, the city’s impressive imperial history made its might felt. Through a tour of the city, we learned about the architectural transition between the imperial and Soviet eras - how the ornate European castles gave way to concrete, uglier structures. I found myself fascinated by the city - what with gutted Ladas and abandoned buildings on one street of Basil’s Island, and a great load of small luxury good shops in Nevski Prospect. We had a couple interactions with the Petersburgers, and they seemed friendly enough, many of them speaking some English even.

I read the news every morning and often see Russia on the front page - and it’s rarely a happy occurrence. When I read the news this morning and saw that two people had been arrested in an assassination plot to kill Putin, I felt connected to events in some way - at the least more than previous. The happening was also a good lesson in how the world’s people are all very similar in their aspirations for a fair representation in their government. I’m sure that if I lived in Petersburg I would feel a good deal of anger over Putin’s reign that I don’t quite feel as an outsider.

Saint Petersburg was described as a logical place that could drive one insane and as a place cursed. The myriad of people, Russian and foreign tourists alike, moving about like bees in a hive down the straight roads and along the Neva river was dizzying. While I have read very little about Saint Petersburg itself, compared to the provinces, I can see the allure the city held to authors. It is a busy place, full of dichotomy - evidenced by the very reasonably priced bar we visited and the 20,000 ruble cigars I saw at in a shop on Nevski Prospect. The curse that Peter the Great’s first wife placed upon him and his city is thought to be connected to the city’s ecological problems. The floods that killed many Petersburgers long ago have been prevented by the damn - but that created another issue. The curse has yet to relent, it seems, as the water is in bloom; it’s effectively poison due to the level of bacteria in it.

Petersburg is very clearly a project of the empire. Unlike Moscow, the city was planned and is full of straight roads. The city administration has been logically located in the heart of town, where it can take advantage of the organized streets for transportation. Moscow was built from the center out in concentric circles, an organic city to the synthetic nature of Saint Petersburg. The buildings were made in European architectural styles designed by foreigners and overseen by them. This was an effort on the part of Peter the Great to send a message of modernity to other empires. The fortress and sea access of the city is connected to the expansion of the empire as Peter built up the Russian fleet. It was designed to hold off siege and act as the base of a great military. The Hermitage and its art collections were used by Catherine to show the wealth of the Empire. Foreign diplomats would see the best art of their culture in her palace. It was designed for lavish effect and cultural intimidation.

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