Tuesday, March 5, 2013
March 5th, 2013
One of the most striking aspects of St. Petersburg are the contrasts, which shape the landscape of the city. St. Petersburg resembles an onion, with each new layer of history radiating out of the historical core. Leaving the Pulkovo airport, you will stumble upon shops, Soviet communal apartments, a statue of Lenin and the memorial marking the furthest German military advance into the city before you reach the old city founded by Peter the Great. Immediately upon reaching the historical center, you are confronted with the beautiful waterfronts created by the Neva River as well as the classical and baroque architecture, which permeates the architectural landscape of the city. However, herein lies the most paradoxical aspect of St. Petersburg identity: it is a city built around a façade with many visible cracks.
The city’s façade is best observed by the number of historical buildings undergoing renovation. These buildings are covered by thin, white linen bearing the generic drawing of a building, which in turn hides the deplorable conditions under which these buildings suffer. Yet, in spite of the white linen and the well-intentioned renovations, one can appreciate many large cracks, holes and places where the exterior has given way to expose the bare materials of a given building. On a larger scale, St. Petersburg ‘s façade consists of a thin layer of opulence, which is used by the central government to convey power while hiding the poverty and the misery of the city.
The ultimate symbol of the city’s opulence is the hermitage museum. The hermitage museum consists among other things from the private art collection of Catherine the Great and her successors. The hermitage is dotted by a bombastic, baroque interior, which was meant to impress foreign diplomats and to legitimate the mandate for the Tsarina’s reign. However, the streets surrounding the museum are not well kept during the winter and are covered in a thick layer of ice, resulting from the compacted snow. Furthermore, the streets are dotted with cars buried under the snow and one needs only to look at the side of a building in order to perceive the state of poverty and deterioration, which the city experiences.
Another characteristic of St. Petersburg, which repeatedly caught my attention, was the city’s obsession with the West. Peter the Great founded the city as a window into Western Europe, and the city was part of a larger scheme to modernize Russia and to end its cultural isolation from the mainland continent. Yet, precisely the city’ fixation with Western culture makes it appear artificial and unauthentic. For example, St. Petersburg was carved according to the “rational” grid plan unto a swampy, harsh landscape, which suffers occasionally from flooding. Furthermore, because of the high concentration of buildings constructed by the Romanovs, construction is very expensive, with many unable to find suitable living spaces or to cope with the rising costs of living and low wages.
In my opinion, the city’s existence lives almost exclusively out the goodwill, which the government has from time and again shown towards the city. Without the support of the central government, the city would find its splendor crushed under the oppressive reality which its citizens face day-to-day. Furthermore, although the city may have succeeded in grafting Russia into the cultural developments of Western Europe, it may have done so at the expense of its own identity, resulting in the city’s alienation from the rest of the country.