Where am I asks one of Dostoevsky's characters, where is this place I find myself at - is it really the Nevsky Prospect, the strollers seem to think so! Saint Petersburg always evokes the strangest sense of pleasurable disorientation in the unsuspecting as it seems a place neither of the east or west, neither Russian or European, neither Baltic or Scandinavian, imperial or soviet, nor of the past nor quite of the future. It's truly a riddle- the numerous canals, all uniquely different, the imperial buildings of Peter the Greats time interspersed with the solid Bourgeois trading houses of the 19th century, the odd, slightly ridiculous monuments to Stalin, combined with the blank faced functionalism of the Brezhnev era, gives this city its array of colour, of light, and of darkness too.
Yet there is something more, the sombre Nordic weather you may add, the white nights of the summer nights, the almost non-existent days of winter, the majestic funnel like opening of the Neva into the bay of Finland, the memory of the longest siege in human history, the mass starvation of winter 1942, the terrors of 1937, and yet despite this real indelible indentations in the city's psyche, it seems to have its essence and spirit running parallel to the "real city" as if in another dimension it appears to be immortal in the collective imagination of so many Russians and not a few foreigners too.
The city disorients me, and I like that quality. I walk a while along the canals towards the Marinsky having spending the day in the Hermitage, a vast, wonderful place, often full of people, but then uncannily they can simply disappear, as if they were never there in the first place, and one can be left, the only one (almost) in total silence within a room filled with Rembrandts and a little Babushka sitting knitting the eternal baby's clothes in the corner of the room. When I arrive outside the Marinsky, the whole ominium gatherium (rich, middle, poor, humble clerks and well polished suits) of Saint Petersburg are arriving for Tchaikovsky's Nutcacker and Swan Lake Suites followed by Shostakovich's Jazz Suite. I decided to follow on later, as I light up a smoke under the statue of Glinka, I share it with a middle aged Russian man, who tells me in a sense what I was thinking just then "You see, in the dead of winter, when the snow and ice and cold come and everything freezes like hell, no matter who you are and what money you have, people come out into our great concert halls and theatres, to the galleries, they are warm and welcoming, and we leave our cares behind and enter the real spirit of the city."
Afterwards I reflect on this and can't help thinking about how weak some of our western theories are about the human condition- that we must for example always have a positive deposition towards life in order to be happy! The Russians don't see it that way, they know exactly how bad life can be- and they'll tell you, directly! However, despite this they have a almost insuperable strenght and belief in their own culture and imagination that seems to transcend the hardships of life.
As I hear the music beginning inside I'm reminded of a quote by Dostoevsky "We sometimes encounter people, even perfect strangers who begin to interest us at first sight, somehow suddenly, before a word has been spoken." I reflect on these words as I follow the silhouette of a grey gull heading towards the Neva - and I wonder and feel that despite the vicissitudes of history and time, sometimes you know when you're at home, even for a few hours.