Gates-way to Neva-land: Reconstructing St. Petersburg
By Ethan Gates '12, Staff Writer
A horse is a horse, of course of course. Unless that horse is the source of great verse. Then that horse gains force. Of course.

All right, Alexander Pushkin I am not. But standing in front of the Bronze Horseman in Decembrist’s Square in downtown Petersburg, one understands the legendary writer’s impulse to immortalize the sight in one of the greatest poems ever written. With St. Isaac’s Cathedral towering nearby, Étienne Maurice Falconet’s famed monument to Peter the Great presides over the city with the distant but ever-looming might of Russia’s tsarist past. Listen carefully for a moment and you can still hear the pounding hoof-beats of the metal monstrosity as it pursues the wretched madman Evgenii, Pushkin’s imposing prose rising above the clamor like the voice of God: “How terrible he was in the surrounding gloom! […] And in that steed, what fire!”

Having taken no less than three Russian literature courses at Amherst before adventuring here to the land of ice and snow, I had always attached a certain mystique to St. Petersburg. As I gobbled up Pushkin, Gogol, Dosteovsky and Bely, the city grew in my mind to mythical proportions: a place of stunning beauty and grandeur, of eerie, shadowy streets, of commanding, noble leaders, of shabby, scurrying lowlifes, of decadent splendor and disintegrating madness. Could “Peter,” as it is fondly known, ever live up to the hype? Would transcendent passages on the page translate to real-life goose-bumps? The only thing for it was a literary tour, an exploration of the most famous sites to grace the pages of Petersburg prose.

My first stop? Decembrist’s Square, the setting for Pushkin’s “The Bronze Horseman.” And, well, I think you got the picture for how that went. Poetic Mystique — 1, Crushing Realism — 0. So I move on to Nevsky Prospect, that majestic boulevard I’ve wistfully dreamed about, with its luxurious shops, constantly rushing carriages and pretty girls idly strolling down the avenue, tittering under their imported French parasols while handsome young officers politely doff their caps … but the vision is suddenly gone, for within seconds I narrowly avoid being run over by a van belching foul exhaust, am jostled violently by a grubby gaggle of young men loudly discussing yesterday’s hockey match and slip in a most undignified fashion on the black ice in front of a Subway.

While the bustling throughway has grown on me since those initial displeasures (thanks in large part to the somber but impressive presence of Our Lady of Kazan, my personal favorite of the city’s many cathedrals), Nevsky has much the same feel as equivalent hubs in New York or Chicago or London or any other major Western city. And try as one might, there’s only a certain point to which you can romanticize department stores and sushi bars. Modern commercialization has a way of taking the mystery out of things.

The story is somewhat similar as I hop on the metro over to Sennaya Ploschad, more familiar to the Dostoevsky-obsessed as Haymarket Square. The preferred haunt of “Crime and Punishment’s” tortured Raskolnikov has also surrendered to the influence of Western capitalism, prominently featuring a McDonald’s, giant billboards for Nikon and an enormous movie theater/shopping mall complex. But Haymarket Square never had the sophisticated, upper-class aura of Nevsky; indeed, Dostoevsky favored the lively marketplace as a literary setting for the commotion and grime that still define it today. This is the lair of the common man, the Mecca of muzhiks (peasants, i.e. Russian rednecks). While the piles of horse dung and such may be gone, Haymarket Square remains the home of the masses, a teeming swarm of humanity satisfying its basic urges for food, booze, entertainment, booze, blini, food and booze (did I already mention those?). I suppose there’s something lyrical in that.

Now I attempt to stray off the beaten track and simply wander the city streets, for if Petersburg literature is anything to be believed, this is a metropolis whose atmosphere seeps down to the lowliest corner and dingiest alley. I keep my guard up, for tales like Gogol’s “The Overcoat” or Bely’s “Petersburg” have prepared me for a realm of nightmares, a place where howling winds produce an unnatural, eerie whine and haunting, ghostly faces watch menacingly from the shadows. A man approaches me …what horrors await? I brace myself for the twisted exchange and — he cheerfully asks if he can borrow eight rubles for a bus ride, parting with a recommendation that I buy some gloves with fur lining to replace my flimsy pair, genuine concern for my well-being in his eyes.

All right, so it should come as no shocker to anyone that writers tend to exaggerate reality. I set out on my informal tour to find the Petersburg of Pushkin, the Petersburg of Dostoevsky and Akhmatova and Blok and all my other favorites. And to be sure, I have found elements of those fictional constructions in these and other wanderings. But once I looked past the images and impressions swirling around in my head and embraced what I was really looking at, I realized I had discovered something more important: I found my Petersburg. And I can’t wait to spend the next three months exploring it.

Issue 18, Submitted 2011-03-09 10:41:36