Western media coverage of Russia usually takes the form of political reportage, understandably, perhaps, in the light of the Sochi Winter Olympics, the Edward Snowden NSA scandal and the crisis in Syria. In this interview with Yale University Press, Catriona Kelly, the author of St Petersburg: Shadows of the Past, focuses instead on one particular Russian city, discussing the intricacies of St Petersburg, from its fascinating cultural history to its unique position within Russia.
Fragile, gritty, and vital to an extraordinary degree, St Petersburg is one of the world’s most alluring cities – a place in which the past is at once ubiquitous and inescapably controversial. Yet outsiders are far more familiar with the city’s pre-1917 and Second World War history than with its recent past. In the beautifully illustrated and highly original St Petersburg: Shadows of the Past, Catriona Kelly shows how creative engagement with the past has always been fundamental to St Petersburg’s residents. Weaving together oral history, personal observation, literary and artistic texts, journalism, and archival materials, she traces the at times paradoxical feelings of anxiety and pride that were inspired by living in the city, both when it was socialist Leningrad, and now.
In what ways is St Petersburg ‘unique’ as a Russian city?
There are some things about St Petersburg that are typical of Russian settlements. These are traditionally sited on the banks of a river, and the expanse of water shapes the landscaping, as the Neva does Petersburg. The extreme flatness of the Neva delta is also characteristic of the spatial relations over much of the country. And, as the historian Adrian Selin has pointed out, the way the city was built was typically Russian also: first the Peter and Paul fortress, which is a sort of eighteenth-century version of a kremlin (with church, dungeons, accommodation for soldiers, and official residences all together), then a sloboda, or settlement for workers and other plebeians.
But that’s not, of course, what you first notice. Petersburg looks both modern and Western – rather like a mixture of Paris, Vienna, and Stockholm. Dostoevsky’s Underground Man described Petersburg as ‘the most abstract and artificial city in the entire world’, referring to the meticulous planning of the street layouts, with the three central avenues (Nevsky prospekt and ulitsa Gorokhovaya and Voznesensky prospekt) radiating out from the Admiralty, and a grid pattern of side-streets behind them (this is most obvious on Vasilievsky Island, which, according to Peter’s original plan, should have had canals where the ‘lines’ now are). Then there is the carefully articulated frontage of the Neva, particularly from the Winter Palace to Trinity Bridge, and the great squares, such as Palace Square and the Field of Mars. In traditional Russian cities, the riverbanks tended to be a working space. (Of course, it also was in St Petersburg also, but from the early nineteenth century, the shipping more or less disappeared from the centre.) Traditional Russian cities don’t really have ‘squares’ (places, piazze) in the Western sense either, just expanses in front of major buildings with indeterminate demarcations. So much of what Western Europeans might see as the ‘normal’ urban fabric is, locally speaking, unique to there.
There’s a sense, too, that Petersburg’s territory is alien to quite a lot of the city’s residents, many of whom, over the last three centuries, have moved in from provincial places. In the nineteenth century, nationalists such as Dostoevsky (one of those incomers himself) regarded the local churches as hideous and not like churches at all (the British writer H. H. Monro, or ‘Saki’, also wrote, in ‘The Old Town of Pskoff’, about ‘the drearily magnificent holy places of St Petersburg, with their depressing nouveau riche atmosphere, their price-list tongued attendants, and general lack of historic interest’). These days, too, locals tend to avoid the ‘show’ spaces of the city, in the general run of things. Palace Square is not on their beaten track in the same way that Uprising Square (ploshchad’ Vosstaniya) is. The major spaces of the city were built for highly specific events such as military parades, and Soviet planning policy continued to impose a certain formality on them. There was an entertaining discussion in Lenproekt planning institute in 1961, when the planners decided they couldn’t allow a food shop in a building on the Petrovsky Embankment: ‘The very centre of the Neva. The Peter I Cottage, the Institute of the Brain – and pork knuckles?’ So parts of the city seem too elegant to suit the people living in the city generally. This makes them more like the most formal areas of Paris or London (take, in the latter case, Whitehall or Pall Mall) than anywhere in Russian cities – even Moscow. It may seem an odd way of thinking to outsiders, but an elderly Muscovite I know who has lived there for more than 60 years recently described it to me as ‘a cosy place’. No-one would ever say that about St Petersburg, partly because the weather can be so unpleasant: damp to your bones, and with what the Irish call a ‘skinning cold’. That isn’t like traditional Russian atmospherics either – central and eastern Russia have the true dry, continental cold and heat. Like many things about St Petersburg, the climate is closer to north-western European norms than Russian ones. Of course, there’s still a Russian flavour – in detailing like the onion domes and bell-towers of major churches such as St Nicholas’s, and the fact that the writing on those neo-classical buildings is almost never in Latin (the Military-Medical Academy is the only major exception I can think of).
What advice would you give someone visiting St Petersburg for the first time (particularly if they want to look beyond ‘the view from the Astoria’)?
Even if you are staying in the enclaves of rich foreigners such as the Astoria and the Grand Hotel l’Europe, you can still get a flavour of the city if you exercise a little independence. A walk down Gorokhovaya or the English Embankment or Galernaya Street will already take you to areas where St Petersburgers themselves are visible. From the Grand Hotel l’Europe, you can follow a Joseph Brodsky trail by crossing the Fontanka and walking up ulitsa Pestelya, past St Panteleimon’s Church, and the block where Brodsky lived (the ‘Muruzi House’), and on towards the Cathedral of the Transfiguration (Brodsky mentions the railings round the outside, made of captured Turkish cannons, in his Less Than One). This route is also one of the only ones in the city that allows you to see how churches were used as architectural features in planning – it leads from an early eighteenth-century church to an early nineteenth-century one, which gives a sense of changing styles.
Unless you have personal reasons for not wanting to travel independently (St Petersburg isn’t great for people with limited mobility), or there’s ice on the streets and temperatures of minus 20 and more, I’d avoid being bussed around. Russian tourist management is still rather ‘Soviet’ in style, and you tend to get herded like sheep and given ‘four times a day feeding’ (to use the term current back then); you’re shown what the guide thinks you ought to like, and shuffle about with big crowds. It’s worth going on tour groups’ excursions round the Hermitage, as they can get you in early, avoiding the queues, and they often include a visit to the Diamond Treasury, which has the exquisite Scythian gold, and isn’t open without booking and what I once heard described as ‘extra pay’. But I’d desert the tour at that point, having read up what you want to see; take your guide-book with you – the map will be invaluable.
Apart from the Hermitage (one of the three most important museums in the world, along with the Vatican and the Louvre, I’d say – no offence to those in London, Berlin, New York, and Washington DC, which are also superb), a lot depends on what you want. If you like museums, some suggestions might be the Russian Museum (especially the icons and twentieth-century art), the Kunstkamera (a real ‘museum of a museum’), and the Museum of the History of Petersburg, which has galleries in the Peter and Paul Fortress and on the English Embankment. St Petersburg is rather short of idiosyncratic small museums (it did once have places like the John Soane or Isabella Gardner, but they were closed down in the 1920s), but there is a funny little photography museum on Nevsky that has good exhibitions, and a great view over roof-tops down the street. What I’d recommend most, though, is walking around. A stroll down the Neva embankments is less pleasant than it ought to be because of screaming traffic (first thing in the morning at weekends is the best time). But there are lots of quieter corners. Kolomna, which is the district stretching from the Mariinsky Theatre towards the docks, has had a couple of eyesores planted in it by the fiat of Valery Gergiev, who seems to have no visual sense at all, but once you’re away from the horribly banal Mariinsky-2 (which looks like a business centre somewhere in the British Midlands), you get into back streets with nineteenth-century architecture that hasn’t been over-restored and that you can actually see, because it isn’t obscured by hundreds of cars. A walk down the Griboedov Canal and then over towards ulitsa Soyuza Pechatnikov and into Pskovskaya u ultisa will take you through Kolomna and into the docklands. Typical of the area is ploshchad’ Kulibina, a little square that used to have a church, demolished in the 1930s. In this case, though, it’s less of a loss than on Sennaya (the Haymarket), where the removal of the Saviour Church in 1961 really wrecked the layout. This little square looks more like those sudden bits of green space you get in London, after bomb damage clearance. There’s nothing specific ‘to see’, but you can really feel the city’s heartbeat here.
If you are interested in architecture as such, then Petrograd Side (5 minutes away from the Peter and Paul Fortress) has lots of what Russians call ‘style moderne’ and some very imposing neo-classical blocks from the early twentieth century, as well as the enormous and beautifully tiled main city mosque (dating from the 1910s). Peski (between the top section of Nevsky, known as ‘Old Nevsky’ to locals and Suvorovsky prospekt) is another interesting and offbeat old area, and the Alexander Nevsky Monastery is quite close – this takes you into a quite different sort of city sight, with a beautiful country garden beside the Trinity Cathedral, and some of the city’s interesting old cemeteries.
If you’re planning a trip to the palaces beyond the city, try going on a weekday, as they can get very crowded at the weekends. I’m not a great fan of Peterhof, where the restoration is ‘Las Vegas Baroque’, but the hydrofoil trip (they go from near the Admiralty) is pleasant in warm weather. Unless you are an aficionado of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century furniture and applied arts, it may be best to choose the days when the palace interiors and museums here and in Tsarskoe Selo and Pavlovsk are closed, since there are fewer people then. If you’re short of time, the Islands (accessible from Krestovsky Island metro) give you a similar sense of parks and mansions, within the city limits. There are even bathing beaches there. Once again, weekdays are best in July and August. On the other hand, summer weekends (because so many locals are at the dacha) are good times for city walks in relative peace and quiet; it’s only then that Petersburg gets back the gentle melancholic emptiness that was characteristic of Leningrad at its best.
The minus with city walks of this kind is that you have to be pretty independent in terms of food, drink, and ‘bathroom breaks’. Local café-shops such as Ferma, Albina, Bouchée, Ovsyanka (a wholefood café on Gorokhovaya), and Stolle pie shops are all great places to stock up with picnic food, and Fruktovaya lavka has fruit and salads, and freshly-squeezed fruit juice. But if you’re more of a flâneur, can’t be bothered, or the weather’s awful, take a stroll round one of the areas with lots of cafés. Furshtadtskaya and Chernyshevsky boulevard are good for spotting ladies who lunch and the kind of places they like to lunch in. Ulitsa Rubinshteina has more relaxed places. I’d also suggest visiting a bookshop (Dom Knigi on Nevsky is very imposing but extremely expensive – Poryadok slov on the Fontanka or Knigi I kofe on Gagarinskaya are small places you can pick up the latest literary texts and non-fiction, and the latter has a nice café and jazz concerts and so on as well). The new arts centres – e.g. Taiga, just along from the Hermitage – are good places for cards, artists’ books, and other offbeat gifts that are locally made. The art tends to be less impressive, though both Loft-Etazhi on Ligovsky prospekt and Krasnye tkachi (along from it on Obvodnyi) have serious exhibitions, and both are in interesting buildings – a Soviet-era bakery, in the first case, and a nineteenth-century redbrick textile mill, in the second. The Loft-Etazhi café is remarkably reasonably priced, has a quirky design of parrot murals on the fire-walls opposite, and is popular with a young crowd of locals. If you like Soviet art, then take a metro tour (my favourite stations are Avtovo, with its glass mouldings on the pillars, and Akademicheskaya, which is a particularly elegant example of Leningrad minimalism). The area round Lomonosovskaya station and the area round Frunzenskaya metro are two with some striking examples of Stalinist architecture, the latter aimed at engineers and officials (and now very popular with rich Petersburgers), while the former was built for ‘worker aristocracy’.
The mini-bus system is hard to use unless you know Russian or are brave, but everything I’ve mentioned is within half an hour of a metro station. Obviously, take the usual precautions – carry a shoulder-bag that zips and a money-belt for emergencies, and don’t flash your valuables around — but quite honestly I think the most dangerous thing for ordinary visitors to Petersburg these days is crossing the road…
I’m in the process of setting up a Facebook page [*now live here] for the book which will have lots more photo-albums, local news, links to pages such as http://www.citywalls.ru/ (in Russian but with good graphics), reposts of interesting stories that are in the public domain, and so on. This might be worth looking at before your trip.
When dealing with a history as rich and deep as St Petersburg’s, how did you begin the research, and subsequent writing, of your book?
Like everyone else, I’d read about the place before I went there, and for a long time it was nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century literature that conditioned my relationship with it. There wasn’t a whole lot to read by modern writers when I was first there, or not that would have interested a Western student, anyway. I’ve become interested in the Soviet period relatively recently, in part because it’s now receding into the past so quickly – at any rate, on the level of the city’s everyday life. Partly I’ve done the research by walking round, keeping a field diary and a photo-diary: I took well over 3000 pictures while I was working on the book, and I regret that I didn’t have the common sense to write a diary or take photographs of the city’s ordinary fabric (as opposed to its famous buildings) back in the 1970s and 1980s. Of course, you were quite strictly regulated in terms of what you could photograph then: bridges, factories, people in the street, rubbish dumps – many of the things that fascinate me now – were off-limits.
Another important resource not available back then is oral history. Or rather, people did tell you their memories, off the cuff (and some of these I recall to this day), but you couldn’t organise systematic collection of their recollections – and in any case, the entire atmosphere of Soviet culture made remembrance problematic. So one needs retrospective testimony now. In part, I draw on my own memories and experience (I’ve been visiting for 35 years now, and have spent a lot of time there). But I’ve also used interviews with locals – about two or three hundred in all – some of which I did myself, but quite a number of which were done by other people, particularly anthropology students at the European University, St Petersburg. Without local help, I’d never have found out, for instance, just how important districts are, or acquired anything like the same sense of how recollections pattern the city.
I first started using this kind of material when I was working on Children’s World: Growing Up in Russia, 1890-1991. The obliquity of the narratives – the way they move from the past and the present – is an obstacle if you just want to retrieve facts, but if you are interested in the way people perceive the city, the interplay of many different historical layers in their minds, it becomes a strength.
I’ve also researched the book in a more conventional way – by using libraries and archives. Local newspapers, even in the Soviet period, gave a lot more attention to the kind of ‘mundane’ reality I’m interested in than the national ones. Archives are better for researching the official ways in which memory was shaped: museums, heritage preservation, monuments (the kinds of topics I’ve written about extensively in other places, including some satellite chapters of this book that I’ll publish separately online). But you do come across more informal materials in archives: for instance, I found the comment books and performance journals of the Bol’shoi Dramatic Theatre gave me a really vivid idea of the way the actors were working and the way the audience members reacted to what they were doing, and in turn, of the local traditions behind this. On the other hand, the material about shopping depended much more on local history, both because the official records are so restricted, and because food shortages are a key theme in the folklore of the Soviet period as it is seen now, which is one of my central concerns.
The main point, really, was to try and give a sense of what it felt like to live in this city at one of the most interesting periods of its history: the ‘Leningrad renaissance’ between 1954 and 1991 (I’m not entirely joking when I call it that, because despite the formidable political repression, there was a lot of cultural energy around), and then the extraordinary economic and social upheaval since then. Often, academics call this latter period ‘the transition’, but it is far too bland a term to do justice to a time when you might put off buying oil in the morning because you didn’t want to carry it, and find you could no longer afford it when you got back from work that evening. It was nothing less than a complete transformation of work and life.
I was delighted when a friend who was brought up in Leningrad, and who kindly read the manuscript last summer, said that it did give a sense of what it felt like to live there, and when a British friend who’s been visiting since the early 1960s said that he hadn’t read any book by a non-Russian published since 1917 with such an ‘insider’ flavour. That’s exactly what I wanted. I admire the books by people who visited in the early twentieth century and really knew the place – Stephen Graham and Harold Williams’s books, for instance, or Rothay Reynolds’ My Russian Year. These days, you can immerse yourself in the culture if you want to, and I get sick of reading sensationalist copy that doesn’t take any advantage of the new opportunities.
Leningrad poet Nonna Slepakova said, ‘to remember was to exist’. You mention ‘memory spaces’, how significant has memory and story-telling been to the residents of St Petersburg?
It’s significant all over post-Soviet Russia (and the so-called post-socialist world generally, as brought out by the highly entertaining film Goodbye Lenin, about East Berlin). But it’s not really a question of the ‘nostalgia’ that one often reads about in the Western press. The stories that get reported are ones like the ‘Stalin-Bus’ – a bus with a painting of Stalin as war leader on the side that got wheeled out for the Victory Day celebrations in Petersburg in 2010 (since then, other cities have copied the idea – though in Petersburg it was stopped pretty quickly after widespread protests). In between anniversaries, people are extremely matter-of-fact about historical events, including even the Blockade. When we talked to the film director Alexander Sokurov, he spoke about how the city, to him, is always itself remembering the many dead (half a million people died of starvation and sickness just over the winter of 1941-1942). But he’s a creative artist, and he’s not originally from Leningrad either. If you visit the Blockade cemeteries outside major commemoration days, you’ll find them impeccably kept (unlike revolutionary memorials, which now often have grass growing out of them) – but more or less completely deserted. I’m interested in what locals call znakovye mesta, or ‘significant spaces’, of a less obvious kind: for instance, favourite cafés, or the Eliseev Stores (the major grocery on Nevsky). These have their own memory literature – and imaginative literature – as well. And even when writers and artists aren’t representing the city directly, their work comes out of it and is often hard to understand without a context. There is brilliant work on the social and cultural history of the pre-revolutionary period, and indeed the pre-war decades of Soviet Leningrad, but it’s much harder to find a ‘thick description’ of Leningrad and Petersburg in the recent past.
Most of all, I had the sense of wanting to capture this ordinary life before it vanished, in the way the 1890s civil servant S. P. Svetlov did (he wrote a lovely book about the streets and interiors of the city, illustrated with his own drawings, which a friend of mine, Albin Konechnyi, published about 15 years ago), or the émigré writer Sergei Gornyi in the 1920s. I hadn’t read Penelope Fitzgerald’s book about London, Offshore, till well after I finished my book on Petersburg. But the retrospective portrait of London in the early 1960s, grim and meagre in some ways, but with vitality and the capacity to improvise, resembles the Leningrad and Petersburg I’m trying to evoke. Of course, there’s probably a bit of London in there too – that’s where I grew up, and it was the first city I ever explored. I’m very grateful to my school for deciding not to drag us in to lessons after we sat our O-levels, but encouraging us to take off and do cultural things. That was how I ended up going on my own, aged 15, to the Geffrye Museum, the V and A, the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green… with amused museum guards taking it for granted I was bunking off.
Your readings of St Petersburg’s past, present and future are tethered to the city’s art. What is your favourite work (or works) that represent the city?
If we’re talking about the period the book relates to (otherwise, it just gets too big a question), I’m not sure I could name just one, but I’m very fond of Brodsky’s ‘Halt in the Desert’ and ‘Almost an Elegy’. And you get the same kind of wry, almost throwaway, stance, with an inalienable sense of grandeur somewhere behind it, in Sergei Dovlatov’s stories, and the photography and cinema of the time as well. There is some very good recent poetry about the city also, for instance by Nailya Yamakova, who has written a remarkable evocation of the concrete suburbs. And an amazing memoir literature, both in the form of more conventional chronicles (by the art historian Mikhail German, for instance), and of offbeat romans à clef, as with Andrei Astvatsaturov’s memoir-novels People in Naked and The Skunkamera.
You describe how gay and lesbian culture is a ‘vital part of local life, but often clandestine’. Following the introduction of the much discussed ‘gay propaganda’ law, what do you think the future holds for LGBT people in St Petersburg?
There’s not as much about gay and lesbian culture in the book as there probably should be, precisely because of the ‘clandestine’ nature of what in Russian is now called ‘the non-traditional sexual orientation’. The best source for up-to-date information is probably the LGBT site http://www.comingoutspb.ru/ru/home. I’m not an expert, but I get the sense that the situation now is a bit like the years after the shock recriminalisation of homosexuality in 1934 (Dan Healey, a historian now also at Oxford, has a vivid description of this period in his history of homosexuality in Russia). But the communities (as that site shows) are nothing like so intimidated as back then. Russia doesn’t have closed borders (unlike the Soviet Union), and the Internet is hugely important in terms of moral support. And homosexuality was, of course, illegal across most of the West back in 1934, so you can’t imagine a famous person expressing solidarity in the way that Elton John recently has. The online coverage that I’ve read suggests that the Russian government is aware that the ban has made it look internationally ridiculous, but rather than reverse it, is now suggesting a ban ‘on propaganda of sex for its own sake’ to children. This would, obviously, be even harder to enforce than the original ban, and would be ‘egalitarian’ only in a very peculiar sense. My own intuition (as with Russian politics generally) tends towards the optimistic direction, in the medium term at least. The current practice seems to be to introduce draconian laws all over the place (as a friend of mine put it recently, ‘Life here is very interesting right now; there are bans on absolutely everything’), but formulate them so slackly and enforce them so haphazardly that social practices essentially go on as they have been doing anyway – whether it’s paying policemen so as to avoid points on your licence right across the road from a poster saying, ‘A Bribe is Not a Gift’, or holding a seminar about gay Petersburg literature, or a street protest, in the teeth of bans on ‘gay propaganda’ and unlawful public assembly. (Incidentally, for all my ironic comments about ‘the view from the Astoria’, it was a great place to watch the election protests in February 2012.)
I suspect that the law about ‘homosexual propaganda’ was passed as much as anything else to try and head off the annual arguments about Gay Pride marches, according to a fairly typical Russian principle whereby trying to avoid effort actually ends up costing more time than putting effort in would. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Duma members and government officials that it might lead to the kind of homophobic violence that it actually has provoked, and the fact that the evidence about such violence is apparently being taken seriously is encouraging.
One hopes, eventually, for a new phase of political maturity stemming from the realisation that blanket bans don’t work and that you can’t both spout all the time about ‘tolerance’, as government spokesmen do, and support institutionalised discrimination. I hope the same process of political maturation will overtake attitudes to migrant workers from the Caucasus and Central Asia, because that’s another area where there are disturbing levels of intolerance at the moment.
You recall posters from the 2011 election which promised voters ‘European levels of service’. Do you think St Petersburg aspires to be a ‘European’ city?
Yes, without the slightest doubt. The revamp of the Moscow Station a few years ago was described as ‘Europeanisation’, for instance, and that is typical. Despite the enduring hostility to the European Union (which is seen as an instrument of ‘Western’ policy), you can’t use ‘European’ as a term of abuse in the way you can ‘Western’. So, Westerners are regularly seen as trying to subvert Russian values (homophobia and anti-Westernism, for instance, are in an unholy alliance), while at the same time people want to look ‘European’, eat ‘European’ food, and kit out their homes with Spanish, Italian, German, and French furniture, white goods, and technology etc. It’s an old form of schizophrenia – it was widespread in the late eighteenth century as well, another period of relative political stability, rapid social change, and rising prosperity, albeit of an asymmetrical kind, with a big divide between rich and poor.
That said, I think that objectively, in terms of social relations, St Petersburg does feel more ‘European’ than Moscow: there just isn’t the same level of big spending there, partly as a function of lower levels of inward investment, but partly because people find it vulgar. The people in ‘the Northern Capital’ you see climbing out of Hummers usually look like interlopers from Hicksville. The place is, of course, close to Europe in the geographical sense – Finland is only an hour away by fast train, and only that far because the original border was moved west.
Not everything about this situation is good. One ground on which people object to migrants is that they aren’t ‘European’ (the city looks like Istanbul, Shanghai, etc. etc.). It’s quite typical to be asked by Petersburgers (especially from the older generations) why there are so many ‘blacks’ and ‘Asiatics’ in the UK; ‘you’re losing your own culture’. But overall, the place is no more hostile to incomers than other Russian cities. It’s just that the reasons people give for disliking them are locally specific.
In general, will Russia benefit from the increased international attention brought by the 2014 Winter Olympics taking place in Sochi?
As with any country that hosts the Olympics, there’s no final answer to this. There’s always going to be criticism of the colossal amounts of money spent on sports facilities that aren’t going to earn their keep afterwards (you just need to look at Athens and London). In the case of Sochi, the evidence of ‘corruption leakage’ on an epic scale is hard to refute. But if the contractors concerned hadn’t been siphoning off money there, they would have been somewhere else. And comparing headline figures of cost (N times more than Innsbrück or Vancouver or whatever) may not be fair, because Sochi is a decayed resort with incomparably poorer infrastructure. The security costs are very high as well, since the whole of the North Caucasus (particularly, at the moment, Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkariya) is dangerously volatile.
The impact on the future? So far as the economy goes, I suspect the benefits will be at best negligible. Possibly the development of these hugely expensive facilities will turn Sochi’s hinterland into a winter sports paradise that draws foreign and home visitors in the high-spend category; I’m not sure about the former, though, given the distance and the visa regulations. Maybe the rest of the country will benefit from spin-off tourism – this certainly seems to have happened with the Moscow Olympics. But the effects won’t amount to much. What’s essential is not this kind of localised project, but thought about how to extend and diversify the tourist trade across the Russian Federation, including St Petersburg, which has a highly seasonal visitor profile and proportionately much lower numbers of visitors than major European city destinations such as Paris. Relaxing the visa regime would help a lot, as would the insight that the market among ‘Western tourists’ is actually very diverse. It includes a substantial middle market of highly cultivated people who don’t want yet more boutique hotels at 400 dollars a night and endless shopping malls and kitsch-historical restaurants.
What is easy to see is that Putin and the Russian government generally see Sochi as a hugely important event in symbolic terms. They are desperate for it to go well and show off the best of Russia. Putin doesn’t give a hoot about literature, cinema, and the opera (fortunately, one might say), but he is obsessed with sport. This event is important to his own prestige too. Currently, that gives the opposition some leverage – which can only be to the good. Maybe, if the Olympics go well, official paranoia will die down a bit, and we will be back to the situation that obtained in the 2000s – which would already be a significant improvement on now, from the point of view of genuine political debate and proper discussion of social reforms and how to make them work.
Still, I’m not sure all this is of primary importance to Petersburg. More germane at the moment is the fact that the current governing elite has the largest proportion of Petersburgers in it at any period since 1917. This goes a long way to explaining the relatively high vote for United Russia and Putin (according to what seem to be reliable opinion polls, rather than the official vote, which seems to have been ‘massaged’). As someone I know put it, ‘nash desant v Moskve’, which translates as something like, ‘Our boys are in Moscow’. The infrastructure is gradually being improved, too. The local historian Lev Lurie has grumbled that the place doesn’t really deserve the title ‘cultural capital’ any more, because the local administrators only care about pipes. But having functioning sewers and a clean water supply really does matter. The largest political party in Russia now is ‘none of the above’ (no wonder they had to take it off the ballot papers), and the parish pump issues (sometimes in the most literal sense), such as protests against building on green space, are what mobilise people in large numbers. Even if Petersburgers’ relationship with ‘Russia’ is complicated, they tend to be patriots of their city, which I suppose makes them like a lot of other Europeans. I personally don’t want to sign up to little Englandism and Michael Gove’s ‘our island story’ (it reminds me rather a lot of history à la Putin, and anyway, I’m not English by descent). But I do like describing myself as ‘a Londoner’, even if only a part-time one.