St. Petersburg; Petersburgers

A few curious facts

First, a few facts.

Maps and official statistics give St Petersburg the appearance of a large city with a population of almost five million. This is misleading: St Petersburg is essentially small. Its true population, after deduction of tourists and foreign businessmen and visiting Caucasian and Asian market traders and guesting mafiosi and banditi, is nearer to 900 thousand. Of this figure, which is still too high, about a third are suburbians, living in the white multi-storey coffins built by the Great Soviet Undertaker on the city's edges. Another third are home-grown millionaires or businessmen, existing in this city only notionally (or for purposes of tax evasion) - being in fact already Volvo- or Mercedes-owning citizens of the International Capitalist Community. Which leaves only 300 thousand or so ordinary citizens of St Petersburg. This figure is probably still too high.

The city's cartographical profile is similarly in need of correction. Take a map of St Petersburg and a large pair of scissors and snip off all districts of the city north of Petrogradskaya Storona, east of the eastern arc of the Neva, south of Ligovsky Prospekt on one side of Nevsky and of Suvorovsky Prospekt on the other. In addition, enlarge and emphasize the following structural pivots: Nevsky Prospekt, Mikhailovsky Garden, the embankments of the Moika, House No. 10 on Pushkinskaya Street. Next, take a map of the Crimea, identify and cut out Koktebel (on the Black Sea coast) and paste onto the city's southern boundary, next to Ligovsky Prospekt. Koktebel, as every sun-loving native of this city knows, is St Petersburg's southernmost point. St Petersburg should now look something like this (see map on previous page).

This is a small city; a city which holds forth the prospect of intimacy. The fit tourist could walk round it in little more than an hour and a half. The native Petersburger would take a little longer - detained by inevitable unplanned collisions with friends, acquaintances, cups of coffee, bottles of portwine (1) or vodka (the true Petersburger, in fact, could never walk more than fifteen yards on Nevsky Prospekt without meeting one or another of the above-mentioned obstacles; Nevsky Prospekt is the channel through which all St Petersburg flows two or three times a day).

It is a city of well-hidden depths, where there are two entrances to everything: the formal front entrance or paradnaya, and the chyorny vhod (literally: the black entrance), the way in from the courtyard at the back of a building. The only sure way of getting to know St Petersburg is through the chyorny vhod. From the street front, the inquirer's gaze is returned blankly, coldly even, by tall, well-bred classical facades lining the street edge. But go through the arch set in each house, and you find yourself in an intricate internal space - deep, sunless, dirty, surrounded on all sides by the backs of different wings of the house and by back entrances or staircases leading up to flats. This is the courtyard or dvor; here the real life of the city is measured out in empty bottles and endless labyrinthine conversations. Children play at football or hopskotch; women stop to exchange the latest news from the shops; cats climb proprietorially over rubbish piled in skips; people of all kinds sit and talk and drink and drink and sit and talk. All this in the very centre of St Petersburg, within shouting distance of Nevsky Prospekt.

It is an odd feature of this city that its geographical and spiritual hearts coincide. Unlike almost any other major European city, the physical centre of St Petersburg is inhabited, lived in, slept in, walked through day and night by its essential population.

The other curious fact about St Petersburg is that it ought not to exist.

St Petersburg; Petersburgers

St Petersburg ought not to exist because it has been built in the wrong place (intended as Russia's capital, yet surrounded by Sweden and overlooked by Finland); on the wrong terrain (in the middle of a bog); and in the wrong climate (a place where winter lasts nine months of the year and where summer, airless and suffocating, comes as but small respite).

The same can be said for Petersburgers. Strictly speaking, they too ought not to exist. Not here. Not in the middle of this bog. Not against the backdrop of these buildings, this stage-set of classical facades improbably transplanted from a different clime, a different culture. This is no place for Russians, or, for that matter, for any other human race.

But the point about Petersburgers, of course, is that they are people of muddled nationality. They live within the physical boundaries of Russia. They have Russian blood in their veins. They speak a language which is practically indistinguishable from that spoken by people in Moscow or Volgograd. And yet Russian they are not. Somehow, without crossing any borders, they have left their motherland - but without arriving anywhere else, without becoming citizens of any other country. They are internal emmigrants, emigres jamais arrives: a strange, displaced, stranded people tied to a city which they love, but in which they can never quite be at home.

The St Petersburg Soul

The St Petersburg Soul is what Petersburgers have to make up for having to live in St Petersburg. There is - and I should make this clear at the outset - nothing very mysterious or necessarily spiritual or religious about the St Petersburg Soul. The St Petersburg Soul exists for strictly practical reasons. It exists because it has to. Because without it life in this city would be impossible.

Story of K and his kindness:
proof of the existence of the St Petersburg Soul

This, I have to warn you, is a true story.

A friend of mine, K, lived with his parents and wife in a two-roomed flat in the centre of the city, only minutes from Nevsky Prospekt.

Though overcrowded (in addition to the four human occupants, there was also a large population of cockroaches), the flat was comfortable. It did not matter that the fittings in the bathroom were stained with rust, or that the wallpaper in the hall was patchy with mould, or that K's mother's cooking was for one reason or another always inedible. The visiting guest always felt himself made welcome. The flat had a warmth which seemed to be piped straight from the heart of old St Petersburg.

K's mother was a kind woman, who bicycled off to bathe in the Neva whenever weather permitted. K's father fished and painted; his proudly hung oils had a bestiality and psychodelic approach to colour which was surprising coming from a man of his grey hair and silk dressing-gown smoothness. He worked as a technician in Leningrad's Variety Theatre.

K himself is a beautifully unpublishable poet with an unfortunate habit of kindness. One year, arrested by police whilst idly picking poppy heads with two female friends near the family dacha, he took all blame on himself, receiving in reward eight months 'Chimiya' - enforced industrial labour. Another time, always ready to broaden the scope of his acquaintance, he shared his bottle of vodka with two strangers met on the street; the following day, he came to with empty pockets and a broken leg. All such rebuffs he met without the least sign of surprise or hurt, picking up his life each time exactly where he had left off, and patiently reviving his low-pitched unhurrying dialogue with the various people who happened to be located around him. Up to that point, his misfortunes had directly affected only himself.

Towards the end of 1992, K's father gave up his job at the Variety Theatre - where he was just about to qualify for a state pension - and began working on a project set up by Volodya Dolgoruky, a radical young economist with plans to become the next Tsar of Russia (I have to repeat: this is a true story). Unfortunately, Dolgoruky is prone to fits of depression, especially during the winter months. In February 1993, as a result of one such low, he decided his attempt on the throne would have to be postponed until the arrival of warmer weather, and dismissed all aides, including K's father - who had only left the Variety Theatre at the Tsar's insistence. K's father now had no pension and no job; his family had no income.

At this point K stepped in.

K's plan to bolster the family's finances was not complex; it involved borrowing a sum of money to redecorate a flat under contract, in the hope of receiving a much larger sum on completion.

K is an experienced remontnik (decorator) with a good knowledge of correct working principles. These he followed to the letter. First, he enlisted the help of his friends (decorating in St Petersburg is a communal activity - without friends, nothing gets done). Then he went out to buy necessary decorating materials: paints, brushes, vodka, beer, portwine, cognac. Then he and his crew got down to work.

Two days later he regained consciousness to find that the remaining advance was gone from the bag where he had left it for safe-keeping.

K can remember nothing about the missing two days. Nor about the missing money.

40 000 roubles was a colossal sum at the time.

To repay the debt, K's family had no option but to let their wonderful flat in the city centre - a move which, for hopelessness and incongruity, can only be compared with Peter the Great abandoning his pedestal on the banks of the Neva to take a bargain winter break in Spain. K's parents were taken in by relations on the outskirts of the city. His wife slept between the fridge and the kitchen table in a friend's house somewhere in the south. K himself spent his days gathering brushwood against 15 degrees of frost at a neighbour's dacha 30 km to the north.

Some people still ask: does the St Petersburg Soul exist?

Of course it does. What else is there to cushion the Petersburger from the real world? What else would filter out the bitterness of existence in such a place? What else would turn so many personal disappointments into merely local variations on some vast global joke?

More about the Petersburger

I want to give you a clearer idea of what a Petersburger is like. The trouble is, St Petersburg these days is full of people who are not Petersburgers. The other trouble is, Petersburgers themselves these days are not always Petersburgers (the real trouble, though, is: St Petersburg these days is not really St Petersburg - but more of that later). You could easily mistake the native of this city for someone else - for a Russian, for instance, or Pole, or Scandinavian, or certain kinds of European (Italians, maybe, or Greeks); you could even ... in extreme circumstances - in certain conditions of light, in a tired mood, perhaps, at the end of a particularly bad day - you could even mistake a Petersburger for a Moskvich, a Muscovite.

Now, I wouldn't want that to happen. I couldn't possibly stand by and let that happen.

Here, then, is a brief rundown of points which should save you the embarrassment of misidentification. But first a digression.


Slava Rozhdestvensky, lecturer in English at St Petersburg University, returned from a three month-long tour of Europe - his first ever trip abroad, - put on his old winter boots, bought three bottles of portwine, and went round to see his friend Vladimir Bedulovich Markov.

Markov was out. Sitting on the staircase outside Markov's flat, Slava Rozhdestvensky drank one of the bottles of portwine whilst thinking about what to do next. Then he drank another. Then he drank another, and went round to see his friend Luba Ushakova.

Luba Ushakova was in.

They sat in Luba's kitchen drinking tea. Luba Ushakova was dying to ask Slava Rozhdestvensky about his experiences in Europe, but was unable to do so: she was too busy talking about herself. Even at the rate of 150 words per minute, it took her an hour and a half to recap the story of the last 15 minutes of her crowded life. It took her a further hour to summarise her latest thoughts on the poetry of a mutual friend. Eventually, though, she succeeded in changing the subject of her conversation. How was Paris?, she asked.

It was Luba Ushakova's lifelong dream to visit Europe - to rub shoulders with the great cities of the past and present, to sit drinking coffee (which, incidentally, she normally loathed) at a marble-top table at the cafe on the square before St Sepulchre, surrounded by the ghosts of Balzac, Proust, Huysmans - not to mention those of Remizov and Mayakovsky. So how was Paris?

Provincial, said Rozhdestvensky shortly.

And Berlin?, she asked.

Boring, said Rozhdestvensky.

And London?, she inquired in near amazement. Of all European cities, London was dearest to Luba Ushakova; it seemed to her that London had the most in common with St Petersburg - the same respect for tradition and well-brewed tea, the same quality of slightly morbid introspection, the same bad weather.

London?, said Rozhdestvensky. "London's not really a city at all. It's a collection of suburbs, supermarkets and parking lots which just happen to be situated next to each other on the map and have ended up with the same name. It has no centre as such. It's impossible to get a properly-brewed pot of tea in a cafe. The metro closes before midnight. No one talks to each other. And if they did talk, it wouldn't help: the inhabitants of England all speak English with a terrible accent .... "

After this conversation, Slava Rozhdestvensky walked over to Markov's and was stabbed three times in the chest as he passed through the dvor leading to Markov's flat (2), and, as for Luba Ushakova, she suddenly lost all desire to travel to places west of Ploshad Mira.

Digression: on digressions

Digressions are not just a common feature of St Petersburg conversation; they are its main rhetorical device, its essential technique. The St Petersburger never goes straight to the point if he can go round it; never states the facts if he can speculate about the possibilities; never uses a hundred relevant words if he can say the same thing in a thousand irrelevant and more colourful ones; and never stops talking just because he has run out of things to say ... But back to the subject.

The true Petersburger: a checklist

I print the checklist below with a strict warning. The following observations look suspiciously like a hotch-potch of loose generalizations. Do not be deceived: they are exactly that. But, unlike most loose generalizations, these ones happen to be true.

Dress These days there are crowds of modishly or flashily dressed young people thronging the streets of St Petersburg, but they are not Petersburgers. At least, not true Petersburgers. They are: tourists, bandits, businessmen, prostitutes, visiting traders from Armenia and Georgia and Uzbekistan, people with ambition, people with money.

The true Petersburger has no money and thinks that ambition is something you catch if you spend too much time in Moscow. He or she dresses not to kill but to survive, in clothes which are themselves often survivors of large chunks of Soviet and Russian history. Vladimir Dolgoruky, for instance, still wears the sturdy tweed trousers (so sturdy they almost stand up by themselves) that he inherited from his grandfather, Vladimir Vladimirovich Dolgoruky. Volodya Bedulovich Markov still wears the Chinese nylon shirt his mother bought his father for 22 rubles in 1963 (3). And Luba Ushakova is still cutting dresses from the yards of velvet her mother bought to make curtains for their dacha in 1983.

Diet It would be a misstatement to say that Petersburgers have a diet, as there is nothing regular or consistent or planned about their daily intake of food. The Petersburger simply eats whatever comes to hand: whatever is available in the shops on a particular day; whatever is left over from the autumn's store of preserved fruits and vegetables; whatever he can afford. When nothing comes to hand, life becomes simpler still: he stops eating altogether. This no doubt accounts for the distinctive St Petersburg physique.

Physique A bare minimum of flesh on a body heroically offering support to four loosely-attached skinny limbs and an over-large head; grey wintry skin; poor tobacco-stained teeth; large vocal organs prominently encased in a protuberant throat. Breath comes in two shades: yellow (light smoker) or mustard (not so light smoker).

The St Petersburg physique is an architectural feature no less important or representative of St Petersburg than the Hermitage or St Isaacs. It is a physique crafted to an exact function.

Down south, in central Russia, where living and the climate are easier, the key word in body design is abundance: the more body, the more stomach and muscle, the better. Down south, of course, eating is a highly-rated activity, an exciting competition to take up the maximum of physical space; not infrequently, potato-based mountains of flesh block views and jam pavements. Here, in St Petersburg, requirements are different. Food is in shorter supply. Space is at a premium. Life itself is more complex, more intellectually demanding, less physical. The Petersburg body, with its wiry central core, large head and minimal covering of flesh, is a superlight field model, enabling the Petersburger - in theory at least - to crawl through the tangles of daily existence unhandicapped by excess weight.

Occupations Though almost all Petersburgers have a job, few actually bother to do it. Few would dream of wasting their time in such a spendthrift way.

Petersburgers have better things to do with their lives.

Like talking. Like drinking. Like bumping into friends and acquaintances; or being bumped into; or dropping in to see these same acquaintances and friends in their flats and dachas, also more or less unexpectedly; or being dropped in on. These occupations may not pay as well as a job, but they are more productive. They produce: empty bottles, hangovers, anecdotes, friendships, movement, interesting confusions and problems, even the occasional piece of literature. Compared to working at a job, these are very refined ways of wasting time.

Visiting friends A few more words on this central St Petersburg activity.

Petersburgers, in fact, do not usually visit their friends and acquaintances; they 'drop in' on them - uninvited, often without warning, and at whatever time of day or night.

The St Petersburg host is always unsurprised by the appearance of guests: he greets them unblinkingly and warmly, then ushers them through to his room before going to put the kettle on for tea. This, and a few dry biscuits, may be all he has in the way of refreshment, but it is never less than enough. Conversation is limitless. The guests may stay for several hours or several days.

There are two possible explanations for why the natives of this city spend so much time in the company of their friends and acquaintances. Either they are a genuinely sociable people - or else, they just can't stand being on their own.


Still having trouble telling the Petersburger from the Moskvich? Try this simple experiment.

Take one Petersburger and one Moskvich and place together in an empty room. Lock the door. Bar all windows. Sit down outside and wait.

When half an hour later a head squeezes its way out of the ventilation shaft, it can belong to only one of the two inmates: the Moskvich. He brushes off his hair, smooths down his suit. "Sorry," he says in explanation; "Got an appointment to keep."

Now unlock the door. Go away. Come back half an hour later. Look inside: the Petersburger has not moved from where he was last seen - seated comfortably inside a dense cloud of cigarette smoke. Asked why he hasn't taken the opportunity to escape, he replies: "Escape! Escape! Can't you see I'm expecting guests. Someone could drop in and see me any moment now."

Lock the door again. Come back two hours later.

There are now two Petersburgers in the room. Two Petersburgers drinking tea, amidst two separate clouds of smoke. The original specimen has been supplemented by a friend - who has dropped in off Nevsky Prospekt through the ventilation shaft. In the tradition of the impromptu St Petersburg guest, he has not come empty-handed.

Go back out. Return three days later. There are now five distinct clouds of smoke in the locked room ...

Now check on the Moskvich's activities and whereabouts. In the last three days he has: sold his flat (twice), bought three new cars, married, divorced, formed a new political party, married and divorced again, and written a postmodernist account of the half an hour he spent in your locked room.

Now do you see?

(1) Portwine: Petersburgian bohemia's favourite drink. Not to be mistaken for wine, and certainly not port. For an attempt at an explanation, see A short guide to the St Petersburg hangover. Return

(2) "What else could he expect?," said Markov afterwards, somewhat matter-of-factly. "He walked through the dvor with his head in the air as if he were promenading along the Champs Elysees or strolling through Regent's Park on a Sunday afternoon. Of course he got himself stabbed." Return

(3) 22 rubles was an enormous sum at the time - almost a week's wages, in fact. But in those days there was little else on which to spend ones rubles: the basic cost of living was low; food was cheap; fresh caviar lay in vast tubs in almost every food shop. And, as Markov's mother said at the time, nylon was nylon, after all. Return