14 May 2008

St. Petersburg Highlights

A visiting friend happily pushed me out of my daily routine of archival spelunking and bibliographic browsing, enticing me into a sojourn to the northern capital of Petersburg for a weekend. I won’t go through all the details of witnessing (and hearing) teenage puppy love in our train compartment and various other specifics of the trip. Instead here's a top five:

5. The meandering walk between the Moskovskii train station and Smolny Cathedral. The streets were almost empty and the architecture along the way wonderfully compiled houses, hospitals, factories and offices from the various decades of the Twentieth Century, with a few relics from earlier times here and there. At the cathedral, the view from the top of the bell tower (279 steps up, per my companion’s count) is actually impressive. Apparently if you speak any Russian at all, no matter how bad your accent, you can get in at Russian citizen prices.

4. The Russian Museum, where I was befriended by a lost five-year-old boy named Maksim who got mixed up in the maze that makes up the basement—miscellaneous offices, the cashier, the coat check, bathrooms and the gift shop. While my mind flew to some bizarre role reversal of the Soviet film Maksimka, I tried to concentrate and guide the kid back to his mother. I failed and pawned him off on a security guard when he seemed to be tearing up a little.

More importantly, the esteemed Russian master Ilya Repin reminded me of what writing a dissertation should look like:

3. The Peter-Paul Fortress was amazing, not so much for the architecture or random displays, but for the collection of middle-aged and senior Piterskie sun-bathers lined up around the wall of the fortress soaking in the rays until they turned some hue between red and brown—I think Crayola called it burnt sienna; occasionally these helio-worshippers splashed into the still-frigid waters of the Neva, reminding me that I will never have the courage/insanity to fully adjust to Russian living.

2. If you have friends and family who don’t really get the ethno-national complexity of Russia, the Russian Ethnographic Museum would be a good quick trip to delve into the wide varieties of peoples that inhabit this part of the globe. A lot of the standing collection is pretty corny—dioramas, costumed models and hokey explanations of traditional life. But I rather enjoyed the three rotating exhibits. The first was a large exposition of Jewish life in the territories of imperial Russia which included good signage, complete with accurate English translations. Second was an overview of the life and work of museum sotrudnik E.N. Studenetskaya (1908-1988), mapping her various excursions into the Caucasus and rural Russian villages from the 1930s through the 1980s to collect stories and objects of disappearing folkways. Lastly, the museum is showcasing a small exhibit of Arvo Ikho’s photography of Russian old believers in Estonia. The details of work and domestic life nicely situate this exhibit within the overall themes and mode of the museum, but with a fresh medium and contemporary eye.

1. Of course, the best thing for the bibliophile in me was a short excursion to see how the St. Petersburg’s used book scene compares to Moscow’s. To put it bluntly: better and cheaper. I picked up a nice 1930 Russian-language copy of Dubose Heyward’s novel Porgy, the first Russian translation of M.N. Roy’s India in Transition, and The History of the Study of the Orient in Europe and Russia [История изучения востока в Европе и России] by V. Bartol’d, a series of lectures delivered at the Leningrad Institute for the Study of Oriental Languages in 1925. All for about twenty dollars total. I know all the other experiences should totally outrank these few purchases of academic oddities. But it seems that I am, in essence, a nerd.


kg said...

OMG! Now that you've suggested that dissertation writing can resemble the process so gloriously depicted in "Запорожские казаки пишут письмо турецкому султану," I can't fucking wait to start! Although I seriously hope that having залихвацкие усы is not a prerequisite.
Here is an article about piracy that possibly very loosely relates to the painting: http://www.vokrugsveta.com/body/proshloe/pirates_rus.htm
While few things can be more interesting than palid Russian pensioners, I am a little surprised you didn't like Алексеевский равелин. I found that prison much more fascinating than something like Peterhof could ever be!
Your trip sounds like it was a lot of fun. Though as a native Muscovite, I can only hope it didn't mislead you into the sad delusion shared by many pitertsy that Piter could ever be half as cool as Moscow :).

lena said...

I can't quite match K's commentary on the 'stache, but I concur that dissertation writing suddenly sounds more and more exciting!

BusterPh.D.Candidate said...

Ummm, much as I enjoyed Kiev and, to a lesser extent, Petersburg, this blog remains MOSCOW through brown eyes. Obviously, this is the superior city. I guess I should post soon on my recent adventures in the city as I try to show people around Gorky Leninskie, Arkhangelskoe, Moscow museums and restaurants, and the various forms of transportations (seriously, what's so weird about marshrutki?).

I'll get to it, sooner or later, but please, don't doubt my Moscow loyalty. It comes only second to Brooklyn.