by Kryssa Burakowski
«Ночь, улица, фонарь, аптека,
Бессмысленный и тусклый свет.»
– “The night, the street, the lamp, the pharmacy,
A senseless and dim light.”
(The Russian sounds much better than my translation.)
These are the opening lines to a short poem of October 1912 by Alexander Blok, a Petersburg poet of the Russian Silver Age.
Dusk comes very early to Saint-Petersburg, and as I walk along the frozen canals of this Venice of the north, Blok’s poem inevitably comes to mind. For although the list of four nouns could be describing almost any city or town in the world, it is definitely Petersburg. And although this poem was written before some of the most turbulent events in the city’s history, when the city’s very name changed from Saint-Petersburg to Petrograd to Leningrad and back to Saint-Petersburg, its opening image has retained its relevance through the city’s troubled history and into its present.
In the eight lines of his poem, Blok muses on the fact that even after death, everything there will stay the same. He was not to know the extent of the suffering to come, the death and destruction that would occur. The October Revolution was followed by the chaos of the Civil War. The Second World War (or Great Patriotic War, as it is known in Russia) saw the siege of Leningrad, where it is thought that nearly one in three residents who remained in the city died, often due to starvation. St. Petersburg’s elegant baroque buildings have endured all of this, and the collapse of the USSR. There are few places where I have felt history so keenly all around me.
Ultimately, despite these temporal disturbances, a certain spirit and essence of the city endures through it all. The poem closes:
«Ночь, ледяная рябь канала,
Аптека, улица, фонарь.»
“The night, the frozen ripple of the canal,
The pharmacy, the street, the lamp.”
It’s true, that lamp will be electric now, brighter. Its glow will be disturbed by the neon green of the pharmacy’s flashing sign. But the lamp, the street and the pharmacy will all remain. So although this final image of a light (albeit a dim one) in the darkness may not be the most original or unprecedented in poetry, Blok’s streetlamp has withstood the test of time.