by Tobias Thornes
Saint Petersburg was famously said to be the most ‘intentional’ city in the world. In some respects it has always resembled more symbol than settlement: the symbol of what its founder, Peter the Great, wanted his Russia to be in 1703; the symbol of an artificially Europeanised ‘western’ Russian culture under the subsequent Tsars; and yet, through its distinctive World Heritage-accredited architecture, surely today the symbol of an archetypically Russian style. Like the unique set of symbols that forms the Russian alphabet, somewhat familiar and yet strikingly different to Europeans, this city-symbol too encompasses echoes of Greek and whisperings of western motifs while remaining unmistakably and unashamedly Russian.
Even its name has been the political plaything of powers from across the spectrum, eager to use this centrepiece as a tug to veer the vast country to their transient causes. Peter himself consciously aped flashy, modern eighteenth-century Germany with his use of ‘burg’; to a twentieth-century Tsardom at war with their western near-neighbour ‘Petrograd’ proved a more palatable title for the then fiercely self-asserting capital. The biggest name in Soviet Russia was deemed more worthy than Christ’s apostle to honour its biggest city, so under Communist jurisdiction ‘Leningrad’ became for a time the name of the place where Lenin’s Winter Palace coup had put paid to short-lived democracy in 1917. When the ballot box returned – and with it normality – in 1991 to a land worn out by three quarters of a century of war and fear, the people voted to put it back to ‘Petersburg’. Perhaps they were trying by this small act at least to pretend the previous seventy-five years of history hadn’t happened.
The city I arrived at, over a hundred years on from the ‘communist’ coup, appeared not to have been spoiled by so long a time of turmoil. That there are eight thousand designated monuments in these few square miles perhaps best attests to its beauty. Arriving by rail at the site of the first Russian railway, built in 1837, I was stunned by a skyline glittering with colourful domes of the east sprinkled amidst grand boulevards of posh apartments that could pass themselves off almost as natives in Paris or Venice or Vienna.
This is home to four million people, housed in large part by a preponderance of more modern buildings that skirt the centre. But for once my eyes needed not be sored by silhouettes of ‘skyscrapers’ so recklessly enamoured by so many of the world’s ‘slick’ cities – even Gazprom, the heaviest giant in Russia’s voluminous gas industry, was thwarted by popular protest in its efforts to erect such an ugly edifice. St Petersburg seemed to me to command a respect not enjoyed by other cultural capitals – even Paris has its Montparnasse and London its Shards– perhaps partly as a consequence of the long list of internationally respected people it has produced. Mussorgsky and Stravinsky were born into its melody; the births of Puskin, Golgol and Dostoyevsky are written in its registers, alongside those of Rasputin and Nobel. Perhaps more importantly these days, Prime Minister Medvedev and President Putin himself are both children of Leningrad.
The ghosts of Soviet past still haunted here, I found, but not all were such frightful phantoms as the biased binoculars of Cold War competition might have rendered them from outside at the time when East seemed irreparably fractured from West. Shared communal apartments, given free to families by the USSR, were still commonplace. The USSR was repressive, terrifying and frankly uninspiring – of anything but fear – to its imprisoned inhabitants. They gained a lot with its fall in terms of freedom, knowledge and power. But undoubtedly Russians lost something too. The USSR had proudly styled itself a world power, and had at least stood out as radically different from the capitalism that enslaved – albeit less violently – peoples in much of the rest of the world. Resources were, at least in principle, there to be shared, and the achievements possible as a community were lauded over individual attainment.
Now, I found a country still yearning for what Russia has always desired, even since the time of Peter the Great – recognition, respect and acceptance on the world stage. But at the same time it was a country still recovering from being labelled the ‘loser’ of the Cold War and still grappling with, it seemed to me, a certain loneliness now that the old Soviet Republics were no longer united or, for the most part, socialist. Enforced community had fallen apart, and the reality of life under consumerist western capitalism had been shown up for the disappointing banality that it really was. The clothes were more colourful now, the shops stocked much more fully, but the heart of a life based around money could prove just as cold as the concrete and callousness of the previous prison this people had so gleefully escaped.
As I wandered through the wide streets, however, I heard little talk about big-scale politics or even the controversial foreign policy being used in recent years to put pressure on Russia’s former satellite states. There was something of much more pressing concern closer to home. Having all but ignored climatic change thus far, and indeed still doing little to prevent it, Russia had nearly faced the prospect of its most alluring poster-piece city being swallowed by the waves of a terrifying tidal surge, almost breaching the five metre height of the St Petersburg dam, a huge project under construction for thirty-five years before its eventual completion in 2011.
The city had flooded before, and it was a surge of nearly three metres most recently in 1975 that spurred the dam’s creation. But the seas are rising, and in 2018 high surges were becoming more common. Ultimately, the world was beginning to realise, we might not be able to build a barrier strong enough to stem the storm of our own careless conjuring, and the city’s days might be numbered with not too many digits. That fear at last, it seemed, was becoming all too real amongst the inhabitants of places on the brink such as this.
It was only at these forefronts of fear that a sense of climatic foreboding began to be made palpable: the sense that at some point in the not-too-distant future, the world as we know it would, despite its misplaced confidence in the way things were, fall apart – shattered suddenly to pieces like a fractured windowpane. Sometimes, you can’t even see the initial hairline crack when something starts to break. But gradually it grows until it creeps beyond its hidden tipping-point and the whole substantial structure disintegrates at once. It happened to the USSR in 1990. Now it was about to swallow St Petersburg, the Pacific Isles, so many other places that I’d seen. The capitalist culture can’t support its own heavy weight indefinitely, I mused. One day, soon, it must change – or it will crack.