Tourism: The New Kid on Nevsky Prospekt

Megan Doneski (Russian Studies Program, College of William and Mary)

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      When one thinks of Russia, often the first images conjured are of snow, cold, and desolation. A rare few envision a bustling city center on a sunny day in August. And yet, this scene can be found in Russia, in St. Petersburg, at the heart of the city, on Nevsky Prospekt. Granted, the scene was not always the same. A picture of Nevsky Prospekt in the Soviet era would look different than a picture taken in the modern Post-Soviet era, a reflection of the social change throughout Russia. The changes in Russia, between the former Soviet era and the current Post-Communist era, have led to changes in the atmosphere and culture of Petersburg’s main street, most notably in the tourism industry on Nevsky Prospekt.

        Nevsky Prospekt is the main street in St. Petersburg, Russia, and was commissioned by Tsar Peter the Great as the beginning of the road to Moscow. It was built in 1715, by tens of thousands of workers in terrible conditions. They were given no food, no housing, and no tools. Solomon Volkov writes in his book, “How many died of starvation, disease, and exhaustion? Probably hundreds of thousands. Peter did not care, so no one kept track.” It runs from the Admiralty (a shipyard, and one of the first buildings built in St. Petersburg) to the Alexander Nevsky Monastery (a complex containing some of the most revered religious sites in Russia, as well as the necropolis containing the gravesites of Peter Tchaikovsky and Fedor Dostoevsky)- a distance of about four and a half kilometers. Along the Prospekt there are many important sights such as, Kazan Cathedral, a monument to Catherine the Great, the Russian National Library, Dom Knigi (a giant bookstore in what used to be the Singer Sowing Machine Company headquarters), as well as an eighteenth century shopping mall called Gostiny Dvor.

Nevsky Prospekt is at the heart of the historical district of St. Petersburg, but is also still the center of the city’s entertainment, shopping, and nightlife.  Marshall Berman notes that Nevsky played a special role in the history of the city and Russia’s nineteenth century modernity.  First, “Nevsky was the one public space in Petersburg that was not dominated by the state.  The government could monitor but it could not generate the actions and interactions that took place here.  Hence the Nevsky emerged as a kind of free zone in which social and psychic forces could spontaneously unfold” (194).  Second, Nevsky Prospekt served as a display of the new consumer economy.  Third, the prospect became the place where all the existing classes and cultures came together (195).  In the imperial capital dominated by the palaces and military barracks, the Nevsky was a free trade zone where Petersburgers and city guests “could feel like free individuals” (204).  In this unique, albeit somewhat ephemeral space the tourist, dreamer, and wanderer challenged the autocrat, soldier, and policeman.

In Russian literature Nikolai Gogol invented Nevskii Prospekt as the site of secular modernity and glamour.  Moreover Berman notes that Gogol invented the genre of the city street symphony (195). Gogol’s version of Nevsky is “utterly depoliticized” (Berman 204).  I would say is devoid of any imperial grandeur. It was the one place in St. Petersburg that developed with a life of its own, separate from the state. It became a place where the classes converged. The street created its own symphony of various languages and social voices. Fedor Dostoevsky also writes occasionally about the modern Prospekt, and its relevance to Russian culture. “Crowds of workers with plaster, with shovels, with hammers, axes, and other instruments dispose themselves along Nevsky Prospekt as though at home, as though they had bought it…” (Dostoevsky).  Notably both writers, especially Gogol, were fascinated but treated with suspicion the Prospekt’s modern appeal.  Gogol concludes his famous story with a cautionary address to the reader: “The Nevsky Prospekt always lies … the devil himself lights the lamps in order to show everything in an unreal light” (cited in Berman 201).  Along with this, another moniker which has been soon after Gogol assigned to the Prospekt is “The Street of Banks,” which is logical considering the fact that of the fifty buildings between the Admiralty and the Fontanka, twenty-eight of them used to be home to banks.

While I have been addressing Nevsky Prospekt as a whole, a singular entity, it is important to look at all the pieces that create the entity of this free economic zone where tourists and entrepreneurs manufacture Russian modernity. The road begins at the Admiralty, which was one of the first structures built in St. Petersburg, and was intended to serve as a shipyard for Russia’s new navy and merchant fleet. The Admiralty is an important landmark and focal point of St. Petersburg. Its golden spire is visible down the length of three main streets, Voznesensky Prospekt, Gorokhovaia Prospekt, and of course Nevsky Prospekt. The Kazan Cathedral was constructed in 1801 and has been one of the empire’s main Russian Orthodox churches as well as the site of one of the first political demonstrations in Russia. The Russian National Library is located very near the monument to Catherine the Great, and is the oldest public library in Russia. It was founded in 1795 by Catherine the Great as part of her effort to enlighten her subjects. Many Russian writers, too poor to afford their own libraries, would create their famous works in the public library’s reading rooms (Berman 193).  Gostiny Dvor is the name of the eighteenth century shopping mall on the Prospekt; reportedly the city’s largest and oldest shopping center. It was modeled on the lines of the Rue de Rivoli and Regent Street, stretches for over a kilometer and houses more than a hundred shops. Gostiny Dvor also houses the metro stops for Nevsky Prospekt, and as a result is perpetually crowded.

The current building of Dom Knigi, or House of Books, was initially constructed by US entrepreneurs to display all the temptations and allures of the global consumer culture to the subjects of Eurasia’s biggest empire. In 1904 architect Pavel Siuzor constructed the building for the headquarters for the Singer Sewing Machine Company and the first business center complex in the Russian Empire. The building was supposed to serve international business guests and tourists.  During the Soviet time it was converted into the offices for Soviet bureaucracy and a bookstore.  After the end of the Soviet Union the building regained its original function while it remained a bookstore as well.  The top floors of the building provide space for business community events while the first floor is a bookstore and a café, targeting numerous international tourists as the primary customers.

The Singer Building not only introduced the new concept for the organization of urban space (the business center) but also challenged the neoclassical conventions of the imperial capital’s main street. The structure of the building was controversial because it did not match the style of the other buildings along Nevsky at the time. City authorities feared it would “impair the symmetry of the existing buildings” (Вознесенский).

Singer Building glass dome

Moreover the owners of the company wanted to build the skyscraper structure emphasizing the American identity of the company.  This project would violate the city code that did not allow any buildings to be taller than the Winter Palace, the residence of the Emperor.  Eventually the architects found an unusual compromise: they built a glass dome that would not overshadow other buildings on the prospect or the tsar’s palace but at the same time would create a motif of the high-rise structure. Because of its unique style, the building soon became a new symbol of Nevsky Prospekt. In addition to its functional and stylistic innovations it was the first iron-frame building in St. Petersburg and its similarity to the buildings found in New York added to its commercial quality.

The Singer Building was originally opened as a business center, but with the rise of capitalism came the rise of tourism. The importance of tourism to Dom Knigi’s business is evident today; when you enter the store the first things you see on display are maps of the city and postcards in several different languages.  When I interviewed the customers at the bookstore, the first two spoke Thai, the second group spoke German, and only the third family spoke Russian.  They were not from St. Petersburg though, they were tourists from the Northern Caucasus region of Russia.

VIDEO CLIPS ONLINEBerman notes that lack of solidity and stability are the distinctive features of modern environments (19).  The Nevsky’s very name is the best proof that it is a quintessentially modern street. After the Revolution Bolsheviks renamed the street into the Avenue of the 25th of October, a reference to the October Revolution. After the Siege of Leningrad the Prospekt was renamed again back into the Nevsky.  Like in a classical palimpsest the indicators of the Prospekt’s former life transpire through the recent coats of paint. One of the most famous cases of this is a sign surviving from the Nazi siege days that reads, “Citizens! This side of the street is the most dangerous during artillery bombardment!”.

A street sign surviving from the Nazi siege days that reads, “Citizens! This side of the street is the most dangerous during artillery bombardment!”.

The Nevsky is in constant and ongoing dialogue with its inhabitants: walls that were once littered with propaganda posters are now covered in advertisements for soda, or the latest fashions. The nightlife on the Nevsky has changed dramatically.  What used to be the name of the communist superpower USSR is now a name of a nightclub right off the Nevsky. The Nevsky houses everything from nightclubs, to bars, to five-stars restaurants. The juxtaposition of the hustle and bustle of an international city set against a background of eighteenth century buildings is truly fascinating.

What used to be a Soviet main street under heavy secret police surveillance has become a tourist hotspot striking a difficult balancing act between order and chaos. People filing off tour buses, people with cameras slung around their necks, and large groups speaking languages from all over the world have all become common sights on the Prospekt. In a country where still a very small percentage of the population speaks English, every other restaurant on Nevsky has an English menu. There are also some restaurants clearly intended to cater to westerners: McDonald’s, Carl’s Jr., Subway, Burger King, and even KFC. And if you’re sitting outside at a café, it is not uncommon to hear multiple languages other than Russian, which cannot be said about everywhere else in the city. All of these are fairly recent developments. Tourism did not rise as a full-fledged commercial industry until the end of the Cold War.

But in those past 20 years, The Nevsky has taken advantage of all the history and beauty it has, and opened its office buildings to numerous tourist agencies and companies. During an interview at MIR Travel Agency that settled at Nevsky Prospekt 11/2 its owner Valerii Fridman told me that in Soviet times tourism was not a business to even be considered. It was rather a state-run institution closely supervised by the KGB.  But now, his private agency with its HQ at the beginning of the Nevsky provides services to thousands of international and domestic tourists each year. Having the main office on the Nevsky is a big part of the Mir’s story of success, claims Fridman.

The tourist rules the Nevsky.  All along the Prospekt you can find people and even animals who interact, exchange services and money with tourists.  Among them are street musicians, t-shirt vendors, people yelling through megaphones to advertise boat tours, and my personal favorite, a baby bear that you can pay to take pictures with. When I asked the employees of the MIR Agency, how Nevsky Prospekt has changed since Soviet times, he said that the entire atmosphere of Nevsky has changed; they told me that it became more relaxed and customer friendly. The manager of Dom Knigi said in her interview, that the things they decide to sell change primarily depending on the tourist season, because tourists are such a large part of their market.

Tourism in Russia will definitely benefit from the recent cooperation agreement signed by Hillary Clinton and her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov making it easier for Americans to get a Russian visa, and Nevsky Prospekt is at the heart of these changes in St. Petersburg (State Department, Office of the Spokesperson). From Leningrad’s main street, filled with workers police and military men, Nevsky has evolved into a St. Petersburg main commercial venue filled with street vendors, business people, and international tourists.


Special thanks to Arina Malikova (St. Petersburg University) for her help with research, translation and video production components of this project.  Отдельное спасибо Арине Маликовой (СПБГУ) за её помощь в исследовательской части проекта, переводе и производстве видео.

Works Cited

 

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