The Hare and the Flood: Forces of Nature at Work in St. Petersburg (Jessica Parks)

On the way out to Peter and Paul Fortress, along Ioannovsky Bridge, a 58-centimeter high statue of a rabbit stands on one of the pilings in the water. Marks on the piling indicate the height of some of the floods that inundated St. Petersburg in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This monument, referred to as “The Hare Escaping Flooding,” stands for the people and animals that perished in such floods (Saint-Petersburg.com). Other than this scanty information, the origins of this whimsical statue remain largely a mystery. Made from a mixture of selumine and aluminum (“Unusual Monuments in St. Petersburg”), it was placed in 2003 during one of the many renovations of Ioannovsky Bridge (Saint-Petersburg.com). Not much information about the sculptor exists other than his name–V. Petrovichiev (BaikalNature). This statue, however enigmatic, connects to larger concepts in Russian history and culture–for example, the impact of flooding in St. Petersburg, as well as the prevalence of the hare in Russian culture as a symbolic figure. The reactions of people to this statue reflect its small stature and whimsical nature.

The broader location of the statue has much significance. Ioannovsky Bridge, as its many renovations indicate, is the oldest bridge in the city, and was built in the same year as the city itself, if not exactly in its present location (St. Petersburg Encyclopedia). Ioannovsky Bridge extends to Peter and Paul
Fortress, the point of origin for the city. The island upon which Peter and Paul Fortress stands is known as “Hare Island” (Zayachy Ostrov) due to the large number of hares that used to live there (Saint-Petersburg.com). A local legend ties these components together: during a flood, one of the hares from the island supposedly jumped into Peter the Great’s boat to avoid the rising waters (Saint-Petersburg.com). The statue symbolizes this legend quite well; the hare statue stands on a piling that rises far above the rest. Thus, this decade-old statue not only sits in the oldest part of St. Petersburg, but it also ties together the significance of the sites around it.

Beyond this basic legend regarding Peter the Great, hares have enjoyed a long and deep cultural symbolism in Russian history. Hares appeared frequently in Russian animal tales as a “cowardly animal.” As with all other animals in stories, storytellers used stock phrases to refer to hares, such as “the hare who runs away,” “the little gray fellow,” or “the rascally hare” (Sokolov, 436). The hare certainly lived up to these characterizations in folktales; for example, in a tale entitled “Who is More Cowardly Than the Hare?,” a hare on the verge of drowning himself due to his cowardliness chose not to after observing that a frog was afraid of him (Haney, 63). In another tale, “The Fox, the Hare, and the Cock,” a fox living in an ice house drove out a hare living in a bark house when the ice house melted. The hare sat around in despair, until a cock came and drove out the fox with a scythe (Gerber, 28). Hares were not always simply cowards, however; as the phrase “the rascally hare” suggests, hares could also act swiftly and trickily. In the tale “The Fox and the Hare,” the hare is “poor in strength, [but] he’s frisky at running and full of youthful pranks” (Haney, 33). This tricky nature of the hare was not necessarily negative; as noted by Russian folktale scholar Vladimir Propp,

“Trickery presupposes the dominance of the crafty over the stupid or simple. From our point of view, trickery is morally reprehensible. In animal tales, on the contrary, it arouses delight, as a form of expression of dominance of the weak over the strong” (Propp, 298). Trickery, in other words, formed an essential part of survival and therefore did not necessarily appear as a negative quality. Thus, the legend regarding the hare who jumped into Peter the Great’s boat follows the tradition of Russian folk tales. Elements of the legend may have even stemmed from the symbolism in Russian folk tales. The hare may have jumped into Peter the Great’s boat out of cowardice, but the statue celebrates the “rascally hare’s” instinct to survive.

These characteristics associated with hares–trickery, cowardice, fleetness–have endured up to the present. One example of the “rascally hare” appeared in the Soviet children’s cartoon Nu, Pogodi!, which followed the adventures of a wolf attempting to capture and presumably eat a hare. While this show bears some comparison with the American cartoon Tom and Jerry, the characters of the wild hungry wolf and the tricky hare conceivably could have been drawn from old Russian folk tales. Other more negative examples of the hare as a coward rather than a trickster have occurred more recently. In 2009, a series of “hare” protests occurred in St. Petersburg in response to increased local transportation fees. The term “hare” (zayats) has become slang for a person who uses public transport without paying by dodging the fees (Chernov). The forty or so protestors wore hare masks and stenciled hare skulls on the walls of the office of the Transport Committee. This incident shows that the negative aspects of the character of the hare have endured just as much as the more positive “trickster” aspects. A hare, a bear and a leopard all stand as mascots for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, and nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky had this to say about them: “The bear is the dumbest animal, the leopard is bloodthirsty, and the hare a coward who always runs away” (Bratersky). Thus, both the negative and positive characteristics of the hare have endured. These characteristics made it a much more appropriate choice for the statue than, for example, a fox or a bear (both of which also appeared quite often in Russian animal tales).

Besides the wider cultural significance of the hare, the statue also addresses a vital part of St. Petersburg’s history: flooding. Flooding has continually shaped the physical and cultural landscape of St. Petersburg, from the very first floods that washed away the flimsy dwellings of Peter the Great’s forced laborers (New York Times) to the devastating flood of 1824 that killed more than 200 people (Patterson). Pushkin immortalized the flood of 1824 in his poem “The Bronze Horseman.” In November 2010, St. Petersburg experienced its 308th flood (“Russia Beyond the Headlines”), nearly a flood a year since the city has existed. In 2011, the Russian government officially completed and opened a dam meant to protect St. Petersburg from rising water (The Voice of Russia). This reflects an ongoing desire to control the forces of nature in St. Petersburg; after all, in 1703, Peter the Great sought to engineer a city on a most inhospitable piece of land, persevering despite those foreboding first floods. More than three centuries later, the Russian government finally completed a project that would further tame the forces of nature and ensure the continued flourishing of St. Petersburg. Plaques around the city indicate the high water marks of some of the past floods (Patterson). With these constant reminders, flooding has also managed to dominate the cultural landscape of the city. The tiny statue of “The Hare Escaping Flooding,” then, does not stand entirely on its own but rather makes up a larger part of this flood commemoration trend.

Interestingly enough, however, when compared to other flood markers, this hare statue stands apart in one important respect. The marks on the piling that represent the heights of floodwaters are not very visible at all, in contrast with the stark line on, for example, the plaque marking the infamous flood of 1824. The visual emphasis of the hare statue is therefore on the hare and not necessarily on the piling (and faint marks) below it. The attitude of the crowds of Russians and tourists alike crossing Ioannovsky Bridge reinforces this assertion; these crowds regard the pilings immediately around the statue as lucky landing spots for tossed kopeks. The pilings even occasionally serve as a climbing spot for carefree children playing in the waters below the bridge in the summer. Thus, this mysterious statue, while representing larger concepts, has managed to root itself in people’s minds as a cute and whimsical spot to throw coins at before continuing on to Peter and Paul Fortress.

Works cited

 

White Nights Through the Ages (Cole Pearce)

whitenights

“Even by day the city was something strange and out of hand… By night in dreams and in general it was like a huge madhouse, where people wander aimlessly, as if beside themselves”- Mikhail Shemyakin (Olson)

 

White Nights are a natural phenomenon where high latitude allows sunlight well into the night during the summer months. But for the residents and guests of St. Petersburg, they are much more. As a time of celebration, White Nights bring a cultural flourishing each May, June and July. At the same time, the lengthening daylight adds a dream-like atmosphere that has proved inspirational to various artistic greats.  Today, St. Petersburg has largely rejected the somber passing of White Nights during the Soviet and early nineties in favor of earlier festivities and artistic wonder.

Reactions to White Nights vary. One St. Petersburg resident Said that her routine changes little with the coming of long days. But for others, it seems like an opportunity to stay up, whether for celebration or merely to chat. An American visitor noted that White Nights were a popular time to get married and tour the city’s many attractions with a bottle of champagne in hand. Whatever the case, responses to White Nights were more muted in the Soviet period and the economic devastation of the early nineties (Hammer). But even then, people still appreciated their beauty. The composer Dmitri Shostakovich, for example, found in them the inspiration for the third movement of his Seventh (or Leningrad) Symphony in the midst of the Great Patriotic War. He found White Nights to be a particularly exhilarating example of interplay between buildings, sea, and sky (Volkov, 432). But since Russia’s natural-resource fueled recovery and Putin’s citywide renovations, St. Petersburg has become a Russian tourist hotspot, and White Nights are considered the best time of year to visit. The city sponsors various organized events, like a July 3rd festival celebrating Dostoevsky. There are bottom-up celebrations of the sunlight as well, with wealthy youths partying until six in the morning at shindigs like the Royal Beach Club (Hammer). White nights are currently a time of joyous celebration and artistic appreciation, as demonstrated by the White Night Festival.

The White Night Festival is the high water mark of the celebrations associated with the period. The first was held in 1992 at the behest of then-mayor Anatoly Sobchak. Even then, the event was prestigious, with President Boris Yeltsin commenting that it was a way for St. Petersburg to regain its previous glory. The Festival also supports St. Petersburg’s old role as a “Window to the West” by drawing in various international performers. A pamphlet produced by White Nights International claims that “The idea behind the ‘White Nights’ Festival is to turn St. Petersburg into a meeting point between Russia and the Western World through art and entertainment (White Nights International).” The same company attempts to brand it as an attempt to portray a new Russia to foreign visitors. This sometimes comes at a cost to residents, for example, during the St. Petersburg tercentennial celebration’s festival in 2003, where omnipresent security seriously inconvenienced locals (Hutchings, 5-6). However, the festivals are not meant to reach solely foreigners or citizens of the city; television coverage in 2002 designated the celebration as for all Russians, a national, rather than civic, point of pride (Hutchings, 10). While international artists are a large draw, the Mariinsky Theater shows various Russian operatic, symphonic and theatrical works during “Stars of the White Nights.”  Recently, the Theater has been expanding the festival beyond Petersburg to Moscow and other cities, perhaps strengthening the national impact at the cost of diminishing its association with White Nights (Marinsky Foundation of America).

While in St. Petersburg, we were able to experience multiple shows at the Mariinsky Theater for the Stars of the White Nights Festival. My fears that increasing demand for tickets from abroad had driven out Russians and locals were overstated. One of our group’s host mothers, a teacher of modest means, was able to frequently attend White Night concerts, primarily due to the stratification of ticket prices. The multi-tiered Mariinsky Theater is particularly well-suited for this practice, charging fifteen to thirty dollars for seats on the third floor, while the first floor seats are considerably more expensive (Mariinsky Playbill and Tickets). The newer opera house next door has seats behind the performers that are also considerably cheaper. A concert there emphasized St. Petersburg’s claim of being Russia’s cosmopolitan center. The performer, Oleg Pogudin, who had gained renown in the 1990s as a crooner of Russian folk ballads, sang in German, French, and Italian, but not his native tongue. The crowd – with a fan-club of older women in the audience – loved his performance. Perhaps St. Petersburg is willing to sacrifice local convenience by not performing in Russian, in favor of regaining its international stature. But local and national traditions are being preserved as well. During our stay, Tchaikovsky’s opera adaptation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin was performed outdoors at Peter and Paul fortress, using the White Night’s natural lighting to begin the show at 7 and 8 in the evening. The public nature of the site, its attraction to tourists, and the awareness of locals were all used to draw in larger crowds.

The crowning celebration of White Nights, the Scarlet Sails Festival (Alye Parusa), is a boisterous culmination of the tradition with fireworks, music, and a red-sailed ship plying down the river. However, this celebration predates the establishment of the White Nights Festival.  The name is from a fantasy by Alexander Grin, and was founded to celebrate the end of the school year in Leningrad shortly after the end of World War II. The design of the ship is based on the a 19th century possession of the imperial family, which may be another attempt by Post-Soviet Russia to reconnect with its tsarist past (Hammer). Accusations of wasteful spending, disruption, and favoring tourists over locals have been leveled at the festivals. However, a 2010 survey by the Scarlet Sails International Center of Festivals and Holidays suggests that 92 percent of St. Petersburg citizens support the festival and 51 percent attend, although the results may have been biased (Gorelik). Nevertheless, Russian participation in the White Night Festival, whether as performers or attendees, challenges the notion of White Nights as solely a tourist phenomenon. Personally, I found the Scarlet Sails festival to be a high-point of community feeling in St. Petersburg. Large, joyful crowds roamed both sides of the Neva, seeking a better view of the fireworks and the frigate.  Russian president Vladimir Putin spoke through a pre-recorded video to the crowds gathered at the Strelka and in Palace Square. The latter, the site of a major concert and affording access to the best views of the fireworks and ships, was reserved for the graduating classes of St. Petersburg high schools. This preferential treatment stresses the local and historical aspects of the celebration, even as the yearly influx of tourists grows stronger.

Written long before the establishment of the White Night Festival, Dostoevsky’s short story White Nights focuses on the surreal nature of the eponymous times. Over a series of nighttime meetings, the timid narrator falls for a woman, Nastenka, who is seeking to reunite with her lost love. With his help, Nastenka succeeds, and marries her original love despite the anguished declaration of her new friend.  They resolve to remain close, and the story ends with the narrator gaining confidence and hope. The nights themselves are jovial occasions, although the perils of city nightlife are not entirely dismissed. The encounter that begins the central relationship is the narrator’s repulsion of a drunken, aggressive suitor of Nastenka. More typical scenarios are the hero’s nightly encounter with a worried old man by the Fontanka, his admiration of the architecture of Petersburg homes, and his disgust over the recent repainting of one his favorites. The association of White Nights with dreaming and unreality is more central to the piece’s mood and theme. The protagonist confesses early on to being a dreamer, and, until the end of the tale, is only active at night. He admits to Nastenka his dislike of the humdrum of daily life, and finds joy in wandering the city on white nights, escaping into fantastic reveries. After she chastises him on this lifestyle, he says that she has helped him to refocus on reality. Nevertheless, their meetings continue to be at night, and his infatuation for her deepens. Only at the arrival of morning in the final chapter is the narrator able to accept their romance’s impossibility. With its personified houses and fairytale romance, Dostoevsky’s vision of white nights is a surreal escape from the humdrum of daily life in St. Petersburg (Dostoevsky, 1-50).

Other Russian writers drew inspiration from White Nights as well. For example, Pushkin writes of his love for the city in “The Bronze Horseman.” For him, the White Nights are a distinctive feature, almost a representation, of St. Petersburg. The brightness made it easier for him to read and write. Perhaps “The gentle transparent twilight, The moonless gleam of… [Petersburg’s] nights restless,” also eased his burden by providing aesthetic stimulation (Pushkin).

Reflecting St. Petersburg’s status as Russia’s chief literary city, pictorial depictions of White Nights are rarer. The foreign origin of most of the Hermitage’s works prevents a sizeable study of White Nights, while they appeared to be a non-interest to the broad span of native artists in the Russian Museum. Mikhail Shemyakin’s work is an exception, providing a contrast between the summer’s White Nights and the darkness of the winter. His bright paintings from St. Petersburg: Dreams, Visions, Phantoms, while often grotesque, are whimsical studies of various occupations in modern Russia. These light paintings often have multiple figures in them, suggesting activity and socialization. In contrast, his paintings remembering his birth and adoptive grandfathers’ roles in the Russian Civil War and the blockade of Leningrad are generally bleak, snow-covered with a black background. By comparing White Nights to the dead of Russian winter, Shemyakin illustrates today’s light-hearted absurdities relative to the suffering of Russia’s past.

In the outlying, residential areas of St. Petersburg, the canals are a gathering point during White Nights. The young typically congregate on the grassy banks of the canal, socializing and drinking until around midnight. The elderly prefer to chat on the aging benches around the outer rim of the canal, although they are more likely to depart by 10 or 11. In the early hours of the night, joggers, bicyclists, and parents with young children use the gravel path around the canal. While groups of four to eight people are common, there are no events or parties that draw in larger crowds. This could be a residual cultural effect of the Soviet regime, which would have discouraged spontaneous public gatherings. The canal area itself attracts attention as a green, lively area sandwiched between a grey, imposing shopping center on one side of the street and several weathered apartments on the other. This design reflects the late Soviet regime’s desire to create a workers’ paradise in western Vasilievsky Island, with living areas, workplaces like the ship construction factory, and leisure areas like the canal, all easily accessible.

Conversely, a large barrier to experiencing St. Petersburg night-life during White Nights is travel. Most clubs and bars are located in the city center, far from the residential areas on the outskirts. However, the metro system closes at midnight, with the official bus system ending around the same time.  To traverse the city in the early morning, a resident or visitor must look for a mashrutka (a semi-private bus) or take a prohibitively expensive taxi home. Past two in the morning as the sunlight fades, even these options are unavailable, as the bridges connecting the various islands of the city rise to let St. Petersburg’s many ships enter. While this is inconvenient, it could have been far worse. Originally, Emperor Peter forbade the construction of bridges across Neva, desiring for Petersburg’s citizens to sail across on small private vessels. His wife swiftly retracted this order after he died. Likewise, the modern metro system is becoming more accessible, as a special night train now runs between the main stations of Admiralteyskaya and Sportivnaya between one and three. (Dancing Bear Tours)

The city’s mood changes during White Nights. One of our Russian professors told us that St. Petersburg “wishes all year for the summer, and then complains about the heat and light until it stops. Then they start wishing for it to come back again.” A friend of our group, who runs a bar on Theater Square, remarked that St. Petersburg was nice to visit in winter for a few days to see the beautiful snow, but that a city-wide depression settles in after the winter holidays. He suggested that days of bad weather and little light, with no major events to look forward to, are the cause. Interestingly, Dostoevsky connects White Nights with mania in his 1866 novel, Crime and Punishment. The humid, oppressive heat of the city is tied to the protagonist’s feverish state, while the nights’ bustling crowds are linked to Raskolnikov’s overactive mind (Gill).  As one friend put it,“White nights are fun, but I’m not sure they’re healthy for you.” For me, White Nights were a wonderful period. People felt more jovial, closer together. Many times Russians offered me food or drink, just because we were enjoying the same bright skies well into the night.

From celebrations to fantasy, St. Petersburg’s White Nights are a time set apart. The city uses its unique brightness to showcase all of its specialties. Art, both historical and contemporary, is proudly displayed for foreign, Russian, and local eyes. Raucous parties in clubs and festivals draw in the city’s young adults. In the past, the lasting twilight provided for flights of fantasy, lengthy strolls through the cities to appreciate its wonders. Hopefully, as white nights become increasingly organized and commercialized, they’ll maintain the inspirational spark that connects Dostoevsky’s dreamy lover, Shostakovich’s symphony for besieged Leningrad, and the intense jubilee of the tercentennial.

Works Cited

 

Works Cited

Bratersky, Aleksander. “Putin’s Favorite Selected as Olympic Mascot.” The St. Petersburg Times [St. Petersburg, Russia] 2 March 2011: 7. Web.

Chernov, Sergei. “Local Transport Fares Up Leading to ‘Hare’ Protests.” The St. Petersburg Times [St. Petersburg, Russia] 20 Jan. 2009: 3. Web.

Gerber, Adolph. Great Russian Animal Tales. 1891. New York: Burt Franklin, 1970. Print.

Haney, Jack. Russian Animal Tales. New York: M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 1999. Print.

“Hare Island.” St. Petersburg Encyclopedia. 2004. Web.

“Ioannovsky Bridge.” St. Petersburg Encyclopedia. 2004. Web.

Lincoln, W. Bruce. “Sunlight at Midnight: Peter the Great and the Rise of Modern Russia.” The New York Times 26 August 2001. Web.

“Monument ‘the hare.’” BaikalNature. n.p. Web. 2009.

Patterson, Simon. “In Memory of the City’s Most Dangerous Floods.” The St. Petersburg Times [St. Petersburg, Russia] 3 July 2001. Web.

“Photo of the Day: Flood Strikes St. Petersburg.” Russia Beyond the Headlines. Rossiyskaya Gazeta. Web. 16 November 2010.

Propp, Vladimir. The Russian Folktale. Trans. Sibelan Forrester. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2012. Print.

Sokolov, Yuri. Russian Folklore. Trans. Catherine Smith. Detroit: Folklore Associates, 1971. Print.

“St. Petersburg Gets Protecting Dam.” The Voice of Russia. Web. 12 Aug. 2011.

“The Hare Escaping Flooding.” Saint-Petersburg.com. Web. 2013.

“Unusual Monuments in St. Petersburg.” Prosveshcheniye Publishers. Web. 27 July 2012.

Works Cited

Bennetts, Marc. Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game. Virgin Books, 2009. 125-141. Print.

“Demoted Denisov demands wage parity at Zenit.” Yahoo! Sport. Yahoo!, 24 Sep 2012. Web. 30 Sep 2013. http://uk.eurosport.yahoo.com/news/demoted-denisov-demands-wage- parity-zenit- 160436532.html

Dranitsyna, Yekaterina. “Zenit to Reach New Heights.” St. Petersburg Times 29 Aug 2006, n. pag. Web. 30 Sep. 2013. <http://sptimes.ru/story/18664?page=2#top>.

Gedeyeva, Ella. “Racist Federation.” Bumbin Orn. N.p., 30 Sep 2013. Web. 26 Sep 2013. <http://www.bumbinorn.com/2008/03/27/racist_federation.html>.

O’Mahony, Mike. Sport in the USSR: Physical Culture-Visual Culture. Reaktion Books, 2006. Print.

Riordan, James. Sport in Soviet Society: Development of Sport and Physical Education in Russia and the USSR. London: Cambridge University Press, 1977. 82-120. Print.

Scherbakova, Anna. “Gazprom to foot the bill.” St. Petersburg Times 26 Aug 2008, n. pag. Web. 30 Sep. 2013. <http://sptimes.ru/index.php?action_id=2&story_id=26955>.

“Stadium designs for the new football stadium.” Zenit Football Club Official Website. N.p.. Web. 30 Sep 2013. <http://en.fc-zenit.ru/stadium/new/proekti/>.

Titova, Irina. “Hundreds of Zenit Fans arrested during clashes in Moscow.” St. Petersburg Times 17 Mar 2009, n. pag. Web. 30 Sep. 2013. <http://www.sptimes.ru/index.php?action_id=2&story_id=28502>.

“UK Readies for 12,000 Zenit Fans.” St. Petersburg Times 29 04 2008, 1. Web. 30 Sep. 2013. <http://www.sptimes.ru/archive/pdf/1369.pdf>.

“What role does Zenit play in the life of the city?.” Zenit Football Club Official Website. N.p.. Web. 30 Sep 2013. <http://en.fc-zenit.ru/main/fanguide/zenitcity/>.

“Zenit Fan Group: No Blacks, No Gays.” St. Petersburg Times 19 Dec 2012, n. pag. Web. 30 Sep. 2013. <http://sptimes.ru/story/36749>.

“Zenit Tops Soccer Rich List.” St. Petersburg Times 16 10 2010, n. pag. Web. 30 Sep. 2013. <http://www.sptimes.ru/story/30987>.

“Zenit takes its case to court.” St. Petersburg Times 24 Apr 2013, n. pag. Web. 30 Sep. 2013. <http://www.sptimes.ru/index.php?action_id=2&story_id=37234>.

Zenit St. Petersburg (Brian Costello)

CrestZenit St. Petersburg, founded in 1925, has evolved over time to become not only the premier football club St. Petersburg, but also a significant cultural institution. This importance stems from the fact that Zenit is the only major professional sports team in a city of 5 million inhabitants. To put this into perspective, Chicago, a city of under 3 million people, is home to 5 major professional sports team. This monopoly on sporting support can be seen in a multitude of ways, most noticeably through the sea of laser blue and white jerseys that flood the city streets. It is no coincidence that when Zenit played in Manchester, the British Consulate General in St. Petersburg prepared to process up to 12,000 visa applications. By contrast, the Consulate generally processes only about 22,000 of these applications per year (“St. Petersburg Times” 1). The foundation of Zenit’s cultural legitimacy comes through its mass popularity. It is no hyperbole when Zenit’s website states that “Zenit long ago became one of St. Petersburg’s key brands, alongside the Hermitage Museum, the Mariinsky Theater, and the fountains of Peterhof” (“What role does Zenit play in the life of the city?”). To most inhabitants, the culture of Zenit is the culture of the masses of Petersburg. Zenit is one of the few cultural landmarks not tied to the grand façade of Petersburg. It is a reminder that Petersburg is not just the phantasmagorical creation of Peter the Great, but also a real city that is home to 5 million people. The position of Zenit St. Petersburg serves a critical function as a microcosm of Petersburg as a whole. Zenit St. Petersburg is a club full of paradoxes, and the problems it faces are the very same ones that plague the city of St. Petersburg and Russia in general. The Zenit experience is the Petersburg experience, for better or worse.

Zenit St. Petersburg, in comparison to its rivals in Moscow, is a club without much of a storied history. Formed in 1925, Zenit were originally known as Stalinets, in honor of Stalin but also a play on Russian word for steel. After 1939, however, when the Zenit team lost in that year’s USSR Cup, Stalin ordered that they change their name since he viewed that they were no longer worthy of being named after him. Zenit’s history in the Soviet League is not an illustrious one, only winning one title, in 1984. One embarrassing episode for the club came in 1967 when the team should have been relegated, though it was decided that relegating the only team from St. Petersburg on the fiftieth anniversary of the October Revolution would be unwise. After the fall of the Soviet Union Zenit have since joined the Russian League where they have been relatively decent. Fortunes took a turn in 2005, when Russian oil company Gazprom took control of the club. This ownership change did not prevent some from speculating about the true reason for Gazprom’s purchase, however. As one businessman in Moscow stated, “It is public knowledge in Russia…that an executive position at Gazprom has been set aside for President Putin for when he eventually retires from political life. Putin is a native of St. Petersburg, and this is undoubtedly the reason why Gazprom have taken control of Zenit, rather than, say, any of the Moscow clubs. While, admittedly, the president is not actually that great a football fan, it’s obvious that he would still enjoy seeing his home-town side rise to the top in Russia” (Bennetts 126). The links between the Putin regime and Gazprom go much farther than just speculation, however. Like many of Russia’s largest companies which formed from Soviet state enterprises, there are suspiciously close connections between the two institutions. For example, from 2002 to 2008 the Chairman of Gazprom was none other than Dmitri Medvedev, Putin’s second-in-command and President of Russia from 2008 to 2012.

Zenit Uniform

Zenit’s official jersey

The influence of Gazprom can be seen in many different aspects of Zenit St. Petersburg, most blatantly on the front of each jersey as the team’s official sponsor. On a fundamental level, the introduction of Gazprom has stacked the deck in favor of Zenit. The influx of wealth that has been introduced since Gazprom’s takeover is nothing short of astounding. The annual budget of Zenit in 2009 was $99 million, over 52% more than its nearest rival Spartak Moscow (“St. Petersburg Times”). This infusion of cash is also seen in the new signings. After the purchase by Gazprom, the club was able to secure the services of high-profile soccer stars Hulk and Axel Witsel during the summer transfer window of 2012, enjoying the increase in international prestige associated with such visible signings.

This culture of wealth has not been completely without problems, however. There has been a growing divide between the new, mostly foreign, players and the domestic players, who were around before the club was bought out by Gazprom. One incident that brought this issue to the fore was the Igor Denisov wage scandal. Denisov, an integral member of the squad before the additions of Hulk and Witsel, voiced his disapproval at these signings. He argued that Hulk and Witsel were not worth the astronomical wages being paid to them, and that “the principles of how the club is run are the most important as well as the respect of the Russian players, especially us – the St Petersburg natives who have always made up the core of a team like Zenit” (“Demoted Denisov demands wage parity at Zenit”). This rift in the locker room ended up with the club demoting Denisov to train with the youth team and eventually he was sold to Anzhi Makhachkala, another club in the Russian Premier League. While Denisov’s transfer might imply that the issue has been handled, the employment of these foreign players irks not just some Russian players, but other groups in St. Petersburg as well.

 

Axel Witsel, Hulk

Hulk (left) and Witsel (right) are Zenit’s first black players

Landscrona is the largest supporters’ club for Zenit St. Petersburg. After the signings of Hulk and Witsel, however, the group released a manifesto that demanded the club field an all-white, heterosexual team. Not coincidental here is that both Hulk and Witsel are black players, with the former from Brazil and the latter from Belgium. Later in the manifesto Landscrona stated that “dark-skinned players are all but forced down Zenit’s throat now, which only brings out a negative reaction”. On the topic of homosexuals, the declaration stated that gay players were “unworthy of our great city” (“St. Petersburg Times”). While racism and homophobia are still tacitly accepted in Russian general culture, the problem is even more acute in St. Petersburg, where even former Zenit coach Dick Advocaat said it would be impossible to sign a black player for the club. The club’s response to Landscrona stressed that the “team’s policy is aimed at development and integration into the world soccer community, and holds no archaic views” (“St. Petersburg Times”). While this may in fact be the case, it is very interesting that Hulk and Witsel were the first black players to ever sign for Zenit, making them the last team in the Russian Premier League to have at least one black player. The power of this socially engrained racism is so strong that the fans in Landscrona do not even believe themselves to be racist and that “the absence of black Zenit players is just an important tradition that underlines the team’s identity and nothing more” (“St. Petersburg Times”). The action of Landscrona just highlights the paradoxical structure of Russian society as it dives into the 21st century. Russia is hosting the 2018 World Cup, the largest sporting event in the world, but it is still a place where fans at a sporting event can throw bananas at black players with little fear of repercussions. While the standard line in Russia is that racism is not tolerated, the actions of Russian clubs, particularly Zenit, do little to discourage racist behavior. In this way, the actions of the clubs mirror the reality of racial relations in Russia at the present. As recently as 2006 a survey done by Alexander Brod, director of the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights, showed that over 50% of Russians exhibited racist or xenophobic tendencies (Gedeyeva). It is in this culture of casual racism in which Zenit operates, allowing for the stadium experience to be tainted by the poison of racism.

Zenit Fans

Zenit supporters

Another of the issues that plagues the stadium experience is that of hooliganism and violence at, and after, Zenit games. While it is a perfectly acceptable cultural reaction to get emotional or riled up by the events of a game, Zenit fans often take this reaction way past the point of acceptable behavior and into hooliganism. This trend of hooliganism is one that plagues all of Russian soccer, not just Zenit fans. When comparing Russian hooliganism to traditional English hooliganism, one anonymous fan said, “Basically, in recent years, British fans have just shouted a lot and chucked bottles. I was at the 2006 World Cup and saw how they behaved. They’d find a camera, chant, wave their fists and run off. Ridiculous. In Russia, there is nothing of the sort. When two groups of fans meet, they get right down to business, and fight until the opposing fans are either on the floor, or run away. It’s the same all over Eastern Europe right now. We respect the English tradition of hooliganism, but we no longer fear them. They are weak, right now, compared to Russia, Poland, Serbia and so on” (Bennetts 141). These words are not an exaggeration, as evidenced by the actions of Zenit supporters over the past few years. For example, after a 2009 game between Zenit and Spartak Moscow over 500 Zenit fans were detained by police out of the 8000 visiting Zenit fans who attended the match. Most were detained for starting fights, breaking chairs, and throwing smoke bombs or fireworks (Titova). Another time Zenit had to forfeit a game against Dinamo Moscow, when a Zenit fan threw a firecracker at Dinamo goalkeeper Anton Shunin and injured him, prompting the referee to call the game (“St. Petersburg Times”). Just as with racism, a casual acceptance of hooliganism plagues the Russian soccer landscape, and Russian society. This acceptance of hooliganism can also be seen in the fact that Zenit protested the forfeit loss, even though one of its fans injured an opposing player. Incidents like these place a black mark on the spectator experience of a Russian soccer game, and challenge Russia and St. Petersburg as they prepare for the 2018 World Cup. The World Cup is a pivotal moment for Russia, not only because it puts the international spotlight on the nation, but because it creates the need for new Russian infrastructure to support the event, mainly in the creation of new stadiums.

 

Petrovsky Stadium

Petrovsky Stadium

Throughout its history, Zenit has played in a variety of stadiums, which have illustrated the shifting cultural landscapes that both the team, and sport in general, have occupied in Russian and Soviet life. The first, and current, stadium used by Zenit is the Petrovsky Stadium, which was built in 1925, around the same time as the formation of Zenit.  This stadium was built right before the heyday of Soviet physical culture, which helps to explain why it is relatively small and only has seating for 21 thousand spectators.  It was during this period that there raged a debate about the place of sport and physical culture in the Soviet Communist experiment. Initially, the idea of competitive sports in the Soviet Union was one that was met with skepticism. One side of the debate focused on how sports were, at least initially, seen as a bourgeois pursuit that put itself at odds with the proletarian aspirations of the USSR. Eventually, however, the supporters of organized sports won out, arguing that organized sports in the USSR was different than sports in capitalist countries, since sports in the USSR strove to embody the ideals of socialism. From this, the idea of a physical culture (fizkul’tura), of a disciplined and fit socialist body housing an agile socialist mind, became a strong social current in the Stalin era. “In 1931, Soviet leaders announced an annual Physical Culture Day which was to become the apotheosis of Stalinist body culture. Such festivities were as much political theatre with sport as theme as they were a means of advertising Soviet sporting achievement” (Riordan 90). The idea of the body culture went much further beyond just the striving of the people; it became a tool of propaganda to meld human health with the attainment of socialist ideals. This idea was helped with the aid of posters and photographs portraying the quintessential Soviet citizens, both fit and supporting Soviet ideals and the Soviet work ethic. The logic behind such a concept was that increased physical health would also lead to increased mental and emotional health in pursuit of Soviet ideals in other facets of life.

It was in this context of hyper-physical culture in which the next of Zenit’s stadiums was built. Kirov Stadium initially started construction in 1932, but was only completed in 1950, due to World War II and construction delays. Kirov Stadium would remain Zenit’s home from its opening to 1989. This stadium was immense, packing in over 100,000 people, a shining testament to Soviet power, ingenuity and strength. Just as the propaganda in Soviet physical culture highlighted the ideological vigor and natural superiority of the Soviet citizens, massive stadiums, such as Kirov, served as a symbol of the preeminence of the Soviet political system and communist ideals. The idea of the super-stadium as a grand display of political might was part of Soviet interest in architectural ‘gigantism’ as a way of conveying socialist superiority. Another immense stadium built during this time was the Bagirov Stadium in Baku, which held over 80 thousand spectators. There were even plans to build the Stalin Izmailovsky Stadium in Moscow, which would have held 350,000 spectators and would have served as one of the landmark architectural sites in the world, further bolstering the political legitimacy of the Soviet system (O’Mahoney). This proposed stadium remained just a proposal, however, with the plans falling through and the stadium never being built.

 

Design of the "Spaceship'

Design of the “Spaceship’

Kirov Stadium was demolished in 2006 in order to make way for a new stadium for Zenit, Gazprom Arena. The design of the stadium, nicknamed the Spaceship, helps to highlight the growing Russian wealth in the 21st century and its changing perception in the international community. The main features of this arena are its sliding roof, a pitch that can be slid to outside the stadium and a system of heating to keep snow off the roofs, which allows for games to be played in most any conditions. Just as Kirov stadium served as a representation of the awe of the Soviet Union, the new Gazprom Arena represents the shifting cultural landscape in Russia. The stadium sports a sleek design; though the ultimate effect of the arena is to create a subdued atmosphere. It is almost as if the stadium exists there solely because it was meant to exist there, a paradigm of Russia’s return to prominence it deserves in the international system after the fall of the USSR and the chaos of the 90s. The choice of the Spaceship becomes even more interesting when compared to the other possible designs for the stadium. Many of the other plans for the stadium wished to emphasize different historical aspects of St. Petersburg or Russia in general (“Stadium designs for the new football stadium”). One of the proposals called for “recreating the idea of the former Kirov Stadium where Zenit played, with cascades of stairs, fountains and columns in Art Deco style on top of a hill”. Another of the proposals called for a multi-colored stadium, finding inspiration in the vibrant onion domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral and the Church on Spilled Blood. Yet another of the potential designs called for the arena to have a golden dome, reminiscent to the design for the second stage of the Mariinsky Theater. It is very interesting to note that even though Gazprom was one of the main funders of this new stadium, the actual decision for which stadium to build was made by City Hall. By choosing the Spaceship design, City Hall showed a steadfast maintenance to Zenit’s cultural appeal as distinct from both the relics of the Soviet Era, and Petersburg’s classical, tsarist past. Zenit’s cultural cache in Petersburg society comes from the fact that it is one of the only cultural institutions in Petersburg specifically formulated solely for the residents of the city on the Neva. The implicit paradox of this situation, however, is that the current driving force behind this institution for the people is Gazprom, a prominent symbol of Russian oligarchic culture and elitism.

 

Design based on Mariinsky Theater

Design based on the Mariinsky Theater

When the construction of Gazprom Arena was announced in the summer of 2006, it was billed as a progressive and functional development that would be finished by 2009 and cost only $225 million. Gazprom chairman Alexei Miller even went on record saying that the arena, “will be ready for the beginning of the 2009 football season” (Dranitsyna). It is now 2013 and the stadium has yet to be completed, with no specific date slated for its completion, but many believe it to be around 2015. The cost of the arena has also increased substantially, with the original estimations of $225 million growing to a figure of over a billion dollars. When the stadium was initially announced, City Hall said it would finance the project from the city’s coffers, as a show of mutual cooperation since Gazprom Neft had recently just registered as a taxpayer in St. Petersburg. For this purpose it earmarked around $283 million for the project. Now as the costs have risen, however, the city expects Gazprom to pay the difference between the original and updated cost of the stadium. While this may seem like a victory for City Hall initially, Gazprom’s main shareholder is the Russian state. And as one wry observer pointed out, “the main difference between private and state money is that no manager will be killed or even fired for inefficient use of the latter. And the modern stadium is a pathway to glory not profit” (Scherbakova).

In conclusion, Zenit St. Petersburg has established itself as not just the primary sports team in one of Europe’s largest cities, but also as a significant cultural institute. The club is a paradigm of St. Petersburg as a whole, full of paradoxes, such as the future promise versus the present reality. Or the contradiction that the team is run by oligarchs, but is primarily enjoyed by the people. The inherent problem when trying to create a cohesive narrative about Zenit is that the realities of the situation never arrange themselves succinctly into a clear story. Zenit serves as a microcosm for Petersburg as a whole, since the intricacies of Zenit clearly mirror larger tendencies of Petersburg culture. It is not just too simple to write off Zenit as just a sports team and disregard its broader impact on society, but also naïve. Zenit is an interesting representation of Petersburg, since the club is almost as complicated and paradoxical as the city itself.

Works Cited

 

“Glitter, Patches, and Impressions”: Nikolai Gogol’s Literary Treatment of the Absent Metanarrative of St. Petersburg (Sarah Wall)

The confluence of art with its cultural context and the reciprocal ways in which these often influence each other is not a new or momentous observation.  Take, for instance, the heralding of Romanticism that converged with nationalism in the mid-1800s, or the pessimistic early-twentieth-century Futurism that emerged in response to the European tensions that culminated in World War I.  Across centuries of human history, art has captured the ethos of its society and both preserves and expounds on it for posterity.  True artistic brilliance, however, is much rarer, evident when an artist sees not only his given cultural context but also how this context, if played out, will affect the future.  This is the gift of Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol, an author of Russian literature during its Golden Age of the mid-nineteenth century.  Because of his evaluation of the city of St. Petersburg as a Western construct not organic to the Russian people or the Russian experience, Gogol portrayed the city in his works as lacking in authenticity, ripe for demonic influences.  Such candid criticism leaves St. Petersburg natives in a difficult position.  They define themselves in terms of their cultured love for art and literature, yet their varied memorializations of Gogol introduces an intriguing dichotomy in their attempt to reconcile their respect for him as an author with contempt for him as a person.

Nikolai Gogol’s Analysis of St. Petersburg through Literature

For all of his clearly defined opinions of St. Petersburg, Gogol was not a native to the city he later called home.  Born in 1809 in Sorochintsy, a provincial village in present-day Ukraine, Gogol only immigrated to St. Petersburg at the age of nineteen.  The young idealist had long desired to reside in this self-professed cultural capital of the Russian Empire.  In a letter to his mother in February 1827, Gogol declared that “‘Sleeping or awake, I am always dreaming of Petersburg,’” and just four months later, he wrote, “‘Already, I mentally place myself in Petersburg… since I have always thought to find myself such a spot’” (Buckler 199-200).  However, Gogol’s enthusiasm in his expectations of the glorious Petersburg went drastically unfulfilled.  His dreams to become an important official in the bureaucracy, an actor, a poet, or an artist quickly soured, and, forced to settle for a position as a humble government office clerk, “he turned angrily against the city he had embraced with such hope” (Lincoln 122).  Indeed, in an 1829 letter to his mother, Gogol writes of his deep frustration in that “Petersburg does not seem to me at all what I thought – I imagined it much more beautiful, magnificent… All this makes me live as if in a desert” (Gogol, Letters 28-9).

Disdain and disappointment in the city experience colored several of Gogol’s stories, but his scathing sentiments may have stemmed from a far deeper place than mere disenchantment with the city.  He offers a more transcendent analysis that Petersburg is a shallow city lacking in legitimacy and self-awareness.  Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in his most famous short story, “Nevsky Prospekt.”  Published in 1835, the tale relates the story of two men, Piskaryov and Pirogov, and their independent realizations that all is not what it seems on Nevsky Prospekt, the boulevard that remains to this day the cultural heartbeat of St. Petersburg.  Piskaryov becomes romantically obsessed with a beautiful woman he sees on Nevsky and is shocked and dismayed to find that she is a prostitute.  In order to reconcile this reality with his romantic notions, he dreams that she is a virtuous woman of nobility trapped into prostitution and whom only he can rescue.  When he returns to the brothel to ask her to become his wife, however, “she interrupted his speech with an expression of scorn,” mocking him for the mere suggestion that she would want to marry him:  “in those words the whole of an ugly, degraded life was portrayed, the life of the true followers of vice, full of emptiness and idleness!” (Gogol, Complete Tales 227).

Lest the audience see in Piskaryov’s story merely a sad story of disillusionment, Gogol makes it clear that his experience with the false woman is symbolic of his views of St. Petersburg overall.  First, the story opens not with any mention of plot or characters but rather with an extended, extravagant description of Nevsky Prospekt:  its “atmosphere of gaiety,” with its shops and their “display of all the finest things the genius of man ever produced” (Gogol, Complete Tales 207).  On this boulevard, “you meet marvelous moustaches that no pen, no brush could do justice to… and the ladies’ sleeves that you meet on Nevsky Prospekt!  Ah, how exquisite!” (Gogol, Complete Tales 211).  As the fawning portrayal becomes sickeningly sweet, it becomes all too obvious that Gogol’s ridiculous exaggeration is pure satire and mockery.  Equally important to note is that the very first line of the story establishes that he intends this description to be a microcosm for the city of St. Petersburg overall:  “There is nothing finer than Nevsky Prospekt, not in Petersburg anyway:  it is the making of the city” (Gogol, Complete Tales 207, emphasis added).

Similarly crucial to Gogol’s overall message is a second shift, again away from the specific plots of the world of the characters to a more general discourse with his audience.  In fact, the author addresses us specifically with his command, “Oh, do not trust that Nevsky Prospekt!… Everything breathes deception.  It deceives at all hours, the Nevsky Prospekt does, but most of all when night falls… when the devil himself lights the street lamps to show everything in false colors” (Gogol, Complete Tales 238).  In the context of the exaggerated introduction and the story of Piskaryov and the prostitute, this final line in the story becomes a thesis in Gogol’s overall argument.  Nevsky Prospekt, the cultural pulse for the city of St. Petersburg, may well appear exquisite, virtuous, and glittering, but there is no organic substance to validate that description.  The city, in Gogol’s interpretation, becomes merely a deceptive ruse hiding demonism, darkness, and corruption.

The Source and Reason for Inauthenticity in the City

That Gogol’s disdain for the city is borne of an analysis that it is inauthentic to the Russian soul and experience is an argument corroborated both by Gogol’s own pen and by the arguments of various critics.  In his discussion of “Nevsky Prospekt,” historian W. Bruce Lincoln notes that “Gogol’s St. Petersburg was a detached place in which a perverse fascination with rank outweighed all human feeling… At the center of it all, forming the greatest of all the city’s many contradictions, was the Nevskii Prospect, at one and the same time enchanting and repulsive… In St. Petersburg, Nevskii Prospekt was ‘everything’” (Lincoln 123-4).  The falseness of the city overall necessarily results in this obsession with the shallow and ultimately meaningless set of ranks and appearances, which, as critic Donald Fanger argues, “The theme of misleading appearances developed here… is more properly a matter of the difficulty of judging by any appearances” (Fanger 113).

Indeed, Gogol didactically warns readers not to trust the glittering aura surrounding the boulevard, begging them to recognize the misleading falseness of the city.  The root cause of this falseness can only be found in Gogol’s own testament, preserved in the oft-cited 1829 letter to his mother, which becomes a thesis for how Gogol views the city’s inauthentic condition:

“Petersburg is not at all like other European capitals or Moscow.  In general each capital is characterized by its people, who throw their stamp of nationality on it; but Petersburg has no such character-stamp:  the foreigners who settled here have made themselves at home and aren’t like foreigners at all, and the Russians in their turn have turned into foreigners – they aren’t one thing or the other” (Gogol, Letters 29).

Part of this assessment comes from the very inorganic, top-down process of the establishment of the city itself:  in 1703, Peter the Great came to the swamps of present-day Petersburg and by imperial decree built the city with the intention of establishing for Russia a modern, technologically advanced “Window on the West.”  Indeed, he was not unsuccessful in his endeavors, for “by the middle of Elizabeth’s [ruled 1741-1762] reign, St. Petersburg had become everything Peter the Great had envisioned:  a fortress, a bustling port, a window on the West, a center of government, and a model for everything Russia might be (or ought to become)” (Lincoln 348).  Whatever its technological advancements and modernization, however, the fact that it was not the Russian people themselves who inculcated their own identity into the city led Gogol to argue that St. Petersburg was not authentically Russian:  “There is something about it that resembles a European colony in America:  the same dearth of deep-rooted national characteristics, and the same admixture of foreign elements that has not yet been amalgamated into a solid mass” (cited in Maguire 76).  Thus, without depth, significance, or authentic Russian-ness, all that remains in St. Petersburg is, as one as literary scholar put it, “all glitter, patches, and impressions” substituting for and replacing the profundity of the genuine human spirit (Maguire 77).

St. Petersburg’s Reciprocal Response:  The Memorialization of Gogol

Naturally, for a city that promotes itself as the cultural heartbeat of Russia, the fact that a famed author from the Golden Age of Russian literature unmistakably holds a less-than-favorable estimation of St. Petersburg would be difficult for natives to accept.  After all, Gogol’s place in the Russian literary tradition is akin to that of Fyodor Dostoevsky, his contemporary and just as much of a social commentator during the second half of the 19th century.  Interestingly, though, even in my personal experiences, it seems as if Petersburgers would rather forget that Gogol was so prolific.  During a placement test on my first day at St. Petersburg University, I informed the professor of my love for Russian literature, to which she immediately probed, as all Russians do, whether I had read any Pushkin.  I responded, “No, not yet, but I really love Gogol,” and the look of shock on her face and the way she repeated, “Gogol?!” made me certain I had just failed my placement test.  I encountered this attitude all over St. Petersburg, for it was not confined to the university; even my host mother, when I informed her that I loved reading Gogol’s short stories, demonstrated the same evident surprise and disbelief as the professors.

Perhaps even more telling is the way in which the city has memorialized its “redheaded stepchild” both through traditional monuments and through businesses, namely The Gogol Restaurant.  Perhaps the most famous and most traditional memorialization of Gogol in this city is the monument located approximately fifty feet from Nevsky Prospekt.  The monument, while still visible from the boulevard, now stands behind the makeshift “countdown” to the 2014 Winter Olympics to be held in St. Petersburg, so clearly the focus of every passerby is on Sochi, not on Gogol.  If, however, someone does venture behind the Sochi countdown, on an avenue directly across from the famous Kazan Cathedral, there stands a gloomy, ten-foot-high Gogol, wrapped in an overcoat pulled tight against the cold, his eyes cast downward as he gazes beyond his left shoulder.  Such a gray, melancholy memorial stands in direct contrast to my own experiences on Nevsky Prospekt and in the greater St. Petersburg; I personally find it difficult to reconcile the gloom exuded by Gogol’s monument with the lively, bustling air of Nevsky just beyond him.  Perhaps this is not an unintentional coincidence:  given Gogol’s disdain for Nevsky’s “bustling liveliness” that, in his opinion, was a mere veneer for deception and demonic influences, it stands to reason that Petersburgers would want to mock his “gloom and doom” attitude and make his monument unfamiliar and out-of-place in its surrounding atmosphere.

A second monument to Gogol, erected on a less central street in St. Petersburg, offers a contrasting image.  This one, much more lighthearted than the first, was originally “erected in 1994 as part of the ‘Zolotoi Ostap’ festival of humor and satire” and is nothing more than a plaque with a giant pink nose slapped on it, inscribed only with the title, “Major Kovalyov’s Nose” (Bigg 1).  This monument is a testament to Gogol’s oddest short story, “The Nose,” in which Major Kovalyov awakens one morning to find that his nose is missing from his face and is instead parading around St. Petersburg as a civil servant higher in rank than Kovalyov himself; despite its initial refusal to do so, the nose has reattached itself by the next morning.  Critics are at a loss to fully explain this bizarre short story, some seeing it as a story as a scathing critique of the role of the rank system, while others see it as just as dream of Kovalyov, but each of these explanations seems to fall apart under deeper scrutiny.  Intrigued that St. Petersburg would choose this story to memorialize Gogol, I unfortunately could find only a picture of the monument and the address of its location (11 prospekt Rimskogo-Korsakova), a location which turned out to have no trace of “Major Kovalyov’s Nose.”

Two aspects of this missing monument offer intriguing glimpses into St. Petersburg’s memorialization of our writer.  First, the decision to memorialize his strangest, most complex story by reducing it to a mere statue of a nose demonstrates a satirical treatment of the author that subtly requests that passersby not take him too seriously as an author.  Secondly, when the monument went missing and the city decided against replacing it, they demonstrated their belief that it lacked enough cultural significance to pursue its restoration.

While the exploration of monuments is indeed very telling in the memorialization of an author, it is equally prudent to explore other avenues in which a person’s memory is preserved; in the case of Gogol, this is certainly the case in the restaurant bearing Gogol’s name, located off Admiralteiskii bulevar about a quarter-mile from Nevsky prospekt.  Describing itself as a “gastronomic play in St. Petersburg style,” Gogol Restaurant offers its customers “a wide choice of classic Russian dishes and the more sophisticated meals that used to please St. Petersburg literary Bohemia.  The project owners aim to recreate the very atmosphere of St. Petersburg books of Nikolai Gogol, the language of the epoch, the uniqueness of home Russian cuisine that borrowed so many fragrant names and exquisite recipes from the French” (“Gastronomic Play” 1).  However, it is important to muse whether Gogol would appreciate being attached to this restaurant, for the whole experience and atmosphere it attempts to create is an entirely falsified construct.  First of all, the menu, while boasting limitless delicacies, draws very little from Russian cuisine and crafts French recipes instead; this is a direct slap in the face to Gogol’s messages, which revolved around genuineness and the corresponding “demonism” that arises from losing a connection to authentic Russian-ness.  Beyond the menu, however, the existence of the restaurant itself is a construct, for it is a role-playing enterprise that attempts to whisk its characters back to Gogol’s time and day.  This level of pretense is almost comical when observed alongside Gogol’s hatred and fear of inauthenticity.  Why would a restaurant whose entire premise is an inorganic construct choose to associate itself with Gogol?  Of all the 19th-century authors who also wrote during this period of the Golden Age of Russian literature, from Dostoevsky to Turgenev to Tolstoy, why emulate a role-playing enterprise on the basis of the only one who mocked St. Petersburg for its very nature as a constructed city?  Just as Gogol derisively mocked St. Petersburg through seemingly lighthearted, ridiculous exaggeration, perhaps the owners of the Gogol Restaurant (and by extension, perhaps the city itself) are following the author’s lead and using seemingly lighthearted ironies to derisively mock him as well.

Taken together, these three preservations of Gogol’s memory give a very clear picture of the manner in which St. Petersburg has chosen to memorialize its reluctant son.  Each in its own way is subtly mocking and satirical:  the gloominess of the statue of Gogol does not match the lively bustle of the surrounding avenue; “Major Kovalyov’s Nose,” while in itself a satirical plaque, was not even deemed important enough to replace; and the Gogol Restaurant has built an entire enterprise based on the very pretense and lack of authenticity that its namesake so despised.  Just as Gogol employed ridicule and hyperbole to shroud his disdain for St. Petersburg in mockery, St. Petersburg has in turn adopted that same philosophy in the way that they have memorialized and preserved his memory.

Gogol’s Prophetic Words:  The Missing Metanarrative in Russia Today

While Gogol’s impressions of St. Petersburg provide an interesting commentary on the Westernized, constructed nature of the city in the 19th century, much more interesting and, indeed, critical to Russia’s future, is whether this impression holds in the present day.  During my many wanderings down Nevsky Prospekt, I was first struck, even a little overwhelmed, by the hurried activity of everyone around me.  From the tour guides shouting advertisements of excursions on every block; to people pouring in and out of the ritziest and most beautiful “grocery store” I’ve ever seen, Eliseyev’s Emporium; to the portraits and artwork, a picture of culture and refinement, being sold all over the city, Nevsky truly does remain today the heartbeat of St. Petersburg.

However, once I allowed myself to more critically examine Nevsky Prospekt, my perceptions were altered as I began to realize the depth of, as Gogol put it, “foreignness” in the city.  First of all, despite the fact that the nearest English-speaking neighbor to St. Petersburg is 1500 miles away, the English language is nothing short of prolific across the metropolis:  souvenir-shop clerks greet customers with, “Hello,” rather than, “Zdravstvuite,” every menu has an English counterpart, and the Latin alphabet was so common, particularly on Nevsky, that I often saw more of it than Cyrillic during casual glances down the avenue.  In terms of the abundance of English, though, the moment that shocked me the most was on my final day in Petersburg, when I happened to walk by a restaurant on a side-street off Nevsky and noticed that the name of the restaurant and the descriptions of the menu were written first in large letters in English, and underneath in smaller letters in Russian.  That evidence points to something beyond mere businessmen catering to an English-speaking client base; putting a city’s native language beneath a foreign one demonstrates Petersburg’s embrace of imported elements at the expense of its intrinsic culture – if, granted, such a culture even exists.

The presence of foreign elements in St. Petersburg and their substitution of any sense of organic Russian-ness is only a small part of an overall trend in Russia towards Westernization and globalization.  Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, profound economic transformation has taken place, due largely to the actions of the economic power-players like the United States and Germany; “the ‘transition economies’ have been encouraged to open their crisis-ridden economies to international trade and attract foreign investment” (Koehn 1).  Indeed, the Russian government has greatly encouraged foreign investment in Russia:  even from 2012 to 2013, foreign investment jumped 10.7%, reaching $370.6 billion by June (Razumovskaya 1).  From McDonald’s to Burger King on every block in Petersburg and Moscow to fliers on the street advertising 1000 rubles per hour for English tutoring, Russians are nothing short of enthralled by Western, American, and Anglophilic culture.

In this way, the St. Petersburg that Gogol observed and so greatly feared, lacking in any “character-stamp… [where] the Russians in their turn have turned into foreigners – they aren’t one thing or the other,” has become a microcosm for the globalized, Westernized Russia of today (Gogol, Letters 29).  The fall of the Soviet Union left Russia without a metanarrative, a common myth of heroism and pride that unites Russians at their core and gives an organic sensibility to their national identity.  The missing metanarrative is what Gogol first detected in St. Petersburg, due to its top-down establishment by an authoritarian tsar who continued to force the country into a Western, modern role for which there was no organic precedence.  What Gogol saw as inauthentic and demonic, mere “glitter” and “impressions” at the expense of any substance, was the result of a constructed metanarrative inorganic to the genuine Russian experience.  Because of the presence of foreign conglomerates that accompanied the globalization process, this analysis now spreads beyond St. Petersburg into the country itself; the Russian people, without a sense of who they are and what it means to be Russian, embrace instead foreign elements and cultures, in turn resulting in further degradation of what was once their organic fabric.

In a way, Gogol was prophetic in his analysis of St. Petersburg as resembling a foreign colony within his country, for this not only remains true today but has expanded to paint a picture of the greater story of the Russian nation.  Little wonder, then, that the attitude I encountered in St. Petersburg, from the responses of locals to the monuments and enterprises “venerating” him, is one of mockery and satire:  inherent in Gogol’s analysis is a threat to the way in which Russians have chosen to cope with their missing metanarrative, and rather than confront that threat, they would prefer to write him off.  In turning their backs on his analysis, however, the struggle for Russians becomes how they can legitimize the organic Russian metanarrative, replacing the dark, shallow “glitter, patches, and impressions” Gogol observed with the genuine substance foundational to the national experience.

Works Cited