The Most Fabulous Find in St. Petersburg (Sophia Yates)

White Nights Through the Ages (Cole Pearce)


“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.

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