Memories of Kino and the Rock Movement (Lirsen Myrtaj)

At first glance, rock music seems inherently anti-Russian. It gained its popularity out of the American youth revolt of the 1960s posing itself as an alternative to the ennui of Nixon’s “Silent Majority.” There is something about seeing Russians perform rock which is odd. A lot of the themes which are characteristic of early American rock music — such as psychedelia and illegal drug use — are not present. Instead of singing about strains of cannabis (“Purple Haze” by the Jimi Hendrix Experience), Viktor Tsoi and his band Kino perform a song about cigarettes («Pachka sigaret») and the relief from stress it may cause. Like many figures in American rock, Viktor Tsoi died young. While Jim Morrison died of a heroin overdose, Viktor Tsoi died in a car accident while driving sober. This comparison seems to illustrate the difference between American and Russian cultures. Failure in America is due to your own faults. In Russia, fate has the final say over what will happen to your life. Rock music in Russia can thus seem more often like a cultic performance than a talented musician playing to a psychedelic beat. The result is that the memory of rock in Russia seems more like a remembrance of saints rather than a hazy memory of a burst of great talent as it is seen in America.

When asking a Russian rock fan about his favorite bands, I received answers which I took to show a lack of taste. It seems like Linkin Park, an alternative band which I had assumed nobody liked anymore, is still popular in Russia. So is Rammstein, a German industrial metal band whose strange music videos include themes of cannibalism and mob violence. While running the risk of appearing a rock snob, I felt that these bands displayed crass tastes which I grew out of by the time I entered high school. Yet the fan in name was a grown man in his late twenties. When I asked him about Russian rock bands, he told me that there aren’t any good bands. Since my knowledge of modern Russian rock is limited, I asked him about older bands like Kino and DDT. The reaction was positive. According to him, the only good Russian rock bands are the old ones. This seemed quite strange when considering the musical styles of Kino and DDT are remarkably different from Linkin Park’s and Rammstein’s. Yet it is unlikely that he was an avid listener and concert-goer before the age of ten, when the Russian bands in question were at their peak. Instead, the memory of the golden age of Russian rock had to have been passed on to him from slightly older generations, the generation which saw its youth revived in expense of the brutally conformist Soviet communist system.

Just as American rock ridiculed Nixon’s “Silent Majority” and the Vietnam War, Russian rock inspired youth to question authority. Tsoi’s most famous (and arguably best) song — «Peremen» — is not shy to tell the youth what they want:

Перемен требуют наши сердца,
Перемен требуют наши глаза,
В нашем смехе и в наших слезах,
И в пульсации вен
Перемен!
Мы ждем перемен.

Changes require our hearts,
Changes require our eyes,
In our laughter and our tears,
And the pulse in the veins
Change!
We are waiting for change.

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It is hard to argue that Russian youth did not want change.  The Soviet government realized this and began to fund rock bands, something which it had not done before, perhaps in an attempt to seem not only more tolerant of “change” — which characterized the Gorbachev period — but also perhaps to attempt to coopt the music the youth was following.   It also seems like the youth were tired of seeing their friends die in the Afghan War – it is hard not to see herein a comparison with the Vietnam War’s effect on youth in America — as expressed by Yuriy Shevchuk of DDT’s song «Революция» (“Revolution”) with the lyric “Сколько афгани стоит смерть? / Если чья-то жизнь не права?” (“How many Afghans does it cost to die? / If someone’s life is not right?).

Tsoi also seemed to be a pacifist as expressed in his song «Я объявляю свой дом» (“I declare my house”):

Я объявляю свой дом
Безъядерной зоной!
Я объявляю свой двор
Безъядерной зоной!
Я объявляю свой город
Безъядерной зоной!

I declare my house
To be a nuclear-free zone!
I declare my yard
To be a nuclear-free zone!
I declare my city
To be a nuclear-free zone!

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The youth were thus not only in revolt because they were getting bored of the old system, but also because their very youth was being destroyed whether it was through casualties in war or because of a repressive system. It is hard not to see this when watching the Russian-made documentary Рок or simply Rock, the first documentary on the subject from a Russian perspective. The first scene does not involve a close-up of some rock musician performing live in concert, but a Soviet Pioneers’ rally in the Red Square, where the young children are spoken to by Leonid Brezhnev. The scene then shifts to a modern rock musician who looks almost confused, much as his more conservative contemporaries would have thought when seeing him. But they are probably right. Those brought up in the Soviet system look upon their days as pioneers with nostalgia. What came afterwards was uninteresting and alienating. Any sense of individualism was crushed beneath the weight of communist conformism to the working-class ideology. The confusion this caused among identity-seeking youth found its expression through rock music.

Watching Viktor Tsoi perform is almost like watching somebody sobbing. This effect is accentuated by the heavy make-up he and his band members wear, giving Tsoi an almost effeminate character. Yet this is not for performance or dramatic effect: Tsoi remarks in Rock that his art is not a hobby, but his life. He does not seem to be so well-known for his vocals which, like Jim Morrison’s, seem weak. Tsoi is instead giving us metaphors which convey deep feelings. He is not telling you how to feel; he is instead observing life through his lyrics, as in «Кукушка» (“Kukushka”):

Кто пойдет по следу одинокому?
Сильные да смелые
Головы сложили в поле в бою.
Мало кто остался в светлой памяти,
В трезвом уме да с твердой рукой в строю,
В строю.

Солнце мое – взгляни на меня,
Моя ладонь превратилась в кулак,
И если есть порох – дай огня.
Вот так…

Who will go on the lone trail?
Strong and brave
Heads lay in a field in battle.
Few people remain in memory,
In a sober mind but with a firm hand in the ranks,
In the ranks.

My sun – look at me,
My hand turned into a fist,
And if there’s gunpowder – give fire.
That’s it…

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It is thus no coincidence that upon Tsoi’s death, the 17 August 1990 issue of the Kosmomolskaya pravda stated: “Tsoi means more to the young people of our nation than any politician, celebrity or writer. This is because Tsoi never lied and never sold out. He was and remains himself. It’s impossible not to believe him… Tsoi is the only rocker who has no difference between his image and his real life, he lived the way he sang… Tsoi is the last hero of rock” (Rightsinrussia.info, 2013). Tsoi thus embodies a memory of being honest through his art and through his life. He was thus a sort of revolutionary figure to the millions of Russian youth who listened to him. Perhaps that is why our Russian rock fan has such a positive image of Kino, despite generally listening to music whose styles contrast with Tsoi’s.

Russian rock retains an image which is characteristic of Russian society. Messianism seems to be a theme in at least some of the figures observed by the makers of Rok. While long hair and a beard is de rigueur among rock artists anywhere, it is hard not to draw a comparison to Christ when seeing it in Russia. This is confirmed in the final scenes of the documentary when some musicians sing a melodic prayer, thanking God for his merciful acts, against scenes of Russian landscapes. Yuriy Shevchuk of DDT seems to conform to this image as well. In the documentary, he and his band members gather with their families in a forest  beneath a large oak tree. The scene is reminiscent of “rainbow gatherings” where American hippies would gather in camps in the forest, reputedly using drugs and engaging in other debaucherous activities. In the Russian version, however, one could see children sitting and singing a Russian folk song along with the rest of the people gathered, reminding one of Christ gathering children with him even though his disciples tried to shoo them away. The passionate performances of Shevchuk create an image of a man who is not only trying to write good songs, but also to lead through example and passion. At one point in Rok he mentions his interests in Buddhism and meditation, seeming to confirm that he is also a quasi-spiritual figure rather than simply a talented musician. While Shevchuk portrays the more extroverted forms of the Messiah, Tsoi represents the quieter and more somber messages of Christ. In addition to his “sobbing” performances, Tsoi also led an introverted and solitary lifestyle, never boasting of his fame. It seems as if he actively tried to deny the fame given to him, leaving the limelight for a while just as Christ went into the dessert for 40 days. A now famous scene in Rok involves Tsoi working at his job as a stoker. He carries the coal back into the apartment and throws it into a boiler which has since been named “Kamchatka.” The image portrayed is a strange one for someone of his stature. Tsoi comes across as a simple man, fulfilling a job which has been given to him by the state as all men and women in the Soviet Union. This simple boiler, located on Ulitsa Blokhina (Улица Блохина) in St. Petersburg has since become a pilgrimage site for Tsoi’s fans.

The novelty of rock to Russians seems to be not only an element of Rock but also the reason it was made. It is interesting to notice that there is only one scene in the entire film where you can see a concert audience. It provides a somewhat ridiculous image: a Russian rock musician who is supposed to look something like David Bowie is performing to an audience of miners. Most of the miners, who have presumably never before seen such an act, look somewhat confused or even bemused. There are no screaming fans, none of them sing along, and all of them are sitting down. Yet the image is valuable in order to understand how rock music was received. By the time the documentary was filmed, rock had only recently become popular. The musician in the scene seemed almost heroic, like a David battling the Goliath that is the Soviet culture of conformism. The battle was a battle of ideals, and the youth saw in rock an opportunity to express themselves free of the system that had raised them.   In that sense, the rock movement was a revolution. Viktor Tsoi and others were the leaders of the revolution. Yet they were not Leninists, seeking to bring about change from the top. They were instead prophets or missionaries, expressing themselves as they saw fit. They allowed the youth to latch on to something new and creative when they saw stagnation all around them. When they realized the influence they had, they began to sing about revolution, peace, and the problems they saw everyday. In that sense, they not only led a revolution in culture, but soon enough became the representatives of the youth whose new culture erupted both before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Viktor Tsoi along with others are remembered not only as great musicians, but also as the voice of the youth during the stagnation of the 1980s. Yet their memory does not only live on among those who were old enough to see them perform live and get hold of their new albums as soon as they came out. It is not atypical to see street musicians performing songs from Tsoi and others; graffiti displaying КИНО is a common sight, especially on the Tsoi wall in Arbat in Moscow; Tsoi paraphernalia is common throughout St. Petersburg; and karaoke bars feature people singing Tsoi’s most famous songs off-tune. Perhaps it is pride that forces Tsoi to live on in Russian memory. After all, Kino is one of the “only good Russian bands”, and Tsoi is a man whom Russians can take pride in as one of their own. But he is not extolled as a conquering hero.  Russians loved him because he seemed meek and humble, never demanding anything extraordinary, and never seeing himself as too great to perform with true emotion. This quiet figure came to represent his contemporary Russian youth not only during his time, but also today. He thus serves the purpose of being an object or an abstract site of memory for generations to come.

Religion and Atheism in Soviet Russia: The Search for a Cultural Narrative (Aaron Buzek)

Soviet religious policy is highly representative of the reactionary and contradictory spirit of Russian history. The search for a cohesive Russian cultural identity has been plagued by the struggle between east and west, past and future, and what is considered truly Russian (or in this case Soviet) and what is a seen as a threat to their nation. In order to understand the place of religion in Soviet Russia one must examine the respective cultural value both before and after the October Revolution of 1917. In investigating this dichotomy, one can begin to understand the difficulty surrounding the search for a cohesive cultural identity: a search that has been raging throughout the history of Russia.

Before the revolution and Bolshevik rule, religion was of paramount importance in Russia; the morality and everyday actions of people were highly influenced by religious belief. This private spiritual and moral sway of religion was not the only influence on Russian life, though. Orthodox Christianity’s influence on society as a whole must also be noted to fully understand the impact of Soviet religious policy.

A cursory glance at the skyline of Saint Petersburg is all that is needed to impart the feeling that religion is a major facet of Russian society. Saint Isaac’s and the spire of Peter and Paul Cathedral rise above the rest of the low-lying city and frequent walks down Nevsky Prospect presents the magnificent structures of Kazan Cathedral and The Church on Spilled Blood. Each and every church was extraordinary in its own way, both inside and out. A phenomenal amount of money, in addition to artistic and architectural innovation, was poured into the construction of Russia’s many churches. Churches were one of the status symbols of the Tsars, a way to show their might and wealth, as well as a way to contribute to the cultural development of their society.

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Kazan Cathedral: Later used to house the Museum of Atheism in Leningrad (Source: Joe North, Wikimedia Creative Commons 2.0)

Despite the omnipresence of religion, the Bolsheviks, and their ideological forefathers, believed that religion was inherently incompatible with their version of socialism. To Marx, religion was an ‘opiate’ that kept the masses blind to their suffering and enslavement under the capitalist yoke (Marx 1). They believed that it undermined their core values of science and technological progress and hindered their movement away from the backward tendencies of Tsarist Russia. Essentially religion was in direct contradiction to the cultural narrative that the Soviets were working to introduce. From its onset, the Soviet government mandated the complete separation of church and state. Starting in the 1920s, the Soviet government began what would become a long, drawn-out, and ultimately unsuccessful struggle to suppress religion and promote atheism, a key component of the new Soviet identity.

In the beginning, the efforts of the state to suppress religion were masked under the guise of societal healing, not so much in a purely anti-religious manner. In 1923, the government looted a great number of churches, taking with them uncountable, irreplaceable religious artifacts. This was done under the pretense of helping the starving—this was an effective and intelligent strategy, as protest by the churches or followers would appear to be greedy and unwilling to help the needy (Lebina 43). The actual role that these artifacts played in feeding the poor, however, is not entirely clear. Regardless, this action sent a clear message to the religious community: the wellbeing of society trumps that of religion. In addition to these actions, the government secularized marriage and death, and no religious holidays were officially recognized or supported by the state, although they were replaced by days of rest throughout the country(41). The secularization of these prominent cultural events was a powerful first step in replacing the religious aspect of society with the new Soviet narrative.

The strength bestowed to the community by religious holidays spurred the government to develop a campaign which targeted these traditions. The state sponsored “Komsomol” Christmas and Easter, which responded to local religious celebrations with atheist propaganda and a mocking view of the celebrations that threatened the centralization desired by the state (Lebina 44). The Komsomol push was unsuccessful, though, because much of the importance of these celebrations for the religious lay in the tradition and actions of the people. The state revamped its attempts at secularization by hosting celebrations completely separate from the holidays at clubs. This was an attempt to entice believers away from celebrating religious holidays. In addition to these parties, marches and parades were organized to promote atheism among the youth (45-47).

At the end of the 1920s there was a noticeable shift in the state’s attitude toward religion. It began to remove religious holidays and replace them with Soviet holidays. Eventually this culminated in the abolition of Christmas and even New Year’s celebrations (though the latter was revoked in 1947). Christmas and New Year’s trees were made illegal and random raids were conducted to ensure obedience to the new law (Lebina 59). These actions against the two biggest Russian holidays were a huge step in the Soviet’s attempt to rewrite the Russian cultural narrative. These sweeping reforms greatly decreased the active and open religious participation of a large quantity of the population.

Collectivization of public life also furthered the suppression of religion. No religious symbology, i.e. icons, were allowed in common areas of collective housing, and people were frequently mocked for publically performing religious rituals. Food rations had a similar effect. The limited food supply available to the majority of the population prevented them from preparing special holiday foods (Lebina 57). Finally, the introduction of an uninterrupted work week limited workers’ free time (55). Having Sunday as the only day off discouraged people from attending church and made celebrating holidays much more cumbersome and challenging.

There was a revival of religion throughout the USSR despite the introduction of these measures meant to suppress religious activity and belief (although it is important to note that tens of thousands of believers and clergymen were sent to the gulags during this time period). This restoration was due to the outbreak of World War II. Stalin used religion to unite the Soviet people and instill a sense of hope during a dark time. This relative lull in persecution lasted for the rest of Stalin’s rule, until 1953. However, during Khrushchev’s time in power and the period of de-Stalinization, there was a significant and intense revival of antireligious activity (Stone 297). By 1964, the number of operating churches, monasteries, and clergymen was roughly halved by the government(Lebina 81). Monasteries were the first target of the antireligious campaign, because they had no legal representation and were relatively removed from the public eye.  The state closed down numerous monasteries across the Soviet Union and prevented anyone younger than 30 joining a monastery (Shkarovskii 74). The latter measure is exemplary of many antireligious actions by the government because of its focus on preventing young people from becoming religious.

After the attack on the monasteries, the government turned its attention to the churches. The government initiated widespread tax hikes on churches and candle-making studios (a significant monetary supply for churches), as well as drastically cutting priest’s pay: this was an attempt to run churches into the ground economically (Shakrovskii 75). Additionally, churches had to register with the Council for Religious Affairs (CRA). The CRA was intended as a mediator between the church and state, as an enforcer of legislation regarding religious activity. This neutrality was a complete façade, as the CRA supported atheism and allowed regional authorities under their command to operate relatively independent of the law, with few checks on their activities. Although the main mission of the CRA was to provide administration to religious bodies, they also exercised control over atheist propaganda and had a substantial influence in developing legislation (Anderson 1).

In the final days of 1958, the government raided church libraries and fenced off and appropriated holy sites throughout the Soviet Union. Beginning in 1959, the government responded to outcry from the Church and allowed religious authorities to host an international convention of Orthodox Churches. However, due to prior weakening of the Russian Orthodox Church, the rest of the Orthodox community decided that these leaders were unfit for their duties (Shkarovskii 72-73).

This failed experiment substantially weakened the Orthodox Church’s position in Russian society and allowed the government to make further inroads against them. The government prohibited a good deal of churches from opening and increased KGB presence among the faithful. The government’s attempts to limit religious influence would prove to be futile as early as 1960, when a substantially higher proportion of Russians attended Easter service. One Muscovite noted that churches in Moscow were overflowing, forcing some attendees to stand outside the physical church (Shkarovskii 78). The state responded by introducing a much more vicious head of the CRA and closing more churches. Local police were encouraged to ignore acts of vandalism against churches and violence against church-goers.

Closure and limitation of theological schools, as well as additional tax hikes, took place in 1961. Now the Russian people were truly beginning to stir against these measures and took matters into their own hands by gathering data on persecution to use as a bargaining chip and founding underground churches, collectively known as the True Orthodox Church. The state made a final push in 1964, beginning intense atheistic schooling and increased the propaganda present in school. These measures were concentrated mostly in rural Russia, which was viewed as backward and primitive, the antithesis to the highly industrialized and technologically advanced picture that Soviet leaders had for their society (Stone 300-301). Science was emphasized over the belief in the supernatural and it became illegal to expose children and adolescents to religion or any religious thought (Stone 302).

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League of Militant Atheists Membership Card (Source: Anonymous Author, Wikimedia Creative Commons)

These measures were based on several factors including economic socialization and general control, both of which were seen to be undermined by religious belief. The international climate and pressure from abroad was also an important factor, and at the end of 1964, this pressure became enough to force the government to lay off significantly in their antireligious campaign. This shift between the 60s-70s and the late stage of Soviet rule can be seen in the presentation of the antireligious message in the Museum of Atheism in Leningrad. As late as 1974, the museum focused on the darkest side of religion, such as religious suppression and backwardness. A significant portion of the museum was dedicated to displaying numerous torture instruments used in religious persecutions such as the Spanish Inquisition. In 1981 a western visitor noticed that these exhibits were completely gone, and the general tone of the museum was much more subtle (Elliot 128). This exemplifies the shift from the Khrushchev era to the later stage of the Soviet Union. The state’s blatant and intense attacks against religion were unsuccessful and invited significant negative attention from abroad, resulting in a significantly toned down message. As the Soviet Union’s push to change the cultural identity began to falter (most seen in perestroika and glasnost) it was deemed necessary to begin cutting losses in an effort to recover ground the state had lost in the second half of the 20th century. This notably manifested itself in greater religious freedom and less influence from the government in this sphere of life.

Beginning in the mid-1960s there was a substantial movement toward protecting churches and old religious sites in the name of conserving history. This movement was also urged on by a desire for more tourism, positive international attention, and a more subtle presentation of atheism. This movement of religious persecution, from beginning to end, was eventually unsuccessful. Though there was a substantial decrease in churches and overt religious practice, the devout simply responded by practicing religion in a more private way. Now, in the post-Soviet era, there is a general trend toward increased religiousness, and there is also a general reluctance to identify oneself as an atheist (Kublitskaia 51).

In their search for a cultural identity and narrative, the Russian people have followed a winding, convoluted path. From the westernization effort of Peter the Great to the revival of the ‘true’ Russian spirit of rural peasant culture, to the battle between the intelligentsia and the church and government, Russia has never been able to maintain a true identity. In their great experiment, the Soviets tried to manifest their own identity, but it ultimately proved weak and groundless. Twenty years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the modern nation of Russia is still struggling to define itself. The church has made a huge comeback, finding great support from the government and a significant portion of the population. It is seen as a part of that evasive concept of something that is ‘truly Russian’. The Russian people are again attending church in large numbers. While I was in Russia, I got a lot of support for wearing my baptismal crucifix; I felt that many of the Russians who reacted to this were pleased to see an American supporting the Orthodox Church.

Although widespread support for the church is returning, it is certainly presenting itself in a contradictory manner. Russia wishes to present itself as a progressive, modern democracy, yet it steadfastly suppresses the gay community and carries out clearly partisan attacks on Putin’s challengers (most notably the recent actions against Alexei Navalny). It is worth noting that the church is one of the main proponents of the anti-gay stance that has been taken by the government. Clearly, Russia has not yet discovered its own cultural identity, and it is hard to see that happening any time in the near future. Russia’s cultural narrative may very well be a perpetual search for one.

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

 

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