Cities can divide their nations
The greatest European city is St. Petersburg. This statement might infuriate residents of Rome, Paris, Berlin or Madrid; yet these are merely the greatest cities of Europe’s common history. My claim overlooks Istanbul and London, Europe’s largest, most dynamic contemporary cities, which are dismissed by purists, and sometimes by their own inhabitants, as insufficiently European. If Europe is an idea, a vision of a civilization that rises in an arc from the monasticism of the Middle Ages to the humanism of the Renaissance to the freedoms of the Enlightenment, nowhere incarnates this ideal like St. Petersburg.
Russia’s second city was spared the travails of developing the heritage it exemplifies. It has no ancient monasteries, winding medieval streets or ruins from classical antiquity. Here achieved styles and symmetry dominate: the palaces line the canals in a procession of façades that recall glimpses from Paris, Venice or Berlin, others elsewhere, the parks are of geometrical perfection, the grand avenues meet at right angles, or at diagonals that are calculated to create an effect. St. Petersburg represents not the accumulation of Europeanness, but its culmination. The city is undilutedly European, in the mode that crystallized in the eighteenth century, because it did not exist before then. Until 1703, when Peter the Great, Russia’s Germanophile emperor, laid two strips of peat on the ground in an inhospitable bog bordered by offshore islands and declared, “Here shall be a city,” few had considered living in this sub-arctic delta. Swedish soldiers had erected a ragged chain of forts in the region to deny Russia access to the Gulf of Finland. Frozen and dark in winter, notorious for endless sunlight and voracious mosquitoes in summer, prone to shifting and flooding, these swamps and channels were the worst terrain on which to found an imperial city. But, determined as he was to bring Russia into Europe, Peter needed a European seaport as his capital.
The land on which St. Petersburg is built was won back from Sweden in 1710. For the next forty years, more than 250,000 serfs laboured all year round to cart in fill and excavate the canals that would realize Peter’s dream of combining aspects of Amsterdam, Venice, Rome and Paris in a single metropolis. The city ruled by a Germanic royal family—Catherine the Great, Peter’s illustrious successor, was Prussian—was designed by Italian, French and British architects, and advised by French philosophers, whose language dominated erudite conversation to the point that many nobles barely knew enough Russian to give orders to their servants. The new city attracted visitors and residents from all over Europe. Like Paris, London and Madrid, St. Petersburg was built on colonial exploitation; but where France, Britain and Spain ransacked faraway continents, Russia pillaged its Central Asian heartland and conquered territories in Siberia and East Asia. Colonialism caused glaring contradictions in Russia from the moment of the new capital’s inception. Since European Russia was geographically contiguous with its colonies, these contradictions spawned a divided national identity. Slavophiles blamed St. Petersburg for cutting Russia in half, slicing its buoyant European head from its deep Eurasian soul. In Andrei Bely’s Petersburg (1916), the last great Russian novel published prior to the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, the narrator says of the city’s foundation: “Russia was divided in two; divided in two were the very destinies of the fatherland; divided in two, suffering and weeping, until the last hour, is Russia.”
Though built of stone and marble in an era when Russian cities were made of wood, St. Petersburg did not become a chilly showcase capital. From the beginning, its canals attracted students and poets as well as generals and bureaucrats. The new metropolis enjoyed a vigorous artistic and bohemian life. Here the poet Alexander Pushkin refined a flexible, modern literary Russian; Nikolai Gogol negotiated in his fiction his passage from a Ukrainian to a Russian identity; Fyodor Dostoevsky, though he yearned for Russia to embrace its Orthodox religious soul, never abandoned the ambiguous city that was both Russian and European. Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin both loathed St. Petersburg. Russian president Vladimir Putin, though raised in the city and exemplifying its cultural inclinations—like his predecessor Catherine the Great, he speaks fluent German—has built his political empire by promoting a nationalist chauvinism that is suspicious of St. Petersburg’s internationalism.
If St. Petersburg invites Russians to lose their prejudices about the outside world, it also obliges foreigners to confront their prejudices about Russia. Arriving in the city on Canada day 2015 with my head full of Canadian media images of a revived Cold War, I struggled to reconcile Putin’s belligerence with the cosmopolitan acceptance I experienced. The friends I made were unlike the Russians I had known in former Soviet republics in the 1990s: xenophobic, wounded adults who had all married at twenty and seen their marriages sluiced away in torrents of alcohol abuse. My St. Petersburg friends were polyglot non-smokers who hadn’t drunk heavily since their undergraduate days; they had good jobs and went to the gym; though most were around forty, not one was married. They took me to Jewish and German cafés, to a rock concert in a former bomb shelter and an Eid-al-Fitr dinner with Central Asian food. “You must understand that there is a paradox,” a young journalist told me. “As our government retreats from the West, our cities become more Western. Putin cannot stimulate the economy without eroding his support. The cities become more organized, and more people move to them and accept different ways of living. The big difference now is not between our cities and those of other countries, but between our cities and our countryside.” I replied that this was similar in Canada; in fact, it is similar in many countries. St. Petersburg anticipated by three centuries what is now a pattern: the metropolis as a link in a global chain of cities that bypass, offend or divide the nations where they are located. Such cities are more and more tightly tied to each other, and ever more estranged from their own heartlands. St. Petersburg will always be unique, but now more than ever, it is not alone.
This is Stephen Henighan’s fiftieth column in Geist. Read more of his work here.