Russia: St Petersburg

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St Petersburg, the pearl of Russia and its former Imperial — and still cultural — capital. The Hermitage Museum is one of the city’s iconic landmarks, and the city overall is reminiscent of a grande old dame — past her prime, but still wearing her ballgowns and furs. There’s a distinct sense of living in the past, even as the younger generation embraces technology, alternative art, underground music — and subversive ideas.

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The pace of life in St Petersburg, despite the fact that it’s Russia’s second-largest city, is far more relaxed than Moscow; life is gentler in this northern city, and far darker come winter. Perhaps because of its proximity to the Arctic Circle, the people of St Petersburg have adopted (or adapted to) an annual cycle of light and leisure, followed by dark — and introspection.

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Another of St Petersburg’s most iconic images is the Church of the Resurrection of Christ, more commonly known as Savior on the Spilled Blood — a somewhat ghoulish name for such a fairytale design, in acknowledgment of a failed assassination attempt against Tsar Alexander II. During Soviet years it was used variously as a warehouse and a morgue; now restored, it serves as a reminder of a glorious (if lavish) past — but not a particularly religious present.

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The Great Mosque of St Petersburg was built in 1913 — the Soviet Union, which disavowed all religion while not expressly forbidding it, founded just 9 years later. Muslims and Orthodox Christians in the country have experienced periods variously of conflict and of cooperation.

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Museum of the Political History of Russia, in St Petersburg. With its memorial to Lenin and the revolutions of the Bolsheviks, historic posters and other memorabilia of subsequent Soviet times, and poignant displays of those who were persecuted during same — including the Stalin-induced famine in Ukraine, it provides a comprehensive and surprisingly objective view. One of its exhibitions: “Soviet Epoch: Between Utopia and Reality.”

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For decades after his death, and indeed his body still lies in state: Lenin was celebrated as the father of the revolution(s) and the modern, post-imperial / elitist Russia. His socialist ideology saw governance by direct democracy, national self-determinism, and economic and social equality. Today, the continued existence of the ‘Lenin personality cult’ is hotly debated among social and political theorists, though his image remains largely untarnished.

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Contemporary art in St Petersburg is often critical of former Soviet policy and practices. Here Hitler and a young Stalin can be seen sleeping off a presumed night of drinking in the park, the Anarchy symbol looming above. Articles are still being written today, in The Moscow Times as well as international sources, exhorting Russia to admit to its collusion and secret pact with Nazi Germany in the early years — but, while Hitler is portrayed as a villain, Stalin is thought of as a hero who defended his people against evil.. And the argument continues.

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Plenty of alternative art in St Petersburg, and art collectives, too. While one might not refer to the city (or anywhere in Russia currently) as “liberal,” Putin having just declared the death of liberalism, St Petersburg comes close to that edge. As Russia seems to retreat into the past, and St Petersburg at first glance never left it, this may come as a surprise. But the contemporary and experimental art, Internet and café discussions, and youth culture overall show another face of this city — one which aligns culturally just a bit more with Europe than with the East — or the North.

~EWP