top of page

Water, stone and sky

THE Gulf of Finland is a choppy grey this afternoon. Two long low hydrofoils waft uncomfortably in the water. The strong breeze blows in a sharp drizzle from the sea. A sea gull squawks hoarsely as it drops suddenly to the heaving waves. A grey endlessness, broken only by a lone lighthouse, stretches to that hint of a horizon, where a grey sky lingers uncertainly on the sea. It is a starkly bleak scene, and it is beautiful. A similar scene may well have greeted Peter the Great, when he rode up to this edge of Russian earth in 1703, looking for a place to build a fortress to contain the Swedes. Something in that misty landscape must have touched his heart, for he cut two strips of peat with his bayonet and laying them on the ground in a cross determined: Here shall be a town.

Symbol of the city

And what a town then rose from the marshy overgrown network of islands. Millions of conscripts and serfs laboured day and night for five decades to create St. Petersburg, a symphony in stone, played out against the backdrop of a river and the sea. The granite monolith on which the equestrian statue of Peter the Great, symbol of the city, today stands, perhaps best manifests the scale of the effort. Weighing more than six hundred thousand kilos, the granite was moved from the forest clearing where it was found to its present position, 13 km away, by a thousand men over a period of 18 months. Peter's bronze horse is poised in mid-air, and it is difficult to say whether it is rearing back from what it sees ahead, or raring to go forward. Pushkin immortalised this statue in his epic poem, "The Bronze Horseman", making it emblematic of Russian destiny.

On a shore by the desolate waves

He stood, with lofty thoughts.

And gazed into the distance...

It was not just a city that Peter built; he made a powerful civilisational statement. Russia was also Europe. She needed to be westernised; she needed to break away from the confines of archaic, medieval Muscovy. St. Petersburg was the door through which Russia would pass and become European. It was to represent all that was modern, progressive, western, enlightened. Its grace would match that of Paris, its baroque ornate architecture would rival Rome, its blending of stone and water would suggest Venice. Its imperial formality contrasted sharply with a dishevelled, rough and ready Moscow, which was the beating heart of traditional Russia — warm, friendly, informal, hedonistic but culturally insular. Gogol's comparison of the two cities is eloquent: "Petersburg is an accurate, punctual kind of person, a perfect German, and he looks at everything in a calculated way. Before he gives a party he will look into his accounts. Moscow is a Russian nobleman, and if he's going to have a good time, he'll go all the way until he drops, and he won't worry about how much he's got in his pocket."

And walking by the Neva, with the Hermitage behind me, I stare through the heavy drizzle at the Peter and Paul fortress across the river, the burnished gold needle of its steeple piercing the haze. On both banks, the classical facades stretch away in artistic ensembles of avenues and squares. Palaces, winter and summer, large and small, nobleman's houses, hospitals and barracks, built by architects for whom space was suddenly no concern. Bound only by their own imaginations, they had eagerly set to work on the empty vastness that stretched before them like an inviting canvas.


The city did not grow, as cities do, but seemed to come out of the water like a miracle, a fantastical apparition in a bubble that might vanish at the slightest touch. Legends cloaked its birth — Peter's ghost was often seen walking the streets, mythical beasts flew over churches; floods were curses coming to claim what had always belonged to the water.

But while it lasted, it flourished. In its 18th century salons, behind those tall windows, gentle conversations took place in French and soft-spoken gentlemen danced European waltzes with blushing debutantes. These were generations who would rather have been European than Russian, the "superfluous men" whose descendants would people 19th century Russian literature — Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, Lermentov's Pechorin and Turgenev's Rudin. 1812 and Napolean changed all that. A deep desire to go back to things Russian — way of life, language, arts, cuisine — came to the fore. The Russian spirit entered Petersburg too. Behind the classical facades traditional unruly Russian households began to multiply. French accents became a disadvantage.

The Westerniser and the Slavophile clashed; the split in the psyche was complete and needed to be healed. To the Russian nationalist, St. Petersburg, with its foreign influences and manners, was a city that alienated the Russian from his true roots.

Cruel illusion

Gogol, working as a clerk during the day and writing in an attic at night, invoked this alienation to fire his prose: "Oh have no faith in Nevsky Prospekt," he writes of the city's most famous, grand avenue, " It is all a deception, a dream, nothing is what it seems." Against a ghostly and nightmarish vision of the city, he immortalised, most famously in his story "The Overcoat", the lives of pitiful humble fellow clerks, huddled against their common foe, the Northern cold, rushing to offices in an unreal light, condemned to loneliness in a world of grand but cruel illusion.

Dostoevsky, who said that all of Russian literature came from under Gogol's "Overcoat", added the psychological dimension to the city he believed to be "the most abstract and intentional city in the whole round world".

His characters, their emotions and perceptions unhinged, inhabit the world of mist and fog, of snow and rain, of endless grey days, of bridges with open arms, and white nights that deprive men of sleep. Here the sea can easily become the sky and palaces can seem to float on water. In such a world it is easy to dream, and think that fantasy is all.

Involuntarily, I turn up the collar of my trench coat against the arrowheads of the drizzle and walk away. And do I see it, or is it a vision: a bronze horseman is chasing a poor clerk across a mighty bridge, while worn out overcoats sway in the sky... .


bottom of page