Sean Carman reports and sends photographs from St. Petersburg, Russia.
I’m in St. Petersburg, Russia, attending the Summer Literary Seminars. The SLS program is sort of a Bread Loaf for Eastern Europe, a summer literary workshop for which you need a passport, a visa, and a migration card. At Bread Loaf, I imagine, they sip red wine and exchange refined thoughts about poetry. Here the participants throw back shots of vodka, and the question that begins each morning is, “Did you go to bed last night?”
St. Petersburg is a city of contradictions. Built as a capital, it instead became a literary city — home to Tolstoy and Pushkin and the setting for Crime and Punishment and The Nose. Peter the Great imagined he was founding a grand city, and he was, but he built it out of a swamp with the help of slave labor. And the city looks it. There are grand squares and towering monuments, but just as many inelegant streets and lifeless facades. The city is laced with canals and bridges but you can’t really call them beautiful, and the water they carry isn’t safe to drink. Modernization has left the city with twin souls. One is emerging, capitalistic, Western. The other is the broken spirit of the Eastern Bloc.
They are building fancy cafes on the sidewalks and yuppie coffeehouses along the canals. At the same time, the club down the street from our hotel seems to be some sort of Russian mafia hang-out. During the daytime the place is staked out with men with tiny earpieces, who talk into their collars and stare daggers at passersby. I walk by several times a day, each time expecting a rival gang of well-dressed men to speed by. They will be wearing fedoras, driving a De Soto, and firing tommy guns out their windows.
In another poem Pushkin foresaw his place in history:
I shall not wholly die
For in my lyre my spirit shall outlive
My dust’s corruption
And honor shall I have
So long as the glorious fire of poesy
Flames on one single . . .
And there, in the last word of Pushkin’s lyric self-assessment, the stubborn inscrutability of St. Petersburg raised its ugly head.
I could not understand the last word of the poem. Statue? Stantion? Stanza? I listened to the spot on the Pushkin Apartment Museum audio guide cassette tape several times. I simply couldn’t make it out.