Petersburg, the city with a split personality


Today’s Russia is like a huge ice floe — broken off from contemporary life and drifting further and further from Europe into a dank and gloomy past. St Petersburg, or ‘Peter’, epitomises this duality most of all.

Daniil Kotsyubinsky
25 November 2013

The Kremlin’s recent spate of ‘Eurasian’ démarches has provided shock after unwelcome shock for Europe. First, Moscow held the Greenpeace environmental activists in prison, ostentatiously refusing to have anything to do with the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. Then the Russian Supreme Court ignored the decision of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), refusing to revisit the case of Alexei Pichugin, imprisoned former head of YUKOS internal security department. The ECHR has also said that Russia has violated the European Convention on Human Rights by not providing any documentation for the re-examination of the NKVD executions of Polish officers in Katyn Forest in 1940.

Against this uncompromising background, Russia continues ‘cooking up’ ever more anti-liberal laws, which amount to a de facto introduction of censorship. Some of the laws have already been adopted, others are still under discussion. They include the prohibition of actions which would ‘inflame social hatred’, ‘offend the feelings of believers’, ‘promote homosexuality’ or ‘promote separatism’, bans on ‘obscene language in the media’ and ‘disseminating information which could injure the health of children’ etc. These laws are clearly all intended, in one way or another, to detach Russia in the most radical way possible from the European system of values.


 'The Bronze Horseman' by Vasily Surikov. Catherine the Great had the intimidating statue commissioned in 1770 to commemorate St Petersburg's founder.

Russia and the West: then and now

From the moment Moscow appeared on the world’s political map, it has been a history of the clash of civilisations

This ‘cold war’ style of relationship between Russia and the West is nothing new. From the moment Moscow appeared on the world’s political map at the end of the 15th century, it has been a history of the clash of civilisations - the ‘totalitarian’ post-Mongol Horde imperial autocrats in the Kremlin throwing down the gauntlet to law-based European states. 

However, this gloomy period of history, shot through with smarting, envious resentment and nervous collapses, did have two shining centuries when Russia, even if not wholeheartedly and not without reservation, made real efforts to open up to Europe. This was from the beginning of the 18th to the beginning of the 20th centuries, when St Petersburg was the capital of Russia.

These years were the brightest and most brilliant pages of Russian history: the elites (the aristocracy and the intelligentsia) were an integral part of European spiritual and intellectual life; Russian culture – for the first and last time in the country’s history – was at its peak, occupying its place in the pantheon of world-class cultural achievements.

The 18th to the beginning of the 20th centuries were the brightest and most brilliant pages of Russian history: the elites were an integral part of European spiritual and intellectual life.

But it is just this Petersburg period that has generated the most conflict. The confrontation between totalitarian Eurasian Russian statehood and the liberal European mentality, its diametric opposite, resulted in the explosion of 1917 and revolution. The monarchy collapsed first, then Russia itself. Then the Bolsheviks came. 

Like the first Muscovite autocrats before them (and Bismarck in 19th century Germany), the Bolsheviks adopted a policy of ‘blood and iron’ to unify the country. Moscow, the headquarters of the Great Kremlin Khan, once more became the capital of Russia and the country embarked on its relentless descent from the cultural heights into the Eurasian political swamp, withdrawal and stagnation. 

In this way, therefore, there is nothing either new or unexpected about what is happening today. The Russian government’s behaviour is both predictable and explicable. The situation in the biggest cities, where Western liberal influence is more in evidence, could perhaps be described as ready for a Velvet Revolution. In these conditions, the Kremlin, quite logically, has decided to make extensive use of tried and tested ‘Eurasian antibiotics’ to deal with the ‘European bacteria’: political repression, idosyncratic bigotry and anti-European propaganda.


  'The Transportation of the Thunder-stone in the Presence of Catherine II' by I. F. Schley. A modern, 'European' city, built on the bones of thousands of conscripted serfs, St Petersburg began its life as a paradox.

The Petersburgian dichotomy

There is, however, one seemingly paradoxical detail in current Russian politics. Who were the people who set the course back towards restoration of an empire and a return to the stagnant Eurasian swamps? Why, a group of people who came to Moscow from St Petersburg, the very city which spent two hundred years pushing Russia into Europe androgen which is still today considered ‘Russia’s most European city.’

In actual fact there is no paradox here at all. The ‘most European’ doesn’t mean ‘European’ and Petersburg could better be described as a schizophrenic city. It’s European and Russian at the same time. One hemisphere of the Petersburg brain lives by the great European idea of freedom, and the other longs for a great Eurasian empire. Two very conflicting dreams – in Petersburg’s non-Euclidian world, the two non-intersecting lines do eventually intersect. 

One line runs something like this: ‘Petersburg is a great city because it was created in the image and likeness of Europe, the cradle of freedom and democracy. Thus, Petersburg without enlightened democracy – even if it’s only in our thoughts and dreams – is unthinkable.’ 

But the second line torpedoes the first. ‘Petersburg is a great city because it was once the capital of the Russian Empire. Today’s empire cannot exist without the vertical of power running through society from the top (autocracy) down to officialdom. Petersburg is thus unthinkable without a strong and terrible (in the true sense of the word) bureaucracy.’ 

Imperial majesty vs human dignity – this is the typical Petersburgian dichotomy.

Both these curved syllogistic chains are as hard-wired into the subconscious of the citizens of St Petersburg as its dirty, clammy fog and the proud, gloomy silhouettes of its lifeless buildings. Like an oppressive 'Freudian dream', they dull the spirit, filling it with ballast of complexes, phobias and neurotic impulses.

Imperial majesty vs human dignity – this is the typical Petersburgian dichotomy, experienced personally by Pushkin and enshrined in his poem 'The Bronze Horseman'. It recounts the tragedy of the confrontation beween the 'little man', the ordinary Petersburger, our 'poor Evgeny', as Pushkin calls him and Tsar Peter [the Great], who chose to build his magnificent capital in this god-forsaken spot, and who appears in the poem in the form of the Bronze Horseman, the monument erected to him by Catherine the Great. The terrible elements sweep away Evgeny's beloved in the flood of 1824 and in his grief he hurls defiance at the founder of the city. The dread statue descends from his plinth and sets off in pursuit of the rebel, who has dared to utter such challenging words. Evgeny finally goes mad with grief at the drowning of his beloved and dies of sorrow at the door of her house. 

The poem's message is that imperial majesty and individual human happiness are, in essence, incompatible. But this dichotomy only happens inside the deranged mind of poor Evgeny. The 'normal' everyday Petersburg consciousness appears not to notice the split that unhinges him: for much of its history the city's inhabitants have continued submissively combining the uncombinable and replicating this distinctly Petersburgian view of the world, civilised in form and schizophrenic in essence.

The Petersburger's tragedy is not that he is followed day and night by the huge bronze horseman of the state, but that right up until the last moment, until the huge hoof grinds his skull into the cobbles, he does not know for sure who's side he's on. Is he for himself, as he runs away? Or for the maniac state, which is hunting him down?

There was only one time when, on the cusp of the 1980s and '90s, the Kremlin autocracy wavered and many Petersburgers thought for a glorious moment that the historical tragedy of having to make a choice no longer existed; that the red-black Empire would remain in the past in its entirety and that the shining blue and white future would herald Freedom. They even believed that the Bronze Horseman was only chasing after poor Evgeny to offer him eternal friendship and protection.

But this all too sweet illusion soon evaporated and we Petersburgers once more found ourselves on the run with nowhere to hide, while the dread horseman was once more chasing us, without himself having any idea where he was going. We lack the strength to turn round, stand up straight and shout 'Get thee gone!' in the face of the imperial chimera.

The irreconcilable 

'How is it that the restoration of the old empire, which is now spreading throughout Russia, started here, in our city?'

This is because Petersburg itself, not just its consciousness, is a dichotomy whose two halves are irreconcilable.  On the one hand, it is the fluid epicentre of 18th – 20th century culture, with its architects, writers, composers, poets and scientists. On the other hand, Petersburg embodies the 'frozen' imperial idea, as vertical as the spire of the Cathedral of SS Peter and Paul. This rigidity is visible in the architecture and in the very history of the city too:  the 'monotonous beauty' of the countless classical barracks, the black chimneys of the military factories, the 'dead' yellow colour of the government buildings, the people tortured by burden of being a great power, and the climate of the marshes on which the city is built. Eternal envy and eternal heartburn. The city’s magic potion can transform anyone, even the best and kindest person, into an insignificant Akaky Akakievich, the little hero of Gogol's 'The Overcoat'; and then inflate that very same Akaky Akakievich into a terrible city spectre who looks very like President Putin.

When I was working at the Petersburg newspaper Delo, I received a visit from someone I had known previously. He was very close to Vladimir Putin (like him, he had worked at the City Administration). It was at the very beginning of Putin's second presidential term, when the question on everyone's lips was 'How is it that the restoration of the old empire, which is now spreading throughout Russia, started here, in our city?' 

My visitor, who considered himself a liberal, said that he was all in favour of freedom and that he was distressed by the current plague of police machinations, which was devouring more and more of the organism that is Russia, making of it a shapeless monster which would soon no longer be viable. However, he did not agree that the Petersburgers who had moved Moscow to work in Putin's team had anything to answer for. It was not, after all, they who had instigated the restoration of the empire. No, it was the will of the people! It was the people who had chosen to renounce the freedom of thought or action in favour of being able to eat, steal and enjoy themselves to their hearts' content. If that's what the people want, then wouldn't it be better that the authorities watch over them, keeping them all out of harm's way?

When he had delivered himself of all these thoughts, he did ask that I should not make this conversation public, which is a pity, because, although it was took place some time ago, this exchange of views threw a very bright light on the 'diamond of truth', reflecting, as if in the splinters of a magic mirror, the broken spirit of today's typical Petersburger. He may appear to be a comme il faut European, but at heart he's an imperial conformist.


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