Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
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International Herald Tribune
June 5, 2003
Meanwhile: Brilliance and bondage in St. Petersburg
By Serge Schmemann (NYT)

As President George W. Bush and other world leaders descended on St. Petersburg last weekend to help President Vladimir Putin celebrate the city's tercentennial (and to help his re-election campaign), there were many references to a "window into Europe." That, according to Alexander Pushkin, was what Peter the Great had in mind when he decreed a new capital in the swampy delta of the Neva and gave it a Dutch name, "Sankt-Piterburkh" (it was Russified to Petrograd only in World War I).

And that is what Putin, a native Petersburger, wanted his visitors to believe - that he is planting his Russia firmly in the West. The St. Petersburg he wanted them to see is a medley of baroque palaces created by European architects along the granite-sheathed canals and on the great Neva. He wanted them to see a city in which the endless onion domes, listing log houses and massive fortifications of Mother Russia have been replaced by Germanic spires, English gardens, Italian facades and French boulevards. He wanted them to see the extraordinary art of the Hermitage, the brilliant stage of the Mariinsky and the meticulously rebuilt Amber Room, and thereby to extinguish the thought that Russia is backward, barbaric or different.

Nu, da, as the Russians would say with a skeptical shrug. They love their "Peter" glittering in the white nights of summer, but they also know its dank, oppressive Baltic winters. They are drawn to the brilliance, but aware of the cruelty, godlessness, despotism and extravagance of a city built on the bones of 10,000 slaves. Since its creation it has been a soulless, cold Western rival to the ancient Orthodox bastion of Moscow. Russia's greatest artists have found themselves alternatively enchanted and repulsed by this unnatural creation, straddling the fault line of East and West, but part of neither.

Pushkin's celebrated hymn to the city, "The Bronze Horseman," opens with a declaration of love: "I love you, Peter's great creation. The solemn grace of your design, the Neva with its flow majestic, the granite of its stern confines." But then the focus shifts abruptly to a minor official, crazed by the loss of everything he owns and chased through the streets by the monumental equestrian statue of Peter the Great, which gives the poem its name. That image of Petersburg as heartless oppressor threads throughout Russian literature. Dostoyevsky's Petersburg spawns murderous greed in "Crime and Punishment"; it is the icy and soulless husband that Tolstoy's Anna Karenina abandons. Gogol's Petersburg is demonic and parasitic: "Russia needs Moscow, Petersburg needs Russia." The wartime poet Anna Akhmatova invoked a "granite city of glory and misfortune." For many of them, Petersburg became the embodiment of the state, both glorious and oppressive, capable of inspiring passionate devotion or inflicting unbearable suffering.

So is it different now? Can this new leader from Petersburg really nudge Russia westward? It is instructive to remember that Putin is the political descendant of two men who both gave their names to his native city, Peter and Lenin. Both were despots obsessed with transforming Russia, and both looked to the West for the tools - Peter for the technology, Lenin for the ideology. But their opening to the West was never the end, only the means to an end. They took what they needed, then did their best to seal the window shut.

Putin is obviously not in the same league, not in ambition and certainly not in potential. Russia is also not what it was, and no firewall can block the cultural invasion of the West. Yet that unending Russian struggle to define an identity between the bourgeois, dynamic West and the patriarchal, Asiatic East has become even more wrenching with the collapse of empire and ideology. And the rise of another leader from St. Petersburg has thrust that haunting northern city back onto the front line of the struggle for Russia's future and its soul.

That made it the perfect venue for Bush and the others. It was good for them to be reminded of the brilliance and grandeur that Russia is capable of when her star is high, and it was proper for them to encourage Putin and his lieutenants in their outreach to the West. But when they invoke that "window into Europe," they would also do well to recall the context in which Pushkin put it, which was to "gall our haughty neighbor." Or, in the far less elegant phrase Peter liked to repeat, "We need Europe for a few decades, then we must show it our backside."

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