Living by History: A Week in St. Petersburg

By August Hagemann

This month, I had the incredible honor to spend a week in St. Petersburg, Russia, on a student research grant in memory of Dr. Karen Dawisha.  My goal was to begin examining how the famous writer Fedor Dostoevsky fits into contemporary St. Petersburg culture, by analyzing Dostoevsky-centered tourism in the city.  While there, I experienced a city that was at once thoroughly modern and thoroughly historical.

              I arrived in the city late Sunday afternoon, and after settling into my hotel decided to take a walk to get more familiar with the area.  Fortunately, nighttime in St. Petersburg in July is more of a deep twilight, so I was able to get my first glimpses of the Winter Palace, the Kazan Cathedral, and the Savior on the Blood Cathedral in the soft evening light.

Palace Square with the Hermitage
Kazan Cathedral

Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood

The next day, the weather was even more gorgeous than when I arrived.  With rain in the forecast for the rest of the week, and most of the city’s museums closed on Mondays anyways, I decided to spend as much of the day outdoors as I could.  I first found myself in the Mikhailovsky Gardens, a beautiful park just behind the Russian Museum.

The Russian Museum

Even more impressive to me, however, was the Summer Garden just down the street.  Once the premier fair weather leisure spot for the tsars and their families, the Summer Garden has been largely restored according to plans available from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  With Peter the Great’s Summer Palace nestled in one corner, the Summer Garden presented shady paths filled with Classical sculpture and elaborate fountains that spoke strongly to the early 18th century taste of the tsars for European culture.

Summer Garden
Summer Garden
Summer Garden

My time in these gardens was my first encounter with the sort of modernity-in-history that characterized what I was able to observe of the city.  This reconstructed Tsarist garden, filled with classical sculpture, was not crowded exclusively with historians and art-lovers, but with families and couples enjoying the nice weather.  Italian marble sculptures from the 18th Century stood side by side with vendors selling lemonade and souvenirs.  It was a historical setting for a modern existence.  The Field of Mars just across the street hosted a similar situation — though the Monument to the Fighters of the Revolution stood prominently in the center of the field, most of the area was occupied by people picnicking or playing frisbee.

Field of Mars

The nice weather held into the evening, and gave me a very quick idea of just how beautiful the white nights can be.

Palace Square through the General Staff Building Arch
Palace Square and General Staff Building

The next day was a dedicated Dostoevsky day.  Before the rain began in the afternoon, I wanted to make sure I made it to the Raskolnikov House, where the protagonist of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment would have lived.

Raskolnikov’s House

The next day was a dedicated Dostoevsky day.  Before the rain began in the afternoon, I wanted to make sure I made it to the Raskolnikov House, where the protagonist of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment would have lived.

Dostoevsky Museum
Dostoevsky Museum
Dostoevsky Museum

To wrap the day up, I stopped by the Dostoevsky monument outside the Vladimirskaya metro station, the Mikhailovsky Castle, which housed the engineering school where Dostoevsky studied before going on to become an author.

Statue to Dostoevsky
Mikhailovsky Castle

On Wednesday I walked down to Dostoevsky’s final resting place at the Tikhvin Cemetery, just outside the walls of the Alexander Nevsky Lavra.  This cemetery also holds the tombs of Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, and other famous Russian artists, composers, and writers.

Dostoevsky’s Grave
Mussorgsky’s Grave
Tchaikovsky’s Grave

My perception of St. Petersburg as a modern city functioning in a historical setting was heightened by exploring the ways Dostoevsky was presented around the city. In places like the cemetery or the Dostoevsky monument outside the metro station, Dostoevsky was just one, albeit notable, part of what drew people to that location. Even in the museum dedicated to him, the literature spoke more about Dostoevsky’s home and family life than about his cultural contributions. It seemed that while culture and history were of great interest in St. Petersburg, they were often a backdrop for other activities, rather than themselves the focus. This was not quite the case in the Hermitage. Housed in the Winter Palace, the second largest art museum in the world by area showcased works from European masters throughout history, as well as the gorgeous preserved or restored interiors of the Winter Palace. Here, culture was center stage.

Inside the Hermitage
Throne Room, Hermitage
Inside the Hermitage
1812 Gallery, Hermitage

My perception of St. Petersburg as a modern city functioning in a historical setting was heightened by exploring the ways Dostoevsky was presented around the city. In places like the cemetery or the Dostoevsky monument outside the metro station, Dostoevsky was just one, albeit notable, part of what drew people to that location. Even in the museum dedicated to him, the literature spoke more about Dostoevsky’s home and family life than about his cultural contributions. It seemed that while culture and history were of great interest in St. Petersburg, they were often a backdrop for other activities, rather than themselves the focus. This was not quite the case in the Hermitage. Housed in the Winter Palace, the second largest art museum in the world by area showcased works from European masters throughout history, as well as the gorgeous preserved or restored interiors of the Winter Palace. Here, culture was center stage.

St. Isaac’s Cathedral
Griboedov Canal
Inside the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood

Inside the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood

I spent my remaining time in the city revisiting my favorite locations, or places I get I could get more out of — the Hermitage, for example, took 9 hours over two visits to see entirely. While I immersed myself in the culture and history of the city, contemporary life continued all around me. St. Petersburg was a city with more history around every corner, but right alongside it were residents and tourists alike enjoying the summer in any number of ways. History was everywhere, yet people didn’t see it so much as live alongside it.

I am incredibly grateful to the Dawisha family and the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies to travel to the city, and for a little while become part of that historic-contemporary milieu.

Smolny Cathedral
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