Hitchens on St. Petersburg August 8, 2005Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.
This article combines two loves of mine: Christopher Hitchens’ writing and the city he’s writing about here – my former home, St. Petersburg. Well, perhaps love is the wrong word to use about a city like St. Petersburg. It evokes such a mixture of emotions. It’s beautiful, yes, but dilapidated, although it’s allegedly had a good lick of paint – to celebrate its 300th birthday two years ago – since I was last there. Within Russia, Petersburg holds almost mythical status. Not just for the central role it has played in Russia’s (relatively) recent history but also for its culture. Petersburgers and other Russians agree (wrongly, in my view) that Petersburg is far more civilised than the rest of the country and that the people are far more polite. (Some Moscow friends of mine say otherwise.) In any case, Mr. Hitchens sums the city up nicely. But I always think more needs to be made of St. Petersburg’s grim side, its Dostoevski side, alive and well to this day. (OK, tourist brochures can avoid this angle.) An irony is, though, in avoiding the dodgier inner city parts, people miss out on some of its loveliest and nicely dilapidated corners. I lived just a few doors down from where Raskol’nikov committed his double murder (and just round the corner from Gogol’s disembodied Nose) and any tourists I dragged to see the house(s) were always doubly enchanted by seeing the house much as it must have looked then. I suppose these beautiful houses in dilapidated states being inhabited by some of the poorest people in the city can’t go on for much longer. Surely it’s only a matter of time – although one never knows with Russia, and most cash is in Moscow – before these areas are gentrified… In any case, my friend Tom Masters has written, rather cleverly, a whole new guide to St. Petersburg. He captures so many of the city’s new phenomena. A couple of my own meagre offerings from my time in the city can be seen here and here.