On a quay of the Neva River in St. Petersburg, just outside the Academy of the Arts, sit two syenite sphinxes. They were transplanted here in 1832 after being removed from their original homes in Egypt. Now, they stand in the stark grayness of Petersburg’s January landscape. They are an unlikely skin graft on the face of a city that should have rejected them. Yet the sphinxes are still here, artifacts from one place existing within the other.
We are both foreigners here, the Sphinxes and I, trying our best to adapt to the drastic differences of our new home.
I once asked a classmate of mine who had studied abroad in Russia what it was like. “Dark,” he answered.
“Dark how? Physically? Or emotionally?”
“Just dark, I don’t know how to explain it,” he said. Then class started and I was left wondering what dark could possibly mean. I’ve been here only a few days, but Russia has been revealing this hard-to-explain darkness in snapshots rolling before me like the industrial pipes passing by the window of a subway car.
When we first arrived, the darkness had begun to fall outside the airport. The windows of our bus into St. Petersburg allowed small glimpses of the city that would be my home for the next four months. Trees like tall sticks shot up from the ground in sparse clusters. They looked naked in winter, stripped of their greenery. And in the distance, caught in a dense cloud was the glow of orangish light-pollution above the city. It hung there, looming like a foreboding torch in the distance.
St. Petersburg, which Tsar Peter the Great hoped to become a window to the West, seems to me not so much a window as a crack in the wall. The West does not pour in, but leaks instead. Peter built his dream on swampland. A dream like this can’t help but be fragile. A constant balance exists here of traditional beauty and something else entirely.
The history of Russia is tied up in this sort of differential. It is perhaps best seen in the Hermitage. Once the palace of Catherine the Great, the vast museum now stands as a reminder of the decadence of the Tsars. Living boxed in by gold-leafed walls, the rulers did not see what went on behind their luxurious red-velvet curtains. This was once a country of great economic disparity. While some Russian citizens went starving in the streets, ambassadors were greeted by the splendor and excesses of the European Winter Palace.
While the architecture of the city and the perpetual presence of English on signs reminds us of Tsar Peter’s Westernizing legacy, St. Petersburg is unfamiliar in more ways than it is familiar. It is as if the West is not a permanent resident of the city, but an infrequent visitor who once came bearing gifts of cultural influence. The West is the buildings, but the city is the people, and the people are certainly Russian.
Now, I am trying to adapt to these differences and finding pleasure in the small successes and oddities of my new home.
Our dormitory stands approximately 20 minutes by metro outside the City Center. You cannot drink the tap water here. It must first be boiled to kill the giardia. The rooms, instead of being formidably cold, tend to be hot to combat the raging winter outside. Sometimes, if the wind blows, the door to our dorm opens inexplicably as if a ghost were stopping in for tea. An exposed hot-water pipe in the bathroom could burn your hand if you grabbed it for balance, but it could also be used as a towel warmer. The rooms, though considered simplistic and perhaps monastic by American standards, have one chandelier light hanging from otherwise plain walls and ceilings. This fixture seems an out of place luxury in our dorms. It reminds me oddly, of my favorite images from the first night here…
Everywhere I go I see flower shops. The bright bouquets peer out from the well-lit windows into the freezing evening streets. Walking through the night in snow on my first grocery run, I passed by an old woman sitting in a chair on the corner of Grazhdansky Prospekt and Akademicheskaya. Wrapped in a fur coat, she played violin and swayed to her song. The street lamp cast a spotlight on her. People moved around her like planets orbiting this symphonic sun in the snowy night. Eventually I marched on too, pulled to the warmth of the store but happy to have found some heat in the notes of her song.
Small strokes of beauty cast onto a gray canvas have become the epitome of St. Petersburg as I now know it. The city itself resembles this sort of juxtaposition. Dark against light, beauty against harsh edges. All of it built impossibly and progressively on swamp-land which was once prone to flooding.
The City Center, around Nevsky Prospect, is constructed in the manner of gorgeous, colorful European architecture. With the Neva River winding through it and the grand columns, cathedrals, and statues marking what feels like every corner, the City Center is a gem.
As you move away from the Center, things spread out. The buildings appear more blockish and Soviet — everything less decorative. A simple beige stone replaces the earlier pastels. We’ve moved from the picturesque European St. Petersburg of travel books, into the other one. A world of people, real people moving from place to place in a city so new and strange to me. They move past the old woman in the street playing violin, past the sphinxes on the quay, down into the depths of the metro station.
St. Petersburg is a city of dualistic beauty. It is not only the Hermitage, but the dirty snow in Palace Square. Not simply the Bronze Horseman or the Kazan Cathedral, but the cold that bites you as you look up at them. Not the extravagant tiles of the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, but the intimidating Russian woman staring at me outside it.
The only way to live here is to develop an appreciation of rough edges.
Without them, the unique beauty of the City Center, the art, the music, the culture would be lost. One must learn that part of St. Petersburg’s uniqueness is that no matter how well Tsar Peter attempted to replicate Europe, the city itself is still in Russia. And so it remains here, a city with one foot in Europe and its heart still in the East. A melting pot of culture. An enigma in its cultural complexities and differentials.
But it is this which makes Petersburg, Petersburg: a city all the more gorgeous because of the contrast. A city which, much like the sphinxes, was grafted onto skin that should not have accepted it, but did anyway.
And now as I look out my window at the snow covered ground and the clouds hanging over it, I wonder if I myself could become like the sphinxes. If I could make this place my unlikely home.