Thriving on Adversity, This City Can Take It

It's open season on St. Petersbashing at the moment. The prospect of a cultural blackout has sent a seismic shiver down the spine of the city's self-image. With its prestigious museums and theaters plunged into darkness, could this vast neo-classical stage set be faced with redundancy?


None of this negativity is particularly new or original. For much of its short 300-year lifespan St. Petersburg has been scorned by its inhabitants. The city has been vehemently hated by some of the world's greatest writers and artists. Its "artificiality" has been the victim of the most excoriating coffee-house criticism, its filthy weather the butt of the most bruising complaints.


Peter the Great's wife, Eudoxia, started the ball rolling by christening her husband's great urban creation with a curse: "Sankt-Petersburg will stand empty." This set the tone for a century of disgruntled aristocracy, all of whom had been uprooted from Moscow and forcibly planted in this desolate stretch of Finnish marshland. On its fine new boulevards, the new population could feel the crunch of bones underfoot: "Peter called his new capital a Paradise," lamented the Tsar's court historian as he totted up the figures of the construction casualties, "But it turned into a big cemetery for the people."


Dostoevsky thought St. Petersburg's grand architecture was the palest copy imaginable of Western styles and that the "synthetic" nature of the environment had an adverse affect on city-dwellers. "This city is for the half-mad. There are few more grim, harsh and strange influences on a man's soul than in Petersburg. Just think of the climatic influences."


St. Petersburg's climate -- now transformed into a tourist attraction -- has been the object of great oceans of verbal and even musical bile. The misanthropic composer Musorgsky wrote a song cycle, entitled "Sunless," about a man who shuts himself up in a darkroom for the months of June and July to escape the scourge of the White Nights. But it was perhaps the little known 19th-century poet Appolon Gregoryev, whose attacks were the most bizarre, acerbic and entertaining:


Let the night be clear as day, let everything be still,


Let everything be transparent and calm --


In that calm an evil illness lurks --


And that is the transparency of a suppurating ulcer.


So, it is unlikely that the latest round of critical soul-searching will have much effect on a city steeled by centuries of slander and abuse. Even in the event of a cultural china syndrome, it is unlikely that the infamous resilience of this unnatural city will be shaken. St. Petersburg seems to thrive on criticism. Its inspirational hatred has brought us such neurotic masterpieces as "Crime and Punishment," "The Nose" and Nevsky Prospekt. May it always remain this way.