I’ve been reading works in which Petersburg is mentioned for the past few weeks in order to prepare for this amazing city. It’s been fantastic reconnecting with my love for Russian literature, but things have been feeling slightly off. Every time I walk somewhere, I am just in so much awe at the beauty of the buildings, at the amazing way in which the sun sets a golden light on each and every building late every evening, at how every single canal draws you in and makes you want to stop on the bridge and stare at the water for a long time.
I’ve been enjoying my Gogol and Dostoyevsky, but it’s been hard to find an author to truly identify with. Petersburg has changed, and it is a cosmopolitan city, so me expecting to find ladies ready for balls and lieutenants chasing them on Nevsky Prospekt in the style of Gogol’s story with the same name is maybe a little too far-fetched. However, in my preparatory readings I had missed out on an essential Russian author: Pushkin. His poem, the Bronze Horseman, is an essential read about the history of the city and it depicts the flood of 1824. The story is rather sad, and Petersburg-esque in the style of Dostoyevsky, but the prologue verses really resonated with me in illustrating the beauty of the city:
By the new capital, the younger,
Old Moscow’s eclipsed at once –
Such is eclipsed a queen-dowager
By a new queen when her time comes.
I love you, Peter’s great creation,
I love your view of stern and grace,
The Neva wave’s regal procession,
The grayish granite – her bank’s dress,
The airy iron-casting fences,
The gentle transparent twilight,
The moonless gleam of your nights restless,
When I so easy read and write
Without a lamp in my room lone,
And seen is each huge buildings’ stone
Of the left streets, and is so bright
The Admiralty spire’s flight,
And when, not letting the night’s darkness
To reach the golden heaven’s height,
The dawn after the sunset hastens –
And a half-hour’s for the night.
Pushkin’s words strike a chord for me because Saint Petersburg feels so incredibly royal and graceful. Every single building in the center looks like it was at some point inhabited by some famous writer. It is so beautifully maintained, that it does look a bit stern, yet still so elegant. His description of the White Nights – how accurate! It has been harder to rest at night, the light outside invites me to write, to read, to be awake until midnight when the sun finally sets only to rise again after a short while. This passage of the Bronze Horseman is the best expression I have found so far of the way I feel whenever I venture out into the middle of Petersburg – pure awe and love of this city, and an overwhelming feeling of gratefulness at the opportunity to marvel at Peter’s great creation.
The windy, rainy day when I chose to read Pushkin’s poem was also a perfect time to go out and find the real bronze horseman. The name of the poem refers to a statue of Peter the 1st, commissioned by Catherine the great, lying just behind St. Isaac’s Cathedral, on the banks of the Neva. I call this day perfect because the poem tells the story of a deathly storm in Petersburg, so going to the statue on a sunny day would have probably felt dissonant. I was there only briefly, as I was rushing to class, but as many of the other places I pass by in Petersburg, the Bronze Horseman left me hungry and longing to match more places to their literary descriptions.