THE OTHER St Petersburg: a book

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This is a small city; a city which holds forth the prospect of intimacy. The fit tourist could walk round it in little more than an hour and a half. The native Petersburger would take a little longer - detained by inevitable unplanned collisions with friends, acquaintances, cups of coffee, bottles of portwine (1) or vodka (the true Petersburger, in fact, could never walk more than fifteen yards on Nevsky Prospekt without meeting one or another of the above-mentioned obstacles; Nevsky Prospekt is the channel through which all St Petersburg flows two or three times a day).

It is a city of well-hidden depths, where there are two entrances to everything: the formal front entrance or paradnaya, and the chyorny vhod (literally: the black entrance), the way in from the courtyard at the back of a building. The only sure way of getting to know St Petersburg is through the chyorny vhod. From the street front, the inquirer's gaze is returned blankly, coldly even, by tall, well-bred classical facades lining the street edge. But go through the arch set in each house, and you find yourself in an intricate internal space &mdash deep, sunless, dirty, surrounded on all sides by the backs of different wings of the house and by back entrances or staircases leading up to flats. This is the courtyard or dvor; here the real life of the city is measured out in empty bottles and endless labyrinthine conversations. Children play at football or hopskotch; women stop to exchange the latest news from the shops; cats climb proprietorially over rubbish piled in skips; people of all kinds sit and talk and drink and drink and sit and talk. All this in the very centre of St Petersburg, within shouting distance of Nevsky Prospekt.

It is an odd feature of this city that its geographical and spiritual hearts coincide. Unlike almost any other major European city, the physical centre of St Petersburg is inhabited, lived in, slept in, walked through day and night by its essential population.

The other curious fact about St Petersburg is that it ought not to exist.

1) Portwine: Petersburgian bohemia's favourite drink. Not to be mistaken for wine, and certainly not port. For an attempt at an explanation, see 'A short guide to the St Petersburg hangover'.