White nights and cold autumn days

It is strange to return. I got to know St. Petersburg through words on the page. Particularly Dostoyevsky, but also from many of his contemporaries. A city unwrapped itself in my mind. Visiting, though the names had changed, all was somehow familiar.

The last time I was here was mid-summer. It was my birthday. It was 25-years ago. This was a significant time of year. For Dostoyevsky, enough to warrant it unnecessary to explain where his short story, ‘White nights’ is set. Any reader of the time would have understood. As they might have understood his unnamed narrator, caught up in the mid-summer clamour and a snatched moment of hoped-for love before it is taken from him. Before the light fades.

This evening, after work, I walked along some of those same canals. Past the place where our narrator meets Nastenka. Past the place where I had a birthday dinner. Like everywhere else in the city at the time, you played out an elaborate charade of reading and discussing the menu before agreeing for the waiter to bring you whatever they happened to have that day. Usually this involved tomatoes. It was, after all, mid-summer. On the night of my birthday, we had caviar and a hastily discovered bottle of Georgian champagne. And, of course, there were tomatoes. Russia was and remains a mystery but it has always been a place that celebrates love and life.

The autumn wind is blowing in, the leaves are falling. The restaurant is still here, now flanked on either side by Burger King and a Subway. This is modern St. Petersburg. Twenty-five years ago it felt like a special place, today it feels another tick in the list of top destinations you have to see before you die. I know the feeling after living in Edinburgh and, here too, I can still sense the real city hiding behind the neon. I can still sense Nastenka moving through the streets to deliver that letter, that final blow.

Twenty-five years ago, politics here held its breath. Today I’m in Russia talking about democracy and strengthening parliaments. About young people and gender equality, about discrimination and how technology can support greater involvement in the democratic process. Vladimir Putin was here yesterday. There’s a confidence in this country, an assuredness about identity. My knowledge of Russian literature lets me believe that it’s one the West doesn’t understand. I’m not sure I do.

But I’m sure Dostoyevsky would be curious to see where his city, and his country, is now. At least our nameless narrator could have gone and got himself a craft beer and a big mac to drown his sorrows, if the traffic on Nevsky Prospekt didn’t get him first.

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