Constantly writing about oneself can be a bit tedious after a while and I can only imagine it is even more exhausting for those of you reading it. However, at this stage in time, I am in touch with neither English nor Russian news enough to warrant me writing about either. Whilst I could cobble together an article about the trials and tribulations of Brexit and the never-ending stream of struggles that go along with it, I do not feel that I am qualified enough to do so. Not to mention the fact that every person I know, myself included, is sick of hearing about the perpetual complication that Brexit seems to present. Therefore, I am compelled to write again about myself, and risk turning my life into another Brexit, that starts intriguingly but quickly devolves into background noise.
My time in St Petersburg is currently drawing to a close and despite the negative depiction of the city and my time in it in my last post, I am nevertheless pensive about the prospect of my departure. The weather has begun to take a turn, and the snow has begun to fall and each morning my walk to uni becomes progressively darker. As a result of which I am not sad to be missing the only 7 days of sunlight that December and January offer collectively or the minus five-degree temperatures with added windchill that St Petersburg has over the winter months. Having realised how imminent my departure is, however, I have increased my tourist activities and have yet again been left rather in awe of St Petersburg.
Last weekend I went to Victory Square, which you pass on your way into St Petersburg from the airport. Its main feature is a series of statues commemorating the heroes of the siege of Leningrad who either fell victim to or survived the 900-day blockade of the city by the Nazis between 1941 and 1943. Underneath this statue is a memorial hall detailing the events, statistics, and some individual stories of the siege and behind the statue is a bronze ring inscribed with memorial plaques. Despite studying history, and having read a fair amount about the siege of Leningrad, standing in the city itself, in the memorial hall surrounded by objects of importance from the siege, I was struck by the absolute horror of the blockade. There is a reason the Second World War is known as the Great Patriotic War in Russia. Without wanting to give a history lecture, I will nevertheless relay some facts and figures about the blockade to give those of you who are unaware of the siege an idea of its brutality.
At the beginning of the siege, St Petersburg’s population amounted to about three million people. During the two and half year long siege it is estimated that between 800,000 and a million people died of starvation. Starvation. This statistic alone is horrifying, that a third of the city’s inhabitants could have died of starvation without even delving into illness and the constant bombing that St Petersburg was also subject to. Some statistics even suggest that between one and two thousand people during the siege were arrested for cannibalism, either for eating someone who was already dead or for killing someone in order to eat. It is easy to distance oneself from such atrocities as these, but the truth of the matter is that these horrifying events were fairly recent and feel even more so when you live in the city in which they came to pass. I find myself walking along fairly uneventfully and suddenly my brain is just filled with images of how the city must have been; devoid of the life that so intrinsically runs through it today and populated by androgynous skeletons. Despite these horrors and the countless others faced in the siege of Leningrad, the city itself remained remarkably stoic. The radio still played, music was written, concerts performed and creativity encouraged. Some of the most famous creativity to be borne out of the siege was the music of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, the first three parts of which were composed in the besieged city and the fourth and final section of which were composed after he was evacuated. This beautiful piece of music is not necessarily a conception of the siege itself in musical format, but it is hard to argue that the siege did not influence the piece. And this piece along with a few other heartbreaking pieces are gently played in a loop in the otherwise silent centre of the memorial in Victory Square.
Not only is the resilience of the city in the actual time of siege fairly awe-inspiring, but also its transformation post-siege is truly remarkable. The city, as I have repeatedly extolled, is incredibly beautiful but given its fairly recent hardship, that beauty is magnified as so much of it had to be restored after the devastation of the siege. Mere days after my visit to Victory Square I visited both the Russian Museum and the Winter Palace/ The Hermitage. The contrast between the two could not have been more stark. The grandeur of the gilded Winter Palace compared to the dirtied and bloodied shells of bombs, clothes, and leather goods that sufficed as food in the siege, was jarring, to say the least. The fact that after the blockade and the massive loss of life, the people could still care about restoring the Winter Palace, for example, to its pre-revolutionary glory is truly astounding. And the Winter Palace is just one of a number of examples of other palaces, museums and parks that have had similar care and attention paid to them in St Petersburg following the city’s devastation.
Once again I find myself sounding ever so slightly like a “Visit Russia” advert or some sort of Soviet Propaganda poster detailing the glory and stoicism of the citizens of the Motherland. However, I do not appear to be able to stop myself, perhaps it is something that they put in the Pishki. But I do marvel at the resilience of the city that not only put itself back together but did so with great thought and consideration to preserving all aspects of its history and that is, as I have previously gushed, one of the most beautiful cities I have ever had the pleasure of living in.