Next to our front door, there are two small postcards in black frames. I bought the postcards in the Singer building in St. Petersburg. One of them is an ink drawing of a seagull wearing a sailor hat, next to the caption ‘Melancholy City’. I had no idea exactly what this was referring to when I purchased it, but I thought it looked cool. Lets face it, I’m easy to please. It was only later that I discovered the meaning behind the melancholy city phrase, and how significant it is to the city.
When I bought the postcards, I also bought a copy of ‘White Nights‘ of Fyodor Dostoyevsk. A very short novella, it tells the story of a love-sick resident of St Petersburg. It is a very strange book. After reading it, I remember thinking that an air of sad melancholy permeated the narrative. The text itself described a frantic man, which, while not depressing, was disturbing in a particular way. He just seemed so sad and lonely. The best description I could find of the book states that “both the narrator and Nastenka (the second character) experience marked emotional vicissitudes, alternately haunted by melancholy and transported with joy.” Quite bluntly, it’s a weird and saddening read. I finished the book while I was still in St Petersburg, and afterwards, decided to investigate the melancholic city claim.
The city, like most of Russia, presents a very obvious divide. The gulf between rich and poor is ever-present. St Petersburg, with its neoclassic vistas and stray alley cats, baroque palaces and peeling apartment buildings, is one of the clearest representations of this. Life has never been easy in Russia. In a country with 17 time zones, where the sun rises on one side whilst setting on the other, you cannot expect every single person to be catered for. People get left behind. It doesn’t matter which system of Government you look at – Imperialism or Communism – there was always an underclass of people living on the bread line. The sight of old begging babushkas in their ragged clothes, wandering past opulent imperial palaces, is one that is not easily forgotten. Perhaps it is this juxtaposition of eerie beauty with poverty that provides a sense of melancholy to visitors of the city.
Probably more likely, though, is the dreary weather. I’ve been lucky enough to visit St Petersburg twice, and both times, glorious sunlight blazed off the golden spires of the churches of the city. Most of the year, a drizzly, grey scene greets visitors to the city, or a freezing cold snowfall. The last Tsar of Russia, Nicholas II, famously hated the city and made many references to its origins as a swampland. The endless gloom of rain certainly has something to do with the concept of a melancholy city, and has been noted by many a famous Russian writer over the years.
I’ve always found that certain cities permeate feelings. The strongest feelings tend to come from those cities that have suffered, or those that have the been the instigators of the suffering. St Petersburg and Hiroshima come to mind. I remember once reading a very interesting book called the Ghosts of Berlin. This book dealt with the period of rejuvenation in the German capital, but acknowledged that the country had to come to terms with the horrors of its past in doing so. In my visit to Berlin in 2008, I felt that the city still hadn’t fully acknowledged the horrors of the past. There was a sort of weird desire to hide the past, at the same time as acknowledging that something bad had happened. I do understand this desire not to glorify the horrors of the past. However, when I found the location of the former Fuhrerbunker and saw a parking lot, and nothing to acknowledge what had happened there, it was a bit deflating. Apparently, during my visit, someone had pulled down the sign explaining what the location meant – so a bit of credit to the city is due. However, it wasn’t until 2003 that Germany even recognised the site of the bunker. Prior to that, it was excluded from any official map or publication. The fact that it took 58 years to officially recognise the site is interesting in itself. By leaving it off a map, did they expect the world to forget what had occurred?
Upon visiting Russia – particularly Moscow – I was surprised at how easy it was to find a statue of Lenin. Stalin is a little rarer, but still present. I had this idea that everything would have been pulled down immediately by angry Russians following the fall of the Soviet Union, and in some areas, this did happen. But there are still huge numbers of them to be found. The city of Moscow seems to embody some sort of weird Soviet kitsch, which undoubtedly draws in huge numbers of tourists each year. A visit to Muzeon Park of Arts allows you to frolic amongst downed Soviet statutes, and you can sample canteen style food in a comradely setting at Stolovaya 57 in Red Square. Izmailovsky Market features hundreds of Soviet souvenirs, everything from Space Race relics to giant posters of Stalin and Lenin, ready to adorn your walls. While the city may not be ready to face the ghosts of its pasts, it is interesting that it is able to capitalize on its Soviet history in such a capitalistic way. Would you visit Berlin and expect to buy a souvenir smiling Hitler mug?
I believe Warsaw is the city that has most come to grips with its past. Perhaps it is due to the utter devastation leveled upon it during World War Two. 84% of Warsaw city was destroyed during the war, and 140,000 people captured or killed during the Siege of Warsaw alone. Everywhere you turn in the city, there is no attempt to hide its horrific past. Plaques mark the spots where mass murders took place, where portions of the Warsaw Ghetto were liquidated, or where thousands of people were placed on trains leading to their death. Memorials and signs matter-of-factly explain what happened, documenting for future generations the horrific trail of destruction left by the Nazis. It is startling in its brutal honesty, but it gave me a feeling a respect for the city. Any group of people that can collectively move on from history to start again, as the Polish effectively had to do, deserve some credit in my book.
It was Warsaw, most of all, that gave me the impression of being a melancholy city. Maybe it was the rain that bucketed down while I visited, requiring me to duck in and out of the shop facades. Each attempt to escape the rain revealed some other historic event of note. While I loved my time there, a few days in Warsaw undertaking what could best be described as ‘war tourism’ left me feeling rather despondent. I took an afternoon to feed the squirrels at Łazienki Park in an attempt to avoid reconstructed buildings and those sad little plaques. Perhaps it is the grey concrete blocks dotting the streets, or Stalin’s wedding cake hovering over the city centre. Maybe it is a uniquely Russian element, having a melancholy city – and Stalin wanted to share the love by plonking his hideous Soviet structure in the middle of the city. Who knows. But looking around Warsaw, or St Petersburg, you’ll certainly feel something strange in the air.