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White Nights of St. Petersburg, Russia

A version of this article appeared in print on June 5, 2011, on page TR1 of the New York edition with the headline: White Nights in St. Petersburg.

THE motorized launch cruised toward the Hermitage, the former Winter Palace of the czars, passing underneath a low arched bridge that I feared would graze my scalp as we glided beneath it. Just ahead, a boisterous wedding party on the deck of a wooden cruiser filled the air with vodka fueled shouts of “gorko!,” meaning bitterness, a traditional Russian encouragement to the bride and groom to kiss and thus provide the guests with the opposite of what was being proclaimed.

Then the canal spilled into the vast Neva River, and all of St. Petersburg spread before us. Pink, peach and violet clouds streaked the horizon. Across the river, on Zayachy Island – one of a multitude of small islands in the Neva that fall within St. Petersburg’s metropolitan limits – stood SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral, burial place of Peter the Great, the three Alexanders and, most recently, the executed Czar Nicholas, Czarina Alexandra and their children. The golden-spired cathedral glinted in the fading sun. I breathed in the maritime air – a pungent mix of gasoline and ripe river smells – and checked my watch. It was 11 p.m., and the sky was still as bright as that of an early summer evening in New York.

In St. Petersburg, the grand city of the czars, they call them the “White Nights”: those 80 or so evenings, running from May to the end of July, when the city emerges from long months of cold and darkness and celebrates the brief return of nearly round-the-clock daylight. Residents of Russia’s cultural capital – situated a few latitudinal lines south of the Arctic Circle, at the eastern end of the Gulf of Finland – have been welcoming the summer with relief and celebration ever since Peter the Great founded the city in the early 18th century. (The czar named the new capital after his patron saint, St. Peter the apostle.)

For most of the 20th century, however, these celebrations were muted by wars, revolution and the grim imperatives of the Soviet state. The Russian Revolution broke out here in October 1917, when the city was called Petrograd. Only a few decades later, between 1941 and 1944, as many as 800,000 people died of hunger, disease and exposure during the nearly 900-day Nazi siege of the city that the Bolsheviks had renamed Leningrad. Under Joseph Stalin and his Communist successors, White Nights were disciplined affairs, limited to a smattering of classical music concerts. Even after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, St. Petersburg’s summer remained subdued: the economy had deteriorated so sharply after decades of misrule that many people became dependent on food rationing. For a time, St. Petersburg, which regained its original name in 1991, was even forced to accept humanitarian food aid from foreign donors – hardly the economic environment in which to stage all-night, citywide revelries.

During the last decade, however, Russia’s booming economy has rejuvenated St. Petersburg, and the White Nights have become more and more lively. Russian entrepreneurs have poured money into new bars, restaurants and hotels. Growing numbers of visitors from abroad, along with well-heeled Russian tourists – their wallets fat with petrodollars – and members of the increasingly mobile Russian middle class head here for summer vacations. The city fathers have seized the initiative, pumping city and state financing into organized events.

Long summer days exist elsewhere in Russia of course, from Moscow to Yekaterinburg to Yakutsk, but the White Nights have become an intrinsic part of St. Petersburg’s identity – a celebration of the city’s unique beauty and its role as the country’s artistic epicenter.

No other city in Russia enjoys such a breathtaking location. St. Petersburg was constructed on what originally were more than 100 islands formed by a latticework of rivers, creeks, streams and natural canals that flow into the Baltic Sea at the mouth of the Neva River. The Neva, the main artery through the city, snakes an east-west path across St. Petersburg, basically dividing it in half. The southern half, the part most reminiscent of Venice or Amsterdam, is cut by a grid of canals and includes many of the city’s most familiar landmarks. Among them: the Hermitage, Russia’s greatest museum and the former Winter Palace of the czars, along with Palace Square and the Alexander Column; the Kazan Cathedral, modeled after St. Peter’s at the Vatican; and the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood, a monument marking the spot of Czar Alexander II’s assassination in 1881. Here, too, runs the Nevsky Prospekt, the city’s main commercial street.

ACROSS the river, the northern part of St. Petersburg consists of a cluster of islands, including Vasilyevsky, Petrogradsky, Dekabristov and Krestovsky. Four drawbridges across the Neva connect the northern and southern parts of the city, while 342 smaller bridges, built over four centuries and made of materials ranging from wood to brick to iron, cross the city’s canals and tributaries.

You’ll find celebrations of St. Petersburg’s White Nights in virtually every corner of this sprawling, watery metropolis. Dance clubs and “beach clubs” – including the most exclusive, the Royal Beach Club on Krestovsky Island, a forested park that draws many of the city’s affluent young people – stay open until at least 6 a.m. on White Nights weekends. Throughout the night, the Nevsky Prospekt teems with revelers. There is a profusion of cultural events, from the daylong Dostoevsky festival on July 3 – a round-the-clock celebration of the local author whom many consider to be Russia’s greatest novelist – to the White Nights Festival, a combination of classical music, opera and ballet performances held from May through the end of July. The “Scarlet Sails,” a city wide high-school graduation party dating back to the end of World War II, takes place at the end of June, and draws revelers of all ages. The celebration includes an hourlong fireworks display over the Neva and the passage down the river of a graceful three-masted schooner modeled after one used by the imperial family in the late 19th century. And that doesn’t even include the variety of street theater, jam sessions and gatherings along the banks of the Neva just before 2 a.m. every day to watch the four main drawbridges, all illuminated, rise to a 90-degree angle to allow barges and other big vessels to pass. This happens throughout the year, of course, but the warm weather and the still-bright skies give the White Nights spectacle an especially celebratory feeling. “When you’ve got only 80 days of sunlight, you’ve got to make the most of them,” I was told by Sergei Bobovnikov, a dealer in Soviet-era antiques and propaganda art who was born in Kursk, a city near Moscow, but moved to St. Petersburg to attend college three decades ago.

Mr. Bobovnikov keeps two apartments in St. Petersburg: one on the island of Petrogradskaya Storona, the other across the Neva, one block off the Nevsky Prospekt. This means that, unlike many other revelers stranded on the wrong side of the river after the drawbridges rise, he is always guaranteed a place to sleep. (Mr. Bobovnikov rented me and my traveling companion his Petrogradskaya Storona apartment for the duration of our weekend stay.)

Daytime during the White Nights is usually devoted to sleeping late to recover from the long night before – perhaps mixed in with some sightseeing – or sipping cappuccinos at the cafes that line the Nevsky Prospekt and some of its side streets. My own exploration of St. Petersburg’s White Nights began on a Saturday evening in early July last year, a couple of weeks past the summer equinox. I was joined by Anna Nemtsova, a Moscow-based Newsweek correspondent and White Nights devotee who had lived for many years in St. Petersburg. Over the last several years, the White Nights have become a hugely popular draw for Russian tourists from as far away as eastern Siberia, she told me. But the largest representation of visitors comes from Moscow. “More and more Muscovites are making the weekend commute to St. Petersburg during the summer,” said Anna, who had arrived to meet me via a new high-speed train, which covers the route in four hours and charges 3,000 rubles (about $110, at about 27.6 rubles to the dollar).

ANNA and I made our way by taxi to the city center for an early evening meal – and free vodka shots – at the Idiot, one of St. Petersburg’s more popular bar-restaurants. This five-room basement establishment, located off St. Isaac Square and alongside the Moika Canal, one of the Neva’s many tributaries, reflects a new, nostalgic fascination for Russia at the turn of the 20th century. The Idiot was designed to resemble a Dostoevsky-era apartment: old oak furniture, Singer iron-pedaled sewing machines, clunky typewriters, shelves of antique books and the occasional, anachronistic bust of Lenin. We were joined by Mireille Massip, a French author who was in town to attend, among other events, a big White Nights gathering of returned St. Petersburg nobility.

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