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White Nights of St. Petersburg, Russia, Page 2

Hundreds of White Russians – descendants of both the pre-revolutionary aristocrats and the anti-Bolshevik military officers who fled to Western Europe and the United States during the consolidation of Bolshevik power in 1919 and 1920 – have returned to the city since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Some have taken up residence in the same apartments their families lived in in czarist Russia. Over a bowl of borscht and a glass of Chablis, Ms. Massip, who had recently finished a biography of a White Russian exile in America, told us that she returns to St. Petersburg “every second year,” always during the summer.

Tipsy after our round of vodka shots, Anna and I left the Idiot and commenced a White Nights ritual: the downtown walkabout through the area around the Moika. This original part of the city began to take shape in the early 18th century, when Peter, who was enamored of Dutch culture, laid out a grid of intersecting canals that flow into the Neva and hired Western Europe’s most celebrated architects to line them with palaces and cathedrals. Peter died in 1725, and the capital that he founded rapidly expanded. In 1728, Peter II moved his seat back to Moscow. But four years later, the Empress Anna again made St. Petersburg the capital of the Russian Empire. It remained the seat of the Romanov Dynasty for nearly two centuries, until the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.

We turned left along the Moika and crossed a short span nicknamed the Drunk Bridge, a rickety iron crossing from which assassins threw the still-living Rasputin – the faith healer to Nicholas and Alexandra – into the river in 1916. Along the nearby Nevsky Prospect, the new multi-ethnic Russia – sushi bars, Middle Eastern shisha bars, Chinese tea rooms – was drawing a crowd of customers from around the globe. We found our way to Rubinstein Street, a trendy boulevard that has exploded in recent years with curio shops, theaters and ethnic restaurants.

Here, at a newly opened Georgian restaurant, we discreetly fortified ourselves for the night ahead with a bottle of sweetish red Georgian wine, officially illicit, because Georgian wine imports had been banned by the Russian authorities since before the 2008 war in the south Caucasus, in which hundreds of soldiers and civilians died. It was still too early for most Russians to sit down to dinner, and we were the only guests in the spartan place. The owner and her daughter tended to us solicitously, as traditional Georgian folk music played in the background. They served up a nonstop procession of heavy, exotic dishes: lobio, a thick red bean soup; piles of meat-filled dumplings, known as khinkali; a cheese and herb bread called khachapuri tarkhunit; and spicy meatballs called abkhazura.

It was around 11 p.m. by the time we left the restaurant and headed back toward the Neva. The sky was streaked with fiery wisps of cloud. We walked through the eerily deserted Palace Square to a plaza beside the river, facing Vasilyevsky Island, site of the Italianate-style Kunst Chamber, an ethnography museum that includes Peter the Great’s bizarre collection of deformed embryos preserved in formaldehyde. Hundreds of people had gathered in the plaza, one of the most popular vantage points to watch the raising and lowering of the four drawbridges. All eyes were focused on a juggling team that tossed flaming sticks in the air, their acrobatics accompanied by the rhythmic beating of tom-toms played by musicians clad in billowy Ali Baba pants. The look, Anna explained, was inspired by the traditions of the Indian state of Goa, an increasingly popular destination for young Russians on holiday.

THE Neva itself was abuzz with activity: People took in the view sitting on the stone steps that ran down to the river, splashed from time to time by wakes from a constant stream of sightseeing vessels. The pleasure-boat owners have been among the biggest beneficiaries of the White Nights’ popularity. For 4,000 rubles, visitors can enjoy – as I did the following evening – an hourlong private cruise, sipping wine and gazing at sites like the landmark Mariinsky Theater on the Kryukov canal. “The number of boats on the river has quadrupled in the last couple of years,” Mr. Bobovnikov, the antiques dealer, told me. It’s a short season, however: throughout St. Petersburg’s seven-month winter, both the Neva and its tributaries are covered by a solid sheet of ice, and the waterways often don’t thaw entirely until the beginning of April.

The energetic scene on the plaza – illuminated bridges, teeming crowds, stands selling ice cream and American-style hot dogs, the pungent smell of diesel fuel, the hypnotic drumbeating, riverboats fighting for space on the wide Neva – reminded me a bit of the scene alongside the Nile in Cairo, with a similar sense of energy and controlled chaos.

As 2 a.m. approached, Anna and I crossed the Palace Bridge and the Stroiteley Bridge to Petrogradskaya Storona, on the northeast side of the city, across the Neva River. We found a large riverboat restaurant called the Flying Dutchman, its wooden-plank deck providing a panoramic view of all four main spans. The sky was darkening, and a huge, butterscotch half-moon loomed just above the Hermitage.

Then, as we sat on a couch on the restaurant deck in the gathering dusk, sharing a shisha and drinking vodka tonics, the Troitsky Bridge beside the museum began its slow ascent. It rose to a 90-degree angle above the Neva, and then, one by one, at 15-minute intervals, each of the three other spans followed. The graceful upward movement of the bridges, each following another with what seemed like perfect synchronicity, the sense of anticipation that suffused the crowds, the interplay of lights and water, all conveyed a magical effect.

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