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City news
The city of ghosts
07.18.2005 13:59

ghosts Tony Mochama recently visited St Petersburg in Russia and found an urban centre that should only exist in a tsar’s imagination

Landing in St Petersburg, Russia, the first impression that strikes a young African journalist is that he has somehow stepped out of reality and into a mirage.

As the taxi races you through the streets, what you get isn’t so much an impression of solidity but rather fleeting glimpses of things, mostly statues. There is one of Lenin before a metro-station, his hammer-and-sickle dreams gone to Ozymandian dust. Then there is a giant statue of war chariots commemorating all the foreign invaders from Napoleon to Hitler, whose armies have perished here (Russia has never been militarily conquered, and when America defeated it, its ‘missiles’ were Cokes). There are poets and writers’ statues galore, from Fyodor Dostoevski to Alexander Pushkin. And then the greatest statue of all, that of Tsar Peter the Great, founder and creator of St Petersburg.

His statue is called ‘The Bronze Horseman’ and it strides time, space and place in the city’s main square, that of St Isaac’s cathedral.

St Petersburg is perhaps the only city in the world that shouldn’t exist. It was, and still is, the visionary creation of Tsar Peter’s frenzied imagination — 302 years after its birth. As fellow sojourner Martin Kimani, who is doing a PhD on war studies in King’s College, London put it, "Only a boy, with all the resources of a nation at his will and a ruthless determination, could have conjured up a city such as this. In Kenya, we dream only little dreams because we are a nation led by old men – and old men have lost their dreams."

What he means is history – Tsar Peter simply looked at the map of Russia in relation to Europe, and ordered that a city be constructed at the shortest point to Stockholm, Sweden – both to wage war on the Swedes, but one day, to also create a great trading centre for Russia there. The only problem was that this ‘spot’ was a malarial swamp, impossible to float a city on. But like the pharaohs of old who built ‘impossibilities’ like the pyramids, St Petersburg was built nonetheless, hundreds of thousands of serfs dying across the years in winter as they erected the splendour that would be this city – of malaria and other maladies, of freezing winter and sheer exhaustion, of drowning in the swamps and being eaten by wolves – of everything, in fact, but natural causes ( and what could be more unnatural than being consumed by a Russian wolf?).

Which is how I come to be standing on the main highway, the Nevski Prospekt, of what must be the world’s largest cemetery or most beautiful place ever, depending on your perspective and your mood, at sunset watching beautiful, doll-like Russian girls stride the side-walk, listening to the roar of motor-bikes as macho Russian men straddle life-and-death in the middle of the street, on their machines, watching babushkas (old women) sell flowers and portraits of a city that itself seems timeless. In the midst of all this a wino drinks vodka without a sense of shame on the street, because drinking and melancholy are alright here, watching sunset until you realise its summer in St Petersburg – and the sun will never set till summer’s end. A grey-and-silver police van knocks you off your revelry – St Petersburg’s Finest, the police force, are worse than our cops in the mid-1990s. They openly take money out of tourists’ pockets here, and if one resists, they threaten to throw them into the lubyanka – a drunk tank full of Russia’s most intoxicated. If you complain at the police station, the amount of paper work to be filled is so much one may as well write a novel.

So you go into a pub, ironically called ‘The Office’, and you are immediately accosted by half a dozen drunken Russian men calling you ‘neger’ and demanding you rap for them or they will beat you into a pulp. You tell them you are from Kenya, Africa, not the US, but in the end you rap for them because pulp isn’t what you went to Russia to become. That is when they buy you vodka, demand you all drink it in prodigious amounts, and toast ‘nastrovya’

(triumph). This is how an African joins the ‘conclave of the comrades.’

For such a beautiful city, the water of St Petersburg isn’t so hot! In Kenya, we all remember the City Hall saga when some rotten apples in the Mayor’s parlour ‘treated’ the water with chalk as opposed to chlorine, causing the typhus outbreak of October 1998. In Russia, such subterfuge is beyond the City Fathers. The water from the taps is sometimes clear, sometimes blood red and sometimes pitch-black. It is fascinating to be in the shower, scrubbing away, as you watch hitherto colourless water adopt a crimson shade. But like everything else here, it is just something else to get used to.

As a middle-aged man in one of Russia’s seemingly eternal queues (for bread or for tram) told me : "To be Russian is to be patient. And in the end, you get used to everything here."

Riding on a longboat with lots of other writers at midnight, watching the crystalline bridges opening as an Arctic sun bounces off colonnades of gods and muses all along the Neva River, passing by cathedrals like the Church of Spilled Blood where a tsar was murdered in 1825 by hand-grenade wielding and throwing anarchists (recently, a Russian mafia businessman was shot dead outside Quo Vadis, an Internet CafÈ, but they won’t be building a cathedral to that citizen), seeing the ship that signalled the October 1917 revolution by firing a single cannon — they call it "the shot that ricocheted for 70 years" — you know that you’ll never get used to this city.

But then again, St Petersburg does not exist so that you, or anyone, ever gets used to it. Like a beautiful woman half-glimpsed on a street, before the world forever swallows her, the city eludes one. Even the facades of colourful apartments look like Hollywood ‘fake town’ fronts. Statistically, you know five million Russians live here; in Nairobi, its three million press into you on the streets (try Tom Mboya for size), so where are the St Petersburgers?

It is no wonder they call this place the "city of ghosts." And even as you live there, party there and do whatever you went to do there, at the back of your mind there’s always the nagging feeling that St Petersburg has both the beauty, and tranquillity of a war cemetery.

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