Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Autobiographic Geography

St. Petersburg is a fairly large city with a sizable historical downtown, and yet the routes that I traverse on my visits here include only few places of historical or cultural interest; I spend most of my time in the nondescript residential neighborhoods where my friends and family live. And even when I do get to go downtown, I tend to visit the same places over and over again, and never set foot in other fascinating parts of the city. I've spent three afternoons on Nevsky Prospekt--at or around Dom Knigi--the "House of Books"--a centrally located bookstore. Three times I've been to Vasilyevsky Ostrov, the island on the Neva where St. Petersburg University is located. I've gone to the same theatre complex twice, to see shows by two different companies. The Hermitage? The Peter and Paul fortress? The Russian Museum? The Neva embankment? On this trip, I haven't had time to walk around the city at all. I am proud though of making it to the new art museum, the museum that's opened just this fall, Erarta--the museum of contemporary St. Petersburg art. How cool am I to go to a museum!

My parents flat (where I lived from age 8 until 17) is located near "Kirovsky zavod," a famous old factory that stands just outside the historical downtown area. In 1905, the workers of this factory (it was then named after its owner, Putilov) started a strike that became Russia's first revolution (the strike was brutally suppressed by the tsar). My father's father was an engineer at this factory, made a long career from the 1930s until 1970s. When the workers of this factory started a strike and walked from here to the Winter Palace (where the Hermitage is now located), this walk must've taken them at least two hours. Nevsky Prospect is ways away--I've walked the distance only once or twice in my life; measured in subway stops, it's at least five stops away.

It's possible to live in a residential neighborhood and never make it to the historical downtown. In fact, many people who have kids make the trek downtown only a few times a year, to take the kids to a museum or to a show. In my childhood, I remember that every trip downtown was an event, a treat. When, as a 15-year-old, I went to math school that was located in the downtown itself, I loved the experience of traveling to school every day. At least once or twice or three times every week, I would make a detour on my way home from school. I'd walk down Liteyniy Prospect to Nevsky, and head for Dom Knigi--the House of Books, where I'd stand in front of the counter and stare at the books displayed behind the glass and on the opposite wall. I had other routes. I'd go to the Summer Garden. I'd walk across the river to the Finland Train Station. I'd stop by my parents office near Vosstaniya. Many times, one or two of my classmates would come along--we'd buy ice cream on the way and try to get into strange and silly adventures. Talk to foreigners on the street. Walk into a residential building to see if we could find access to the roof. For many years, during my visits back to St. Petersburg, I liked to check up on my favorite side streets and buildings. Now I can hardly make time even for this simple exercise.


  1. Hey Olga, San Francisco misses you. However keep posting us these reports from St. Petersburg, we need the perspective...

  2. wow i love the illusion of the revolutionary march from Kirovsky Zavod to the Winter Palace as a metaphor for the distance from your present to your past. wonderful!

  3. I'm not as good a reader as Dave! But I still enjoy all of the descriptions and I think what is this life if full of care I have no time to stand and stare. Who knew we'd miss it so.

  4. Thanks, you guys. And Theresa -- cool reference! I googled the poem and came up with this site: