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The Invention of Saint Petersburg

st-petersburg-basilicaI am not into collecting things, so I put a lot of thought into what I want to bring back with me from my travels. The smaller the item, the better, and I usually try to ensure that it has both practicality and sentimental value. I have never, therefore, considered bringing back the blueprints of an entire continent. Standing in the middle of Palace Square in Saint Petersburg, however, I feel that is exactly what has happened. Despite the candy colored minarets of its orthodox cathedrals, this city looks and acts like a replica of what I have seen in Paris, Rome, and Amsterdam. In fact the Winter Palace with its opulent stucco façade, Baroque reception rooms, and halls full of gilded chandeliers echo the rococo interior of Versailles. Saint Isaac’s Cathedral with its neoclassical columns and a golden dome are shades of Rome and Palladian villas. Meanwhile the bridges and numerous canals of “Peter the Great’s” capital faintly mirror those of Amsterdam. Does this prevent Saint Petersburg from being a unique destination? By no means, but it has made me realize the unique role of the travel souvenir.

Souvenirs are curious objects. Like talismans or crystal balls they have magical powers. One glance at them and we are zipped way across space and time to the memory of rain-washed streets at night, the recollection of a stranger’s laugh, or the remembrance of a curious incident abroad. Cheap or expensive, the worth of a souvenir goes beyond the object’s market value, culling instead from an intrinsic standard within ourselves.

“A souvenir captures the fulfillment of a dream, it is a tangible expression of our adventures.”

A way to remind ourselves and tell the world, “Look I have gone there and done that!” As a traveler I do not have much room for souvenirs, but even I cannot escape that inexplicable tug of possession. I wander around a destination and suddenly I want to own a little piece of the place that has succeeded in seducing me. So, over the years I have accumulated a tiny folio of Shakespeare’s plays I pounced upon at the Globe Theater, a miniature glass cat with amber eyes made for me in Murano, and a knit woolen cap from a farmer’s market in Pisac among other trifles. These knick-knacks have become more than stuff around the house. They are bridges forever connecting me to the worlds I have explored.

When tsar Peter traveled throughout western Europe, he must have felt as if he was exploring a new world. He was the first Russian royal to visit with his western counterparts and the experience must have been a huge culture shock. Like any first time traveler, he wanted to see and do everything from building ships, to painting seascapes, and even learning dentistry. Naturally, when he was forced to return home, he wanted to bring it all back with him. But the ruler of an empire cannot simply purchase a few bric-a-brac to escort back. So, Peter the Great set about recreating at home the structure of cities he had toured, embracing the clothing of military guards he had witnessed, and adopting the customs of western European nobility he had encountered. All this is manifested most in Saint Petersburg, the marshy terrain at the edge of his empire which he sought to replicate into a new Europeanized Russia. It is evident in the city’s rectangular grid of canals, its layout of streets, and its architectural ode to classical European designs. Even the capital’s original name is Germanic. Beyond these superficialities, Saint Petersburg has about it a cosmopolitan ambience that makes it appear completely at home seated next to Leipzig, Manchester, or Vienna. There is an air of urbanity, an all-knowing wink that Saint Petersburg gives which seems to say, “I’m familiar with the way things are done elsewhere.”

st-petersburg-spiresThough much of the city was finished after the death of Peter the Great, I cannot help seeing everywhere in Saint Petersburg evidence of the tsar’s great love affair with his travels. Standing astride the Neva River, this Russian metropolis has managed to preserve intact the look of three centuries of impeccable European architectural styles. It fills its streets with museums, galleries, libraries, and theaters, continually hosts international art exhibits and music festivals, and is the womb of the esteemed Russian ballet. Its world-class Hermitage museum houses artwork from Raphael to Joshua Reynolds. Structurally, culturally, and socially Saint Petersburg is Russia’s gateway to the rest of the western world. If Peter the Great were to visit the port he began building in 1703, he would recognize it as a thoroughly life-sized souvenir of his European adventures.

st-petersburg-dollsIn Saint Petersburg I realize travel can inspire many different passions. Wanting to learn a new language, hankering to recreate the local cuisine, or coveting the garb of a foreign culture. We may never pursue these passions once we return home, so instead we buy a few souvenirs to remind us of the colors that dazzled us, the strange songs we heard, and the streets we thought we knew so well. Ultimately a souvenir is a love letter, a bit of the unique place we stayed for a while now made exceptional by the thoughts and emotions we put into it. I wonder what I will decide to take home from Saint Petersburg, the souvenir of European cities, as my souvenir.


TRAVEL NOTE:

From the beginning, Saint Petersburg was intended as the nerve center for European culture to be introduced to the tsarist empire. The Kuntskamera, founded by Peter the Great in 1727, was the first museum in Russia. It was established to house the tsar’s collection of rarities and now contains over two million items related to Anthropology and Ethnography.


What has been your favorite souvenir? What souvenir still reminds you of an adventure you have had?

51 replies »

  1. Oh man, I enjoy knowing that Peter the great was into ship building, landscape painting, and dentistry! He was definitely a guy who knew how to sample the world on a royal dime. I can’t wait to get to St. Petersburg to see it through the lens of his travel influences. It’s nice to have a blog to catalog your experiences abroad, but how much better to have a cultural capital of the world. Thanks for the new perspective on the invention of St. Petersberg.

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