Whatever Happened to St. Petersburg?

ImagesGreg Afinogenov at Bookforum:

St. Petersburg used to be a familiar place for Russians and non-Russians alike. It is so recognizable—even clichéd—as a setting for the high drama and intrigue of nineteenth-century Russian literary classics that one recent Russian novel features a first-person shooter videogame called Dostoevsky’s Petersburg. As Petrograd, we know it as the cradle of the Revolution, the backdrop for Eisenstein; as Leningrad, the tale of its suffering during the murderous Siege of Leningrad by Nazi and Finnish troops in 1941-44 is part of the common tragic legacy of World War II.

But there, after the war, the familiarity ends. Since World War II, countless Seinfelds,Zazies, and London Fields have made the world’s other great literary and cinematic metropolises as recognizable at their most humdrum and unglamorous as they are at their glitziest. Meanwhile, the postwar urban life of St. Petersburg has almost disappeared from the horizon not just of European or global but also of Russian culture. Ask a Russian to name a work set in postwar Petersburg or Leningrad and you will likely hear only three answers: the wistful 1979 romantic comedy Autumn Marathon, the grim 1996 revenge thriller Brother, and the 2000s cops-and-robbers TV serial Bandit Petersburg. A non-Russian could hardly be expected to produce even one.

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