Valery Dymshits: Petersburg as Mistletoe

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Valery Dymshits
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October 26, 2017

In May 2016, the Akhmatova Museum hosted an event entitled Debates on Europe, featuring all sorts of outstanding people. I don’t know why, but I was invited, too. We were asked to talk about Petersburg and its place in Europe. I was also part of a special panel, entitled “How Do We See History? How Do We Deal with the Past?” I spoke my mind honestly. Today, I came across the two talks on my computer and thought I mostly agree with myself, so why not post them. So I am posting them. This is the first one, about Petersburg.

The City as Mistletoe
I probably will not be saying anything new if I note that Petersburg was originally built as the world’s largest cargo cult site. Peter the Great and his heirs firmly believed that by reproducing certain forms—and only the forms!—of European architecture and town planning, they would create a great country, a country that would rival or surpass Europe’s best countries.

When I went to Amsterdam, I was amazed by Petersburg’s resemblance to it. (Yet Amsterdam does not look at all like Petersburg, just as children resemble their parents, not vice versa.) In Amsterdam, I noticed that most of the buildings in the historic center had been built in the mid seventeenth century: the dates they were built were displayed on the façades. The entirety of Amsterdam’s huge historic center had been developed literally over twenty to thirty years. It was then I understood Peter the Great’s choice. It was not just the case that Amsterdam was among the magnificent, rich cities of Europe, but unlike Paris and other cities, it had been built not over the course of centuries, but in a few decades. Peter the Great realized that if he built another Amsterdam, so to speak, there was a chance of not only creating a hotbed of European civilization in Russia but also of living to see the project completed. This, of course, is a pure manifestation of the cargo cult.

An airplane hewn from the trunk of a palm tree may never fly, but it can be the pride and joy of an ethnographic museum’s collection. Russia did not become Europe, but Petersburg and its environs came to be a wonderful artwork, a huge artifact. I mean the Petersburg of the palaces and parks, cathedrals and embankments.

But there is another Petersburg, the one were we live. This is the city of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, built after the launch of Emperor Alexander II’s great reforms. It is the city of huge tenement houses, lush façades, and endless courtyards. This Petersburg was not a frozen magic crystal nor a miraculous receptacle supposed to attract the spirits of Europe with its outward shapes. It was a city of banks and factories, shops and slums: a normal city. We love it no less than we love the city of palaces. The loading cranes in the port and factory smokestacks dominate the city’s skyline as much as its domes and spires do.

But this city, in turn, woud not have emerged if the the first city had not been built. (And it was certainly built on the bones of its builders: animist religions involve human sacrifice.) A cargo cult is a religion and, as such, is no worse than any other religion. A religion’s truth is defined by the fanaticism of its adherents. The Russian cargo cult fashioned a great, artifact-like city. Like a colony of honey fungus inhabiting an old stump, another city sprang up from the first city, and this second city was real.

In fact, the Slavophile critics of Petersburg and the Petersburg period of Russian history were right when they argued that substantial homegrown grounds were needed to really build a great country, not empty, borrowed shapes. But by the time this criticism had become widespread, from the Populists on the left to the Black Hundreds on the right, it had already lost its main justification. Petersburg had become a natural, organic phenomenon, something that had sprung from the culture, not from the soil. As second nature, culture is no worse than nature per se.

Petersburg resembles mistletoe, a parasitic plant that grows on the branches of other trees. Mistletoe is quite beautiful. Since antiquity, it has been a symbol of life, and it was used as an amulet. The Romans and the Celts believed in mistletoe’s miraculous powers. It was a symbol of peace among the Scandinavians. It was hung on the outside of houses as a token travelers would be provided shelter there. If enemies happened to meet under a tree on which mistletoe grew, they were bound to lay down their weapons and not fight anymore that day. Mistletoe protected houses from thunder and lightning, from witches and maleficent spirits.

I would argue it is productive to compare Petersburg with mistletoe, with a beautiful, sacred, safeguarding parasite. We know that people do not quarrel under the mistletoe, but kiss and make up. Petersburg did not make Russia Europe, but the city has become a place where Russia can meet and talk with Europe. This is more or less understood by everyone, by the Russian regime and by its opponents.

Every country, region, and city tries to develop by relying on its own resources. Our resource is distilled culture, cut off from all soil. Let us imagine the Hermitage Museum is a typical mineral deposit, something like an oil well. It differs from other major museums since it is not a cultural feature of a major country and major city, as the Louvre is a a cultural feature of France and Paris. On the contrary, to a certain extent Petersburg is a feature of the Hermitage. I am not speaking of tourists. They have places to go besides Petersburg. I am arguing that, having emerged as the shrine of a cargo cult, Petersburg gradually turned into a condensed expression of European cultural know-how, projected onto a wasteland. The know-how was all the more important, since European cultural shapes have been purged, in Petersburg, of all ethnic specificity. It is a generalized Europe.

The question of how to fill these shapes is open. It is open to everyone: to Europeans, Russians, and Petersburgers alike.

Photo and translation by the Russian Reader. I would like to thank Valery Dymshits for his kind permission to let me translate his essay and publish it here.

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