Why did you become interested in Russia?
I started off as a specialist in Russian literature, then became interested in other areas – history particularly, but more cultural and social than political. Leningrad was the first place I visited apart from Moscow when I went to the USSR. I was parked outside the centre and found it less appealing at first. But like a lot of northern places, it grows on one. It is austere, seems empty at first, but exhilaratingly spacious when you’re used to it. I started to appreciate it, and made very good friends I’m still in touch with. It’s a place where friendship is seen in an austere way as well: not superficial connections but deep loyalties. I bought a flat there in 2005, and after that, you do things in a different way. You make a home in a way that’s place-specific: how you decorate when it is minus 30 is different; ornaments matter a lot more because Russians give you knickknacks. I live in a cooperative block built in the 1980s, which has a residents’ association with a sort of informal democracy about it. We think of Russia as a largely dysfunctional place but it works somehow.
Why did you write the book?
I deliberately decided to look less at the blockade and the other usual things westerners write about like changing street names or moving statutes, and much more about what people think of their city, why they are attached to it, the memories they associate with it, but also what is characteristic about it now. I think the British way of looking at Russia is heavy politicised. I wanted to look at a Russian city from the inside. So much of what foreigners talk about takes the view from the Astoria [hotel]: the incidental view of the well-off visitor, who spends most of their time in the centre of the city. That is like all the books written about the British Isles by Soviets, visiting writers who never got beyond M25: London as “the city of contrasts”, with people in rags living right outside the Ritz. I have an awful feeling we are returning to Cold War stereotyping, so far as press coverage is concerned. But I think people are interested in reading an alternative picture of Russia.
What is distinctive about St Petersburg?
There was a superficial Soviet homogenisation which suggested a lack of regional differences. But distinctions survived, and a strong sense of locality has emerged since 1991. This is particularly true of Petersburg, because it was seen as specific even in the Soviet period, partly because of the built fabric. As the former capital, it was planned to a much greater extent than most Russian cities, so the architecture is characteristic. The Russian word ploshchad’ means simply “an area”, not “a square” in the geometrical sense, but Petersburg’s open spaces are ordered. People think of the grid plan, but actually the three central avenues spread out like a trident. What’s specific, or what is believed to be specific (I’m interested in the latter) relates not just to the buildings but other aspects: even the cooking is mythologised, with people giving special names to food you find elsewhere in the country or saying they use recipes from before 1917 when they use the same ingredients as anywhere else. The ballet was world famous and there was a wonderful music tradition – just look at the Youtube footage of the conductor Evgeny Mravinsky controlling dynamics with his eyebrows. Aside from performance arts, there was interesting work in photography – especially by “underground” artists such as Lev Zvyagin (though they’d usually trained in official clubs). And a wholly official, terrific cinema which should be better known.
What surprised you during the writing?
There were a lot of cafés with mythologies I didn’t know much about. The authorities set up the Saigon Café to keep the young out of trouble, for instance. I had been there in 1985, with a Russian friend, and I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about – it seemed like just a Soviet greasy spoon. By then its time was past. I had to talk to the locals to get a sense of it. The café was set up as part of an official movement to keep the young out of trouble (poetry not vodka and so on), but it became a real hotbed of alternative ideas and discussions about philosophy. There is a strong culture of public libraries and attachment to books, as I always knew, but I started thinking of these as workplaces – before I’d just visited so as to gather information. People often think of a public versus private divide in Soviet times. There were private conversations around the kitchen table, but there were also intermediate places, including informal meetings at the workplace where people would say things you wouldn’t print. For instance, the kurilka (smoking room), or the individual “sectors” (workrooms) in a big academic institution. Or a factory. There’s a lot of Western work on dysfunction in the Soviet economic sector, but actually tolerance of filching, skipping work, coming late and so on was one of the things that contributed to the corporate spirit – people at work were supposed to help each other out. It’s easy to talk about “corruption”, but the boundaries are porous: is contributing to a whip-round for your boss a “bribe”? Most would say no, but obviously, an individual gift for a specific purpose would look different.
What was difficult in your research?
There were a lot of things about late Soviet culture which were quite fluid and remain difficult to understand for outsiders. It’s still true today. You will get one answer not just in one ministry but in different offices in the same ministry. The same person will tell you different things depending on what mood they are in, which audience they are speaking for, how formal the occasion is and what effect they think the words will have.
How about the repressive side of St Petersburg?
I said less in the book about the KGB than about some of the other institutions, but I wouldn’t want to underestimate it. The city was a paradox. It was a major port with military factories, but it was also a world-famous destination for tourists. If it hadn’t been such a draw (and a money-maker for the Soviet economy), it would probably have been closed to outsiders. The place was full of military installations and defence factories, which were closely guarded, but it also had lots of visitors, including students. People did have contact with foreigners and got quite bold, making a living out of them by late Soviet times. The level of repression was unpredictable. Some artists will tell you now they were not bothered by official regulations, that there were quasi-official spaces for music and exhibitions. There were lively discussions about some topics (Viktor Semenyuk’s documentary The Faces of the Disco, made for the Leningrad studio though filmed in lots of different places, has people with beards arguing vehemently about what kind of dance music and light shows should be put on). It was more difficult if you were doing unofficial writing, for instance – you couldn’t publish, and if your flat was searched and manuscripts found, they would automatically be taken as evidence against you. The city is considerably freer now. You can have public demonstrations, which you couldn’t until Gorbachev came to power. The riot police sometimes interfere, and non-governmental organisations get pestered over supposed tax violations and so on (an old Soviet practice), but so far at least, there haven’t been mass arrests. For the intelligentsia it was very unpleasant in 1980-86 when there was a crackdown. I can recall being followed in 1985 (an intimidating, obvious job by two men in denim suits), because the Russian friend I was with was under surveillance. As someone put it, remembering those times, “By then they’d run out of big-time figures, and they were coming for their friends.” Many people survived then in the way they are surviving now: by being as non-political as they could. They would say, “politics is for the dissidents”.
How do Russians view your book?
I’ve published some of the material as articles in Russian. The reactions were mostly positive. I was quite concerned that people would think ‘how can someone muscle in as an outsider?’ but they were pleased with it. They appreciate the attention to things that are normally below the radar. I enjoyed Rüdiger Görner’s book about London a lot myself (he’s a German academic and literary critic who has lived in the city for decades). It told me things I didn’t know, though I’ve lived there on and off for 50 years. You notice a lot as an outsider. Take the rubbish dumps. I don’t think many people hang out around them. They are used as a mainstream way of recycling. If things are worn out, you can take them to a second-hand shop but you’re expected to wash and mend them yourself. If they are worn out or too shabby for the shop you take them to the rubbish dump instead. I observed what gets left and how long it takes for things to disappear. A couple of hats were gone in no time, but my own coat was still hanging there wanly after several hours!
What is the mood today as tensions rise over Ukraine?
There is a lot of defensiveness. People are going out of their way to be kind to visitors (my students all comment on this), but there is a sense that ‘the west is offending us’. A lot of ordinary Russians are deeply distressed about how things have escalated. They are desperate to maintain contacts, but major British cultural institutions have been cancelling events. Nothing like that happened in the Cold War. Rare actions like the British Museum’s loan of one of the Elgin marbles to the Hermitage, or the Francis Bacon exhibition, is the way we should be going. That doesn’t mean we support Putin. But the more bad blood there is, the more it benefits him.
What are your plans for your next book?
I want to look at the history of cinema in St Petersburg, based on what Lenfilm was producing in the 1960s-80s. It had a really strong creative ethos and identity, with very good directors. There was a lot of material related to Italian neo-realism, and the French new wave, even though directors focused on young people, Soviet family conflicts, anti-alcohol policies, and other topics that were central to cultural planning. Artistically, what the studio did was often quite adventurous: Dmitry Dolinin, a wonderful camera-man from that period, told me when I talked to him that he used to distress film stock so that he could achieve particular symbolic effects with colour. The cinema had a huge output (around twenty full-length features a year), and it was generously supported. The budget of one feature film in 1960s was as large as the entire architectural restoration for the whole Leningrad for that year. That says a lot about the restoration budget but also the importance of the cinema. Some who made the films are still alive and many have no sympathy for the Soviet era. But they regret there is not the comparable buzz or funding.
Catriona Kelly, FBA is a British academic specialising in Russian culture. She is Professor of Russian at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of New College.
Interviewed by Andrew Jack