On Saturday, 25 June, in celebration of Алые Паруса, an enormous area of central Petersburg, starting at the Palace Square and spreading along the banks of the Neva, down Nevsky Prospect and almost to the Fontanka, was closed to automobile traffic. No cars, except the occasional police vehicle or huge tractor-trailers used to mark restricted areas, constricted the flow of wandering humans, who spilled down the middle of streets, so packed that there was never more than a few feet between people. For a night the city became a pedestrian paradise. Алые Паруса is the last major holiday of the summer in Russia and, despite being in theory a celebration for high school graduates, it brings out a diverse crowd from infants to grey-heads, who wander the beautiful twilight lit streets of St Petersburg late into the night.
Past midnight in Марсово поле (the Field of Mars) people gather, waiting for the firework spectacle that will begin soon and hoping to catch a glimpse of the scarlet sails, for which the holiday is named. But in the meantime they form groups across the field each entertaining themselves in their own way. A swarm of high school students gather beneath a cluster of trees, greeting each new arrival with a scream and occasionally by jumping onto their back or into their arms. Sprawled between dropped bikes and a half-trampled flower bush another group passes a bottle wrapped in a brown bag and sings, occasionally joined by others in groups around them. The father of a young family fumbles to light a paper lantern. His daughter’s eyes widen as the paper heart fills with gas and shakily, almost drunkenly, swerving left and right, floats up into the sky to join the other paper hearts already there.
As the sky begins to darken, the crowd slowly starts moving towards the river. However, they only get as far as the line of parked trailers, restricting access to the riverbank. Now begins the waiting. Each group jokes among themselves or strikes up conversation with their neighbors. A girl perched on her boyfriend’s shoulders shouts: “Корабль! Ship!” A general murmur rises through the crowd as everyone lurches forward onto their toes, craning their necks to see over their neighbors. Slowly, everyone begins to realize they’ve fallen for a-boy-who-cried-wolf, and a volley of good-natured exclamations of disappointment are launched at the girl as she laughs and topples off her friend’s shoulders. Finally, however, the sound of fireworks joins the cacophony of night sounds, and a large shout goes up, only to be replaced with disappointed laughter. The long expected fireworks are entirely hidden by the large building on the crowd’s left. Only their sound and a distorted reflection in the opposite building’s windows inform us of their existence. But the crowd loses none of its enthusiasm. And then the sails appear. Starting from the right side, where they first become visible, and spreading through the entire crowd, cheers and loud shouts fill the air. People clap and stand on tiptoe to catch a brief sight of the passing ship. Invisible fireworks begin again to the left, and after one last cheer the crowd slowly disperses back into the night, where occasional smaller groups stop to catch glimpses of the pyrotechnics exploding above various rooftops. In the streets, now eerily filled with the byproduct smoke of the light show, street performers, musicians, fire dancers and others come out to entertain the wandering masses. Drunks break out into well-known verses and are joined by only slightly less intoxicated strangers as the night disappears into the growing pale light of a new day.
By: Catherine DeLaura
Term: Dual Spring and Summer 2016