For me St. Petersburg is a place that has been both found and lost. My first visit to Russia was in 1997 living in Pskov, and I moved to St. Petersburg in 1999. During this time, I taught English in the evenings and struggled to learn Russian in my spare time. I hadn’t had formal training in Russian and used an old, trusty Soviet grammar book to get my grammar in order enough to be understood, but mostly I just threw myself into a variety of situations and picked the language up gradually that way. It took me several years to speak well. Over time I became well established in Piter, made good and dear friends and even managed to buy a nice two-bedroom flat on Ulitsa Sadovaia, which was ideally located catty-corner from Nikolski Sobor’. It was with regret that I moved back to the United States in 2007.
Upon my return to the US I experienced towards St. Petersburg what Russians refer to as toska. Toska is one of those words that can have a variety of translations, none of which are able to fully describe the full spectrum of the emotion that it carries with it. In my case, toska was a deep yearning intermingled with a quiet but inconsolable sorrow. In this emotion I felt as if St. Petersburg had become part of who I was, and then as if this part had been removed like an organ. So for me, coming back to St. Petersburg is a kind of homecoming and the city has defined itself as a place that I hope to continue to return to well into the future. In an unexpected way Piter feels like a second home, despite the fact that I am very much a foreigner here.
This homecoming includes joyous reunions with old friends who through time have become some of my closest and best friends, a joyous return to the study of the Russian Language, and joy to be back in this city drenched with stories and history. St. Petersburg has a special quality that carries with it a mystical union between the past and present, the historical and modern. Threading through all the disparate eras in the history of St. Petersburg is the phenomenon of White Nights, a celebration which envelopes the city between midnight and 3 in the morning, within which time becomes non-linear and both historical Petersburg and modern day Petersburg seem to exist simultaneously.
St. Petersburg is located at a latitude of 60 degrees. It’s the only city of over one million people this far north. Currently with a population of 5.3 million, the Northern Capital is vibrant, frenetic and bursting at the seams with people, cultural events and activity. Because of its northern location, the city and its residents experience the phenomenon of White Nights during the summer months. It never gets truly dark, but instead the city is shrouded in a misty, white dusk that creeps in around midnight. Then around 2:30 in the morning the morning dawn approaches and by 3:30 the birds are already active, chirping and fussing about their morning business.
This time has a magical beauty to it that is emphasized by the fact that you are not in nature this far up north like you would be in Canada, Alaska or Norway, but you are in a noisy, broad-shoulder and large city of over 5 million people. The natural phenomena of White Nights lend the urban environment a surreal beauty that makes me feel as if I were present in a Paul Delvaux painting. The white dusky night mixes with the lights of the city and buildings. The rococo and baroque architecture glows and seems to breathe, taking on a life of its own. The citizens are active and especially on the weekend, even at 2 or 3 in the morning, the streets are bustling with people reveling or quietly enjoying the spectral beauty of the misty dusk and dawn.
For me, returning to Petersburg during this time is the most ideal type of homecoming. White Nights should be experienced by everybody at least once in their lives. There is nothing like it in any other city. For the moment, I do not feel toska, or that I have a small but essential piece of myself missing; instead my soul is glowing like the monuments, cathedrals and buildings of the city during these half lit, half dusky nights. I hope that the connection I feel with Russia and with this city mark the beginning of many more homecomings in the future, for toska has a way of pulling at your shoulder, and Russia has a way of bringing you back.
By: Christian Miller
Term: Summer 2017