From late May until late July, the residents of Russia’s northern capital, Saint Petersburg, are at last relieved from the long and dark winter of hibernation and welcome the phenomenon known as the White Nights. Due to Saint Petersburg’s location a mere seven degrees south of the Arctic circle, during these summer months the sun sets late and rises early, when, as Alexander Pushkin described, “one dawn hastens to relieve another, granting a mere half-hour to night.” The constant presence of this soft pink and blue light breathes new life into the city and seems to simultaneously both inspire and torture its residents. Another one of Saint Petersburg’s literary sons, Joseph Brodsky, was enchanted: “It’s hard to fall asleep, because it’s too light and because any dream will be inferior to this reality.”
12 a.m., my first night in Saint Petersburg: After dropping my backpack off at the university dorm and eating a quick dinner at a Georgian restaurant, I decided to take a walk around and orient myself to this new city. Saint Petersburg’s Baroque and neoclassical architecture immediately made me feel more like I was in Italy or France than Russia, and as I sat along a canal and watched crowds of local youth and foreign World Cup tourists walk by, I lost track of time. When I eventually looked down at my watch, expecting it to be 8 or 9, I couldn’t believe it was already past 12. My body’s internal clock still hasn’t really adapted to the White Nights, and somehow I still always feel a sense of disbelief every time I look up at the sky and then down at my watch.
10 p.m., my third night in Saint Petersburg: A few hours after moving into my new room in my host family’s apartment, my host sister, who is around the same age as myself, insisted on taking me downtown to “walk around.” I never expected that I’d use the Russian verb “to walk” this much, but it seems to be a staple of the Saint Petersburg summer vocabulary. It can mean anything from going for a quick walk in the park to going clubbing all night, and on this night we did a bit of both. When we returned home around 3 a.m., I was surprised that both of my host parents were still wide awake sitting at the kitchen table, greeting us with smiles and black tea, and asking, “how was your walk?” Earlier that night as we walked, I immediately recognized this mural as the work of a young Kazakh street artist from Almaty, Pasha Cas. It recalled a welcome sense of familiarity and pride, as I’ve come to view Almaty almost as a second home, but it also evoked a sense of mystery and discovery, as it depicts Daniil Kharms, one of the many Russian writers who once lived in Leningrad and walked these same streets.
11 p.m., an average night: I am extremely fortunate to have come to Saint Petersburg at a time when a few old friends from Almaty are also living here. Besides the automatic local friend group, one of the benefits has been their apartment building’s roof. Rooftops are sort of an unofficial symbol of Saint Petersburg’s White Nights, and it’s common on nice nights to see Russian youth scattered across the tops of old imperial-era buildings. My friends live in a historic industrial area of the city with views of old factories that still churn out clothes and furniture, new construction projects of upscale apartment buildings that have gone up in months, and the city’s work permit registration center, where labor migrants from Central Asia gather to begin waiting in line each night.
2 a.m., a strange night: This view of the Fontanka River is courtesy of an old Kazakh guy who lives in a historic building in the center of Saint Petersburg in an apartment that is more art museum than living space. I watched the sunrise begin to light up the clouds that had settled over the city after a short rain shower and listened to stories from Kazakh collective farms, Soviet factories, and European business boardrooms, trying to decide what was fact and what was fiction.
4 a.m., the night Russia was knocked out of the World Cup: Just as impressive as Russia’s success in hosting the World Cup, was the Russian national team’s performance. Having begun as the second lowest ranked team in the tournament, they surprised everyone, I think Russians most of all, by making it to the quarterfinals and losing in penalty kicks to the World Cup runners-up, Croatia. It was a bittersweet ending to their run, but a few drinks of ginger-infused vodka and this sunrise helped relieve some of the sting of the loss.
11 p.m., a park near my house: After spending a few long days in the hospital with pneumonia (probably partly from lack of sleep, which I’ll blame on the White Nights), the night I got out I walked several miles from my house in the direction of the water, near where the Neva River empties into the Gulf of Finland. The new Saint Petersburg Stadium, which hosted the World Cup, sits in the distance, in addition to Gazprom’s new headquarters, supposedly the tallest building in Europe.
By: Nick Conlon
Term: Summer 2018