ST. PETERSBURG, Russia—I took a trip to Petersburg but ended up in Leningrad. I tread on a manhole cover labeled “City of Leningrad.” I pass the Saint Petersburg State Institute of Technology, proudly bearing a plaque that reads “Leningrad Institute of Technology.” A sign, nearly seventy years old, warns residents of Leningrad to avoid the right side of the street in the event of a shelling. An enormous statue of Vladimir Lenin stands delivering his famous pre-revolutionary speech, frozen forever in impassioned soliloquy.
In the twentieth century alone, Petersburg has known the names St. Petersburg, Petrograd, Leningrad, and St. Petersburg once again. Leningrad’s name change halfheartedly masks the Soviet past that is cemented in the collective memory of its citizens and the beautiful buildings and monuments of its cities. Surrounded by these vestiges, I delightedly walk, ruminate, and live in the same Russia in which my friends and relatives walked, ruminated, and lived, at the brink of the Oktyabrskaya Revolutsia (October Revolution), or in the heart of the Soviet Union, or on the edge of the socialist state’s collapse. I am simultaneously in modern, extravagant St. Petersburg and old, enigmatic Leningrad, shrouded in mystery.
Worlds apart, the two cities struggle in vain to surmount each other. St. Petersburg, bold and pompous, promises to steer Russia into a decadent, capitalist future. But the same Russians who crow and swoon at Peter's promise turn their backs to face Lenin's statue and lay roses at his massive feet. Petersburg and Leningrad—at once modernized and mythologized, accessible and unknowable, two cities and one—converge to form a single imposing, beautiful Russia.
Marina N. Bolotnikova ’14 is an editorial writer in Eliot House.