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'City Legends': Philologist Dmitry Kalugin on His Favourite Places in St Petersburg

Let's continue our textual walks around St Petersburg with the lecturers of HSE University-St Petersburg, this time—with Dmitry Kalugin, Professor at the Department of Philology. Find out where you can find ghosts in the city, in which yard at Liteyny Prospect they sell interesting books and over which square the spirit of Dostoevsky hovers in the interview.

'City Legends': Philologist Dmitry Kalugin on His Favourite Places in St Petersburg

HSE University—Saint Petersburg

A Place That Inspired Research

The district which is near the Sennaya square and the university building at the Griboyedov Canal. This is where Raskolnikov, an old lady-moneylender and major Kovaliov from Gogol's short story 'The Nose' lived. This place is full of historical and literary ghosts. In spring, I was offered to deliver a lecture for the series 'Soul of St Petersburg' for the benefit of the charitable foundation AdVita, which helps cancer patients. There, I told about St Petersburg ghosts—where they come from and what they mean.

In literature, ghosts always become signs of a crisis. As a matter of fact, in St Petersburg history, this crisis point was its construction. St Petersburg is a city built on bones created against nature without any background. As Dostoevsky used to say, 'the most intentional city across the globe'.

Creating St Petersburg, Peter the Great distorted a natural course of history, so the city streets got filled with ghosts, and not just human ones.  St Petersburg is connected with daydreams, madness, money, aspirations, and ascension... It is still a former capital! Now, all the dreams and ambitions also became quite phantom.

My Favourite Building in St Petersburg

I don't have any individual favourite houses, so it will be hard to choose just one. Besides, love is a feeling, and feelings can change. Including, the love for the city. My attitude to one or another building depends on a thousand factors: which side of the bed I got out of, how I feel and what I read on the news. Sometimes, I do not like a thing, and sometimes, contact with the environment is beyond expectation. That is why it is impossible to talk about a persistent feeling of a connection with the city. It is changing and living.

In general, I like the St Petersburg life in the centre: Nevsky Prospekt and all the streets leading to it. Though in reality, I do not enjoy tourist places. I never reach the Palace Square—turn at Malaya Morskaya Street. If I want to roam about, I go to Kolomna or Peski.

In the centre of St Petersburg, even time flies faster—there are shops, transport, people go here and there... But there are still some streets as, for example, Kirillovskaya Street where only silence and death are left. As Gogol used to say: 'The future does not come here, only silence and deprivation; all the things which are left from the capital movement'. Total depression.

I also become cheerless because of the district near the Nekrasov market where I spent a lot of time. I don't like this period of my life, a communal flat and neighbours. At the same time, the part of Nekrasov Street closer to Liteyny Prospekt causes different feelings. Here, you can visit friends at the bar 'Chronicles' when you have time. The city is pierced with inner borders which you cross all the time.

A Place I'd Like to Tell Everyone About

I can no longer talk passionately about separate places. But there are nice routes which are not related to anything bad. On my way to work, I cross the Zagorodny Prospekt, go down the Vvedensky Canal, cross the Fontanka River, then—the  Sennaya Square and turn to the Griboyedov Canal. There, I like everything—especially, the St Nicholas Naval Cathedral with the most beautiful bell tower in St Petersburg.

A lot is related to the Mariinsky Theatre but earlier, I liked this place more. Once, there were the Cultural Hall of the First Five-Year Plan and the Lithuanian market built by the project of Giacomo Quarenghi back in the 18th century. But they were demolished. On the site of these buildings, they built the second stage of the Mariinsky Theatre, the look of which does not inspire me at all. I think that if they had chosen the first more shocking project which reminded many people of 'two rubbish bags left on the ground', it would have been easier to put up with such altering of the space. But what they got turned out to be neither fish nor flesh.

The most dramatic place for me is Vladimirskaya Square next to 'Vladimirsky Passage'. There, they built an awful glass building. When I pass it, I literally turn away—I feel the abuse inflicted upon the square with my whole being. Earlier, it was an amazing square, over which hovered the spirit of Dostoevsky... It is a pity that such things happen. But it is impossible to prevent the changes in the city environment. The next generation will perceive this building as something natural.

A Place I Want to Keep Secret

At Liteyny Prospekt, there is a shop of the publishing house 'New Literary Review'. It is located in the yard, which used to look wrecked but now it grew much prettier. I generally like such quiet and private corners. In them, there is little ardour but a lot of life, casual and unofficial. This is an unusual thing for the Soviet public thoroughfares in which I spent a lot of time as a kid.

The Place with My Favourite History

I am used to perceiving St Petersburg through the prism of historical and literary plots. My house is located in Semenza between the metro stations 'Pushkinskaya' and 'Tekhnologichesky Institut'. This district is called this way because earlier, there used to be barracks of the Semyonovsky regiment. But my street is also with a history. There is a house where Lenka Panteleev, a famous criminal of the 1920s, was killed. In the times of Lenka, there was a brothel, and now—a social rehabilitation centre for disabled people.

To be honest, I have always liked unvarnished St Petersburg connected with mysteries and murders... The Engineers' Castle appeals to me much more than the Russian Museum because they say that there is a ghost of Paul I in this castle. Or the Yusupov Palace because due to Rasputin's murder, this place is wrapped in mystery.

My Favourite Place in the Leningrad Region

As a child, I really loved Petergof: we used to rent a summer house there for a rather long time. I used to ride my bike through the parks by the fountains, my gaze used to cling to the ruins of the palaces which were not restored and found something extraordinary. Once, in Alexandria Park, I came across the grave of Erler who worked on creating the park in Petergof.

Unfortunately, I fell out of love with Petergof and Alexandria in their present form. Sometimes, I go there with my son to see the fountains but nothing there warms me up. Everywhere are only museums, everything requires payment and is fenced. The repair is neat but it seems to me that life left these places...

I remember the times when the chapel in Alexandria was nailed up, and draughts whistled in the New Farm. The ruined look used to give these places a wonderful vibe. Now, you have to pay to go through each gate which has not been there before. The world of overgrown alleys disappeared, and now there are only metal detectors left...

What I Hate About St Petersburg

Because of its history. It is a capital city with a regional fate. In Russia, there must be only one capital. St Petersburg was a capital but lost this title. In order to not let the citizens of St Petersburg get desperate, they were told that we had two capitals: one—political, and the other—cultural.

But in St Petersburg, the culture sank into disrepair. Here is a province by the sea as Brodsky would say. With good memories, a rather sad present and an absolutely unclear future.

St Petersburg lacks its own life, it lives on borrowed time just like any region, this is its fate—to live on borrowed time. The city was told that it was a cultural capital, but where is this culture? For now, it is in the past. St Petersburg will come back to life at the moment when it finds its future but the Hermitage and the Bronze Horseman are not enough for it. Even New Holland, a rather famous place right now, is not enough. 

We need more projects by famous people. When a celebrity comes, it changes the city environment straight away. The centre of attraction might become the Radio House but... One of my students once said, answering the question of why Gogol burnt the second volume of 'Dead Souls': 'It did not work out'. The same case is here. It did not work out...

What I Love About St Petersburg

I treat St Petersburg as my child. What do parents usually want? They want their children to be good and become even better. Even though St Petersburg keeps the best in it but there appears buzz of life—interesting ideas, festivals, and projects. The city is developing anyway: some things get demolished, and others get constructed. Life is taking its course, and you cannot do anything about it but I'd like to see new good architects and designers appear. To see the old and the new find each other.

It is clear that it is impossible to keep the city in the 18-19th or 21st century. I don't say that we should preserve it—it has already happened once. I believe that we should treat a city as republicans. We need an opportunity to influence the changes so that the citizens can take part in the common cause. To protect a favourite garden square or a cherished building. To express yourself through art—for instance, graffiti. But in St Petersburg, there is very little of it.

'Splendid city' or 'poor city'?

How can you choose poverty? It is not opera poverty when beautiful actors play beggars. Real poverty is very unappealing, and real splendour is a product for tourists. I won't faint any more if I see gilded columns, shafts, domes... I've seen it a thousand times. For me, it is important to be somewhere in the middle. Open a city on the other side of wealth and poverty—somewhere with a human face. Where there is space for people.