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'City Legends': Historian Ekaterina Kalemeneva on Her Favourite Places in St Petersburg

There are plenty of unexpected sides to St Petersburg: it is a city of writers, poets, architects, rock musicians and their admirers... It is multi-layered, but it always has a soul. Ekaterina Kalemeneva, Senior Lecturer at the Department of History, takes us on a textual walk around the city to find out where the biggest Beatles fan in the USSR lived, what Nabokov and Leningrad architects have in common, and where to find vinyl records.

'City Legends': Historian Ekaterina Kalemeneva on Her Favourite Places in St Petersburg

HSE University-St Petersburg

A Place That Inspired Research

Several addresses come to my mind, but first and foremost is 3 Gagarinskaya Street, where the Small Marble Palace is. This building used to belong to the European University at St Petersburg, and it is where I seriously started engaging in research. 

Roaming about the Small Marble Palace, you feel like you are travelling through its history. The grand Golden and White Halls evoke the 19th century. In Soviet times, this building housed the Institute for Occupational Safety, and it was partially reconstructed. It should be noted that some parts of the palace retain the spirit of a typical research institute, with ficuses on shabby windowsills. In the post-Soviet period, some spaces changed their appearance again; this time to a typical office. So every corridor of the palace preserves the touch of the time that changed it.

I associate the Small Marble Palace with the unrestrained fun of my student years. How is that possible within the magnificent 19th-century halls? Their grandiosity was tempered by the university events held there. At one of the parties, they invited a superstar DJ who was famous for his extraordinary musical taste. All evening, he played only Indian techno! As a result, in twenty minutes, there were only four people left in the hall… We didn't know what to do! We went back inside a couple of times just to stand there out of politeness.

There are also places where I work on my research. I cannot write at home; I have to be outside. I often come to various city libraries—for instance, the National Library of Russia, even when I'm not using its materials for research. I have a special, aching love for it. These are tough relationships which you cannot end. Of course, there is a lot of charm in the reading rooms of the NLR, but you can also meet weird visitors there who invite you to drink cognac and talk about their genius works... But you get used to it eventually and even start missing them.

My Favourite Building in St Petersburg

I moved to St Petersburg about ten years ago. Like anyone who rents accommodation, I have often changed addresses, and I have various memories about them. The Chernaya River area is associated with quiet comfort for me. Especially the low post-war houses in the around Shkolnaya and Dibunovskaya streets! I get frustrated when people reduce St Petersburg to the city centre and take other parts—the Soviet buildings in particular—for granted. Yes, the architecture in the city centre is amazing and there are a lot of monuments, but in the residential areas, the human face is more visible. There, the approach to the city environment is more delicate and creative. It shows in all the details: peonies planted by an old lady, children's hopscotch on the pavement, and even the plumpness of stray cats.

By contrast, I have more melancholic impressions of the Pryazhka district where I used to rent a room. I still come to this river when I want to be alone and dissolve into my thoughts. There is silence which does not overwhelm you, but rather helps you to calm down.

In St Petersburg, historical complexity is very important. Sometimes, it is extremely expressive—as in the Pryazhka district, where the Blok museum neighbours a yellow house. Sometimes, it is less obvious, as is the case with the Peter and Paul Fortress. By the way, I love this place a lot; everyone finds something of their own there. Tourists are told about the foundation of the city, the fortress, and the prison. Local winter swimmers come to the walls of the fortress to sunbathe—and it's hard to say when they appeared there. Here, we can also remember the famous campaign of the Leningrad artists Oleg Volkov and Yuly Rybakov. They wrote on the walls of the fortress: 'You crucify freedom but a person's soul does not know any chains'. The letters were clearly seen from the other shore, so they were quickly covered from prying eyes with the first thing that came to hand. In a twist of fate, these were coffins. However, even with such a diversity of historical layers, it is easy to detach oneself from it. Where else in the city centre can you sit on the beach on the shore of the Neva River?

A Place I'd Like to Tell Everyone About

My perception of the city changed a lot during the pandemic. When there were no places to go to but I couldn't sit in the apartment any more, I finally decided to buy a bicycle. I began to see things in a different light right away. This is because I started cycling in districts where I had no reasons to visit previously. That is how I fell in love with Sosnovka—a huge piece of forest near the outskirts of the city. If you turn to the small paths in the park, in fifteen minutes, you will be in a real forest where there is no hint of the hum of cars.

Once, I went to Rzhevka to find the house of Kolya Vasin. I wanted to imagine the circumstances under which his deep love for The Beatles started and how it fit in with this place. This combination is truly offbeat. It's a typical working suburb where suddenly the biggest Beatles fan in the whole USSR appeared. 

Kolya Vasin was a very touching person in general. It is clear from how reverently he treated the informal Beatles museum he created from scratch at 10 Pushkinskaya Street. Not being a musician, Kolya Vasin became a magnet for a huge music community in the 1970–80s. I dream about someone putting his story in a competent analytical text, as he definitely deserves it.

For me, Kolya Vasin's story perfectly shows what unconditional love is. In his case, love for The Beatles. This feeling gave someone a great light and gave energy to everyone around. But also led to a big disappointment too—in the idea, the world, everything. His love for the band gave him a lot, but also took no less. But of course, that is only my perspective; I cannot know for sure.       

In many ways, the tragic fate of Kolya Vasin is one of the most important stories about the transition from late-Soviet culture to post-Soviet culture. We cannot say that after 1991, there was an upsurge in the informal movement. Some people managed to become a part of a new culture, and others didn't. And some still cannot fall within any framework.

A Place I Want to Keep Secret

I have three favourite music shops with vinyl records: 'Play' on Karavannaya Street, 'Diesis' on Marata Street, and my absolute favourite: 'Phonoteka'. I haven't been to Udelniy Market to buy records yet. It's like a computer game: I haven't levelled up enough to get along with the sellers there yet.

In 'Phonoteka', I like watching the customers the most. Some come to buy new releases, others—the hits of their youth and albums by Led Zeppelin; some people come just to listen. A separate category of visitors is desperate controllers. They don't need any records—they have to check if a seller knows about it.

Now, I buy vinyl records when an album disappears from streaming services but I do not want to lose it. In general, vinyl records are about possessing in many ways—just like paper books. You start thinking a little differently about what you have on your shelf. Besides, for some songs, a single click is not enough—you want them to be next to you physically.

The Place with My Favourite History

The museum-apartment of Vladimir Nabokov on Bolshaya Morskaya Street. However surprising it might be, it is thanks to this place that I did not give up science while working on my candidate's dissertation.

I visited it for the first time when I was eighteen. Back then, the museum had only a few exhibits, and I felt like I was visiting the writer. It was supported by fresh impressions of Speak, Memory—an amazing feeling! I truly fell in love with this house and later took my friends and acquaintances there many times. But how is it connected with my dissertation?

I was writing about Leningrad architects who tried to upgrade the Soviet north and come up with a new idea of what an Arctic town was and what it should look like. In the 1960s, they were developing ultra-modernist projects, but working with them, I reached a dead end at some point. There was a crisis of topic. I did not understand if I wanted to finish the research and where I should move on to.

When I was already on the edge and working with an archival document, I found a very curious detail. I saw that LenZNIIEP—the architectural institute whose staff I studied— was located at 47 Herzen Street. This is what Bolshaya Morskaya Street was called in Soviet times, and this is the exact house where the museum is located. This unusual combination inspired and encouraged me. 'It's a good sign!’, I decided. I didn't give up on the topic, and I still like it in fact.

My Favourite Place in the Leningrad Region

I know that many people like the north of the region, but for me, it quickly gets blurred with Karelia and other territories. I was born in Arkhangelsk, so nothing about the north can surprise me. I even call them 'native landscapes'! This is why I do not have a direct association with St Petersburg. But the south... For me, it is a great contrast!

Recently, I've been enchanted by the red shores of the Oredezh river. You can sail a boat or a SUP board there—it's an amazing place! The nature and history there are interesting. Nabokov's Rozhdestveno estate is located not far from there, but it is currently closed for renovations. 

In the area of Oredezh, there are a lot of deserted estates which were built in the late 19th or early 20th centuries. Only gardens are left of some—but it is possible to find them if you look at the map. Some of the estates were turned into pioneer camps in the Soviet period—next to them, you still can see plaster figures of pioneers. This was quite a widespread practice: there was infrastructure and space, and everything is green. What else do you need? There was an ideological reason: private property was given over to public needs, to kids in particular. Such objects perfectly present not the textbook version of history, but a nuanced one.

What I Hate About St Petersburg

'Hate' is a very strong word. I'll give a rather pragmatic answer. I really want more greenery in the city centre, and I am angry with how easily they rejected it. It is pretty clear why there was not so much of it historically. In the 18th century, there were a few decent roads in the conventional sense; this did not get in the way of greenery. But from the late 18th century, granite embankments started to appear, and so greenery was sacrificed for other needs. But that was logical—there were no regulations on greenery. In Soviet times, such regulations did appear: there had to be a certain amount of greenery per unit of area. In the 1990s, they sacrificed greenery again for road expansion, and it was clear that more was not to be expected. It is the ease of refusal that upsets me the most.

What I Love About St Petersburg

Its complexity and wholeness at the same time. Whatever district of St Petersburg you happen to be in, you know it is St Petersburg anyway. Everything here is recognisable: the historical centre, the modern and Soviet buildings. The locals also have a funny saying: 'We are Petersburgers'. From the outside, it looks a little comical, but even this shows the wholeness. 

The wholeness is also formed by the history of the city, even though it has changed many times and it is perfectly seen in the space. Like many cities, St Petersburg went through nationalisation: the buildings changed owners and occupants and became communal apartments—with a good atmosphere and, at the same time, lots of inconveniences and arguments between residents. I have also lived in such apartments and often talked to my neighbours about their experiences. I asked them how they saw their future. Some of them answered that they would move if they were offered a decent apartment. Others said: 'I was born here, and I'm happy with everything'. This is an important part of the city as well! I won't deny it and say that the real St Petersburg is any different.

Changes in the life of the city do not scare me much—a historian's perspective helps. In some sense, it greatly puts me at peace with reality. Yes, the circumstances can be changeable: the owners and residents of apartments change, some houses disappear and new ones appear in their place... Such stories can be tragic, and there will be many more of them for sure. But they do not become a final point. Rather the reverse, a part of more wide processes.

'The Tear of Socialism' or the first residential building of the Lensoviet by the Karpovka River?

The building of the Lensoviet by the Karpovka River, of course. It works with the space surrounding it in a more interesting way. 'The Tear of Socialism' was built in Rubinstein Street; it took its corner and now stands here. In turn, the building of the Lensoviet organises the space and draws the eye. It is a classical monument of constructivism that you could use to study this style in textbooks. Of course, I like that it is located at the Karpovka River a lot! Walking along it is very pleasant. It is quiet and beautiful in its nonlinearity.

However, the story of 'Tear of Socialism' is not easy either. This is a commune-house which appeared in the late 1920s to early 1930s. Of course, such communes existed in pre-revolutionary times as well—on college campuses. But they were more practical. Here, the concept was a little different. Yes, the communes remained practical as it was easier to live with joint finances. But then an ideological component appeared: it was stated that it was possible to develop a socialist consciousness only if you started with yourself and a small group of people. The poetess Olga Bergholz lived in 'Tear of Socialism'—it is her memories that come to mind while talking about this house. She spoke about the inconveniences caused by common life, the lack of proper regulation and the awful audibility. Often, her words are perceived as exposing the Bolshevik's project to create such commune-houses.