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'City Legends': Sociologist Nadezhda Nartova on Her Favourite Places in St Petersburg

Today, we will go for a walk in Kolomna and Vasilevsky Island with Nadezhda Nartova, an Academic Supervisor of the Master's programme 'Modern Social Analysis'. She looks at the city from the sociological point of view—through people, community and memory. Find out where in St Petersburg is the best place to feel oblivion, why the estate of Derzhavin at Fontanka is good and in which club you can listen to jazz in the interview.

'City Legends': Sociologist Nadezhda Nartova on Her Favourite Places in St Petersburg

HSE University—Saint Petersburg

A Place That Inspired Research

As I am a sociologist, for me, a city is not about architecture, history or urban development but about people and life in it. It is about exploration and oblivion, casualness and memory which are inseparably linked to a person's biography. So, for instance, even the routes, places and even temporality of a city will be different for a student and a family with a child, for a working adult and a retiree. People feel life in different ways in districts when they only moved there, settled down or already left. Along the existing physical city, there appears an imaginary one—related to experience, memories, acquisitions and losses. There are places where you can return but also the unreachable: former apartments, for instance. A huge piece of your life is linked to them but you can't relive it. You won't knock on the door of the new residents! Even if they let you in, everything would be different there. 

Besides, it is interesting for me to see how people create communities, express themselves in a city, change something or, vice versa, do not. In recent years, neighbourship has been developing more actively: both house and district ones. House chats significantly simplified communication with neighbours. You don't have to go to all apartments, organise a meeting of residents, write endless advertisements, though this is still a thing. It is enough to send a message. This is how neighbours share news and problems, borrow tools or sell furniture they don't need.

But, of course, it is not only about comfort. St Petersburg is a big city, and big cities are characterised by impersonality. People walk down the streets, and scrutinise the faces of people around—and there are no familiar ones. In some sense, the neighbourhood community try to change the situation, create intercity connections and personalise the space. People text each other, unite, start planting flowers in yards or meet while running 'on the block'. The local business is developing: it is focused on specific residents of nearby houses. There appear new flower shops, coffee shops, nail salons and bookshops. This is how life in the city is localised, individualised and linked to the place.

My Favourite Building in St Petersburg

I don't have a favourite building but a favourite time of the day—early morning. When I started travelling without my parents, I missed the city a lot. Coming back has always been an important moment of a trip. At five o'clock in the morning, I got off a cheap Moscow train and walked home along sleepy and empty streets, pompous and shabby at the same time. It seemed like I was with them one-on-one. The city belonged to me, and I belonged to it.

A Place I'd Like to Tell Everyone About

Kolomna. I came here for the first time 25 years ago. The district made a depressing impression on me: shabby Pisareva Street, a half-ruined Jaani kirik... In general, something scary. I thought: 'I don't want to live here ever'. Then, eleven years ago, my family and I moved to Kolomna, and now, I can't imagine living in any other place.

Though Kolomna is located 15 minutes away from Nevsky Prospekt, you can feel some sort of provincialism in it. It is definitely not a tourist place but rather a place for the locals. There are a lot of places that an average Petersburger wouldn't reach. Recently, my daughter showed me the shop 'The Bootleggers' in the yards of Pisareva Street. There, they not only sell special American clothes and shoes but also organise film shows and thematic events... I hadn't even known of it though it has been working for three years now!

Why do I love Kolomna? It is a classical city quarter belonging to different social classes where very different people settled—both shipyard workers and rich men. Having been developing as a residential area full of small shops, tea shops and pubs, Kolomna has many interrelated stories. For instance, a chocolate shop related to the name of Grigory Borman: in the second half of the 19th century at Pisareva Street, he founded the confectionery factory 'George Borman' which we know by the name 'Confectionery Factory Named after Konkordiya Samoilova'. Or a prison one: a city prison known as the Lithuanian castle existed for almost 100 years at Matveev (back then Tuyremniy) Street and was—almost like Bastille—captivated and demolished in 1917 by sailors and workers who not only released all the jailed but burnt the building itself.

Kolomna is a very musical district. Here are the stages of the Mariinsky Theatre, the Music House in the Alexeevsky Palace, 'Souz Pechatnikov' in house 17 at the like-named street with very interesting intimate concerts. If you want a musical programme, you can go to Jaani kirik as well as the St Stanislaus Church. You can often hear how someone practices out of the windows.

Besides, I like jazz. This is very complicated music: different, rhythmical, very emotional and—at the same time—intelligent. Very St Petersburg-like. But by contrast with classics, there is not so much jazz in Kolomna. So I recommend all the jazz-lovers one of the oldest jazz clubs—JFC at Shpalernaya Street, a special place.

With St Petersburg, I associate not only music but also photography. I like 'Rosphoto' a lot—a museum with a huge photo collection. Here, I get rest for my soul though I rarely take photos even for work! The museum often holds exhibitions about St Petersburg, they always have an element of game and awareness. On the one hand, you look at the city with someone else's eyes and get surprised by new angles, but on the other hand, learn about some places, remember some things and look for similarities in the mood. It results in mutual recognition.

A Place I Want to Keep Secret

I think there are no such places. Perhaps, I don't like it when secrets come out of nowhere. Now, people close their yards more often. I can easily understand it: it is an issue of safety, and people get tired of endless crowds of tourists. But it is the nature of a city: it should be open as well as the yards. 

Sometimes, I like to visit the estate of Derzhavin at Fontanka—it has a wonderful garden. The Izmailovsky Garden near the Youth Theatre is also a wonderful place. At Fontanka, there is little greenery, only houses, so it is pleasant to see such islands among the stones. 

I have always loved Fontanka for descents to the water. It seems that St Petersburg is a maritime city but you have to try to get to the gulf! The rivers give access to the water, and it is very nice to sit next to them and chat. At a young age, my friends and I often organised improvised picnics at the descents near Fontanka.

The Place with My Favourite History

I would go back to Kolomna of the early 20th century, a time of theatrical and poetic freedom. The actress Vera Komissarzhevskaya and the director Vsevolod Meyerhold regularly walked down its streets. The theatre, which Komissarzhevskaya opened at Officers Street, showed the play based on 'Balaganchik' by Blok for the first time... This bore some excessive intensity and carnival spirit. In regular life, such aesthetics is not my thing—I am a much stricter person but brightness, wildness and creative search mesmerise me.

There is another place I associate with the rebellious spirit. It is much closer to us in time but remains only in memory. It is a rock club 'Moloko' which worked at Perekupniy Alley in the late 1990s-early 2000s. It was a small cellar without specialised equipment, with amateur design and overwhelming thrill. I used to live nearby and went there as if it was my home. 'Moloko' hosted quite famous bands like 'Tequilajazzz' and novices at that time 'Jane Air'. It was a lively place.

My Favourite Place in the Leningrad Region

I am a city person; I know the Leningrad region badly. Our family doesn't have a car. If we go anywhere, we do it only by a commuter train—sometimes, it's a whole story. Especially, if you return in the evening from Pavlovsk or Peterhof when the coaches are crammed full.

Most of all, I like going to Solnechnoe, Repino and Komarovo—to the coast of the Gulf of Finland, to the sea and pines. By the way, I like this coast at any time of the year. It is a perfect place to reboot and spend time alone.

What I Love About St Petersburg

St Petersburg is characterised by some kind of relaxed spirit. There are fewer responsibilities. It helps people to be freer in their lifestyle, leisure and clothes style.

Thanks to this relaxed spirit, St Petersburg is the first to identify new trends. For example, hipsters: now, all the youth wear such clothes but once, such style appeared exactly in St Petersburg. Or vinyl records—they were a rare thing, now, there is a record player almost in every youth cafe.

What I Hate About St Petersburg

The approach to cleaning the city and the snow. Every year, in northern St Petersburg, there is the same feeling: as if it is the first time the snow has fallen and icicles have appeared out of nowhere. This feeling is the strongest in the city centre. There is a definitely cursed place at Soyuza Pechatnikov Street—opposite the HSE building. In the frost, it gets covered with ice but it is rarely cleaned. In strong wind, it is impossible to walk there, you simply ride it!

I also don't like Vasilevsky Island. I wouldn't come here to die willingly. We used to live in this district for several years at the corner of Bolshoy Avenue and the 26th Line of Vasilevsky Island. But this place became foreign for me, even dead. All the life is focused on the 6th and 7th Lines, and then—emptiness. Here, you can ask—what about 'Erarta'? But I feel bad there as well, this museum is too commercial.

Putilova's or Barsova's revenue house?

None of these! I definitely don't like Putilova's house. In St Petersburg, you can't have such small windows, otherwise, it turns into a tomb. Who would want to live in endless twilight? In Barsova's house, the windows are bigger—it is better in this sense.

Two famous writers lived in Barsova's house: Vladislav Khodasevich and Maxim Gorky right before he left for Italy. I am too far from Gorky, Khodasevich is closer, though I am past my passion for the Silver Age. For me, it was related to my youth, new emotions, and new rhymes that opened beyond the school literature curriculum. 

But if I have to choose a place related to a writer, let it be the Blok Museum in my favourite Kolomna. His apartment has a wonderful view over the Priazhka River and Matisov Island. Anna Akhmatova has amazing lines about this place:

I came to see the poet.

Right at noon. On Sunday.

Behind the window panes

Of airy, spacious rooms

Deep frost and crimson sun

Hang over tousled smoke…

Oh, how quietly my host

Sets his bright eyes on me!

Those eyes of his —

Can never be forgotten.

I know not to look in them,

And cautiously avert my gaze.

What I remember is our talk.

A smoky noon. And Sunday

In his house, gray and tall,

By the Neva's water-locks.

(Translated by Eric Gillan)

On the one hand, in these lines, there is a gray and rather empty Kolomna, on the other hand—a quiet and very personal conversation. So it seems to me it is not about houses. It is about people who live in them.