A few days ago I set out with clear intentions to cross the canal and make my way towards the Admiralty, my objective being the finale frontier of my museum-going adventures: the Hermitage, whose reputation generated a certain anxiety. “That place makes the Louvre look like a garage sale,” said a friend who spent a few months here. “You better give yourself more than a few days to see it.” I thought about that as I made my way through the city.
Things are big in St Petersburg. The width of the average street here is twice that of the common east coast American city. The blocks are improbably deep and streets are huge, broad, straight, and actually difficult to cross if you are in the wrong spot. Often you must walk the length of a (very) long block just to access a crosswalk. In this aspect they are inconvenient, but the sense of space that this openness and breadth affords is spectacular. A single person on foot becomes a dwarf, walking the streets of giants. It just doesn’t feel like walking down the street in, say, Chicago, where although a few streets are as wide and inexorably straight as in St Petersburg, the buildings are close to the street rather than set back, and they are tall. So even on the wide boulevards of Chicago the over-all effect is an emphasis on the skyline, the silhouette of buildings, rather than the sky itself. But here it’s all about the sky, maybe to remind all of us, the hapless population, of the ever-watchful eye of God (cue the gold-domed ubiquitous cathedral) or, ahem, of the ever-watchful State (cue the outsized palace on every corner, the Massive hulking state office buildings, cue the soaring monuments.)
In October, the wide dome of heaven is a heavy canopy of steel grey, and the biting damp air really penetrates when there’s nothing between you and the sky. With weather like this why on earth make these roads so wide and unsheltered? A helicopter passes overhead, and quickly a sinister answer comes to mind: I picture armies maneuvering easily in the wide streets, riot police controlling unruly mobs, stately troops parading in ceremonial dress. What State doesn’t love a wide avenue? And indeed there is “nowhere to run, nowhere to hide” here, even crossing the street in the wrong place means you are taking your life in your hands. But of course I allow that this isn’t the whole story. Because then, slightly to my surprise, I find myself inexplicably turning the wrong way, lured along the canal and before I knew it, heading towards the Summer Garden. (I think all along there had been something in the back of my mind about the Summer Palace, something maybe I had read a long time ago – that Peter the Great and his second wife Catherine had lived there while they were waiting for some other palace to be finished, and kept house there, chopping wood for the kitchen stove and tending to some animals and otherwise living the way ordinary people do??) In any case, some hazy notion of the everyday life of the Tsar was nudging me in that direction, and then suddenly there I am, standing at the entrance to the garden, golden oaks all in a row towering up in front of me. I step into the park and start down the path and immediately the magic starts to happen: despite the fact that every path in the garden is very broad, in the same outsized scale of everything else in this city, instead of feeling dwarfed and exposed the way I do on the street, I feel something different – the iron fences and hedges that line the walkways and the towering trees on both sides enclose and embrace me. In this garden the gigantic scale unexpectedly yields intimacy, protection!
Just a short journey down the walkway and I am transported out of the city and enveloped in another world. I’m still a dwarf, but a lucky one, who is wandering deeper and deeper into a theater stage set with green leafy set pieces that consecutively open up to reveal further layers of horizon. The ever-renewing surprise of the reveal works exactly because of the width of the walkways, their straightness, symmetry and the way each little fountain gives way to the next. It’s a weekday morning, it’s cold, and for the most part I feel as if I have the entire place to myself. But during the hour that I spend walking here, among the other people I see, on two separate occasions I pass two different middle-aged women, also walking alone, singing softly to themselves.The scale of the place allows for singing – the inconspicuous kind that goes unnoticed, the kind that floats gently up, accepted and absorbed into the sheltering vault of the trees.
Later the same day, in the museum of Printing, I have another encounter with St Petersburg’s extremes of scale, and the playful disorientation caused by juxtaposition of the Gigantic and the Miniature. I am ushered into the somewhat labyrinthine Museum through an unlikely door behind the counter of a bookshop. After an introductory room with displays about the city block in which the museum is housed, I am lead upstairs, across the hall into another apartment. Here I stand in the hallway and look into rooms that have been cordoned off, simulacra of how this exact apartment might have looked in the past. And partway down the hallway is a glass case containing a maquette of an apartment building much like this one, cut away to show how each floor of the building was arranged and decorated and how the floors were segregated by social class, with the poor inhabiting the attic and basement apartments, and the rich man (pictured seated at a vast table in lavish drawing room, being served a fine meal) occupying the middle floors. “You see – rich man, fat!” the lady museum attendant explains to me, pointing to the rich man. (I am the only visitor in the museum and she’s lavishing a lot of attention on me.) We laugh over the model of the apartment. “I would live up there!” I say, pointing to the poor people crammed up in the attic. “I – here!” she says giggling, pointing into the dark hovel of the basement. I feel the model inviting me to position myself – is this model showing this actual apartment building? I try to figure out where I am standing right now, but I am confused. It doesn’t seem to correspond. And the life-sized rooms seem to suggest one era, the decoration of the maquette a different one. In both the little and big versions I’m unclear about where I am in space and time.
My attendant friend leads me out and down some stairs, across a hall and through another door, which opens onto a strange cavernous room. One side of the room is completely empty. The other side has a rope barrier preventing the visitor from walking into it, and contains all kinds of old tools of the printing trade – platen presses, vandercook-style presses, cases of moveable type, guillotine paper-cutters and all of the rest, arranged in arbitrary order, one after the other, with just a little space between them. The room is otherwise unadorned, no informational texts, crumbling areas of the floor are marked by small red hazard cones. The grey afternoon light pours in through the windows. It feels as if someone just hauled all of this stuff in here when they were cleaning out the building, someone who didn’t know what to do with it but didn’t want to throw it all away. And incredibly, in a vitrine just in front of this display area, stands another maquette of this building, this time clearly including this exact room only in miniature! Initially I’m bemused. How funny to have the miniature directly next to the life-sized, the “real” thing! The museum attendant eagerly switches on the little lights inside the maquette so that I can see the detail. The miniature pressroom feels lively. There’s no human figures placed in the scene, but tiny rolls of paper unspool from the tiny press, and sheaves of loose newspaper pages and books are stacked untidily on one another, as if the workers have just stepped out for a moment. I can see past the little furniture pieces, through the little windows on the back wall of the model, through the back of the glass vitrine, the real, life-sized press hulking gigantically in the space “outside.” It’s as if the ghostly future of obsolescence hovers just outside the tiny living world, waiting to overcome it. In what way can I understand the reality of the different but parallel universes – the busy, productive miniature chamber of the model and the silent, unmoving life-sized printing press mausoleum? Then my cell phone rings. I bumble with my bag to grab it. As I fiddle with the buttons, trying to silence the ringing which is reverberating deafeningly in the half empty room, I suddenly see myself as if from above, a tiny figure in a maquette, enclosed in a vitrine, with the gigantic grey sky outside looking down on me, the broad future out there, the coming obsolescence of this age too, all of it shrunk down into a dollhouse that some future museum visitor might peer at, and laugh, recognizing something.