Paris St. Petersburg

Maps of Paris (left) and St. Petersburg (right) circa 1900

o cities read other cities? How does a city inscribe other urban texts into its own streets, squares, and monuments? What architectural rhetoric embellishes its storefronts, what metaphors and metonymies are deployed across its bridges or along its boulevards? To the first inquiry, posed with respect to St. Petersburg, an affirmative answer seems obvious. Accordingly, one must ask which cities have sustained the attention of Petersburg so as to have exerted an influence upon its own text. The response seems evident, but by no means singular: a European city—Amsterdam, Venice, Paris… indeed, Petersburg has set its gaze upon many other urban stories. Well versed in the Western canon of city-texts, Petersburg exhibits its own literary longings without the slightest hesitation.

Paris has attracted the gaze of Petersburg and its inhabitants for several hundred years, although its influence is not always obvious. De rigueur for any perspicacious traveler — what would Karamzin’s grand tour of Europe amount to without a sojourn in Paris? — the Ville Lumière of Louis XIV, with its opulent cafes and luminous streets, sets the standard for European urban modernity even before the turn of the nineteenth century. In the 1820s Petersburg fops, on an afternoon stroll down Nevsky, would refer to this thoroughfare not with the somehow vulgar German prospekt, but with mellifluous, haughty reference to the boulevard. This language of synecdoche, by which Parisian places become Petersburg spaces, demonstrates to what extent the well-to-do of the Russian capital, already in the early nineteenth century, inscribed the Parisian text upon the pages of Petersburg.

My itinerary underscores the multi-faceted affinity for all things French as embodied in the city and the inhabitants of St. Petersburg at the onset of the twentieth century. It illustrates the attractiveness of public urban spaces which don the allure of Parisian-style establishments (The Café de Paris, Kiuba), the embellishment of urban landscape with structures of French design (Trinity Bridge) and of statuary representations of diplomatic solidarity (the France-Russia Friendship monument), and the organization of culturally-relevant attractions (Apollon's "100 years of French Painting: 1812-1912").