Did my knuckles whiten, momentarily as I gripped the armrest? Perhaps, but with my eyes locked onto the road and its oncoming traffic – I was physically incapable of checking. Later I would also recall an odd sense of abandonment, similar to that felt on a runway at takeoff speed: there’s no going back, there’s nothing you can do; just give yourself to the experience and see if you come out the other side.
Yes, careering the wrong way down a dual carriageway in St.Petersburg, even briefly, was certainly something of a milestone. Perhaps it’s a Russian thing; an impatience with such formalities as road layout and rules, coupled with a determination to get to all destinations ‘promptly’ – even by ambulance or hearse if necessary. My driver had found himself heading the wrong way, so what solution could be more direct than U-turning around a junction into the facing stream of traffic on the opposite side of the road? There he could dodge the honking oncomers whilst cutting across them, head-on until he reached the correct lane. Did that just happen? Apparently so, but seconds later it was all forgotten and he was matter-of-factly making small talk again. Just a normal day on St.Petersburg’s roads.
The city unfolded before us as we headed out, away from the glossy brochure photo-opps and into the prosaic reality that is the solid backdrop to real lives here. These arterial, multi-lane streets are wide and low-built (by our standards) and the buildings speak of age and ongoing maintenance rather than the glassy, polished modernity that knocks-down and builds anew.
I don’t care about the grime, at least this city has retained enough of itself to have a character. It seems that buildings here are often just repurposed over time, with new occupants fitting their lives around the old architecture rather than simply replacing it. This is exemplified by the many ‘Produkti’ stores that lodge in what were (possibly) former merchant houses, old office buildings or the lodgings of small firms 100 or more years ago.
“Ah, we call those Krushchebys,” ‘V’ responded to my query about a row of housing blocks that were undoubtedly new once. Built via an expansion plan during the late 1950’s and 60’s, they had retained the name of their patron: Nikita Khrushchev – though blended unflatteringly with the Russian word for ‘slum’: trushchoby. Yes, you’ll find dark, ironic Russian humour everywhere you go, and that’s just another reason to love ‘em. We continued on.
“This is what powers us,” ‘V’ says proudly, as we drive past a colossal electrical station on the West side of St. P. It’s odd to find something so vast, bristling with pylons and insulated electrical stacks – all existing an inch away from a local street, with taut steel cables lacing web-like into the surroundings, but here it is. Perhaps the tatters of Soviet industrial pride are still extant today, always waiting to be revealed with the next sprawl of slab-like machinery or awkwardly jutting electricals?
We collected members of ‘V’s politely curious family on the edge of town, in a new complex that epitomises the future of Russian urban living. Just like past urban living; it’s all about apartments. Single person/family houses are extremely rare, and rarer still: unoccupied. As the MoveOne expat site euphemistically states:-
“Anyone used to a garage and a couple of acres out back will have to shift their expectations…”.
These housing blocks are undoubtedly here to stay but now they’re cleaner and more ‘designed’ somehow. Places where people may live rather than merely ‘exist’. That’s a Western perspective of course. I’m hoping (for the sake of ‘V’ and his family) that this isn’t a mere pre-rot snapshot of a greyer, crumbling future to come. So, optimistically; think of an enclosed village of stacked apartments arranged into several linked blocks around an inner courtyard of sheltered parking. That’s not so bad, right? In spite of the size and presence of these brutalist structures, there’s still something huddled and protective at work here. Perhaps even: human?
[St.P. Street Photo by roksen_andre]
[Housing Block by Bernard H.Wood]