Reading, writing, and walking around in St. Petersburg

Saturday, April 29, 2017

I've been in St. Petersburg for about a week now. This is the fourth time I've researched here. The first was in 2002, when I came here for two months as a second-year PhD student for language training and exploratory research in the archive. I returned for three months in 2004 during the course of an academic year spent in Russia under the auspices of a Fulbright student grant, most of which was spent in Kazan. And then, in June of 2010, I spent a month here after finishing up my first year at Montana State, doing supplemental research for my dissertation that ended up going into Turks Across Empires. So, up until the moment that I stepped off the night train from Moscow last Sunday morning, it had been nearly seven years since I'd set foot in this town. 

It hasn't changed all that much, of course. Not in the span of seven years. In that respect, St. Petersburg is different from Moscow, which appears noticeably different in some way just about every time I visit it. But then again, Moscow often feels like it's located in a different country altogether when compared to just about any other Russian city, St. Petersburg included. But frankly I think that this is something that I actually like about St. Petersburg: I can still see vague traces of the city that I first visited in 1993. 
My time in St. Petersburg has been spent--and I imagine will be spent--reading, writing, and going on long walks. It's a nice change from Moscow, where I'd been hitting the archives and library six days a week since the January holidays came to an end. The research in Moscow was, after all, great--but it was also exhausting. And, while I was able to do a fair bit of writing at the end of December and early January, since then it's all been research. So, part of the idea of coming to St. Petersburg--aside from the fact that coming here was part of my original proposal for the Fulbright application--has been to get some writing done, in addition to doing more research. 

I got here on Sunday morning, and the first few days in town I was busy mainly with organizing my apartment. I'm living in the center of town for the first time, as previously I'd lived on Vassilievskii Island (twice) and the Petrograd side of the Neva. It's cool being in the center, but a little weird. The first few days I was here I had breakfast in a little cafe a few streets down from me, and more than half of the clientele was made of up foreign guests from, presumably, the big youth hostel next door. But, as I get to learn the neighborhood, I've found a lot of cool spots that don't make me feel like I'm living in the heart of tourist central. 

The Palace Square 
Moreover, living in the center of town gives me places to walk to--we had a string of a few sunny days in a row earlier this week, and on those days I walked to my old neighborhood on the Petrograd side. I have to admit, that's still my favorite part of town, as there's lots to do but it's a bit more of a genuine neighborhood. But, like I said, I'm doing my best to find the neighborhood here in the center. St. Petersburg is much quieter and more laid-back than Moscow, so it's not so hard to do. 

The Hermitage, on the Neva
I wake up in the mornings and do most of my writing then. I'm trying to write three pages a day. At this point, I'm basically trying to make something out of nothing, so it's a fairly painful process at times. The writing is awful, frankly. But, you've got to start somewhere. I prefer to do this, as opposed to trying to make everything perfect the first time around. And, by doing things this way I find that I remember the points that mean the most to me, which I think at this point is better than getting tied down by a multitude of details. So, I plow through and try to hold my stomach as I transfer the half-baked thoughts from my head to my Word document. 

Mosque on the Petrograd side
The afternoons are taken up more with reading, and transferring my reading notes to the computer. When I have an actual copy of a book in my possession, I prefer to read through it once while making notes in pencil in the margins. Then I go through it a second time, picking through the notes and transferring the more important ones to a Word file. For other books and articles that I have on pdf or have taken digital photographs of, I make the notes directly onto a computer file. With the former group, it may seem like I'm taking an extra, perhaps unnecessary step, but most of my book reading takes place on metro trains or in cafes, so my computer is generally not around at those moments, anyway. In any case, I find that going through them a second time usually helps me. 

In the evenings I take long walks. I head down the Moika, then turn on to Nevskii Prospekt at around sunset. The sunsets have been extraordinary this week, some of the most beautiful sites that I've witnessed in quite some time. Walking toward the sun I cross the bridge over to Vassilievskii Island, then head over to the Petrograd side and my old neighborhood. If I'm feeling up for it, I walk back home via the next bridge that goes over the Neva, or I walk into my former metro station--the one that looks like a flying saucer--and ride it home. 

After the busy schedule and the crowds of Moscow, it's nice to be in St. Petersburg. Moscow is exciting, and archive-wise it was where I needed to be for the project I'm working on. And it was really nice to have a chance to live there finally after having passed through en route to other residences so much over the past fifteen years or so. All in all, I've spent about three years of my life over the past fifteen in Russia but, prior to this year, had never spent more than a few weeks in the capital. So, it was great to be there while it lasted. But now, I have to admit that I'm glad to be living a quieter life, and to be focused--no matter how dispiriting the prose can be--on finally trying to make sense of all of these notes that I've been taking. 

I've posted more photos from this week in the Borderlands Lounge. 

Are you a Turk across empires? Order a copy today, then get another one for your libarary.


More commentary, photos, and links can be found at the Borderlands Lounge.

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