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St Petersburg: Shadows of the Past.

ST PETERSBURG: Shadows of the Past

by Catriona Kelly Yale University Press, hb, 25.00 [pounds sterling]

Difficult decisions confront the residents of St Petersburg whenever they attempt to conceptualise their city's past. It is tempting to blot out the Soviet era, but this would mean forgetting the heroic days during the Second World War. It would be pleasing to cling to the image of it being Russia's cultural capital, but it is important to remember that, as Kelly puts it, there is more to the place than the 'theatre set of the Neva embankments'.

Kelly charts the crucial role of memory in forging St Petersburg's identity from the 1950s to the present day and spends much of her time looking at the contours of daily life. We learn about how the most humdrum issues--shopping, travel, housing, working conditions--changed over the period. What was it like to live in the bad-old Stalinist days, the subsequent, gradually thawing decades, and the promising but precarious post-Soviet era? At every turn the people of Leningrad/St Petersburg reflected on their past and, at the neighbourhood level, used this to construct idiosyncratic mental maps of their landscape. There is sophisticated theory at work here, but it is always just simmering away in the background.

Russians, we learn, often think of St Petersburg as decidedly exclusivist. The city 'has the faintly disapproving, troubled narcissism of a place whose inhabitants measure others' ideas of what matters against their own historical tragedies'. However, just like everyone else, the people perform that uniquely human miracle of placing their finite, mostly boring existences in the context of history's whirligig. Kelly's outstanding book reminds us that the bus route you take and the coffee shops you patronise can play a pivotal role in this process. The past, especially in St Petersburg, is around every corner.

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Author:Wright, Jon
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2014
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