Leaving Saint Petersburg: Mourning and Celebration

Why all the mourning as I prepare to depart? “Home” is being dismantled. I give away the few objects I bought to improve my daily life: a cotton area rug, Ikea lights, two humidifiers, a nice green plant, a printer. I pack the books I bought thanks to the Fulbright program and sent to Saint Petersburg via the US diplomatic pouch and which are now going to the European University’s library Foreign-language books are expensive here, foreign newspapers even more so. So I resorted to satellite TV. As I switched between British, UK, German, French and Russian channels, I could not help but laugh sometime at the feast of contradictory standpoints.

I will miss the many Russians I met, their stories willingly shared in response to my ceaseless questioning. I will miss their questions.

I will miss mundane details such as the traffic light where the seconds left to cross the streets are carefully marked. In spite of what St Petersburg people tell me, many drivers have carefully stopped at marked cross walks, light or not, to let me pass. I will miss the reasonably priced exercise club where you can get great one-hour classes for free. I will miss entering food shops and delis with their vast array of salads, whose labels I cannot always decipher properly, meatballs of all kinds, and fresh and smoked sea food. I will miss the many delightful coffee shops, each with its own personality. Strangely enough, I will even miss the challenge of trying to make myself understood through broken Russian, gestures and drawings.

Guided by a scholar of Kaliningrad’s identity, I have treaded the street of Kaliningrad (formerly Königsberg) where Hannah Arendt grew up. I have sat on three panels, which interviewed some thirty Russian Fulbright candidates, and marveled at the creativity and ingenuity of so many grant applications and their authors. I have met three museum curators (more than in my entire American life, I must confess), and visited two of their exhibits, the Pushkin Museum flat and the costumes exhibit on porcelain dolls at the Russian Museum. As I watched the Shurale ballet from the upper tier of the Mariinsky Theater I understood what I will miss in Russia at its best, a unique combination of artistic rigor, utmost technicality and unbridled passion. I observed it in the museums, in the buildings on the banks of the Neva, in some of the shop windows. I read it.

Yes, I will miss the fabulous women I met through the printed word. It is hard to fathom how poet Anna Akhmatova of Poem without a Hero and The Requiem could survive the Stalinist years. Did she draw solace from the austere apartment she shared with others in formerly aristocratic Fontanka House whose inner courtyard and park continues to offer serenity and calm in the midst of a bustling city? Irène Némirovsky, another highly gifted and beautiful woman, and a Russian Jewish émigrée to France, managed to write La Suite Française during her last months in liberty even though she sensed her life would be cut short. She leaves us a sarcastic yet profoundly understanding set of portraits of French families and their German occupiers in Vichy France. I will not forget either the French-Russian grandmother remembered (or semi-invented?) by her grandson Andreï Makine in Le Testament français. The Stalinist regime trapped this anonymous mother and grandmother physically, but hardly intellectually or spiritually. These women transgressed borders moved by brain and heart.

As I enjoy a last bowl of kasha  (delicious porridge thick with seeds and banana slices in this case, enough to keep you going for the day) in my favorite bookstore cum coffee place I strike up a conversation with a fourteen-year old girl who tells me she comes here every Saturday to read and write. With her long blond tress, pale skin, slightly slanted blue eyes and intelligent conversation in halting English she strikes me as the Russian I dreamed about in my earlier years: bookish, cultured, and thoughtful. Every so often her phone rings, but otherwise she is deep in her reading. A new Akhmatova? One can only wish.

About Catherine Guisan

Catherine Guisan is Visiting Associate Professor at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, USA. She has also taught at Utrecht University and Amsterdam University College, Netherlands, at Science Po, University Pierre Mendès-France in Grenoble, France; and, as a Fulbright Scholar at European University, Saint Petersburg, Russia. She is the author of two books A Political Theory of Identity: memory and policies (London and New York: Routledge 2011) and Un sens à l’Europe: Gagner la paix 1950-2003 (Paris: Odile Jacob 2003). The books discuss the ethical foundations of European integration and its interface with the thinking of great contemporary political theorists such as Hannah Arendt, Jürgen Habermas, Paul Ricoeur and Charles Taylor. Catherine Guisan has also published on the American political culture of international relations, the transatlantic relationship, political reconciliation, and cosmopolitan politics in academic journals, including Constellations, The Journal of Common Market Studies, and in several edited volumes. She is occasionally available to give lectures related to the content of her research in Europe and the US. Topics include: Civic Understanding: Why Memory Matters to the European Union’s Democratic Deficit The Greek Crisis and Direct Democracy (after July 2012) US Influences on European Integration 1947-50 and post 2001 EU borders and the “Enlarged Mentality” The recognition of the Other and EU Enlargements: The Case of Turkey Remembering the Principle of Reconciliation, 1945-2010.
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