Sunday, October 02, 2011

White Nights

The days are getting shorter here in Wilmington, North Carolina. After a summer of heat and humidity, the chill in the air feels strange -- even a little ominous, although there is no hard winter looming, not here anyway. Still, I feel a surge of my old Midwestern anxiety now that darkness descends without the ceremony of languorous Renaissance-tinted sunsets. The dusk that quickly bleeds lavender to indigo feels lonely, even a bit deathly. Already I miss (and romanticize) the insufferably hot summer days, my runs and bike rides done of necessity in primordial, pre-dawn mists or delayed until the evocative penumbra of late evening, summoning that old childhood feeling of timelessness that still makes me think I will live forever.

If saying goodbye to summer is hard for me, imagine what it must be like for people living in St. Petersburg, Russia, to let go of nearly three months of round-the-clock daylight, the famous and much celebrated White Nights. The winters in this city below the Arctic Circle are long and brutal – frozen rivers, bitter cold, a city held hostage by the underworld gods of snow, ice, and near darkness. But suffering is part of the Russian character, and from death and darkness come resurrection and light, the antipodal underpinnings of Christian faith and the theological turf of great Russian writers like Turgenev and Dostoevsky.

This summer, when I take my first tour group to Russia, we’ll be in St. Petersburg during the season of White Nights. Granted, we’ll see them in Moscow, too. But the striking quality of light in Peter the Great’s northern city is supremely beautiful, perhaps owing to the city’s breathtaking location on the Neva River and its fretwork of canals and islands crisscrossed by more than three hundred bridges, some centuries old. In part it is also due to the enduring apotheosis of the city’s architecture, inspired by Western Europe and yet distinctly Russian – icons like the old Winter Palace (now the Hermitage), the Mariinsky Theater (former home of the Kirov), and the Kazan Cathedral (modeled after St. Peter’s in Rome).

Imagine a nearly three-month-long White Nights party, with celebrations along the riverfront just steps away from the Drunk Bridge where his assassins finally tossed the bleeding Rasputin into the frigid Neva. Imagine concerts, plays, galas, and ballets blooming throughout the city like the banks of flowers along Nevsky Prospect and people strolling, laughing, eating and drinking under midnight skies the violet blue of early dusk.

Picture the Neva shot with the rich gold of a Fabergé egg, the river a watery traffic jam of pleasure and working boats making the most of the White Nights’ seemingly unending light. Imagine bars like The Idiot, decorated in Dostoevsky-era style, overflowing with boisterous patrons, both Russian (some from as far away as Siberia) and foreign. After knocking back shots of ice-cold vodka until the wee hours, they spill out onto the summer-bright sidewalks like college revelers on a semester-long spring break.

Visualize me in St. Petersburg holding a vodka tonic and a shisha, maybe tipsily admiring the illuminated draw bridges and rags of denim-colored clouds gathering around a sickle (minus the hammer) moon. Vodka or not, I’m thinking that even three centuries ago, Peter the Great had to know he was onto a good thing. I’m really looking forward to getting to his beloved city in time for the coming season of White Nights and a party I won't soon forget.