Peter’s city, then and now

A photographer revisits—and revisualizes—a city of his youth

GROUP DYNAMICSMay Day in St. Petersburg, 2002.

GROUP DYNAMICSMay Day in St. Petersburg, 2002.

Photo By Jiri Tondl

One of the charms of European cities is that any inkling of their origins is either lost in the distant past or conjured into a class of story called a foundation myth. Somehow, imperceptibly, a convenient Celtic village on a dank river becomes Alesia, drops from sight, then turns up later as Paris.

In Russia, the current capital Moscow has exactly the same kind of obscure pedigree: a river site (among hundreds) one day happens to make good, generally for reasons no one today can quite figure out.

St. Petersburg is different from these.

Peter the Great built that city deliberately to have his fully European home base, his new capital of a militarily powerful Russian state that intended to participate widely in world affairs. One day nothing had been there—in this case, nothing but a swamp where the Neva River met the Gulf of Finland. The next day construction had begun on part of a wall. Peter planned everything: He had the site surveyed, he financed it, and up went his namesake in regular mounds of waterlogged soil draining constantly into a system of canals. The date of founding was May 27, 1703, when the cornerstone of the Peter and Paul fortress was laid.

The founding of St. Petersburg and the style of its layout and construction made manifest Peter’s personal vision for Russia: The new city was his very expensive calling card to the rest of the world.

Catching the rays along the city’s wall, 1977.

Photo By Jiri Tondl

Peter left a legacy that we in Western Europe and the United States have been living with ever since, like it or not. In a week, St. Petersburg will celebrate its 300th anniversary. Commemorations have been going on both in Russia and abroad for many months leading up to the actual date.

By way of recognizing the anniversary here in Chico, the Office of International Programs at California State University has brought a fine exhibition to the Humanities Center Gallery, in Trinity Hall, of photographs of Peter’s city by the Czech Jiri Tondl.

Tondl took many of his pictures when he was a university student there from 1972 to 1977. He shot in black-and-white. He emphasized the everyday life of ordinary residents and stayed away from subject matter the Soviet state might find unwelcome. The Soviet premier at that time was Leonid Brezhnev, and Tondl uses the political tag “under Brezhnev” to identify the rough historical period—not a bad device given the lack of ready social symbols in a country where nearly everything worthwhile carried an official stamp on it, or at least was politicized. The political climate affected even the city#&146;s name.

If Russia has not been the same since the founding of St. Petersburg, neither have the street signs and maps under the branding-irons of official terrain. From 1703 to 1916 the city was called St. Petersburg; from 1916 to 1924 it went by Petrograd; from 1924 to well after the demise of the Soviet Union it was Leningrad, in honor of the founder of the Soviet state; but today it is St. Petersburg again, in honor of the founder himself.

Tondl therefore took his first series of photographs when the city was called Leningrad; when he returned, in 2002, the name had been changed back to St. Petersburg. For consistency of presentation, Tondl determines the second series by the same sort of political tag that he used for the first: the new work is called St. Petersburg under Putin, even though the central government no longer exercises the firm grip on society it once did.

Likewise for consistency, Tondl shot the 2002 series in black-and-white as he had the first, although today he frequently works in color. In doing these two series set in the same city, Tondl has to emphasize textural consistency between them wherever and however he can.

LITTLE BIG MAN Transit of a human figure—a little fugue of life—at the foot of a 120x80 foot poster of Lenin, 1977.

Photo By Jiri Tondl

He has a major subjective hurdle to overcome, since, at the time of his return in 2002, he was 25 years older than when he took the final shot of the Brezhnev series and 30 years older than when he arrived in Leningrad and began taking pictures there at all. The raw effects of age, life experience, professional maturity, and many other factors can wildly distort the memory of anyone who seeks to revisit in middle age the paths traveled in youth.

Tondl is hemming himself in on purpose, to keep his lens disciplined, to keep from lying about what he is actually picking up out there in the viewfinder frame. Compare and contrast. Find memory jogs. Mix in the crowd. Go to the same spots. Make 1972-77 work for 2002, and 2002 for 1972-77; let each period annotate the other. Bring nothing from outside.

He is helped in this attempt at accurate recovery precisely because St. Petersburg is that aforementioned thoroughly Western city; its details are familiar to us even when we glimpse them for the first time. Moscow would be a far tougher assignment to capture in any terms of then and now because both the starting and end points would be of native Russian inspiration, quite distant from us in all regards. St. Petersburg at its founding already had a bit of the lab about it, a bit of the showpiece too, the tricked-out set, the display case presented and lighted in a way appropriate for viewing from the West—viewing with a camera.

So Tondl is confident that we shall mine the pictures accurately. He likes groups and throngs and handles them well. In his images he offers both a complement to the written word and a critique of it. No words can capture the effects or moods of group scenes because language always unfolds sequentially. Photography freezes for us a somewhat different overview of human experience, one that matters greatly but is forbidden to written words to express.

The bridge between image and word is of course the big-letter poster, and in the Soviet state that meant the political poster. Tondl#&146;s work shows this conjunction: His photos of posters from both periods (and of a gravestone with the surname “Censor” on it) make up a theme in themselves.

One of the two strangest experiences for someone from outside when confronting Soviet posters was to walk among objects that often measured a hundred feet in height and hundreds of feet in length. These posters, after all, had to cover urban buildings. Since they both showed something important by their vast size and declared something important by their big square letters, they could not look puny when mounted on the buildings they draped. That would have demeaned the message; a curtain cannot look like a doily.

The other strangest experience for someone from outside was how temporary all this Soviet display looked. Where did all this fabric go after the May Day celebration? Did it get cut up to make cargo pants? The impression, for all its size and grandeur, was in the end one of futile impermanence. It was as if some Soviet political leader might say any morning that the state had been abolished during the previous night, and by noon every sign of it would have vanished after the cloth had been rolled up and packed away. Well, look at the 2002 portion of the exhibit.