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‘Like No Other City in Russia or on the Earth’ : On ‘White Nights’ of June, Leningrad Turns Romantic

Times Staff Writer

The Admiralty spire is bright, nor may the darkness mount to smother the golden cloudland of the light; for soon one dawn succeeds another, with barely half an hour of night. --Alexander Pushkin

As the day stretches into evening, a soft orange glow and deep purple puffs of clouds fill the western sky.

Lingering sunlight gleams on the Admiralty’s golden spire, which rises nearly 200 feet above the Neva River, just as the poet Alexander Pushkin described it more than 150 years ago.

His lines are still recited by Russians to invoke the romantic spirit of the “white nights” that have been celebrated under czars and commissars alike.

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Leningrad, founded by Peter the Great and designed by Italian architects in the graceful style of the 18th Century, takes on an eerie beauty under the luminous skies of June.

Before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, some of Europe’s most famous composers--among them Johann Strauss and Franz Lizst--performed for midsummer audiences in the city then known as St. Petersburg. Today it’s the Kirov Opera and Ballet and the Leningrad Philharmonic.

Although some of its palaces are shabby and blemished, their pale pastel facades and chalk-white columns appear to be transformed by the clear nordic light.

“Leningrad is like no other city in Russia or on the Earth. . . . Its past seems to saturate it,” Colin Thubron, a British traveler, observed in a recent book on the Soviet Union.

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The phenomenon of the white nights still attracts tens of thousands of visitors--foreigners and Soviet citizens--to Leningrad each year.

In some respects, romantic visions override reality. It rains frequently and the thermometer drops sharply when thunderclouds blow in. Because Leningrad was built on a swamp, it is frequently infested with mosquitoes, and Western visitors are warned against drinking the water because of the danger of disease.

“Our climate is nothing to boast about,” a Leningrad spokesman for Intourist, the Soviet travel agency for foreigners, acknowledged to a visitor.

Yet hotels are booked to capacity for the nine-day arts festival that began Friday, and the banks of the Neva are jammed with visitors and residents, mingling to watch the midnight sunsets.

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After the sunset, most of these people stay on, chatting in the blue-gray twilight, until Leningrad’s main bridges open their spans at 2 a.m. to allow ocean-going ships to pass in and out. Many stay until the bridges close again at 4 a.m., then go home by the light of a new dawn.

On a recent night, hundreds of people gathered along the river despite chilly temperatures and a sprinkling of rain. Young women sat on sailors’ laps on damp park benches; a teen-age girl wore sneakers with American flags painted on them; lovers embraced under overhanging branches.

A group of young Russians danced a version of the Charleston to “Putting on the Ritz,” the antithesis of socialist realism but somehow acceptable at the time of the white nights. And the ever-present police did not object to the rare example of spontaneous fun in the Soviet Union.

Other young people brought guitars, sang folk songs on the river bank, and invited strangers to join in. On the benches, chess fanatics extended their usual hours, enjoying the evening daylight.

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Some celebrators paid tribute to the founder of the city, Peter the Great, who is commemorated with a famous statue known as “the Bronze Horseman.” It was Peter who moved the capital from Moscow to St. Petersburg and made it a window on the West, looking toward Europe across the Gulf of Finland.

Not far away is the Peter and Paul Fortress, where many early revolutionaries were imprisoned. It is also where Peter the Great ordered the execution of his son for an alleged conspiracy against the throne. It, too, has a golden spire that catches the fading gleam of the setting sun.

The white nights and the soft summer air, according to Russian poets and novelists, favor romance. They also provide an opportunity for outdoor strolls and long talks between friends who have been inside through Leningrad’s severe winter.

“It’s a very special time; I just love it,” said Charles T. Magee, the U.S. consul in Leningrad.

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For some, though, turning night into day has become routine. “As for me, I prefer dark nights with big stars,” said Nina K. Beliakova, an official of Intourist.

Russian tradition holds otherwise. A short story by Feodor Dostoyevsky, who was once a prisoner in the dungeons of the Peter and Paul Fortress, tells of two lovers who meet during the white nights. The story ends in bitter despair for the young man, despite a fleeting promise of happiness, but the final line captures the romantic mood of the midsummer season as the young man reflects on his brief euphoria:

“My God, one moment of bliss! Why, isn’t that enough to last a lifetime?”


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