an artist alum in saint petersburg
Cool rains had been falling in Saint Petersburg all afternoon. They had been falling when a friend and I ate an early dinner of falafel and bottled water on Vasilievsky Island; they had been falling when we walked across the Blagoveshchensky Bridge, the Neva River underneath us still and gray. That morning, I chose to wear the only dress I brought to Russia: a conservatively cut cotton smock, turquoise and too casual, now thoroughly soaked.
I had left Boston for Russia a week earlier. Within hours of my arrival, the World Cup began its summer reign on television screens around the country. Fans from every imaginable place paraded up and down Nevsky Prospekt in spirited ensembles, chanting and singing and speaking in languages unfamiliar to my ear, filling restaurants and hotels with their families and friends. Under an almost always present sun, Saint Petersburg refused to rest, and I found myself never sleeping, unable to block light from entering through my window.
The empty streets and raindrops invited introspection otherwise difficult to attain. Walking across Saint Petersburg, my friend and I made our way to the Manege for an invitation-only preview of a major exhibition, “SPB 2103,” which was to open to the public the next morning. I had been offered the chance to attend through my writing residency at a different museum in the city, and it seemed like too cool an opportunity to refuse.
A small crowd of young people in raincoats stood outside the enormous neoclassical building, smoking their long cigarettes. My friend and I entered the massive central hall. Pastel lights flashed on the ceiling and the wispy white curtains, and a table covered in champagne flutes, croissants, and cups of local beer hugged the left side of the room. Historic pictures and videos of Saint Petersburg cycled through in an elaborate PowerPoint projected over a stage. Everywhere, fashionably dressed artists mingled.
I recognized another artist from the museum where I was doing my residency and greeted him, asking how his day had been. In a previous conversation, we had established ourselves as fellow Brunonians—indeed, he had attended Brown for a while, albeit 40 years before me. At the Manege, we made small talk for a few minutes before returning to our three major points of shared interest: art, Saint Petersburg, and Providence.
Over champagne, we talked about how Providence is such an exciting place to be young—a daring and intellectual and creative world. The artist told stories about the music scene from his time as a student. He described old friends from the community who spent their lives making music and having a good time. As these stories went on, I found myself growing homesick for concerts I had attended at AS220 and cups of hot drinks over which I had written poems at the Coffee Exchange. It was impossible not to remember all the rainy days I had experienced at Brown—the endless sound of precipitation pelting my Grad Center window.
At one point, the artist called Providence “the New Orleans of the north,” a name I’m not so sure resonates with my own experience of the city but nonetheless sparked a certain curiosity. Given the diverse opportunities afforded by the Open Curriculum, Brown students likely end up seeing everything so differently, so uniquely—whether it be the entire city or just Brown’s way of operating within it.
After a certain amount of schmoozing, the artist, my friend, and I entered the actual exhibition to see what we had come to celebrate. The premise of “SPB 2103” was thrilling, to say the least: The city of Saint Petersburg celebrates its 315th birthday in 2018, but how do we even begin to imagine how different it will be by its 400th birthday in 2103?
The first part of the exhibition featured a long timeline tracing various periods in the city’s construction. We walked through this part especially slowly, stopping often to read the details about architects and city politics. Next, a central room interpreted the city’s current ways of looking and operating. Finally, an upstairs section imagined how Saint Petersburg might look in just under a century, at its aforementioned milestone 85 years from now.
Looking back, what was strangest is that we were a timeline of our own: My new artist friend proudly represented Brown’s past whereas my student friend and I eagerly represented Brown as it is now. Among ourselves, we could speculate about what lies ahead at Brown and what could come to be in the city around it, but all of it felt far away, making it difficult to construct any fantasy of Rhode Island even half a century from now. Already, so much on campus has surprised me—what can change in a summer never fails to astound me, and what each class brings to campus is lovely in its uncertainty, even if it is just a bizarre new name for the Ratty. But there we were, thousands of miles from Rhode Island, thinking and dreaming of Providence, trying to switch out Russia’s cultural capital for the city surrounding our university campus.
After the exhibition, I walked around all night. The rain finally stopped, and all the sidewalks were glowing. Later, Russia won its soccer game in Saint Petersburg against Egypt, and fans left the stadium in hoards—people dancing and singing on Nevsky for hours and hours. The next day, it rained again.