I do not know Saint Petersburg, but this place has always fascinated me. Two works by Fyodor Dostoyevsky come to my mind when speaking of this city. The short story “White Nights”, which describes a woman’s expectation for her beloved man and, of course, “Crime and Punishment”. After reading these books, how much have I dreamed of the banks of the Neva, passing beside this young couple or following the wanderings of Raskolnikov in prey to torment.
Finally, I do not know Saint Petersburg, one day maybe, but in the meantime Carma Casula takes us there, with her book Peter. The city of Peter is one of the most emblematic cities of Russia, so much so that it changed its name several times to Petrograd, then to become the City of Lenin, Leningrad, before returning to its name Saint Petersburg in 1991 after a tumultuous century in the history of Russia. In her project, Carma Casula watch the contemporanean society of Saint Petersburg, and how it has been wrought by history.
So Carma Casula takes us through the streets of Saint Petersburg. The city is modern and in many ways, hopes and desires seem the same as elsewhere in the world. But we can still read the history of the town, young people bathe in a basin under the eye of a statue of Lenin, young sailors remind us the crew of the battleship Potemnkin. Throughout the book, the past reappears and interacts with present. A picture of portraits of the children of Dostoievsky in his house museum, or the crowd that seeks to photograph, with their mobile phone, Leonard da Vinci’s Madonna Litta in the Museum of the Hermitage. Seasons come one after the other and the summer bathing gives way to snow ; couples get married, young people enjoy parties… Carma Casula offers here a portrait of the city in the thickness of time.
However, the work of Carma Casula is not limited to showing us public life in the streets of Saint Petersburg. She also meets the inhabitants, and her work of portraiture of these Petersburgers brings a new dimension to the story. The portraits are touching and come as a rythm in the book. A text presents the person(s), followed by a portrait and photographs of what is dear or valuable to them. We enter into the intimacy of these inhabitants, who give us a part of their inner feelings with frankness, which makes these testimonies highly valuable. They are fascinating, and also offer us a new entry key to the city. The younger ones express their hopes, while the older tell us about memories. Once again, these testimonies relate the everyday life, the sorrows and the hopes. Some are more touching than others, but these are individual considerations that appeal to our own perception or empathy. A way of deciphering a story in the light of our own memories and above all, of what we expect to find there. We meet these characters as we would meet them in the streets while a conversation takes place, we share ideas, we learn things we did not know before, and we read the history with more humility. The highlights of the twentieth century are unfolding : the horror of the siege of Leningrad by Germans Nazis is told with strength ; we are moved by the story of a couple formed during the Spanish Civil War, when Soviet Union sent troops to train revolutionary troops (this is my favorite story). We meet an Orthodox priest, a young model, a couple of entrepreneurs, a former soldier and many other characters who, at the end, make us feel that we know a little better this majestic city ans its inhabitants.
There are also some small details in this book that provide us some additional information, such as this comparison of kitchens with a bourgeois design “made by Ikea”, in opposition to a middle class kitchen or the extreme poverty of the Kommounalki shared kitchens. These three pictures remarkably show the diversity of the habitats and populations of Saint Petersburg; the stange feeling of what the capitalist dream has been able to represent since 1991, when the population has reappropriated its city.
What I love with this book its ability to let us coming back, for a moment or for longer, to go for a walk in the streets of Saint Petersburg, when we have an hour to lose!
Hardcover book published by Editorial RM in 2016. 17,5 x 23 cm. 234 pages, 130 color photographs