x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Lit by a ghostly presence

Feature From now until July, the sun barely sets in St Petersburg. A walk in the city reveals a spectre of Pushkin in the air.

In a small park at Chyornaya Rechka, north of St Petersburg, on stubble ground now surrounded by high-rise apartments and bleak warehouses, Russia's most famous poet came to die. Alexander Pushkin, brilliant but arrogant and quick to anger, challenged a French guardsman to a duel because he thought he was flirting with his wife. They came here to the city's outskirts one night in 1837, drew pistols and shot each other. Pushkin, just 37, was fatally wounded.

The whole of St Petersburg knows the story, but few now know the place, marked only by a simple plinth, the spot where the city's most famous son became a ghost. This city that has given birth to so many legends and mystical tales chooses to recall a different Pushkin, that of his main statue in Iskusstv Square in the city centre, Pushkin with his face turned to the city, arm outstretched, as he must have looked when reciting at court. Pushkin as he is remembered.

St Petersburg is a city torn. Until Peter the Great decreed in 1703 that he would build his capital here, the place was a swamp looking out across the Gulf of Finland. Within nine years, St Petersburg was a growing city and Peter declared it the capital, forcing the nobility who had long lived in Moscow to follow the Tsar west. For two hundred years, the city flourished, erecting striking palaces, long boulevards and spectacular churches, monuments to the wealth and power of Russia. But St Petersburg is also a city of revolutions: it was from here that the Russian Revolution of 1917 exploded, taking the Soviets to power and the capital back to Moscow.

Yet the mist and the shadows in the spaces between the opulence take a psychological toll. Russian writers from Fyodor Dostoyevsky to Nikolai Gogol believed there was something unsettling about St Petersburg, a city that arose from nothing, a city that has taken all its names (first St Petersburg, then Petrograd, then Leningrad) from dead men. I have come to Russia's second city to seek out the ghosts of its literary past. This place where anything can happen and, if you believe the writers, mostly bad things do. It was here that Pushkin's engineer Hermann, in his short story The Queen of Spades, was driven to madness by the secrets of winning cards. Here too where Rodion Raskolnilkov, in Fyodor Dostoevsky's novel Crime and Punishment, threw himself to the ground in Sennaya Square and begged for forgiveness, before being exiled to Siberia. Here that, in Nikolai Gogol's short story The Nose, the Major lost his nose and had it thrown into the Neva. St Petersburg is not just a city of lights; it is a city of shadows.

At first, that is a hard thing to believe. St Petersburg is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, easily the rival of Paris or Budapest. The bridges and waterways, statues and state buildings are all designed with an intricacy that dazzles and speaks of so much love that passer-by's feel it for each other. The main thoroughfare, laid down by Peter the Great and still working, is the enormous Nevsky Prospekt, up and down which people parade, aching to be seen.

Hours after I arrived in St Petersburg, I was striding with strangers through its streets, marching the march of the night, meandering, full of detours, looking like all the crowds around me for adventures in the city's famous nightlife. I was spotted by Marc, an amiable Frenchman I had met briefly in the hotel lobby while I was checking in. He accosted me as if I were an old friend: "Aha! You are the man who is looking for Russian poets!" He was open and full of energy and I was happy take up the offer to accompany him and his friends.

Summer nights in St Petersburg bring an abundance of time and light, two scarce quantities. The White Nights, the weeks between May and July when the sun barely sets, give the city an evening glow even in the middle of the night and pull people out of their homes. They inspire people to action, in this northern city that incubates revolutions. All along Dvortsovaya street, which runs along the "granite-clad Neva" of Pushkin's poems, past the early hours, young people gather in small crowded circles, pushing and hugging, enjoying the novelty of the light. Everyone is young, with the wide gestures and exuberance of youth.

They come, in couples and crowds, to the magnificent square in front of the extraordinarily opulent Winter Palace, to stroll and dance on the cobbled ground, the lights of the Palace colouring the walls gold and green, as if leaping from the pages of a Tolstoy novel. At Dvortsovy bridge, the central part is raised, two thick arms reaching to the sky, framing the three-metre high spires of the cathedral of the Peter and Paul fortress on Zayachy Island in the background. St Petersburg feels unreal at these times, as if the whole city is part of an elaborate society ball from the time of the tsars. Back in Moscow, the urbanites had an expression, vsyo v shokolade, life in chocolate, symbolising the good, luxurious life. But the better expression for St Petersburg would be French, the historical language of the city's elite, la vie en rose, life in pink, with the soft pink of the early dawn settling across the city.

But that's the thing about shadows - you have to look away from the light to see them. It is in the shadows that people find themselves. I am walking with Marc again, making our way from the wide semicircle of the Kazan Cathedral, the thick squatting Orthodox church on Nevsky Prospekt, in a wide arch south and west and on to the Neva. The evening falls gently on the city, dripping like oil through its streets and collecting in the small rivers of the Moyka and the Fontanka. Marc is different from the last time I saw him. I sense he is looking for something. I don't know what and he won't say. Things are unsaid between us, as with strangers. I ask him what he does for work and he shrugs. Something has brought him here, back to St Petersburg from the life he has made for himself in Paris; uprooted him from an arrondissement apartment and into Russian hotels filled with foreigners. I think perhaps he is looking for a wife.

Nevsky Prospekt is crowded, a crush of cars and people. Yellow lights blaze from every shop, apartment and street light. Despite six lanes of constant traffic, the avenue is for pedestrians. In ones, twos and tens they pour up and down the wide pavements, their eyes now fixed left on the shop windows selling handbags and branded clothes from the West, right to their companions, or straight ahead. No-one looks down. The city's heart is a parade of people, a catwalk of citizens, and like every catwalk it is marked by unreality. "Nevsky Prospekt deceives at all hours of the day," wrote Nikolai Gogol in his short story named after the avenue, "But the worst time is at night ... it shows everything in a false light."

Nevsky at night is unreal. It is as if the energy of this one street draws all life towards it, emptying the surrounding city, channelling people, colour and emotion into one singular line on the map. From the middle of the wide expanse of Kazan Cathedral, the crowds of Nevsky are clear - but turn away and face the neoclassical façade of the building, the vast semicircle of columns modelled after St Peter's Basilica in Rome, and there is no-one, just white stone and the black night. Even the statues of war leaders, long dead, prefer to watch the life of Nevsky.

The most famous ghost who watches sits at the Literary Cafe, a smart restaurant of blue tablecloths and deep red walls, long immortalised as the place where Pushkin had his last meal before his duel, and where an effigy sits looking out across the street. Gogol, too, from his spot on Malaya Konyushennaya, can only half-turn from Nevsky. This city is pockmarked by its writers. Its great monuments have been turned into mere backdrops for their fiction. In Gogol's most famous short story, The Overcoat, the very streets and avenues of the city become homes to ghosts. A lowly clerk called Akaky Akakievich is driven to death by the loss of his new overcoat and becomes a ghost, haunting the city. In Pushkin's poem The Bronze Horseman, the towering statue of Peter the Great, the founder of the city, that Catherine the Great had sculpted in his honour, becomes a hallucination of the hero's madness. The striking Kazan Cathedral becomes, in Gogol's hands, a place where a man confronts - and is insulted by ? his own nose. The writers of St Petersburg slighted the city's icons and were rewarded with their own statues and legends.

Later, Marc tells me why he is in St Petersburg. His wife died and he has returned to scatter her ashes in the city of her birth. I now understand why he has places he will go and places he won't; his orbit is constrained by the gravity of memory. By the time we return to the thick, black waters of the Neva, he has told me all about his wife and the life they built together in France. He is reluctant to leave St Petersburg, a city he barely knows, and return home to a city full of memories. I put my hand on his shoulder, too briefly. Things are unsaid between us, as with strangers.

The Griboedov canal jerks and curves around the west of the city, cutting through rows of carefully designed houses, each climbing for five or six floors and then stopping, lost in shadow at the roof, as per an 18th-century decree that no building be taller than the Winter Palace. Haloes of light appear from apartments and doorways, then burn off. It was here that the protagonists of Gogol and Dostoevsky lived and railed against the city. Some of the houses where fictional characters dwelt are labelled for the living.

The unreality of St Petersburg gradually becomes clear in the emptiness of the world beyond Nevsky. This city does not need people. It is complete, perfect in its intricacies without human intervention. A city drawn from the swamp by human contact has surpassed its inhabitants: in the detail of the onion domes of the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, in the frescoes and mosaics of martyrs that cover the churches, in the ornate detailing of the six buildings of the State Hermitage museum, in all these things there is a longing to surpass the corporeal, to achieve immortality in architecture. For the artists and writers of this city, their relentless dismantling of its icons was a way of humanising a landscape of perfection, of seeing frailty in architectural wonders. Even their hymns to the city, like Pushkin's The Bronze Horseman, were a way of burnishing the golden domes to see humanity's reflection.

And maybe even to see their own. I think of Pushkin and wonder if, in the end, he was chasing his own ghosts, spurred on not by his wife's alleged infidelity but by his own insecurities. In the years before his death, Pushkin's early reputation had been eclipsed and he was sliding further into debt, unable to maintain his society lifestyle. The city he loved was preparing to let him go. He thought the same of his wife. Perhaps, through blood, he hoped to reclaim his role as a husband and his rank as a citizen.

The ghosts of the past can absorb you. They absorbed Pushkin and I think they are absorbing me: for most of my time in the city, I have been chasing dead writers, looking for monuments and statues, for spilt blood and old words. In looking for the remains of the past, I have overlooked the creations of the present. I ponder this over warming borsch at the subterranean Idiot Cafe, a warm restaurant on the bank of the Moyka with deep red chairs that takes its name from Dostoevsky's novel. St Petersburg may be infused with its literary past - but it was the city, this living entity, that left writers bewildered and bruised, that lent them the experiences they recreated in words.