February 2003, St. Petersburg, Russia – The mood of the crowd on the banks of the Neva River was jovial, despite the freezing temperatures. Reminiscent of previous times, St. Petersburg residents had donned their furry hats and heavy coats to stand in line – but this time, they waited not for bread, but for art. Frozen art.
Ten teams from Europe and Russia participated in St. Petersburg’s international ice sculpture competition. Now the masterpieces were on display in a giant walk-in freezer known as the “Ice House”. This temporary tent-like structure stood on the embankment in front of the 18th-century Peter and Paul Fortress, the birthplace of the city itself.
Spirits were high on this special occasion, the first of many events planned for this year’s 300th anniversary of St. Petersburg’s founding. Enthusiasts paraded across the Neva to join the line of frozen-art lovers (or frozen art-lovers). Kids constructed their own creations from the ubiquitous snow and ice and snow and ice.
Of course the Neva was frozen solid, except for one 12-square-meter pool formed by a large hole in the ice. This was the plunge pool for the local “Walrus Cub”, a group of hearty souls who exhort the health benefits of taking a daily dip. Many of the ice swimmers, know as morzhi, or walruses, have been paying regular visits to this spot for fifteen or twenty years. They claim the practice prevents colds, eliminates back and muscle pains and boosts energy.
On this gray day in February, a young “first-timer” stripped down to his shorts and took the plunge. He emerged from the icy waters and stood proudly with his arms above his head in the sign for Victory. He triumphed – not over a runny nose or back pain – but over his two buddies, who had just lost a bet. Snug in sheepskin jackets and snapping photos, the walrus’ pals agreed it was worth the fifty dollars to see their friend’s feat.
Inside the Ice House, the crowds were reviewing the results of the international ice sculpture competition. The contest invited competitors to sculpt on the theme of a “view”. They had three days to work with chainsaws and chisels, bottles of hot water, and 60 tons of ice imported from Sweden. (According to one Swedish representative, “the water of the Tormo [River] is very clean, which is why the cubes are so transparent.”)
The results ranged from the ancient to the abstract. Two teams portrayed Medusa of Gorgon, the feared Greek goddess whose icy stare turned subjects to stone. Other entries were more conceptual, such as the Czech piece Through my Window, which depicted an eye riding a wave of ice through a broken window.
Although temperatures in the Ice House were held between minus five and minus eight degrees Celsius, visitors strolled through as if they were at the Hermitage, admiring and critiquing each piece.
“My favorite sculpture is definitely Freedom,” said one guest, referring to the third-place winner, a Swedish depiction of a prisoner breaking his solid ice chains. “It is such a dramatic image, a metaphor for what has happened in our country in the last ten years.”
Another young woman scowled at the German sculpture entitled In order to See: “That giant eye is not beautiful. In fact it is scary!”
The judges, who were mainly city officials, awarded the top prize to a sculpture called Flight over the Neva. A slender ballerina balanced in a graceful arabesque on the crest of a wave. She held in her hand an ornate fan, carved in intricate detail. That the sculpture bore no relation to the contest’s official theme scandalized some artists and critics. But at least the winning team was Russian.
After surveying the gallery, art lovers warmed up at the ice bar, where vodka was being served – chilled, of course – in solid ice glasses. “At least we can do something with all this ice other than slipping and falling on it!” observed one happy patron.
The Ice House, open from February 1 to March 15, was a gift from Sweden to St. Petersburg for the 300th anniversary of the city’s founding. The location was appropriate, as the construction of the Peter and Paul Fortress in 1703 marked the founding: having captured the formerly Swedish outpost on the Neva, Peter the Great thus staked his claim to the northwestern region. He then set to turn the outpost into a modern western city, named for the tsar’s patron saint.
Unfortunately, the chosen location on the Neva was a swamp; the climate was harsh and conditions were primitive. Forced labor – mostly peasants and soldiers – was used first to construct the fortress and later to dig canals. In the process, thousands died from disease, malnourishment and exhaustion.
Come 1712, however, the tsar declared St. Petersburg to be the new capital, forcing thousands of government officials to resettle. The city became a center of shipbuilding and Russia’s Baltic fleet achieved acclaim in the Great Northern War. In 1714, the winter Palace was built on the banks of the Neva. Gradually, St. Petersburg transitioned from a swampy backwater to a modern European city, Russia’s “window to the west”.
Unlike Moscow’s red bricks and onion domes, Petersburg’s network of canals and baroque architecture gave the city a European flavor, no less because it was built by Italian architects. During the 18th and 19th centuries, aristocratic families spoke French and German interchangeably with Russian. Tchaikovsky’s ballets and Mussorgsky’s operas, which originated in Petersburg, were at the forefront of European culture during this period.
Today, this window to the west is open again. And the tercenary is providing ample opportunity to celebrate this relationship:
- French-sponsored exhibits include “Russia – France, A Century of Friendship” in May, and “Three Centuries of French Presence” at the Russian Museum in September.
- A street festival in May will recreate “Italy on Italianskaya Street”.
- An event “Remembering the Strauss Ball”
- Scotland, Switzerland, Sweden, Finland and the Netherlands have each designated a special week to promote their cultural and business ties with St. Petersburg.
- A series of photography exhibits will explore British, Swedish and Italian Petersburg.
- Respective consulates and cultural institutions are sponsoring Polish, French, British and Norwegian film festivals.
- These European-flavored events are in addition to the myriad of festivals and fireworks that the city has planned for itself.
Petersburg is the birthplace – both physically and politically – of President Putin. The city has not forgotten its favorite son, with election results and polls here continuing to show overwhelming support for him. Likewise, Putin holds his hometown close to his heart, which is also where he keeps his wallet: the celebration of St. Petersburg’s birthday is receiving ample support from Moscow.
Although the celebratory events are taking place throughout the year, St. Petersburg’s official anniversary celebration is scheduled for the last week in May. Plans for high-level visitors and closed ceremonial events are discouraging some local residents, who anticipate closed roads and crowded venues. In fact, the local Pulkovo airport recently announced that all flights scheduled to arrive or depart between May 20 and June 2 would be cancelled. Many residents plan to spend the week at the dacha to escape the crowds and chaos.
Those who stay in town, however, will be invited to daily festivals featuring open-air concerts, parades, regattas and fireworks. One day dedicated to sports will feature football matches and chess tournaments, while the following day a theater festival will host performances on the city streets. Special exhibits at museums and galleries throughout the city will be open to the public free of charge.