Uncovering the legend: Can St. Petersburg drive you mad?
31 October, 2018
“This is a city of half-crazy people… there are few places where you’ll find so many gloomy, harsh and strange influences on the soul of a man as in St Petersburg.” ( Fyodor Dostoyevsky: Crime and Punishment)
They say St. Petersburg can drive people crazy. But is the rumour true? And if so, why? Today, we go back to the origins of the legend. We remember the mysteries of St. Petersburg as well as famous inhabitants of the city, who at times exhibited some very unusual, if not mad behaviour.
The yellow city
“Yellow is the colour of fools and mad people,” said Slava Polunin, a popular Russian clown. He even organised World congress of fools with yellow as the theme colour of the event. If you go for a walk in the centre of St. Petersburg, you will notice many historical buildings painted yellow, which might contribute to the madness of the city and its people.
Dostoevsky also used the colour yellow as a symbol of insanity, illness and poverty in his novel Crime and Punishment. Raskolnikovs tiny room is yellow and the house he lived in is painted yellow, too (see picture on the right). The furniture in his victim’s apartment is yellow and even the face of Marmeladov turned yellow as a result of heavy drinking. Sonia Marmeladova made her living on a “yellow ticket” – she became a prostitute in order to support her family – and lived in a room decorated with yellow wallpaper.
This tells us that in times of Dostoyevsky, the poorest people in St. Petersburg often had no other choice than insanity.
Mikhailovsky zamok (Saint Michael’s Castle)
This mysterious palace located in the heart of St. Petersburg was once home to tsar Paul I., the son of Catherine the Great. According to the legend, he had the new residence built after one of his guards was visited by a boy surrounded by a strange glow. The boy ordered the guard to go to the tsar and tell him to build a church and a house in the name of Archangel Michael.
Paul I. and his family moved into the new palace on 1st February 1801, not knowing they would be moving back to the Winter Palace in just 40 days. Eyewitnesses claimed that the new castle already had a strange atmosphere upon the arrival of the tsar family. It was dark and foggy, despite the abundance of candles and lit fireplaces. There was even a thick layer of ice creeping down the walls in some rooms.
Less than a month and a half after the move to his new residence, tsar Paul I. was murdered in his own bedroom. His family immediately left the palace, but the dead tsar himself did not. His ghost is said to be wandering around the castle and was even seen by the students of Nikolaevsky Engineering Academy, which was later established in the abandoned building.
Fun fact: The above mentioned Dostoyevsky was also a student at the Academy – perhaps the sighting of the ghost inspired him to create the character of Raskolnikov, a student going mad in St. Petersburg?
Famous fools of St. Petersburg
As you can see, the old legends, inexplicable events and the general mood of the city are enough to drive anyone crazy. Gogol and Yesenin, two geniuses of Russian literature, lost their mind here. The former burned his manuscripts, claimed his stomach turned upside down and even saw coffins floating in the air on Nevsky prospekt. On the other hand, the lyric poet Yesenin became really aggressive. He was destroying furniture, shouting obscenities and scolding everyone who crossed his path.
Even the most admired Russian writer, Pushkin, was not always behaving like the nobleman he was. His contemporaries told stories about him turning up at an event wearing see-through trousers and no underwear. He was also seen using his wig as a fan to wave himself dramatically during a particularly tense scene at the theatre. One of his friends even recalled him imitating a monkey just to entertain his friends.
Of course, this does not mean that everybody in St. Petersburg is mad. But we could argue that the city has a strange history and unique vibe. Maybe that is the reason why people fall in love with St. Petersburg so quickly. Maybe we are all just crazy in love…
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