Night time St Petersburg: Photo-essay

St. Petersburg. 1 July. Half past midnight. White Nights.

For a few days every summer St Petersburg celebrates its 'White Nights'. It's not quite the land of the midnight sun, but a population that knows how gloomy life will be in Russia's second city in six months' time is determined to enjoy the warmth, the relaxation and the fun the White Nights offer.

Finding myself in St Petersburg during the White Nights, I ventured out with my camera to try to capture the mood of the city. I was staying in a hotel near the top of St Petersburg's main thoroughfare, Nevsky Prospekt, so I decided to wander down Nevsky to Palace Square and the River Neva, where people always gather on fine summer nights to watch the bridges over the River rise up for shipping to pass through. 

It's almost midnight, yet the sky is still blue, the roads still busy and crowds of people are strolling around. The famous statues on the city's many bridges take on a new aspect in the half-light.

Bikers are out comparing machines.

Pleasure boats are still plying their way up and down the canals, lending credence to the nickname of 'the Venice of the North'. 'Roll up, roll up, next boat leaves in five minutes!'

The younger generation may be less interested in the boats, they prefer the nightclubs which simply didn't exist in their parents' day. The girls in particular dress to impress.

'So what are you looking at?' the girl on the platform soles seems to ask. Others are more than happy to have their photograph taken.

Just off Nevsky Prospekt I come across the Behemoth Bar and Nightclub.

I'm curious. Behemoth - 'Begemot' in Russian - means 'hippopotamus', not the most obvious (or even attractive) name for a nightclub! It's also the name of one of the characters among the Devil's entourage in Mikhail Bulgakov's wonderful novel, The Master and Margarita: a man-sized cat!

I decide to see to which Behemoth the Club is dedicated, so I go inside. (The Club's named after the hippopotamus.) Some are chilling out...

Some are dancing...

And others really want to be spotted and photographed...

Back outside, I continue my stroll down Nevsky Prospekt. St Petersburg's biggest shop, Gostiny Dvor, (really an old-fashioned shopping centre) is lit up;

while municipal workers are getting on with repairs.

At the end of Nevsky, the spire of the Admiralty Building stands out against the pale night sky:

and a building belonging to the bank, VTB, is carefully illuminated.

It's a short walk from here to Palace Square, geographically and historically the heart of St Petersburg. It was on Palace Square that the 1905 Revolution began, when soldiers protecting Tsar Nicholas II in the Winter Palace fired on unarmed demonstrators, an event that came to be known as 'Bloody Sunday'. And the storming of the Winter Palace in October 1917 was one of the key events of the Bolshevik Revolution. As you approach the Square on a fine summer's night through the triumphal arch of the General Staff Building, it is an impressive sight which opens out before you.

The Winter Palace is lit up; and in the centre of the Square is the Alexander Column, a granite column nearly 50 metres high, weighing 500 tons, and the tallest free-standing column in the world. But aside from the breathtaking beauty of the architectural ensemble, Palace Square can witness some extraordinary moments on a balmy summer night...

While her friends chatted and paid little attention, this young lady, barefoot and with a fishing net and later a hat, started to dance...

...and, like the girls in the Nightclub, she seemed to enjoy having an audience with a camera...

Nearby, however, a bashful saxophonist played behind a screen...

...and chased me away when he saw me take a picture. I continued across the Square in the direction of the nearest bridge (not to escape, but to see the bridge raised). But before that happened, there were other surprises in store...

A trick motor-cyclist going past the Winter Palace...

...and who on earth was this in the crowd waiting for the bridges to move?! And why was he (I assume 'he') dressed like this on a hot summer's night? Others were more appropriately dressed for the weather:

While waiting for the bridges to open, the crowd could enjoy the view across the River Neva, of the 'Strelka' with its Rostral Columns - 

and the impressive SS Peter and Paul Fortress; its beauty hiding its dark history as a prison, as well as its cathedral, which is the burial place of the tsars of the Romanov Dynasty.

Around 2am, the bridges start to rise, to allow ships to sail up river. A little further along the embankment, past the Winter Palace and facing a bridge, stands the headquarters building of the St Petersburg division of the secret police; the FSB in post-Soviet times, the KGB in the later Soviet period. A few years ago some jokers painted a huge phallus on the bridge so that as it rose the phallus presented itself to the secret police. The FSB are not renowned for their sense of humour; but many other residents of the city found the incident hilarious! There was nothing so subversive the night I saw the bridges rise:

Returning to Palace Square, I had a splendid view of the General Staff Headquarters:

before wandering back up Nevsky Prospekt. Despite the lateness of the hour, there was still plenty of life on the street.

Even family groups still strolling along, the little boy's sailor's cap reminding us of St Petersburg's close connection with the Russian Navy.

The sights of the city are given a special look at this time of night.

Some curious vehicles are on the road...

but life carries on as if it were a Sunday afternoon. One man is chilling out...

a group of people - as Russians love to do - have gathered around a guitar...

while others see this as the best time to go roller-blading along Nevsky.

Cool dude.

The police never sleep...

and some have had a little too much.

While others are wending their way home after another summer's night in Russia's second city.

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