An artistic weekend in St Petersburg

Jeremy Head discovers that everyone loves a Beatle in St Petersberg as he explores John Lennon Street - what else!

6 mins

"Thank you for giving us John!” said Kolya, his face alight with glee.

Everyone loves The Beatles, but the degree of devotion at the John Lennon Temple of Love, Peace and Music in St Petersburg has to be experienced to be believed. In Russia, the Fab Four symbolised far more than music. “They were the one Western band we knew. They represented FREEDOM!” Kolya bellowed.

The ‘temple’ was a candlelit room overflowing with a sea of posters, CDs and other Beatles tat. And then there was Kolya, with his wild beard, his lazy eye and his tie-dye T-shirt. He wouldn’t stop giving me stuff: a calendar, bootleg CDs, a John Lennon badge. There was no way to put it politely. He was obsessed.

I stepped outside (into John Lennon Street, of course) and mused over the yellow submarine murals. Pushkinskaya-10 is a sprawl of art studios housed in old tenement buildings, the epicentre of St Petersburg’s alternative art scene. There was art everywhere: huge orange lanterns in the stairwells; random etchings in the lifts; collages in the corridors. I poked my head inside studios and drank tea in the café, surrounded by students reading battered paperbacks.

Later, Laura – one of P-10’s directors – gave me a potted history as we admired eclectic oils of monster fish by Belo-Russian dissidents in the collective’s Gallery of Non-Conformist Art. “In 1989, just after Perestroika [Gorbachev’s economic reforms], these buildings were derelict. A group of artists started a squat; they created a theatre, a rock club and many lived here.” She’d joined them, giving up her fine arts degree and risking everything in the process. “The authorities tried to kick us out. We staged sit-ins in the courtyard.” Eventually the collective was granted legal rights to the buildings and after years of almost going under, its future was secure.

During the Soviet era, however, a high profile artists’ squat wouldn’t have lasted a week. Artists had to produce works that conformed to Communist ideals or they were ostracised and sometimes forced to leave the country. Real art went underground. Communities held secret exhibitions in peoples’ kitchens. You only knew about them if you were part of the group.

That instinct lives on. There’s a gaggle of galleries concealed in the streets around P-10. D137 is mentioned in several guidebooks but, even with directions, I struggled to find it, hidden in an office basement. I talked to Kristina the manager as I browsed scary green portraits by a young artist called Sergey Sapozhnikov. “We like it that people have trouble finding us,” she said. “It’s like the old days of kitchen exhibitions, where you had to know someone to know where something was going on.”

Further round the corner, once again tucked away in a series of cellars, the Borey Art Centre had more eclectic stuff on show which I loved: rough sculptures of frowning heads, butchered road signs and saucy oil paintings of Russian sailors and their madams.

As well as the exhibitions, people came to the kitchen gatherings to read song lyrics to each other. Local pop groups became adept at penning subversive lyrics that could be interpreted in different ways.

We stumbled on a small bar called Cheshirsky Kot (Cheshire Cat) later that afternoon. Down a graffiti-daubed corridor we found a bar and a group of people sat around a table drinking. A guy cleared his throat and began reading, pausing for effect at key points drawing grunts of approval from his small audience. I didn’t understand a word, but I was transfixed by the expressions on peoples’ faces. They were entranced, almost teary eyed. Who needs an iPod when you’ve got old song lyrics?

Underground art in St Petersburg today isn’t all as sedate as this though. There’s also a thriving live music scene. That evening we headed for a club called Tsokol. Would you believe it? We had trouble finding it. Eventually we discovered another network of smoky cellar rooms. I was delighted to find beer at just 50p a pint. A three-piece took the stage and played some of the most eclectic folk/jazz I’ve heard. The lead instrument was a double bass.

Rising a little late the next day, I wandered Nevskiy Prospekt – the city’s main boulevard – browsing traditional tourist sites such as the fairytale Church on Spilled Blood, the ornate Winter Palace and Gostiniy Dvor – a famous department store. I’ve visited St Petersburg several times over the years and it’s clear that new money is changing the main streets fast. Starbucks and Burger King rub shoulders with designer boutiques where a decade ago there were Soviet grocer shops with only ten things on the shelves.

Surrounded by this consumerist glitz, it struck me that part of the attraction of the underground art scene here is that people aren’t bothered with the trappings of modernity. I’d seen no video installations, no high-tech lighting rigs, no cool designer clothing – just people committed to their art with no real financial motives. It was
a relief to find old atmospheric St Petersburg still exists a few turns off the main street – for now at least.

I finished my weekend at the Russian Museum and its awesome collection of national art down the ages from ancient icons to grand masters. The one era it’s really weak on is, of course, the dissident ‘non-conformist’ art of the Soviet days. Kitchen works of art were usually smuggled out of the country with the expelled artists who painted them. I did, however, find a work from the 1960s that had been deemed appropriate by the authorities. Featuring a chiselled farmer and his impossibly blond wife, with tractors in the background, it was titled ‘Let’s provide the Socialist construction with no less than 15,300,000 tons of high quality dry peat in the last year of the five-year plan’.

Thank goodness for The Beatles.

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