The palaces were like those you’d find in France, Italy or Germany; the canals were like Amsterdam or Venice. Even the city’s name, Sankt Peterburg, had been deliberately chosen by Peter the Great to sound more Dutch than Russian. Over the centuries, architects, engineers, shipbuilders and shopkeepers travelled here from across Europe, taking part in this unique project to westernise Russia. Many of the visitors put down roots and foreign communities became part of the fabric of St Petersburg. In 1914 the city boasted German butchers, Austrian bakeries, English sweet shops. At the city’s grandest delicatessen, the Yeliseyev, goods were advertised in Russian, French and German.
And then there were the cinemas, with their exotic, non-Slavic names. St Petersburg’s main street, Nevsky Prospekt, was full of them – the Crystal Palace, the Majestic, Folies Bergere, foreign titles which conjured up images of European grandeur. In 1914 a new cinema opened up on Nevsky, the Parisiana. It was, by all accounts, a remarkable building. The auditorium was built in the style of Louis XVI of France, with stucco walls and a giant marble staircase. Some of the stalls and the balcony lodges even had their own telephones. And the cinema roof could be opened mechanically so you could relax, watch a film and gaze at the stars.
The Parisiana symbolised everything Russia wanted to be in 1914 – a world leader, an innovator, an industrial, technological and cultural powerhouse. I try to find the Parisiana on Nevsky Prospekt. Sadly, it’s no longer there. It’s been replaced by a Swedish clothes store. Still, I suppose that even Swedish sweaters, socks and bras keep up that St Petersburg tradition of embracing Europe.
If the spectacular St Petersburg cinema halls of 1914 projected a brash confidence, a country oozing money and ambition, the films themselves told a different story. That year, Russian silent movies were obsessed with destruction and violence.
In the film Life in Death, a doctor is so keen to preserve his wife’s beauty that he kills her and embalms her body. And in Child of the Big City, director Yevgeny Bauer foretells the disintegration of Russian society. Desperate to escape her sweatshop existence, seamstress Mary seduces a wealthy gentleman called Viktor. She then drains him of all his money and throws him penniless onto the street. Viktor shoots himself. On seeing his lifeless body, the heartless Mary is quoted as saying, “Well, they do say that meeting a dead man brings you good luck.” She steps over his corpse and never looks back.
In many ways, the silver screen reflected the dark reality of St Petersburg 1914. True, this was a city of plenty, where you could buy anything from foreign maple syrup to coats made of kangaroo fur. But it was also a place of abject poverty for many of the workers, of poor housing, appalling sanitation and widespread disease.In many ways, the silver screen reflected the dark reality of St Petersburg 1914. True, this was a city of plenty, where you could buy anything from foreign maple syrup to coats made of kangaroo fur. But it was also a place of abject poverty for many of the workers, of poor housing, appalling sanitation and widespread disease.
Video: A Film Johnnie