Hint: It involves vodka. Lots of vodka.
St. Petersburg is an absolutely spectacular destination that for whatever reason, a disproportionately small number of people choose to experience. It’s Venice on steroids, with a new palace around every corner, and if it were just down the road from Paris, it would be a brutally competitive rival among the most heavily-touristed destinations in the world, giving every top European capital a serious run for its money.
And once a year, its 5 million residents and their visiting buddies throw a massive city-wide party that shuts the whole operation down with streets packed so densely with partying Russians that you’d forget civilization functions properly here at all. These are the White Nights, so called because they take place among the longest days of the year, which, given St. Petersburg’s position so far north of the equator, means the nights are lit with daylight for all but a few brief post-midnight hours.
And although more respectable attractions populate the various artistic centers of the city during the festival, such as ballet performances and other spectacles of sophisticated arts and theatrical craft, you’d forget this was a “cultural festival” if you walked outside anytime after dinner.
By the time the sun goes down, the streets are packed. For block after block in every direction, the city is packed so densely with revelrous Russians that you’ll get stuck wherever you are, and if you’re anywhere near Palace Square, which hosts one of several massive music stages, you’ll have to dig your way out.
With pop stars playing the main stage of Palace Square, even including Western headliners like the Rolling Stones or Paul McCartney, you’d be forgiven for thinking you accidentally found yourself smack in the middle of Glastonbury or Coachella, but with a city around it for some reason. And that just makes it better, since festival organizers can’t monopolize the beverage selection and gouge you on prices.
By the time the sun dips down over the horizon, the canals are packed. Everyone wants a good spot for the fireworks show, and no matter how many displays you’ve seen before, things feel a little different when you’re surrounded by 5 million people, all quietly staring into the sky and ooing and awwing in unanimous wonder.
Few things bring so many people together as music, fireworks, and massive festivals, and this is a big one. It’s hard not to feel some very adorable togetherness.
Oh, and they bring their kids here too. Bedtime goes right out the window as 5 year olds tag along for the party and have themselves a grand old time. Some of them seem to be having as good a time as anyone.
For a solo foreigner with only first year Russian expertise, I could only observe how the camaraderie and singer/audience interactions I witnessed seemed much the same as anywhere else. Millions of people just want to have a great time, and performers show up to dazzle as best they can. It was perhaps an unusual way to be reminded of how everyone everywhere wants the same things out of life, but there it is. Everyone appreciates a good party.
Oh, and the next morning? I’ve never seen so many broken vodka bottles in my life.
Russia knows how to party.