Impressions of Moscow: Beauties on Nevsky Avenue [Part 2]

In the second of four articles, cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai shares his impressions of the Moscow he knew from a decade ago. He revisits the cultural significance of Nevsky Avenue ((Nevsky Prospekt), a street on which stood literati residences and salons and where feminine beauty was on full display.
People walk along Nevsky Avenue in Saint Petersburg. (Photo: Ninara/Licensed under CC BY 2.0)
People walk along Nevsky Avenue in Saint Petersburg. (Photo: Ninara/Licensed under CC BY 2.0)

After we visited the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg, one of our travel companions Cui insisted on visiting Nevsky Avenue (Nevsky Prospekt). He couldn’t really explain but only gesticulated wildly saying it was a must-see attraction in Saint Petersburg and wouldn’t it be embarrassing if he went back to Shanghai without ticking this box?

Liu, who had been to Saint Petersburg four or five times, said that there was nothing much to see there — the street was like Hong Kong’s Tsim Sha Tsui, New York’s Fifth Avenue, Shanghai’s Nanjing Road or Beijing’s Wangfujing, lined with luxury stores and where money was spent like water. Its reputation preceded it and it would probably be a waste not to see it, but it really wasn’t much.

Besides, Liu added, Cui did not have that much money to spend anyway. In any case, we made plans to visit the Kazan Cathedral just beside Nevsky Avenue so we could drop by. We would window-shop and watch people go by. Surely, there’d be many gorgeous women to admire too.

A general view of Nevsky Avenue in Saint Petersburg. (Photo: Alexey Komarov/Licensed under CC BY 3.0)
A general view of Nevsky Avenue in Saint Petersburg. (Photo: Alexey Komarov/Licensed under CC BY 3.0)

After Cui left with his female companion, Liu told me that Nevsky Avenue was indeed a street of some renown, only that people like Cui were not worthy of appreciating it. He said Cui merely wanted to take a picture to brag about having been there — typical behaviour of a country bumpkin. And he still had the cheek to say he was from the cosmopolitan city of Shanghai when he was really just a fraud who did not know who Russian novelist Nikolai Gogol was.

Actually, Liu didn’t quite like Cui for his brags to a young female postdoctoral student about his vast knowledge and great reputation in Shanghai academic circles. Liu told me privately that this was nonsense — he only had some standing in the Communist Party because he was a deputy party secretary of a certain institution, that’s all. In fact, Liu said that he had led Cui down the wrong path so the country bumpkin would know his place; otherwise, he would puff himself up again back in Shanghai.

The avenue is also home to the former residence of Gogol and Tchaikovsky, and even the cafe where Russian poet Alexander Pushkin drank his last cup of coffee before the tragic duel.

The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood in Saint Petersburg. (Photo: Je-str/Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0)
The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood in Saint Petersburg. (Photo: Je-str/Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0)

The historical Nevsky Avenue is actually one of the most culturally significant streets in the city. It stands beside the Kazan Cathedral, but is also steps away from the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, a church with a beautiful psychedelic onion dome. In the land of fairytales, a beautiful and melancholic princess must have been imprisoned in the steeple of the church at some point.

The avenue is also home to the former residence of Gogol and Tchaikovsky, and even the cafe where Russian poet Alexander Pushkin drank his last cup of coffee before the tragic duel. If you wanted to soak in the atmosphere of Russian literature, you could take in the air that Russian writers Mikhail Lermontov and Fyodor Dostoevsky breathed, and pound the same pavements that they walked, as you searched for the traces of their literature.

A mark of civilisation

The most vivid image of Nevsky Avenue we have in our literary imaginations must be from Gogol’s Nevsky Prospekt. In his descriptions*, 19th century Nevsky Avenue exuded the glamour of the upper class and was a beautiful world that ordinary people could only dream of: “There is nowhere finer than Nevsky Prospekt — at least, not in St. Petersburg. It is its very life blood… Everything you meet with on Nevsky Prospekt is remarkable for its decorum: gentlemen in long frock-coats, hands in pockets, ladies in pink, white or pale-blue satin redingotes and modish bonnets.” 

Portrait of Nikolay Gogol by Otto Friedrich Theodor von Möller, oil on canvas, 1841. (Wikimedia)
Portrait of Nikolai Gogol by Otto Friedrich Theodor von Möller, oil on canvas, 1841. (Wikimedia)

In his trademark satirical style, he described the vanity of Russian women thus, which had me in guffaws: “... the miniature shoes, as light as a puff of smoke, of the young lady who, like a sunflower to the sun, turns her head towards the glittering shop windows… Here you will encounter waists beyond your wildest dreams — slender and narrow, no thicker than the neck of a bottle, at the sight of which you step respectfully to one side for fear of inadvertently nudging them with an impolite elbow. Your heart is overcome with timidity and apprehension, lest by a careless breath you might snap this exquisite creation of nature in two. And the ladies’ sleeves you will see on Nevsky Prospekt! Ah — sheer delight! They are rather like two hot-air balloons and it seems the lady might suddenly soar into the air should the gentleman with her fail to hold her down…” 

We merely stood in the garden in front of the Kazan Cathedral and looked out, watching 21st century Russian women go by.

The Kazan Cathedral in Saint Petersburg. (Photo: Don-vip/Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0)
The Kazan Cathedral in Saint Petersburg. (Photo: Don-vip/Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0)

Liu and I did not go on a shopping spree. We merely stood in the garden in front of the Kazan Cathedral and looked out, watching 21st century Russian women go by. They were just like Liu had described — gorgeous and fashionably dressed, like models strutting down the runway. I was reminded of the blonde and the brunette in Gogol’s story. One really wouldn’t know if their true face was as Gogol had described?

*From the version translated by Ronald Wilks.

This article was first published in Chinese on United Daily News as “涅瓦大街” in 2013.

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