Interviews with Women of Saint Petersburg

With Liza’s help, I collected numerous interviews with Russian women who were coming of age at the time of the Soviet Union’s fall in 1991. I’m interested in the perspective of these women who remember their early lives in the USSR—particularly in Saint Petersburg—and how they’ve seen themselves, and Russia, change in the ensuing years. All of these interviews are meant to help me understand my novel’s protagonist, Viktoria Fedorovna (Vika), who, like the women we surveyed, was a girl during the transitional time of the early nineties.

The interviewees were asked to respond to the following questions: How old are you? How long have you lived in Saint Petersburg? What is your most vivid memory of your childhood in the USSR? Do you miss anything from those times? Do you think Russia has changed for the better since the fall of the USSR? How would you describe the women in your family? Do you think Russians are different from other peoples of the world? Is there anything you would like others to understand about Russia and Russians? How would you describe Saint Petersburg to someone who has never been here? What is your favorite memory of Saint Petersburg? What is your favorite place in Saint Petersburg? How would you describe winter in Saint Petersburg? Do you have any favorite smells in Saint Petersburg? How has Saint Petersburg changed since you’ve lived here? What is your favorite painting (or artist) in the Hermitage?

Of course the responses were all quite different, with a few commonalities. Everyone agrees that Saint Petersburg is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and that its winters are difficult and gloomy, with strong wind and penetrating cold. Also, most every respondent agreed that Saint Petersburg women are beautiful, charming, and intelligent, and that Saint Petersburg has changed quite dramatically since their childhoods, becoming much more luxurious and commercial, with contemporary architecture replacing the old Soviet styles.

My favorite responses involved the women’s particular memories of Saint Petersburg, which were all beautifully different. One woman missed the ice cream stalls her grandmother would bring her to as a girl, while another remembered growing up in a Khrushchevka with many other people and wonderful conversations. Many shared their favorite smells: cut grass on Yelagin Island, the breeze from the Gulf of Finland, coffee, fresh bread, the summer Neva, lilacs on Marsovo Pole, the perfumery in the Passage Gallery, cinnamon, pies.

I enjoyed all the answers immensely, but specifically one that described Saint Petersburg as “a bright, slender city that falls in love with itself, doesn’t let go. In Saint Petersburg you have to obey the rhythm, the rules of behavior, weather changes, humidity, winds, rain, snow.”

Another favorite answer of mine was a respondent describing her favorite memory in Saint Petersburg: “When I turned 18. I had wings behind me, my whole life ahead of me. I was naïve and so happy.”

It will be interesting to see how all of these details inform my character Vika.

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