The St. Petersburg of Shteyngart's Memories: Background information when reading Little Failure

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Little Failure

A Memoir

by Gary Shteyngart

Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2014, 368 pages
    Oct 2014, 368 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte

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About this Book

Beyond the Book:
The St. Petersburg of Shteyngart's Memories

Print Review

St. Petersburg is known for its gorgeous architecture and rich history. A few of these sights, outlined below, are described in Little Failure.

The Smolny Convent
Smolny ConventIn his memoir, Gary Shteyngart recalls coming upon a coffee-table book at a bookstore in New York City, St. Petersburg: Architecture of the Tsars, with the "baroque blue hues of the Smolny Convent Cathedral practically jumping off the cover." This seemingly chance incident triggers a near nervous breakdown in the author, bringing many childhood memories back to the surface.

The Smolny Convent is most distinguished by its pale blue color and its pride of place on the banks of the river Neva. The complex consists of a central cathedral and satellite churches laid out in a cross-like pattern. Designed by the Italian architect Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli, the structure was initially built with the intention of housing Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great, when she was to be a nun after being denied succession to the throne. History however, took a different direction and even though Elizabeth did come to power, construction on the convent continued with support from the royal family. The term "smolny" means tar, the material used to repair the hulls of ships in the nearby shipyard. Today the cathedral is used as a concert venue and the surrounding buildings as official institutions.

Chesme Church
Chesme ChurchAmong the lesser-known sights described in Little Failure is the Chesme Church in St. Petersburg. For an article in Travel + Leisure magazine, Shteyngart wrote: "The raspberry and white candy box of the Chesme Church is an outrageous example of the neo-Gothic in Russia, made all the more precious by its location between the worst hotel in the world and a particularly gray Soviet block. The eye reels at the church's dazzling conceit, its mad collection of seemingly sugarcoated spires and crenellations, its utter edibility. Here is a building more pastry than edifice."

The Chesme Church is built on the Russian Orthodox model under the directive of Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia. It was built to honor the Russian victory in 1770 over the Turks at Chesme Bay. The church is one of the earliest examples of neo-Gothic architecture in the city.

Nevsky Prospekt
Nevsky ProspektFinally, there is the Nevsky Prospekt, St. Petersburg's most famous avenue, which links the city to Moscow. When Shteyngart returns to the city with his parents, many years later, they walk along this road, soaking in the atmosphere. "In the times of Gogol and Pushkin most everything happened along this street, from commerce to love to cafe-scribbled poetry to the choosing of seconds for duels," Shteyngart writes, "Today, it is still the place for a long aimless walk from the low-rent Uprising Square to the city's focal point, Palace Square, where the de-tsared Winter Palace sits on its haunches in a green provincial funk. On Nevsky, chicken is fried in the Kentucky manner, and stores like H&M and Zara will, if given the chance, clothe a newly middle-class person from the shapka on her head to her galoshes."

Built by Peter the Great, Nevsky Prospekt has many sights worth seeing including a monument to Catherine the Great and the neoclassical Kazan (kay-zen) cathedral in addition to the Russian museum and prominent shopping centers.

First photo of Smolny Convent by George Shuklin
Second photo of Chesme Church by Evgeny Gerashchenko
Third photo of Nevsky Prospekt by Alexander Savin

Article by Poornima Apte

This article was originally published in February 2014, and has been updated for the October 2014 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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