Imagine spending all day sightseeing, taking a shower and a nap, and then looking out of the window to see the sky as bright as midday. Your body kicks into overdrive, and the whole day seems to lie ahead of you. The streets throng with people toting guitars and bottles of champagne or vodka; naval cadets and their girlfriends walking arm in arm, and pensioners performing impromptu tea-dances on the riverbank. The smell of black tobacco mingles with the perfume of lilac in parks full of sunbathers. It’s eight o’clock in the evening, and St Petersburg is gearing up for another of its White Nights.
Freezing cold and dark for three months of the year, St Petersburg enjoys six weeks of sweltering heat when the sun barely dips below the horizon – its famous Byele Nochy, or White Nights. Children are banished to dachas in the countryside with grandparents, leaving parents free to enjoy themselves. Life becomes a sequence of tsusovki (gatherings), as people encounter long-lost friends strolling on Nevsky prospekt or feasting in the Summer Garden at midnight.
To avoid disrupting the daytime flow of traffic, the city’s bridges are raised from 2am onwards to allow a stream of ships to sail upriver into Russia’s vast interior. Although normally not a spectacle, during White Nights everyone converges on the River Neva embankments to watch, while bottles are passed from person to person, and strangers join impromptu singsongs around anyone with a guitar or harmonium – chorusing folk ballads or “thieves’ songs” from the Gulag. Those with money often hire a boat to cruise the canals that wend through the heart of the city.
The bridges are briefly lowered during the middle of the night, allowing queues of traffic fifteen minutes to race across. Keeping in lane is entirely ignored, with drivers jockeying for position as if it was a chariot race. By this time, people are stripping off and jumping into the Neva – those too prodigiously drunk to realize go swimming fully clothed.