Bridge watching spans celebration of summer

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

June 22, 1993|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- Midsummer's Night -- the name conjures up frolicking spirits and merrymaking men, a night when nearly anything can happen.

Last night, the people of St. Petersburg were celebrating this magical time of the summer solstice in their usual madcap way:

They gathered, in the middle of the night, around the city's

drawbridges and watched them open. "Wow," a stranger might say, "these guys sure know how to have fun."

It was the longest day of the year, when light stays until midnight. For about two hours, dusk settles. Then, by 2:30 a.m., the sun rises again. By 3 a.m., it's bright daylight.

Such a long dose of sunshine is exhilarating here, where in the middle of winter people go to work and come home again in darkness, spending the intervening hours under deep gray skies, trampling through several inches of slush.

It's no wonder people want to let themselves go and just get out there and look at a drawbridge. The urge is simply irresistible to celebrate summer -- if you can call it that. Most Americans would find it less troubling to call it spring, thus explaining the frequent 60-degree days, the brisk, chill wind and the clammy downpour that has been accompanying this Russian summer.

To call it summer only raises expectations and invites disappointment and heartache.

But for the people of the city affection known as "Peter," long hours of daylight are enough.

The bridges remind them of how blessed they are, if only briefly.

St. Petersburg, built on the delta of the River Neva, encompasses islands and enough small rivers and canals to crown it the Venice of the North.

The city has about 400 bridges, according to Yevgeny A. Smerdyagin, a technologist with the Bridge Authority. Twenty of those are drawbridges, and nine of the drawbridges are regularly opened in summer.

For most of the year, ice makes the 45-mile-long Neva impassable as it flows from Lake Ladoga to the Gulf of Finland. But as the days begin to get longer, the ice melts -- and the drawbridges open.

"St. Petersburg is the only city in this country," a proud Mr. Smerdyagin declares, "that has so many beautiful bridges that can be opened."

Many say that St. Petersburg has the only drawbridges in Russia. It's difficult to know for sure in a country where until recently it was illegal to photograph a bridge. But it gives St. Petersburg residents a clear reason for pride -- and it brings tourists from other parts of Russia to gawk at these engineering marvels.

The bridges are only opened at night -- restricting the pleasure to the dedicated connoisseur. Once opened, they stay up for a couple of hours, no doubt so the nuances can be savored.

Despite schedules announcing closings between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m., the idea of getting caught on the wrong side of an open drawbridge has taken on a mythic life of its own.

In one well-loved movie from the Seventies called "Autumn Marathon," the hero -- an errant husband -- tells his wife he couldn't get home all night because he got caught on the wrong side of the bridge.

Different bridges have different followings. "Tastes differ," says Mr. Smerdyagin.

Many fans, he says, are drawn to the Palace Bridge, because it crosses a broad stretch of the Neva near the spectacular Winter Palace and imposing Peter and Paul Fortress on Vasilyevisky Island.

Others love the twin steel arches of the Bolshoi Okhtinsky. The sheer length of the bridge named after Alexander Nevsky guarantees a following: it is nearly half a mile long.

St. Petersburg also indulges lovers of art rather than engineering. Some captivating bridges don't move an inch. Two griffins with wings so gold they're blinding in the sunlight hold up the Bankovsky bridge -- a suspension footbridge built in 1825 over the Griboyedov Canal.

Perhaps calculating that for some tourists a bridge is a bridge is a bridge, the city has held a White Nights festival for the last two years. The party began Thursday and ended last night with a huge outdoor rock festival.

The all-night bus and boat tours to the bridges kept drawing their own fervent crowds. The people of St. Petersburg know too well that the days are shortening now. Too soon, the bridges will close tightly once again. The inexorable march to the long, cold winter has begun.

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