lilac on the Field of Mars, St PetersburgManhole, Leningrad, 1930s


St P

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Smells, scents, and stinks of St Petersburg

In the middle of the 19th century the poet and critic Apollon Grigoriev (1822-1864) wrote as follows: “Each Petersburg street has its own special smell that belongs to it alone. Millionaya smells quite unlike Sadovaya, and Konyushennaya differently from Meshchanskaya […] Gorokhovaya smells of a strange mixture of hot bread and wood oil; Bolshaya Podiacheskaya of old boots and dried mushrooms; Chernyshev Lane of sbiten, rotten eggs, and salty sturgeon.”

During the winter St Petersburg filled the nostrils with the rich aroma of wood-burning stoves (unlike capitals in other parts of Europe, where the stoves were fuelled with acrid coal) and during the warm months the city did not so much smell as stink. The stench - of human excrement oozing in the courtyard cesspits in every house, of equine excrement slathered over every street, of unwashed bodies piled together in tenement dwellings, of dust raised by building work carried out as six-storey houses were thrown up and hammered together in haste every summer - was so great that all who could afford to do so left for their out-of-town dachas.
dacha at Ollila, outside St Petersburg, pre-revolutionary photo Dacha at Ollila (pre-revolutionary photo)

These days, the geography of St Petersburg’s smells is less pronounced. The city has a much diminished olfactory presence, its distinct aromas having been swallowed up by a low-key back-of the-nostrils stench of exhaust fumes and dirt. Even the dog shit doesn’t really smell like dog shit these days; it gives off merely the ghost of a smell.

This makes it all the more surprising when individual scents suddenly break through. In early spring no sooner has the ice started melting on the rivers (the combination of strong March sun and melting ice, incidentally, is something you can almost smell - it lightly tweaks the nostrils) than certain streets fill with the unmistakable salad-like whiff of koryushka, a small fish that Petersburgers catch in enormous quantities and fry quickly before eating (in the case of smaller specimens) whole, bones, intestines, tail, and all. Koryushka does not smell at all fishy; in fact, it smells like… cucumber.

koryushka, cucumber-scented fish
Later, as the greyness of the April gives way to the first buds and leaves, St Petersburg’s gardens and certain of its courtyards bloom with clouds of delicately scented lilac. Trinity Square, the Field of Mars, the Michael Garden, courtyards on Furshtatskaya ulitsa, and the garden of the Tauride Palace form a chain of tenuous snatches of sweetness which lead you beguiled through the city’s central spaces, especially in the hour or so immediately after sunrise.