Librarian’s wit brightens already ‘dandy’ St. Petersburg exhibition

The exhibit budget of the Spencer Research Library at Kansas University has gone bust, but the show on display through July 3 is a dandy. Its subject is the 300-year history of St. Petersburg, Russia. The city, built by Peter the Great in a malarial flood plain, was designed with European cities in mind.

The Spencer exhibit is limited in scope. Divide 300 years by nine display cases, and you’ll see why. The free exhibit catalog was written by curator Sally Haines. Take it with you on the tour. Its information-packed and full of merriment.

Haines writes, for example, “Long before the founding of St. Petersburg, Europeans looked toward Russia like rabbits casing the carrot patch.”

A description of 19th-century Russian military uniforms manages to be both cynical and kindly: “One would think the tassels and plumes and chinstraps would have slowed a guy down and made him want to scratch rather than fight.”

Haines, a KU associate special collections librarian, spent a year researching her subject. The exhibit and catalog are both titled “Frosted Windows: 300 Years of St. Petersburg Through Western Eyes.”

The city has had several names in its history, including Petrograd and Leningrad. It was built as a “window to the West,” by the 6-foot, 6-inch-tall Peter, who imported architects and artists to help dream into existence an enlightened, Western-looking city.

Not that Peter himself was entirely enlightened. In the late 1690s, for example, he executed hundreds of Russian musketeers, whom he considered backward-thinking. Then, in 1718, he had his son put to death.

In the exhibit, my favorite case is devoted to images of the natural world.

A delightful print of an owl shows up in a volume by German collector Peter Simon Pallas, who came to St. Petersburg at age 26, led lots of expeditions and described many new species of plants and animals.

The most dramatic image in the case is a 15-inch-long engraving of a flea in an encyclopedia compiled by a Frenchman, Denis Diderot.

The image reminds Haines not only of the fear of the black plague possessed by Catherine the Great, Peter’s successor, but also the soulful friendship between Diderot and Catherine.

As Peter traveled through Western Europe, Haines says, he bought lots of plant and stuffed-animal specimens. Once back in Russia, he gathered them into the largest natural history collection of its day.

The collection became the foundation of the Russian National Academy of Sciences, Haines says.

A map in the exhibit prompts Haines to note in her catalog that St. Petersburg lacked a lot of the resources required to make a city. It was without a source of fresh water, for one. Timber was scarce, for another.

The city was also built at considerable human cost. Plenty of Russians fell prey to diseases constructing it, and those who survived probably regretted its placement in a flood plain.

Haines writes, “But Peter had cast a determined eye on turning the site into a city with more or less (mostly less) solid underpinnings, which gave way, nevertheless, to flood after flood, year after year.

“Aleksandr Pushkin’s poem ‘The Bronze Horseman’ has to do with the great flood of 1824, the worst one of all time.”

Then, in one of those twists of prose that makes the catalog fun to read, Haines adds, “We don’t learn, do we?”

— Roger Martin is a research writer and editor for the Kansas University Center for Research and editor of Explore, KU’s research magazine Web site, which can be found at Martin’s e-mail address is