"Ulica razbityx fonarej" and the Petersburg Myth

Jennifer Ryan Tishler, Dartmouth College

Throughout its three centuries of existence, the city of St. Petersburg has possessed an enduring mythos. Although the features of the "Petersburg myth" have changed, incorporating official legends of the city's miraculous appearance in a northern marsh, popular beliefs in its imminent demise, and literary images of "the most premeditated city in the world," the notion that St. Petersburg possesses a unique identity, both part of and apart from Russian civilization, remains unchallenged. The last decade has, deservedly or not, brought a new reputation to the city on the Neva: "The Criminal Capital of Russia."

My presentation will examine the popular Russian television program Ulica razbityx fonarej (Street of Broken Streetlights), a "slightly rosy, good-humored picture of the life and times of a big-city police station" (Bohlen). First I will examine the genre of the "cops-and-robbers" show not as localized, Russian entertainment, but as part of a contemporary movement no less popular in the United States and Germany. Writing about crime programs on American television, Judith Grant observes, "Crime is a highly symbolic activity, and its television portrayal reflects far more than our obsessive fear of criminal victimization" (57).

The central part of my study will examine the ways in which Street of Broken Streetlights reflects and furthers the Petersburg myth. Although Street of Broken Streetlights has achieved popularity throughout Russia, its creators have made the show deliberately and quintessentially "Petersburgian." Episodes are shot on location in and around St. Petersburg, often in recognizable locales, often highlighting the "shabbiness" that is "part of the charm people associate with 'Piter'" (Bohlen). Moreover, Street of Broken Streetlights draws on literary images and archetypes of St. Petersburg. For example, in a recent episode, a detective was seen leafing through a volume of Dostoevskij. Another episode, which featured a search of a Petersburg apartment house, revealed a whole series of Petersburg "types" familiar to readers of Gogol' or Dostoevskij. Street of Broken Streetlights does more than fulfill popular demand for stories of good and evil. It reflects and perpetuates an ideological and mythological view not only of crime, but also of the city of St. Petersburg.