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About This Festival

This festival is an extravaganza of the arts — music, opera, ballet, film and outdoor celebrations including the Scarlet Sails, a fleet of red­sailed, tall ships with a gunpowder-packed fireworks show, Russian style. Long walks along the River Neva reveal roving gypsy bands, jugglers, sword swallowers, fire eaters, even stoic Russian mimes who might surprise you with their humor. And come 2 a.m., even the drawbridges raise their arms in awe. The flurry of events creates a manic energy, the Russians packing everything into their short summer celebrations before winter returns, all too soon.

Scarlet Sales and Golden Fountains

White Nights isn’t really one festival but a collection of events around the longest days of the year, from mid-­May to mid-­July. The oldest and most popular event—the Scarlet Sails—began after World War II as a tribute to the popular 1922 Russian children’s tale “Scarlet Sails” by Alexander Grin. It started as an update of revolutionary propaganda of old Leningrad by sailing a crimson­sailed tall ship toward the czar’s Winter Palace on the banks of the Neva. Today, it’s a metaphor for the post-graduation freedom felt by high school students, easy to identify by their red scarfs and giddy smiles. It’s become a well ­loved party that draws more than 3.5 million people to catch the ships, fireworks and performances by local favorites like the St. Petersburg Orchestra on sound stages dotting the riverbank.

The party begins with an invitation­-only event in Place Square on Vassiliyevsky Island that has featured such international acts as Cirque de Soleil and Antonio Banderas. But the spectacle on the river is the real show, with the iconic image of White Nights a crimson­ sailed ship framed by waterfall explosions of red. It gets just dark enough after 11 p.m. to enjoy the fireworks show.

To understand White Nights, you have to take a close look at the city of St. Petersburg. Known as the former imperial capital of Russia, it’s the country’s second most populous city and a gateway to the frigid Baltic Sea. More than a hundred islands connected by 342 bridges make up the city. It was Peter the Great’s vision to build a “Venice of the North” where inhabitants could navigate the city just as easily by walkway or waterway. To better understand Peter the Great’s grandiose dreams, pay a visit to his fountain palace of Peterhof just outside town, which was built from 1714 to 1725. The mighty Neva cuts the city in two and most festival activity is centered off the Nevsky Prospect (the main street) and the southern side of the river. While here, you must visit the world­class State Hermitage Museum and the dark fairytale Church of the Savior of Spilt Blood. Fortunately, sightseeing is easy to do because most festival goers spend days recovering from the long nights and a pervasive calm envelopes St. Petersburg during the day, allowing time to explore the city’s treasures without the crowds.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s short story “White Nights” was inspired by the very city of St. Petersburg. His main character is a perpetual dreamer who is in love with the night and long walks through town. The city comes alive at night and he even manifests relationships with the buildings, as they would talk to him. By doing so, he absorbs the very emotions of the people and the city. As you walk among glorious buildings in different states of decay, you can’t help but feel the emotion of this city—the bright and the dark — and you might even hear the buildings talking to you! It’s a happy time to be in St. Petersburg. If you’re there on July 3rd, don’t miss the Dostoyevsky festival, a daylong celebration of the “Life and Creativity of F.M. Dostoyevsky.”

One of the most important rituals of St. Petersburg is the 2 a.m. opening of the drawbridges on the River Neva. They open during the summer navigation season from April to November to allow larger ships to pass into the Baltic Sea. It’s a spontaneous party on the riverbanks. Try to find some Sovetskoye Shampanskoye (Советское Шампанское), or Soviet Champagne, a relic of the old Soviet Union, and pop a cork in celebration. You won’t be alone. Gypsies will be playing music, dance parties might break out and lovers will walk hand in hand, all to the baroque backdrop of the city’s magnificent monuments. From there you can head off to one of the late-night bars or clubs that pound out euro­pop and house beats until early, or sniff out an underground rave.

Leave the Streets, Head to a Performance

If a street party isn’t your thing, not to worry—Russia’s premier arts and classical music festival, The Stars of the White Nights, is also happening. The Stars of the White Nights festival was created in 1993 by Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Theatre as a “musical gift” to the city. Though you can be sure there will be performances of the most celebrated Russian composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake,” the festival focuses on classical masterpieces from around the world, including some rare treasures not often performed live. There are lots of options from May to July, not just in the historic Mariinsky Theatre, but in other equally impressive venues throughout the city.

And if that isn’t to your taste, there’s also a Jazz Festival, a Brass Music Festival, a Film Festival, a Romantic Music Festival, a Dance Festival, even a Sand Sculpture Festival. With all this going on, it’s surprising that the White Nights has grown to international acclaim only in the last decade or so. Don’t come to the White Nights just for the music, the fireworks, the architecture, or any one thing. Come to St. Petersburg for the magical summer atmosphere and the chance to explore the cultural epicenter of Russia.

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