White Nights and Scarlet Sails

St. Petersburg, Russia

St. Petersburg, once the capital of Russia, was founded in the eighteenth century with the purpose of bridging the gap between the modern and rapidly evolving European nations to its west and the traditional culture of Russia that prevailed to its east.  Although no longer the capital, St. Petersburg still serves as a link between the modern and the traditional.  In an annual festival held between May and June, the city hosts stars renowned for both classical arts and popular music.

Known as The White Nights Festival, the roughly month-long event is a highly orchestrated arts festival of monumental proportions.  It is especially popular for its classical performances, including world-renowned orchestras, opera, and ballet.  Shows are put on twice each day for the duration of the festival, offering attendees a unique opportunity to see a variety of famous works and performers.


While classical arts are on display at the Mariinsky Theatre or Concert Hall, their modern counterparts are hosted in the city’s Palace Square.  This historic site, adjacent to buildings that once housed Russia’s leaders, is converted into an open-air venue for the White Nights Festival.  Popular artists from around the world are invited to perform, and previous festivals have hosted performers of a variety of styles and genres, ranging from Paul McCartney to Shakira.  The Palace Square Stage is another symbol of the two artistic worlds that the White Nights bring together, placing modern artists alongside the Alexander Column, a monument commemorating a very different period of Russia’s past.


The White Nights also include a number of less formal but equally popular events.  As the festivities grew, various districts throughout St. Petersburg began hosting their own carnivals.  In addition to general attractions and celebrations, many districts also emphasize the city’s history, specifically the period of the tsars that utilized St. Petersburg as their capital.  Actors in costume perform both traditional reenactments and artistic interpretations of historical events; similar events also take place on the Palace Square Stage between other events.  Amid the heavy traffic that the White Nights bring are horse-drawn carriages in the eighteenth-century style.  As the city recognizes and celebrates the best of modern artistry, it also gives visitors the opportunity to appreciate its culture and history.

Even after the White Nights Festival begins to wrap up for the year, events continue being held and performances are still given.  The festival season is not strictly defined; nevertheless, most consider it to end with one of the city’s favorite traditions: Scarlet Sails.  The practice evolved from a love story by Russian author Alexander Grin, which bears the same title as the now annual event that it inspired.  The Scarlet Sails have coincided with the end of the school year since the end of the Second World War, and have become a trademark of the White Nights.


The tradition involves ships equipped with vibrant scarlet sails navigating along St. Petersburg’s main waterways.  The display is accompanied by complex fireworks and pyrotechnics as well as the orchestral music and opera that draw many of the White Nights visitors.  It is yet another example of the city’s continuing role as a link between modernity and tradition.

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  7. We normally think of Russia as a very oppressive place, especially with what’s going on now in the Ukraine, but this is a really surprising and festive side of the nation. We have to remember just how rich of a culture they have, how steeped in art and expression it was and is, although that expression was often times censored. This sounds like an amazing festival that would be well worth a visit!

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