White Nights is how the St. Petersburg summer nights (in June and July) are called, at a time of the year when it never gets really dark in the pulchritudinous Russian city on the Neva River, particularly not at midnight. White Nights is also the title of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's short novel of 1848, the most lyrical of Dostoyevsky's works (the others, like "Crime and Punishment", can hardly be given this good-humoured epithet). The novel centers on an encounter in the light St. Petersburg summer night and thus refers to the very same phenomenon of daylight at midnight in St. Petersburg, a phenomenon worth a closer examinination.

Are the Russians just bragging?

So let us not involve ourselves with Dostoyevsky's beautiful little novel (actually filmed in 1957 by Luchino Visconti, starring Marcello Mastroianni and Maria Schell), this is principally a matter for the literati.

Today let us be geographers. We may certainly want to come back to "White Nights, The Novel" later, but not today. The captivating question is rather why St. Petersburg brags so much about its light nights, going to the blustering extreme of calling them "White Nights". This certainly irks the inhabitants of a whole string of capitals (and St. Petersburg is not even a capital, in spite of its 4.7 million population!), spread out along roughly the same 60th geographical parallel in Northern Europe. By their geographical Northern rights, the people of Tallinn (Estonia), Helsinki (Finland), Stockholm (Sweden) and Oslo (Norway) enjoy the same light summer nights! Basta! Or do they?

Searching for empirical evidence

Settling such questions calls for empirical studies, as Galileo Galilei taught us long ago. So let us take the afternoon plane bound for Pulkovo Airport (it's late June, remember). This gives us ample time to freshen up in our far too expensive room at the "Grand Hotel Europa", before taking a seat at an outdoor café-table on Nevsky Prospect when midnight nears. Nevsky Prospect is the most glorious of the many glorious streets and canals built in St. Petersburg by the Tsars. It's nearly 23.45, or - if you prefer - 11.45 PM. You fold out your paper, today's issue of "Le Monde", compliments of the airline. Your French is a bit rusty, so the fine points escape you, but you have no difficulty in taking in the fine print - it's almost like reading in broad daylight. You continue brushing up your French through midnight and until maybe 00.30. Then dusk is actually setting in and you throw your copy of "Le Monde" in a nearby waste-paper basket.

Tough reading in Stockholm

The next day you board the plane to Stockholm - it's situated on approximately the same 60-degree geographical parallel as St. Petersburg - and repeat the procedure, this time trying to read a free copy of "Frankfurter Allgemeine" (you flew in on the Lufthansa). But this important German paper turns out to be much harder reading at midnight than "Le Monde" was in St. Petersburg. Not because of the language, but because the light Swedish summer night may be romantically light, but not quite light enough for comfortably reading a paper, not when it's getting close to midnight. You would experience similar disappointment in Tallinn, Oslo and Helsinki, so let us not run up an excessive airfare bill. Instead, let us sit down on a bench in the Kungsträdgården park in central Stockholm and ponder why the Russians are evidently not exaggerating, when they call their St. Petersburg summer nights "White Nights".

Astronomical time vs. wristwatch time

The answer lies in the properties of Time Zones. It's Moscow-time in all of European Russia, also in St- Petersburg. But St. Petersburg is very far from Moscow. It lies on the western edge of the Russian time zone, nearly 8 degrees west of Moscow, corresponding to a difference of nearly an hour in astronomical time. Sweden uses Central European Time (CET), while lying on the eastern edge of the CET zone. So the total astronomical time difference between St. Petersburg and Stockholm is more than an hour - when it strikes 12 midnight in St. Petersburg, it's consequently as light there as it is at between 10 and 11 PM in Stockholm. Similar effects put Helsinki, Tallinn and Oslo at a similar disadvantage at midnight, light-wise. A recommendation: Go from Stockholm to St. Petersburg in late June and sit in a streetwalk café at midnight - it's an unforgettable experience! OK, it's actually just a kind of juggling with the hands of your watch, but psychologically it is still guaranteed to impress you. And it evidently impressed the great Dostoyevsky.


Dostoyevsky Research Station: www.kiosek.com/dostoevsky/

On Time Zones: www.timeanddate.com

A decent map of Northern Europe, showing latitude and longitude