- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 25, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG — A light snow blankets the landscape as our British Airways 757 touches down at St. Petersburg’s Pulkovo International Airport. The drive into town through grim industrial suburbs hardly prepares us for the heart of Peter the Great’s magnificent capital: palace after baroque 18th- and 19th-century palace, in shades of pale green, yellow, ocher, rose and blue, set off with windows and pillars in white and ornate ironwork and decorations in shining gold.

The palaces line the banks of the Neva River and the canals crisscrossing the city. Everything glistens in the last rays of the setting winter sun; when night falls, everything glows in electric illuminations, an unforgettable sight that takes the breath away.

This is where Pavlova, Nijinsky, Nureyev and Baryshnikov danced and where Fokine, Petipa and Diaghilev created the ballets that brought fame to the Mariinsky Theater — called the Kirov in honor of the popular first secretary of the St. Petersburg Communist Party after the revolution. Here Marc Chagall, Kazimir Malevich and the suprematists painted; Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevski, Anna Akhmatova and her protege, Joseph Brodsky, wrote and Nabokov was born; Glinka, Mussorgsky, Borodin, Anton Rubinstein, Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky composed here. Tchaikovsky, Gogol and Dostoevski lived only a few houses apart. What a feast.

St. Petersburg is called the Venice of the North, for the city encompasses dozens of islands, rivers and canals. Unlike the waterways in Venice, however, the ones in St. Petersburg, even the canals, are wide. There are no gondolas, no water buses; there’s no bustling river life, and there are no narrow medieval houses with laundry hanging out to dry. Beautiful as it is, St. Petersburg lacks the warmth and joviality of the Italian original; the melancholy Russian temperament is given to tears and bitter satire, not laughter and frivolity.

There’s nothing ancient about this northern Venice. By European standards, St. Petersburg is a young city; her 300th anniversary celebration year is just ending. Indeed, when Peter the Great built the two-room log cabin where he lived for six years while the city was being built, the American Colonies were already almost 100 years old and Harvard College had been in existence for 67 years. Catherine the Great built a protective brick shell around the cabin to preserve it, and it still can be visited today.

Peter, who disliked Moscow, where his family had been murdered, built his new 18th-century capital, his “window to the West,” on marshland, terrain much like that of our own Washington. In the words of Russia’s great poet Alexander Pushkin:

Gem of the Northern world, amazing,

From gloomy wood and swamp up sprung,

Had risen, in pride and splendor blazing …

The Neva now is clad in granite

With many a bridge to overspan it;

The islands lie beneath a screen

Of gardens deep in dusky green.

The first construction was the walled Fortress of Peter and Paul on its own little island off the western bank of the Neva. The fortress was built primarily by Russian peasants and Swedish slave laborers, hundreds of whom died in the construction. Later, the fortress became a prison, where Peter incarcerated his son, Alexis, accused of treason. Peter himself signed the death warrant.

The Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul, built within the fortress, houses the tombs of the Romanovs. It is said that the pulpit was used only once, to excommunicate Leo Tolstoy from the Russian Orthodox Church. The cathedral is adorned with a golden spire crowned with an angel holding a golden cross. The spire atop the Admiralty across the river is its mirror image (now the symbol of the city) except that it is topped with a weather vane in the form of a sailing ship.

AT THE CENTER

The Admiralty, rather than the fortress, is considered the architectural center of the city. Golden in the sunshine, the building is decorated with classical sculptures, including a relief of a pair of trumpet-blowing angels on the facade on the river side. The Admiralty grew out of Peter’s fortified shipyard — Peter’s second priority was a strong navy to preserve access to the sea and dominance of Russia’s archenemy, Sweden. Originally built of wood, the Admiralty was reconstructed in 1806, with a harbor between the two wings of the building.

Not far from the fortress lies the cruiser Aurora. At 9:40 p.m. on Oct. 25, 1917, a single blank round fired from its bow gun was the signal to begin the storming of the Winter Palace. The revolution had begun. The Aurora has been turned into a museum, and the famous gun and the crew’s quarters are open to the public.

To celebrate its tricentennial, St. Petersburg polished its palaces and repainted and repaired the city’s facade, and it sparkles. However, like the deceptive wooden constructions of Catherine the Great’s faithful lover and friend, Gen. Grigori Potemkin, the facade is often all there is. Walk into a courtyard, peep behind a closed “no admittance” museum door, enter an apartment building and see peeling paint, rickety construction, exposed wires and pipes. Ten percent to 15 percent of St. Petersburg’s residents still live in communal apartments, four families sharing four rooms, one bathroom and one kitchen.

A chain-smoking businessman from Western Europe explains with a mixture of amusement and despair that “everything is possible” in St. Petersburg, permitted or not. Everything has its price, be it an extra allotment of caviar or the services of an electrician. “It has been difficult, but things are getting better,” a tour guide with a bright smile says as she recounts some of the jokes told at the expense of the uncouth, opportunistic “new Russians.”

An example: A new Russian visits the Hermitage; he gets tired and decides to rest on the throne of Catherine the Great. The ancient crone charged with keeping order in the throne room comes up to him and says plaintively, “But, sir, you’re sitting on Catherine’s throne.” “Never mind,” he replies, “I’ll get up when she comes in.”

Some jokes are at the expense of the “old” Russians as well: The former KGB building is the tallest in the city. Asks a visitor, “If it is the tallest, why does it only have seven floors?” Answer: “Because from the roof, you can see all of Siberia.”

FASHIONABLE NEVSKY

Although Faberge and his eggs are long gone, it is estimated that 5 percent of the almost 5 million inhabitants have the money to shop in the fashion boutiques of Nevsky Prospect, St. Petersburg’s Fifth Avenue. The moderately priced Passazh, a department store offering every imaginable item from furs to linens, is sparsely visited, although the beautiful art-nouveau House of Books doesn’t lack customers. The books are all in Russian, but the store carries calendars and reproductions of posters that are not sensitive to language barriers.

The main streets are thronged with people — locals, Gypsies, tourists and pickpockets galore. Despite the warning of the concerned saleswoman at the Passazh, my pretty red coin purse slipped out of my handbag unnoticed.

People are well-dressed; as in the West, black leather and down coats are ubiquitous. St. Petersburg women, so the local saying goes, can be recognized in the West by their well-turned ankles on ultrahigh heels. Fur hats for men and women are more of a tourist item than a local sartorial necessity — and they have become quite expensive, ranging from $100 to $400.

For a visitor, the great change from the former Soviet Union is the ease of access to museums, cafes, restaurants, hotels and the Russians themselves. Fear has disappeared; detente is alive and well.

Peter built his city with enormous tree-lined squares, wide boulevards and elegant vistas. An example is the majestic St. Isaac’s Square in front of the huge gold-domed cathedral of the same name. A statue of Alexander I on horseback is in the center of the square, while on the Eastern end, spanning the Moika River, is the Blue Bridge, where serfs were bought and sold until serfdom was abolished in 1861.

Across a wide boulevard west of the cathedral lies Decembrists’ Square, which is dominated by the “Bronze Horseman,” the imposing sculpture of Peter the Great on his rearing horse, its hind feet treading on a snake, which represents the enemies of Russia. The statue was dedicated by Catherine the Great to Peter the Great with the simple words in Latin and Russian, “To Peter I from Catherine II,” and was the subject of “The Bronze Horseman,” a dramatic poem by Pushkin.

The beautifully renovated 1912 Astoria Hotel at St. Isaac’s Square offers a splendid view of the cathedral, shining in the morning sun or hauntingly mysterious in the nighttime illumination. Its ballroom, the elegant Winter Garden, was the locale chosen by Hitler for his victory ball, planned for Nov. 7, 1941, after his invasion of the Soviet Union that July. Printed invitations to the ball were found in Berlin after the war, among the remains of the headquarters of the Third Reich.

Leningrad, as St. Petersburg was called then, survived 900 days of siege by the German army. Almost 650,000 people died of starvation, and 17,000 were killed in air raids and shelling.

St. Petersburg briefly was called Petrograd during World War I, then renamed Leningrad after the death of Lenin. Upon the demise of the Soviet Union, the name of the city was put to popular vote, and the result was a return to its original name.

The Germans never took Leningrad but did occupy and burn the imperial palace at Tsarskoe Selo, a favorite of Catherine the Great, in the village of Pushkin, a half-hour’s ride outside the city. They used the statue of Pushkin for target practice, whether because of his African blood or the simple fact that he was Russia’s favorite poet is not known.

AMBER ROOM

Half of the 40,000 art objects in the palace were saved before the Germans occupied it. The Germans dismantled and took with them the amber panels that Peter the Great had wheedled from King Frederick I of Prussia.

The amber originally came from Konigsberg — now Kaliningrad — where the stolen Amber Room was exhibited in 1943. Then it disappeared and has never been found. Reconstruction began in 1979 with amber that again came from Kaliningrad.

The Italian mosaics were reproduced from photographs; one original turned up. Today, the palace, including the dazzling golden throne room, once lighted with 1,000 candles, has been completely restored, although only the facades of the outlying pavilions have been restored.

Most of the palaces of the Romanovs and their friends are open to the public as museums, as are many of the churches, and many exhibits are captioned in both Russian and English. Entrance fees run about $8 for foreigners, and there are no all-day or multimuseum passes, but a tourist card for museum fees and transportation fares is in the works.

St. Petersburg’s museums, magnificent churches, ornate palaces, lovely parks and exquisite ironwork on fences, railings and bridges delight visitors, but the queen of them all is the Winter Palace and Catherine the Great’s Hermitage, so-called for the French word meaning a place of quiet repose.

Catherine started her collection in 1764 with 225 canvases meant for viewing only by the court. She was unique in commissioning contemporary pieces, including frog-patterned Wedgwood china from Britain. Today, the Hermitage Museum comprises five buildings and 3 million objects, only about 7 percent of which are on exhibit at any one time.

That 7 percent is a wonder to behold, though. The museum includes not only a fabulous collection of French impressionist paintings, but also a golden sitting room filled with Catherine’s collection of 10,000 cameos; the malachite room; the collection of Scythian gold and artifacts; Florentine, Venetian, English and Dutch paintings; and the fabulous gold peacock clock that strikes for the public every Wednesday at 5 p.m. Then there’s Catherine’s coronation coach, which at times was drawn by 40 horses.

The museum’s splendidly ornate rooms and corridors, resplendent with chandeliers, gold and tapestries, are a sight unto themselves.

Behind the scenes is the arsenal section of the museum, where 1,300 pieces of armor from Europe and Russia are kept.

The Russian Museum has an exquisite collection of icons and a handful of Malevich’s paintings, including the stunning red square. The abundance of museums includes:

• The Artillery museum across the moat from the Fortress of Peter and Paul

• Kunstkammer (chamber of art) on Vasilevskiy Island, now the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography, where Peter’s bizarre collection of anatomical exhibits, including the heart and skeleton of his personal servant, are on display

• Academy of Art, next to the Kunstkammer, fronted by two 14th-century B.C. Egyptian sphinxes

• Naval Museum

• Menshikov Palace (now part of the Hermitage), housing exhibitions of 18th-century Russian culture

At the tip of the island in front of the Naval Museum stand the two reddish Rostral Columns, originally designed as lighthouses in 1810. In accordance with Roman custom, the columns are decorated with the prows of defeated vessels (here Swedish). The imposing sculptures at the base of the columns represent the four great rivers of Russia: the Neva, Volga, Dnepr and Volkhov.

Since the implosion of the Soviet Union, the many churches of St. Petersburg are again open for worship, although many remain museums. The Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan sits magnificently on the Nevsky Prospect. Lutheran, Armenian and Catholic churches are on Nevsky as well.

My favorite church is the beautiful blue-and-white baroque St. Nicholas Cathedral, which has never closed since the mid-18th century. It was founded for the sailors of the Admiralty, St. Nicholas being the patron saint of sailors. An unusual four-tiered bell tower stands apart from the church. Two churches are within the cathedral: the upper one, used for Sundays and festivals, and the lower church, used on a daily basis. It’s a magical place filled with silver and gold icons, hundreds of candles and low-ceilinged, warm darkness.

As is customary in the Russian Orthodox ritual, the congregation remains standing, so there are no pews. During our visit, a baptism was taking place in a corner.

ON SPILLED BLOOD

The Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood, built on the spot where Alexander II was assassinated on March 1, 1881, is most evocative of the classic Russian style. Reminiscent of St. Basil’s in Moscow, with its colorful onion domes, mosaics and paintings, it isn’t very old, but it is a beautiful, glowing addition to the cityscape.

Across the street from the church, along a little canal, is an open-air souvenir market. It’s a colorful scene and a good place to buy Russian nesting dolls — images of Mikhail Gorbachev, Bill Clinton, Vladimir Putin and other political figures, once popular, are nowhere in sight. Now it is all babushkas, amber jewelry and malachite objects.

St. Petersburg has endless delights, both in the city and in the country palaces and parks. There are royal stables; theaters (the charming Mariinsky was originally a circus); concert halls; art-nouveau buildings; streets resembling 19th-century bourgeois Parisian avenues; bridges; and the Smolny Convent and Institute, where young noblewomen were educated for more than 100 years until it became Lenin’s headquarters for the October 1917 Bolshevik coup d’etat.

Of course, there are hotels, restaurants and cozy cafes. Soups, borscht and schi (cabbage soup), in particular, are always delicious; pelmeny (dumplings filled with meat), meat balls, pirogi (small meat or cabbage turnovers) and smoked fish are tasty. The coffee is very good, and there’s excellent Georgian wine. Caviar has become very dear, but blini (little yeast pancakes) and salmon caviar are still affordable. Vodka is plentiful.

In fair weather, excursion boats ply the Neva; in the winter, a troika ride takes visitors through the snowy countryside. Pushkin, the great-grandson of an Ethiopian prince, said it best:

Now, city of Peter, stand thou fast,

Foursquare, like Russia; vaunt thy splendor.


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