St Petersburg is the epitome of the early modern idea of what a city should be. It grew out of the mind of that harbinger of enlightened despotism,Tsar Peter the Great, becoming a focal point of an empire straddling Europe and Asia. East may be east, west may be west, but there is a meeting of sorts here.
Peter was looking west when he founded St Petersburg. Paris provided something of a template, its triumphal arches and long wide boulevards harking back to ancient Rome. The city is built on the marshy delta of the Neva River where it meets the gulf of Finland. This watery environment allowed St Petersburg to be fashioned as something of a northern Venice, it was envisioned its citizens would commute by an extensive grid of canals. This plan didn’t come to fruition, freezing winters making canal travel impossible for half the year. But the city established itself as a trading port, its merchants ensconced in fabulous palaces, retaining enough rivers and canals to make the comparison valid.
Approaching St Petersburg by sea seems appropriate and alluring, but is rather more banal these days. Communist ideals established rudimentary living conditions with rows of shabby tower blocks ringing the city. Soviet Russia may be gone but it is not yet buried. Commerce is something of a delicate flower, restaurants, bars and stores are beginning to pop up amongst the crumbling fabric of its streets. There should certainly be call for it, main street Nevsky Prospect throbs with streetlife, cars and pedestrians hurrying along in a constant torrent.
Citizens pour in from the suburbs through the impressive metro system. Stalin saw the stations as palaces for the workers, kitting them out with chandeliers and artistic mosaics. Though multitudes descend into the bowels of the earth, an eerie sense of calm prevails. Brash consumerism or panhandling do not intrude here, nor are we advised to take photographs. Petersburghers do not take fondly to strangers, and westerners setting off cameras in their faces is too invasive by far.
There is something futuristic in all this, in an old-fashioned way, as in Fritz Laing’s Metropolis or Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four. Nevertheless the fabric is real enough, some facades decay where others are gilded, golden spires punctuate the skyline speaking of great wealth in bygone days. St Petersburg is a peculiarity in Europe, it is new, rather like an American city in that respect, yet there are ancient echos in its churches with their Byzantine faith, while arcane elements of empire and sovietism still persist.
By the mid 18th century St Petersburg was achieving its golden age under the guidance of Catherine the Great. German by birth she came to embody her adoptive city. Enlightened at first, she believed rulers were called to serve, founding hospitals and schools for the betterment of her people.
Such high idealism would fade, but her most enduring legacy is housed in the sprawling Hermitage, an array of four palaces on the Neva River. Catherine occupied the Winter Palace in person, also in mind and spirit. She initiated the acquisitions that would see the Hermitage Museum become one of the world’s greatest art museums. The range of work is astonishing, spanning the history of visual art from ancient Egypt to the twentieth century. A roll call of old masters is on show, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Botticelli, El Greco, Durer and Renoir to name a very few. Most captivating is a fine selection of Rembrandt’s, exhibiting a majestic range of skill and emotion from the erotic Danae to the deeply moving Return of the Prodigal Son.
Awe inspiring as the collections are, they are almost upstaged by the opulence of the interiors. The baroque Jordan Staircase at the entrance is a hard act to follow, yet still to come are the State Rooms, the Malachite Hall and the Hall of Twenty Columns, amongst other delights.
The Hermitage hosts three million visitors a year, it is as busy as the Metro stations at rush hour. Our guide, Irina, marshals us well. Holding a delphinium aloft, we acquire a sense of identity with her. We can even take turns at the delphinium. She exhorts us not to be shy. Later, on a tour of the Cathedral on Spilled Blood, she makes us push through other groups to ensure we see everything – it’s a jungle out there in tourist land.
What a name that is, the Cathedral on Spilled Blood. One of the few quintessentially eastern buildings in a neoclassical city, it was built as a shrine to the reforming Tsar, Alexander II, assassinated on this spot by a terrorist bomb. Alexander III, was, not surprisingly, less keen on reform. If anything, the old Russian style of the church was a reassertion of traditional values, its swirling golden domes rising above an exuberant confection clad in mosaics. The interior is no less impressive, covered in mosaics on religious and historic themes, pervasively blue, almost a calming influence on the constant throng of visitors.
Spilled blood has been a constant theme in this city. Pushkin, who died following a duel to uphold the honour of his wife, died in a house nearby that is now a museum. There is also a monument to the ‘Russian Shakespeare’ in the Square of the Arts.
Rasputin’s baleful influence on the doomed Romanovs caused Royalists to plot his demise. The monk was plied with poison, enough to kill a horse it is said, yet remained unaffected. A bullet to the head was no more lethal and several shots and stabbings later the assassins dumped a trussed Rasputin in the icebound river. That did it, although he still managed to undo his bonds before drowning.
The Great War was exacting untold misery as the country lurched towards revolution. Trotsky’s plot was to occupy strategic buildings in the capital, now called Petrograd, effecting a coup d’etat with minimal fuss. With the empire disintegrating he was pushing an open door and the, misnamed, Bolsheviks came to power. Civil war followed as the capital shifted back to Moscow. Renamed Leningrad the city once more rose from the ashes. World War Two would visit more horror and Leningrad would withstand an epic nine hundred day siege where over half a million died.
So good they named it thrice, it finally reverted to its original name following the fall of the communist regime. These days it struggles to again wear the mantel of sophisticated European city. New shoots of culture are blooming, yet those shabby clothes of paranoia and conservatism are hard to shake off. Buskers, street artists, even some graffiti are invading the streets and alleys. Canal boats ferry tourists about the city’s waterways and sidewalk cafes are sprouting, Europe is coming back.
The floating world, the dreaming spires, are infected by a riotous gothic. A dangerous energy seeps through the streets and canals. Sordid and sacred history is never far from the surface. The spilling of blood, the swelling of symphonies, poetry and polemic are in the spit of the citizens. This city has always been central to the conveyance of ideas, the creation of art, music and literature. They flowed as ink on a page or flame from a torch, ultimately engulfing the globe for good and ill. Dostoevsky called St Petersburg “the most abstract and imaginary city.” So it was in Peter’s conception that raised it from a swamp, so it remained through its achievements and intrigues. After leaving, long after passing through the jaws of the sea locks at Kotlin Island, it lingers in that special place in the mind where cities form, attaching themselves to endless convoluted dreams. St Petersburg floats on, within your presence or beyond.