Imperial Russia seems to have spent most of its long history trying to catch up with the West. St Petersburg is the perfect example of this – built from scratch at the furthermost edge of inhabitable Russia, on the shores of a sea which is frozen for much of the year, and on land which is more like a swamp than not. But then again, throwing huge resources of money, manpower and lives into a project is a very Russian thing to do.
I arrived in St Petersburg after catching a bus from Estonia, having bade farewell to the most annoying person in the world. Even if it wasn’t for the tedious border crossing process, there would have been no mistaking my arrival in Russia – the roads instantly became worse and everyone in the bus took on an air of sullen aggression.
Like in most planned cities, the designers of St Petersburg loved long boulevards and grand buildings. My hostel was at the terminus of the longest and grandest – Nevsky Prospekt. After checking in, I remembered one of the byzantine elements of the Russian border process. The hostel which had “invited” me, was required to stamp my passport to prove that I had arrived. Presumably they believed that I might be out sabotaging a nuclear missle silo or something.
I dumped my bag in my room and went back down to the desk to acquire my stamp. As I was trying to explain myself, the woman at the reception window snarled, slammed down the shutter and shouted something about office hours being closed. Welcome to Russia.
St Petersburg is sometimes referred to as the “Venice of the North”. This is ridiculous. There is only one Venice. But there are some canals, so perhaps Amsterdam would be a better comparison. This is logical, given Peter the Great, the Russian Tsar who established the city had spent some time in the low countries. His idea had been that if Russia were to be a major modern power, she needed a well-designed capital on the coast, instead of the rather musty Moscow 600km inland. There weren’t many options for a land-based empire. He chose the Baltic coast.
Baroque architecture was the flavour of the month, so that is what you see all around. St Petersburg has a kind of airiness that is wholly missing in Moscow, despite the best efforts of the prevailing culture. I spent my days wandering up and down Nevsky Prospekt. Apparently each year in spring, several pedestrians are killed by icicles falling from the eaves above and spearing into their skulls. I was visiting in summer, so this wasn’t a problem, but this is the kind of place we’re dealing with.
Amongst the grand buildings on the boulevards Peter also built the Hermitage. Despite the modest name, this is actually an immensely grand palace which served as the seat of government for the Tsars for hundreds of years. Following the installation of the Soviet government it became a museum, now considered to be one of the best in the world. To be fair, it’s easy to be a good gallery when a good chunk of the collection has been looted in wars from 1812 onwards, but who’s counting?
The Hermitage is so amazing that I actually spent most of my time in St Petersburg there. As I recall I spent three half-days wandering the halls until I either became exhausted from art overload, or simply got hungry. The extravagance of this site is hard to explain, but a viewing of the 2002 film Russian Ark, which is set entirely within the building and is filmed in a single shot, gives some sense of its magnificence.
Despite all this slightly crumbling baroque grandeur, my favourite site was the most incongruous – the church of the Saviour On The Spilled Blood. This church is a relatively modern creation, constructed on the site of the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in the 1880s. It’s the most gloriously Russian thing you can imagine – a church made like a wedding cake and coated in chocolate and M&Ms. It seems mildly macabre to me that you might choose to build a church on the site of an assassination, but again, this is Russia.
I enjoyed St Petersburg, but I’m glad I visited in Summer. Being an Australian, I have very little experience with serious cold weather. I suspect that, combined with the grim demeanours all around me and the interminable Russian bureaucracy, it might have pushed me over the edge.