‘On the shore of desolate waves / he stood, full of lofty thoughts / and gazed afar.’ So begins Pushkin’s epic poem ‘The Bronze Horseman’, with the legend of Peter the Great founding his new city in 1703. A remote and inhospitable swampland in north-western Russia was transformed into his ‘window on the West’, a Baroque and neo-classical masterpiece.
I came to St Petersburg to learn Russian. Enrolled for an intensive course at a private language school, I opted for full immersion and stayed with a local family for the two weeks. At Pulkovo airport I was met by a representative and politely but firmly reminded that we would now only communicate in Russian. ‘Da,’ I agreed, not sure I could keep that up for very long. My hosts’ flat was just off the immense Nevsky Prospect, St Petersburg’s main street. A stroke of luck, as I’d avoided being stuck out in a Soviet-era tower block in one of the city’s identikit suburbs.
In the morning my landlady Irina woke me up with a breakfast of kasha (Russian porridge) and a glass of black tea, sweetened with jam. Then it was off to school. Mornings were taken up with classes, but in the afternoons I was free to explore the city. And what a city it is: grand boulevards, criss-crossed with canals, a Venice of the north with more than 300 bridges. The late autumn chill was turning wintry when I arrived and the river Neva was beginning to fill with ice.
The first stop for any self-respecting art lover is the State Hermitage, but its sheer scale is overwhelming. The centrepiece of the museum is the Winter Palace, a riot of chandeliers, marble and gold leaf. The magnificent settings compete with and often eclipse the artworks themselves. I spent two afternoons there and barely scratched the surface; at any one time, less than 10 per cent of the collection is on show. The Hermitage has its origins in acquisitions made by Catherine the Great, including that of the art collection of Prime Minister Robert Walpole. It had devoured his fortune and was sold by his hard-up heirs to the Russian empress in 1779. The Hermitage grew under the Tsars and its collection of western European art is possibly the finest in the world. There are works by Leonardo and Raphael, roomfuls of Titians and Rembrandts. Pre–revolutionary private collections yielded galleries of Impressionists and modernist classics such as Matisse’s ‘Dance’. The 1812 War Gallery, with over 300 portraits of the generals who defeated Napoleon, reminded me of a War and Peace-themed Top Trumps, while Paulus Potter’s ‘Punishment of a Hunter’ was a 17th-century animal rights manifesto, depicting the revenge of dumb beasts against man’s cruelty. The nearby Russian Museum, based in the former Mikhailovsky Palace, houses the city’s major collection of domestic art, including Ilya Repin’s realist classic ‘Barge Haulers on the Volga’.
St Petersburg is stalked by the ghosts of Russia’s literary past. Pushkin’s former home is now a museum containing gloomy relics: his death mask, a lock of hair, and the bloodstained waistcoat he wore to his fatal duel. Dostoevsky is buried in the Tikhvin Cemetery at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery and the flat where he wrote The Brothers Karamazov has been recreated with period details. It doesn’t require much imagination to see a furtive Raskolnikov emerging from one of the crumbling courtyards off the main streets. Further tribute is paid in the form of The Idiot, a (mainly) vegetarian restaurant on the Moika Embankment. Gogol and Chekhov have their own restaurants, too. Food used to be a problem for tourists here, especially for those straying beyond high-end, expensive options. But the choice for a casual snack is improving: Teremok (‘little hut’) is a fast-food chain that serves blini with a range of fillings, while Kroshka Kartoshka does the same with baked potatoes.
A walking tour is an ideal way of getting a sense of the city’s complex history. It may only just have celebrated its 300th birthday, but it’s had more than one identity: Russian-sounding Petrograd in the patriotic fervour of the first world war and Leningrad throughout the communist era. We met our guide at the Smolny Institute, a school for the daughters of the aristocracy that became the first home of the Soviet government. It was also where local party boss Sergey Kirov was assassinated in 1934, an event used by Stalin as a pretext to launch his Great Purge. Then it was on to two icons of the October Revolution: the Finland station, where Lenin returned from exile in 1917, and the cruiser Aurora, moored in the Neva. Still on the Russian Navy list, it’s famous for firing the blank shot that signalled the storming of the Winter Palace.
Further along the waterfront is the Peter and Paul Fortress, the oldest building in the city. Peter the Great’s own son Alexei died here after being tortured and condemned for treason. The cathedral within the fortress contains the remains of most of Peter’s imperial successors. Recent additions are the bodies of Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Alexandria and three of their children, interred in the Romanov family crypt in 1998. The violent death of an earlier Tsar, Alexander II, is marked by the onion-domed Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, built on the site of his assassination in 1881. Architecturally, its style is indigenous Russian and quite distinct from the city’s other churches. Our last stop was the palace where Rasputin spent his final hours before being finished off by a gang led by the Oxford-educated Prince Felix Yusupov.
Suburban St Petersburg is dotted with palaces that can rival the splendour of Versailles. Peterhof, renowned for its ‘grand cascade’ of fountains, sits proudly on the Gulf of Finland, but the pick of the bunch is located 15 miles south of the city at Pushkin. Formerly Tsarskoye Selo (‘Tsar’s village’), it was the summer home of the Imperial family and Russia’s first public railway line ran here from the then capital, opening in 1837 chiefly for the benefit, it seems, of the visiting nobility. The estate is dominated by Bartolomeo Rastrelli’s Rococo Catherine Palace. Hailed as the ‘eighth wonder of the world’ in the 18th century, its exquisite amber room was looted by the Nazis and never recovered. A reconstruction was unveiled in 2003 as part of the city’s tercentenary celebrations.
After the two weeks were up, I’m not sure how much my Russian had improved. I’d persevered but still found the language a dense forest of cases and declensions. But my hosts had been sympathetic, with Irina patiently listening to my halting conversation and doing her best to explain the plots of the TV crime serials we watched.
As for the city, if the elusive soul of Russia exists anywhere, it probably isn’t here. Alexander Herzen wrote in 1843 that ‘what distinguishes Petersburg from other European cities is the fact that it looks like all of them’. This is pithy but unfair. Russia’s western face, forged from a Tsar’s iron will, has beauty in spades and a turbulent, compelling past.
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