St. Petersburg

“All of Russian history happens in St. Petersburg.”

          – Masha Gessen, The Man Without a Face

 

“Where have all the mullets gone?”

          – Me, upon arriving

Traditional sleeping pills are evidently hard to come by in Yaroslavl.  Knowing myself and my princess-and-the-pea sleeping problems, I resorted to Theraflu in a water bottle to smooth over the 13 hour train ride.   I slept like a baby on my little cot in second class, surrounded by snoring Russians and hot recycled air.

I awoke later in the morning than most others on the train, groggy and puffy-eyed.  The people around me had already folded up their bed linens.  They sat in silence, sipping tea and staring at me.  I lazed for a few hours in my rumpled sheets, read a book, pecked at some dried fruit, and wondered how on earth I would drag my two enormous suitcases off of the train and through the station.

Somehow it all unfolded without a snag.  My two anchors on wheels, a shopping bag of souvenirs, an unnecessarily large purse and I made it to Hello Hostel on the English Embankment in the early afternoon.  With that cozy hipster paradise as my home base, I spent a week navigating the cobbled streets and Venetian canals of St. Petersburg.

My first and strongest impression of the city was that it is beautiful.  Really beautiful.  I wondered, in fact, if it had been designed with the sole purpose of being beautiful.

Secondly, I realized it didn’t exactly feel Russian.  At least, it didn’t feel Russian in the way that Moscow and the cities along the Golden Ring had.  Where were the onion domes, the red brick buildings, the mullets?  I got the sense that St. Petersburg was the happy result of a national identity crisis.

Actually, that’s not far from the truth.  Piter, as it is called by Russians, was the result of Peter the Great’s determination to modernize and westernize a conservative Russia in the early 18th century.  The ambitious tsar had spent time in Europe, much of it working on the docks in disguise, and returned with a burning desire for a navy and for reform.  He chopped off long beards and pulled women out of the dark back rooms and layers of clothing they’d been hiding under, and after a long war with Sweden, secured a passage to the Baltic Sea.  That swampy bog land was where St. Petersburg was built, and where “more than 40,000 Swedish prisoners-of-war and peasants laboured and perished…, their bones contributing to the city’s foundations” (Eyewitness Travel Guide, St. Petersburg).  In 1712, the city became the capital of Russia, and over the next century  it was adorned (by mostly female leaders) with Baroque architecture and ornate palaces and gardens.

Thus, by design, the city feels more European than Russian, more Western than Eastern.  It is the gateway to the West and the Venice of the North.  It’s grand and opulent and seems like it ought to be set to a soundtrack of Purcell and Vivaldi.

Thirdly, the city felt heavy with the weight of ideas.  Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Akhmatova, and Brodsky.  Repin, Diaghilev, Malevich, and Filonov.  The Decembrist Revolution and the Russian Revolution.  Egyptian sphinxes stand guard on the embankment, the eternal flame burns in the Field of Mars (named for the Roman god of war), and chubby-cheeked cherubs adorn the facades of buildings.  Art students giggle in clusters on the sidewalks while they sketch and paint and play guitar.  It’s as if St. Petersburg delivers an imperative to ponder, to create, to leave a legacy.

If the opulence and ideas were still present, where was the blood?  Where were the scars of revolutions and fascist sieges and years of poverty?  Where had Vladimir Putin grown up as a self-proclaimed “street thug” in the fifties and sixties?  Where did families cram into small communal apartments four or five at a time?

St. Petersburg hides her scars well.  I struggled to find a “bad area” within walking (or jogging) distance of my hostel.  I covered a good deal of the city in that week, most of it in my running shoes, searching for some hint of darker times.  But instead I found canals, coffee shops, museums, concerts, statues, tourists, Catherine the Great charging 200 rubles for a photo, gilding, art installations in the parks, and a lot of happy teenagers.  I didn’t bother with certain tourist attractions like Peterhof palace; it always seemed to me to be a vulgar display of wealth that I could see in a Google search anyway.

With the White Nights at their longest, I’m surprised I slept as much as I did.  For the first few days I felt compelled to be productive until the sun went down, which wasn’t until about midnight.  Even then, it never truly set; the sky remained a ombre fade of rich blues until about 3 am, when the sun reemerged.  The embankments were lined throughout the night with revelers  watching the barges pass under the raised bridges.  The weekend brought celebrations, graduations, weddings, and champagne.  Piter was at its shining, sparkling peak, but I felt a bit like I was watching it through a pane of glass.

Writing this now from my bedroom in the States, I miss the energy of the city.  I liked knowing that I was standing in a place where so many important (if violent) things had taken place.  I liked the echoes of ideas.  I enjoyed the aesthetics.  Perhaps most of all, I miss the strange black water of the Neva River, rushing by at an awful speed, indifferent to the history played out on its shores.

I’ll be back, Piter.  Not that you’ll miss me.

St. Isaac’s Cathedral

Carlo Rossi’s Senate and Synod buildings, linked by an arch, on the western side of Decembrists’ Square

The Bronze Horseman– Etienne Falconet’s statue of Peter the Great in Decembrists’ Square

The Rostral columns, formerly lighthouses. Looks sort of like a boat-kebab to me.

The Naval Museum

The Hermitage

Field of Mars

Church on Spilled Blood

Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan, with ninety-six Corinthian columns in four rows, on Nevskiy Prospekt

Pretty skirts, a canal, and the photographer’s accidental shadow

A mosque in Petrogradskaya

47 comments

  1. Now, twin, as someone who has experienced cities with you, I can speak with authority on this: Piter will miss you. Everywhere misses you. All the time.

    • as a teenagers we NEVER slept while in Piter in the arms of White Nights.. : )) don’t think I could go more than 24 hours without sleep now.. will have to check next summer.. you coming? ; )

    • Absolutely! The White Nights were incredible (albeit a little hard to sleep through). I am back in Colombia now and happier than I could ever have imagined, but part of me misses Russia already.

  2. Hi Meghan! I’ve been to Leningrad twice- the first time in summer, the last time in winter. Beautiful, cold, but spirited. Shadows lurk during those long nights.. and watch out for sidewalks never shoveled after a snowfall. They freeze with the hills of footsteps and it’s a killer to walk on them in the morning before they thaw out! Keep posting, I enjoy it very much.

    • Karen, I am dying to return to Russia in the winter. I imagine it’s an entirely different experience! I’ll remember to bring some boots with good traction though if I do. Thanks for the advice! 😉

  3. Bridget

    “Boat-kebab”: love it! You must have been hungry when you saw that. 😉 Speaking of which, how was the food in St. Petersburg? Any unique dishes or differences from other places in Russia you’ve visited (maybe more “Western,” like other aspects you mentioned)?

    • Haha possibly! We also had kebabs for dinner a few nights ago, so maybe that inspired it. As for food in St. Petersburg, it’s only more “western” in the sense that you can find a lot of different restaurants: Irish pubs, shwarma, Mexican, Thai, etc. But I, being a destitute vagabond, stuck with buying simple groceries and keeping them in the hostel fridge. Would you believe I didn’t eat out at a restaurant even once in the whole seven weeks I was in Russia? So unlike me, haha.

  4. Wow, your post is beautiful. I especially like your vivid photographs! Hope you’re having an incredible time! Your post really makes me want to go to St. Petersburg now…haha.

    Best,
    Kay

  5. I’ve never been to St P, probably never will, so loved your account, and especially your pictures, some marvellous ones. I hope you are going to combine all these blog articles into a book about your travels? I’d buy it like a shot! but not an e-book, please, please, a regular proper book between hard (or even soft) covers.

  6. Su

    WOW Another magnificent post, truly poetic! Thanks Meghan, I’m really enjoying your writing and the pictures of ‘Piter’ are fantastic, again inspiring me to visit. Good luck back in the States, where to next??

    • Thanks so much Su! I enjoyed writing this one. I am really into Russian culture and history so it was fun for me to think about that as I walked around the city.

      I am heading off somewhere next week but I’m keeping it a surprise for now, because I’m planning on playing a little guessing game with my readers. 🙂

    • Thanks Loni! Isn’t that the coolest door ever? I was standing there taking photos of it when it opened really suddenly and almost slammed my camera through my face. It was the door to some kind of private club, which of course my over-active imagination turned into some story about espionage and caviar. Russia lends itself to imagination, I’ve found. 🙂

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