St. Petersburg… A Look at the New Russia
By Allan Seiden
It was in 1967 that I flew from New York to Luxembourg on a $169 round trip on Icelandic Air. I picked up a Bug at the Volkswagen factory in Wolfsburg, Germany, choosing a sunroof over a radio, despite the fact that it pushed the cost to $1,025, $25 over the high end of my budget. After a lurching start as I belatedly familiarized myself with a standard transmission, I set out with a friend for a two-month-long drive in the Soviet Union. The trip had been planned and paid for in advance through the New York office of Inturist, the Soviet government-run agency, with vouchers awaiting our arrival at the assigned border crossing for everything from gasoline to campsites, meals to hotels and the services of a private guide when we were in cities like Moscow and Leningrad.
Fast-forward 42 years. It’s 2009 and I’m returning for the first time since ’67 with my daughter Martine, who is about the age I was when I last set foot here. The past 20 years have followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union and an end to the stifling impact of Soviet communism.
The transformation has been dramatic, the drab look of neglect of 1967 replaced by the exuberance of a city defined not only by its history, but by a cosmopolitan present rooted in what’s innovative and hip.
For the women on the Nevsky Prospekt, restored to vibrancy as the city’s commercial heart, it’s all about being stylish,
the look matched by the staccato rhythm of three-inch stiletto heals impacting the sidewalk. For the stylish male, it’s upscale Italian fashion and shoes that end in elfishly long narrow toes. Plenty of good restaurants nearby, both Russian and other European and Asian styles: Dining well is another St. Petersburg tradition restored.
As planned by Peter the Great and added to his heirs, St. Petersburg is a city of monumental architecture with palaces, government buildings, and churches providing the city with the feel of an imperial past.
This was a city designed to impress, for Peter’s message was aimed not only at his own people, but at the prosperous powers of Western Europe whose focus on technology and trade impressed him greatly.
Whereas Moscow has a long history rooted in the Slavic past, St. Petersburg was built by Peter the Great as Russia’s window on the West. All nobles were required to build palaces and live in Peter’s new royal capital.
It is said that 25,000 men died in claiming this wetland, draining swamps, and building the concentric canals that make St. Petersburg a wonderful city to explore on foot or by boat, with frequent departures for canal tours departing the Nevsky Prospekt and the Neva embankment.
The Winter Palace, completed in 1762 by the Empress Elizabeth, replaced Peter’s far smaller Hermitage, which is also part of the Hermitage Museum. Both overlook the Neva and the broad expanse of Palace Square. It was here that the anti-Czarist revolution would begin
Czarist revolution would begin and is today a focal point for city life, with the start of the Nevsky Prospekt nearby. The royal palaces are home to the Hermitage Museum, a treasure house where the wealth of the Czars is on display, along with amazing archeological finds, and a collection of European masters that is one of the best in the world, with rooms of impressionist masters like Monet, Van Gogh, and Gauguin. Most were confiscated from private collections at the onset of Soviet rule. Although the palace was looted during the revolution of 1917, it has been magnificently restored, all gold leaf and malachite, grand staircases and frescoed ceilings. In short, it’s memorable, a place worthy of pilgrimage.
The same could be said of The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, an onion dome landmark completed in 1907 on the site of the 1881 assassination of Czar Alexander II, an event that provides the church with it’s name.The exterior, with its colorful Arabesque shapes reflected in the water of the adjacent canal, is only the beginning.
One step inside and you’re truly transported: Every inch, from domed ceiling to walls, arched columns to window frames is part of a continuous flow of vibrantly beautiful mosaics. Badly damaged during the German siege of the city during World War II and left in disrepair during the communist era, the interior has been miraculously restored, a resurrection symbolic of the transformation evident in most parts of a city grown to include suburbs that extend city limits by many miles.
WHEN TO VISIT
There’s a very definite window of opportunity generally defined by the White Nights, the months, starting in late May through early September, when lingering dusks lead to twilight that never quite morphs into night. These are the White Nights, with the city beautifully night-lighted and streets full late into the evening. It’s a truly magical time to wander about.
St.Petersburg is as far north as Juneau, Alaska, so summer’s are short and even summer nights can be chilly. My late May visit saw daytime temperatures range the 50s-80s, with evenings in the 50s and lower, with the northland forests alive with flowers and greenery.
It’s quite annoying to navigate your way to a Russian Visa, which will end up costing $300. It’s a deal breaker for some and makes it logical to plan to have enough time to justify the high cost, which the Russian government claims mirrors American requirement for Russian citizens. Unless you’re able to hand deliver your visa request it’s worth going to one of the numerous visa agencies that will handle the paperwork and facilitate getting it to you in a timely fashion. This may not be the Soviet Union, but it is still hobbled by a bureaucratic mindset that doesn’t take service seriously.
WHERE TO STAY
Anywhere in the vicinity of St. Isaac’s Cathedral provides a base that’s centrally located, quiet and has some local charm with the city’s core canals are nearby, and plenty of restaurants from budget (under $10) to pricey ($40+ per person). I stayed at the Northern Lights, a small, pleasant bed and breakfast perfectly situated one block from Nicholas Square, where a quiet room for two, with full breakfast, was just over $100/night. It’s a third floor walk up a grand staircase in a film noire setting, but once inside it’s modern and comfortable and the staff is friendly and helpful. www.booking.com/Northern=Lights.
Hotel Astoria: An elegant 210-room hotel on Nicholas Square and adjacent to St. Isaac’s Cathedral. A five star rating includes all expected amenities at rates likely to start at $250 a night and higher. www.thehotelastoria.com.
The city has many restaurants with everything from traditional Russian fare ( with caviar, borscht, and Beef Stroganoff for starters) to fusion cuisine and ethnic fare. Discos and gay clubs herald changes in ways that would have been unimaginable in 1967 when last I visited. Singers and instrumentalists add cultural authenticity to dining out.
La Terase, just behind the Kazan Cathedral, attracts St. Petersburg’s new elite with great food, hip decor, alfresco seating with a view of the dome of the Kazan Cathedral, and blankets if you need to ward off the evening chill.
This is a city for walking. Getting from place to place is part of the pleasure of discovery St. Petersburg offers. The city is served by an efficient subway system that makes it easy to get to places outside the historic core like the Alexander Nevsky Monastery and the adjacent cemetary where musical luminaries like Borodin and Tchaikovsky are buried.
***** NOT TO BE MISSED ******
Give yourself a week, if possible, just to begin to take in St. Petersburg’s many attractions.
THE HERMITAGE MUSEUM
Not only did the various rulers amass collections of every sort, from jewels to paintings, sculpture to objets d’art, but their collections were enhanced when the Soviet government nationalized some of the nation’s largest private collections, including major holdings of 19th-century art.
This is as good as it gets. Gold and Diamond tours take you past dazzling displays of gold masks and objects excavated from ancient tombs and burial mounds.
The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood
Built by Nicholas II to honor his father, who was assassinated on the site in 1881. Completed in 1907, it took 24 years to build. Badly damaged during WWII., it has been masterfully restored. From domed ceilings to window frames, support columns to decorative arches, it is covered in elaborate, exquisite mosaics that are nothing short of dazzling.
This Italianate palace, with its elaborate fountains and surrounding gardens was completed in 1725 by Peter the Great as a retreat from the pressures of the city, designed to outdo Versailles, the gold standard of imperial excess.
Hydrofoils and slower ferries depart the Winter Palace embankment of the Neva for the 45-minute trip. The palace is open, but even more impressive are the dozens of fountains and the hundreds of acres of flowerbeds and forested parks.
KAZAN CATHEDRAL: The neoclassic Kazan Cathedral faces the Nevsky Prospekt with a lawn that draws densely packed sunbathers. After long, hard winters, St. Petersburg revels in summer warmth. Transformed into a museum of atheism during the communist era, it has been largely restored and impresses with marble grandeur. Within are the tomb of Alexander Nevsky, the saint and superhero of old Russia, and a venerated icon of the Holy Mother of God that draws the kisses and prayers of believers.
PETER AND PAUL FORTRESS
Cross the Neva on the bridge adjacent to the Winter Palace and you’re there.
Highlight is the Cathedral of Peter and Paul,
where the greatest of the Romanoff rulers, including Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, and Nicholas II are entombed. Nicholas, his wife and children were murdered far from St, Petersburg when revolution wracked the country in 1917. Their remains were recovered interred with their ancestors after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Fortress also includes the Trubetskoi Embankment where political prisoners were held in Czarist and Soviet times.
Home to one of Russia’s wealthiest families, it was here that Rasputin, a mad monk with overwhelming influence on the Czar and Czarina, would be killed by Prince Felix Yusupov in 1916.
Classical music and ballet are on the menu in St. P. Check to find out what special events are happening that tap into the city’s cultural sophistication.
There are numerous shops on the Nevsky Prospekt featuring lacquerware, jewelry, nesting dolls (the biggest with 30 layers), high fashion, and Orthodox icons are the likeliest things to catch your eye. There’s an interesting street market adjacent to the Church of the Spilled Blood. The rule is to bargain, although the finer shops along the Nevsky Prospekt do not negotiate.
All major credit cards are accepted. When exchanging dollars for rubles be attentive to rates, which can vary considerably, particularly at exchange shops in the vicinity of the Nevsky Prospekt.
Text and pictures © Allan Seiden, 2011