“All of Russian history happens in St. Petersburg.”
- Masha Gessen, The Man Without a Face
“Once a swamp, then an imperial capital, and now a showpiece of vanished aristocratic opulence shot through with the grimy ruins of socialism, St. Petersburg is Russia’s most accessible and most tourist-worthy city. Standing in Palace Square, you’ll shiver and think, The revolution started here. (You may also shiver and think, “I’m as far north as Alaska.”) Palaces, gardens, statues, and arched bridges over graceful canals bring back the time of the czars. Two of the world’s greatest art museums top it off. Amid such artistic and historical splendor, modern Russia and its problems seem terribly out of place, but here they are: streets of legless beggars, Mafia-controlled kiosks, wheezing buses, shabby bread stores, broken signs, exhaust-stained facades, pornography dealers, and ice-cream stands in see-your-breath weather.”
- Rick Steves
“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 about 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 sit and giggle in clusters on the sidewalks and in the parks 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 booze. Piter was at its shining, sparkling peak, but I felt a bit like I was watching it all 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 aesthetic beauty. 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.