Times Travel, July 2006
Hearing I'd just returned from a first visit to St Petersburg, this lady told me how much she detested the city. With the artistic and architectural wonders of the Hermitage still imprinted on my retina, I gasped, 'Why?' Because of all the poor serfs having to build it, she said, and the dreadful luxury of the Tsars, and the way Peter the Great forced all the untrustworthy Muscovites to move there, thus shoring up his powerbase – and shuddered, weighed down by the iniquities of history. I retorted that I don't look at places in that way; after all, you couldn't visit London for thinking of the executions on Tower Hill and Tyburn. Indeed, modern St Petersburg may be a place where glamorous facades hide verminous realities of poverty and crime - but surely the tourist is still allowed to appreciate the glories of the Venice of the North and take them at face value? That I loved it so much can't just be attributed to a heroic consumption of the finest vodka.
Russia's cultural capital was getting ready for the G8 summit: roadworks everywhere, fountains repaired, bridges cleaned - everything put into working order to impress the delegations who will sweep into town. Since the city's 300th birthday in 2003, St Petersburg has undergone a facelift, with palaces painted in renewed pastels and the domes and spires re-gilded. President Putin was born and educated there, so it's no wonder he wants his city to gleam in the eyes of the world and its leaders. How could it not? Pace my sensitive friend, Petrograd aka Leningrad is one of the world's great cities, which means it has evolved a presence almost independent of the vagaries of history - just as a fine portrait will resonate for centuries, when the flawed identity of the sitter has long been lost.
We stayed at Russia's oldest and finest hotel, the Grand Hotel Europe (in the process of being lavishly renovated) where the opulent Europe restaurant puts on a Tchaikovsky evening every Friday - and so we began the four night break eating the best Beluga, washed down with Imperial vodka, listening to chamber works by the composer who spent his ill-fated honeymoon in this hotel. That was my first sense of Mother Russia unfolding a multi layered welcome, like a nest of Matryoshka dolls. Because the Art Nouveau style of the room (indeed the whole hotel) with its the intricate plasterwork and stained glass, evokes the West - which seduced the much-travelled Peter the Great and made him want to copy its style on the gulf of Finland, in a land with very different traditions. But the music carried with it the dark lyricism of Russian romance – whilst the waiter smiled and said we mustn't sip the vodka like wine but toss it back as Russians do. Walking from the restaurant you pass the Caviare Bar where a contralto performs haunting Russian folk songs, and then down to the Lobby Bar where a cool trio performs American jazz standards and they sell Dom Perignon by the glass and a choice of over forty kinds of vodka.
So St Petersburg has always looked two ways at once – symbolised by the architecture of the Cathedral of SS Peter and Paul. The ruler who made men shave off their bushy Russian beards to look more 'western' built a Russian Orthodox church in European style: its gilded spire which bears aloft the angel of St Petersburg faces West whilst its dome carries the characteristically Russian 'onion' top, and faces East. Inside I was curiously affected by the tombs of the Romanov Russian monarchs, and by the special chapel where, controversially in 1998 the remains of the murdered last Tsar and his family (as well as the loyal servants who died with them) were interred. Our wonderful guide Alla Yuskovets rattled off the blood-soaked intricacies of Russian history with studied neutrality, just occasionally letting a personal viewpoint slip: 'In the communist time the church bells were not allowed to ring. Now it is very moving to hear the bells.' A church- over like me soon runs out of exclamations - awed by the scale of St Isaacs Cathedral with its malachite columns, mosaic saints and painted dome, and enchanted by the glittering onion pinnacles and riot of colour which is the Church on Spilled Blood – a monument to Orthodox architecture built on the spot where, in March 1881 Tsar Alexander 11 was assassinated. By the end of the first day, when we took a boat ride through the canal and gliding under the elaborate bridges which give the city its famous Venetian quality, I was enthralled.
This was the beginning of the 'White Nights': the summer period when it never gets quite dark, although it was still cold and (mostly) windy and grey. No matter; you could still sense the city loosening up –a few locals and tourists alike even wearing brave shorts to walk up the great shopping thoroughfare, Nevskiy Prospekt. Shops which sold dowdy rubbish and pickled gherkins before glasnost are now stuffed with desirables and designer clothes. We browsed in the enormous 18th century bazaar Gostinyy Dvor, then walked down to the city's most famous food shop Yeliseev's, where you don't know which to admire most – the Style-Moderne wood and stained glass or the impressive array of vodkas, chocolates, meats and cheeses. In the little open air market by the Church on Spilled Blood I picked up a little Soviet-era metal bust of Tolstoy, but easily resisted buying nesting footballer Maryoshka dolls.
You can see a lot in a three and a half day trip, but it seemed slightly mad to me – - when a morning walking through the vast corridors and astonishing collections of the Hermitage seemed so inadequate - to take a trip outside the city to the palace of Peterhof. But everybody said it was magical, as well as an essential insight into the taste of Peter the Great. He'd visited Versailles and wanted to create his own version on the Baltic as a peaceful retreat, a country palace fit for the monarch who had defeated the Swedes in 1709. The best way to get there is by Hydrofoil from in front of the Hermitage; exciting to speed the short way across the Gulf of Finland with lots of excited Russians on their day out amongst the famous fountains. And what fountains! Exuberance of baroque, triumphalist golden kitsch, miraculous and imaginative water engineering….Peterhof has it all. Best of all, the landscaped park (with some joke fountains which spatter shrieking visitors) can now be seen as its own monument to democracy, for the Tsar's pleasure grounds are adored by ordinary St Petersburgians, some of whom go there almost every weekend.
With nothing of the puritan about me, delighting in decoration, in the unnecessary opulence of a park railing, in rampant creativity, eccentricity and (always) an indulgent third glass of icy vodka, I was bound to fall for this strangest of cities. And its spirit was summed up for me during a performance of Swan Lake at the sumptuous Mariinsky Theatre, the very name of which encapsulates historical change. Named in honour of Tsarina Maria Alexandrovna it was called the Kirov in honour of Stalin's right hand man who had no great passion for opera or ballet. Now it has embraced its true identity again, and watching a matinee of 'Swan Lake' (the finest I've ever seen), I noticed how the costumes on stage echoed the colours (pale blue, peach, lemon) of the buildings outside, and realised that the story of the ballet parallels that of this city which pirouettes as proudly as ever on the banks of the Neva. For Tchaikovsky's great work (premiered on this stage in 1895) is a fusion of French and Russian spirit and style; it presents the great opposites of history: love and hate, life and death, good and evil, faith and doubt – and it tells you that although there is always a Sorceror (all the bad things in St Petersburg's history) sooner or later he is defeated, because of the perpetual possibility of transformation.