Monday, 28 July 2008

St Petersburg, setting aside the illusion


St Petersburg as an illusion, as a confection in which reality is mutable and nothing is quite as it seems, has become something of an easy cliché. It has its roots in the city’s history, geography and literature and it reflects conflicting strands of Russian culture which manifest themselves graphically in Petersburg. In common with many clichés, there is a nugget of truth around which it has formed, but simultaneously it casts an occluding shadow upon its subject which compromises those accounts submitting unquestioningly to its logic.

St Petersburg is not an ancient city and its development did not have the organic quality which confers a more natural, inevitable feel upon other great world centres. The story of its foundation even dates the city to a specific day, May 27 1703, when Peter the Great is said to have thrust his sabre into the soft turf on which was built SS Peter and Paul’s Fortress and declared ‘here shall be a city’. Peter moved his court to St Petersburg in 1712 and it became Russia’s imperial capital until the Romanov dynasty was overthrown.

In the main Peter did oversee the construction of his new capital from scratch and at the expense of many thousand of serfs, who died in the attempts to raise a magnificent city from an inhospitable swamp. His vision was grand and classical, based on a network of canals, a grid of broad streets fronted by palaces, which the country’s nobility would be compelled to populate, and commodious squares befitting the capital of a great European nation.

It is an exaggeration to portray St Petersburg as a place lacking the layers of history and development which characterise other great cities. Around Peter and Paul Fortress a spontaneous settlement had already grown up when Peter was still drawing up plans for a formal city centred on Vasilevsky Island. And at Peter’s death in 1725 his vision for St Petersburg was by no means realised. Others would assume the mantle for growing and developing Peter’s legacy on the Gulf of Finland.

St Petersburg does however remain overwhelmingly a product of Peter’s modernising, Europeanising vision for Russia, with all the problematic baggage that that entails. In his magisterial cultural history of Russia, ‘Natasha’s Dance’, Orlando Figes describes an early St Petersburg where neo-classical facades concealed a much more Russian reality, whereby noble families would graze animals in their courtyards and maintain the trappings of their boyar backgrounds, within the privacy of their own dwellings.

Such realities nurtured and informed the perception of the city as somewhere in which a dichotomy existed between appearance and reality. Pushkin, Gogol and Dostoevsky in turn embellished this perception through their own imaginative interpretations and the notion of St Petersburg as a sepulchral city populated by phantoms, in which reality is a deceptive and slippery concept, gained momentum in the popular mind.

With imaginations inflamed by such imagery, it is easy for visitors to the city to indulge in flights of fancy. In Jonathan Dimbleby’s lachrymose book, ‘Russia: A Journey to the Heart of a Land and its People’, he rolls out his architectural musings to the citizens of St Petersburg itself. The young women are beautiful, but they are also hollow facades, housing nothing authentic or genuine. Apart from being an awe-inspiringly silly and patronising observation, Dimbleby’s comment represents the type of facile generalisation which it is all too easy to fall into, having preconceived what a city might be like through the prism of popular imagination.

The frontispieces of St Petersburg may form a stage-set, against which the life of the city takes place, but nevertheless that street life is enough reality for anyone and it thrums with vitality. Nevsky Prospekt is Petersburg’s main artery. Extending from Palace Square and the Admiralty it performs a sweeping turn at Moscow Railway station and proceeds to Alexander Nevsky Monastery. Arriving at the railway station laden with luggage, we elbowed our way a third of a mile along the gentle slope down which the street proceeds toward the River Neva. Even at noon on Sunday the street is thronged with shoppers, hawkers of various goods (from souvenirs to new born puppies) and promenaders wishing to be seen.

Our accommodation was on the main street itself. An anonymous door beside McDonalds was buzzed open at out request and we stepped from the well-healed thoroughfare outside into a foul smelling, dingy stairwell which was crumbling to bits. The next morning the stairs bore evidence that an occupant had urinated on them during the night. To extrapolate from the state of our hostel and its building, a metaphor alluding to the physical and mental contours of the city itself is too easy and too glib, but it would be wrong to deny that beneath the carefully maintained exterior often lurked a shabbier reality in St Petersburg.

The hostel itself was an ex kommunalka, the shared apartments which accommodated much of Russia’s urban population in Soviet times and still prevail where new wealth has yet to impact. The kitchen was in a state of decrepitude unchanged from its previous incarnation. Some new showers and toilets had been haphazardly fitted, but our double room did not have a working lock and masonry would crumble from the walls whenever we forced the door open.

Worst of all though were the occupants, a set of self-styled ‘bohemian’ charlatans, who tried to confer on themselves some artistic glamour, presumably justifying their subsistence in something akin to a squat. Personally I was more irritated by the aging stage Irishman from Cork, who apropos of nothing would blurt out such meaningful aphorisms as ‘you give them your brains, they take your virginity’, to an audience of impressionable acolytes. Although running him close was the half blind Kiwi owner, who styled himself an ‘artist who paints with words’ (he worked for a local English language listings magazine) and wasted no time boasting to both my girlfriend and myself that he had managed to sleep the previous night with one of his guests.

With the counterpoint of such accommodation, if the splendour of St Petersburg is a confection or an illusion, it was a welcome one. We spent almost every day, from early in the morning, until dusk (which in high summer arrives somewhere approaching midnight) immersed in allegedly spurious grandeur.

One of the buildings I was most awed by surprised me somewhat. The received wisdom is that the Church on Spilled Blood, build by slavophile Tsar Alexander III on the spot where his father Alexander II had been assassinated in 1881, is a gaudy anathema which forms a jarring contrast to the neo-classical buildings pre-dominating in Peter’s city. I found it a much subtler building than I had expected, outfitted in less strident colours than St Basil’s, combining Russian onion domes with more European motifs and charmingly situated on the Gribodeov Canal.

St Petersburg’s other great public buildings, parks and squares, whether they ultimately leave you cold with their ostentation and scale, nevertheless are designed to awe. Many of Russia’s best museums are situated inside these cathedrals and palaces. The Hermitage Museum features the Winter Palace’s state rooms, built to underscore the wealth and splendour of the imperial family for the edification of foreign dignitaries. Grand Duke Mikhail Pavlovsky built Mikhailovsky Palace which now houses the Russian Museum, repository of a wonderful collection of Russian art. Kshesinskaya Mansion was once home to the prima ballerina whose name it bears, a lover of Nicholas II; now the State Museum of Russian Political History presents a series of fascinating exhibits within its spacious rooms.

Around St Petersburg lies a ring of impressive imperial palaces and their extensive grounds. A hydrofoil leaves from just below the Winter Palace, taking visitors to Peterhof, the Tsars’ Baltic Versailles which lies out in the Gulf of Finland. In addition, one of the idiosyncratic little yellow minibuses, which provide a slightly hair-raising service to Russian locals, runs from Moskovskaya metro station to Tsarskoe Selo. This town, known in Soviet times as Pushkin, has two palaces. Catherine Palace is another magnificent building in the Peterhof mould, set in tranquil gardens. The Alexander Palace sits several hundred yards away and it lies derelict and unvisited by the coach tours which patronise its illustrious neighbour.

The last Tsar commissioned this palace and it seems more evocative of the family’s grizzly demise for being allowed to crumble into decrepitude with its surrounding park growing wild. Tracing a solitary path through grass and wildflowers around to the front of the building, what was once a stately front drive is now a long, overgrown meadow. At the rear of the house a small memorial to the murdered Romanovs has been maintained, a few fresh flowers sit in front of a cross bearing the image of the Tsar, his wife and children.

Leaving the established tourist trail in St Petersburg pays most dividends. We spent an evening in the streets around the Haymarket, where Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment was set. Whilst the squalor which the author describes is no longer there, the streets retain enough atmosphere to pleasingly invoke his great novel. Another evening we spent in Tinkoff’s bar and brewery watching young Russians let their hair down in manic fashion. These were places where the St Petersburg façade which attracts criticism drops away and the city’s character, as well as that of its people, asserts itself.

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