6 June — 7 June
In the steps of Peter and Pushkin
August 28, 2009
The role of St Petersburg (which celebrated its 300th anniversary in 2003) in Russian history has long been a subject of debate. For some, the city is an "island of Europe" in an ocean of Asiatic chaos. For others, it is an "artificial city", an alien body that for two centuries deprived Moscow of its deserved supremacy. St Petersburg writer Alexander Melikhov takes us on a journey through his native city.
Peter the Great became a symbol of the forcible imposition of European enlightenment combined with the ruthless suppression of European democracy when, in the early 18th century, he moved the Russian capital from patriarchal, "Asiatic" Moscow to a new city on the delta of the Neva River where it enters the Gulf of Finland.
A "window on the West", St Petersburg was meant to be Russia's European showcase. Peter sent for the best European architects, scientists, and administrators, and by the 19th century the young capital was the most beautiful and most European city in the Russian Empire. It was created not only by architects, but by poets. Peter's city was hymned by Russia's great poets, from Pushkin to the Silver Age writers Osip Mandelshtam and Marina Tsvetaeva. A few years before his death in a duel, Pushkin found a marvellous image for this great city in his narrative poem "The Bronze Horseman" (1833): "I love you, work of Peter's warrant,/ I love your stern and comely face".
The Neva River is often called the city's principal avenue, and the many canals its streets. All the palaces and main buildings face the water, and it is from the water that one can best appreciate the splendour of St Petersburg. For a panoramic view of the city, one should stand on the Troitsky Bridge, which spans the Neva for half a kilometre.
To the left, you see the Field of Mars, a ground for imperial military parades. Behind the field are the Mikhailov Gardens and the classical Russian Museum, a unique collection of Russian art. Further to the left is the Engineering Castle (also known as the Mikhailovsky Castle) where Emperor Paul I hoped to find refuge, but instead met his death at the hands of conspirators.
On the other side of the Neva you see the granite bastions of the Peter and Paul Fortress. Built to defend the city, the fortress eventually became a political prison. This composition is crowned by the magnificent spire of the Peter and Paul Cathedral with its winged angel blessing the city. The Peter and Paul Cathedral was the shrine of Russian emperors and empresses with a preponderance of German blood. The deaths of surprisingly many of them were violent.
If you look straight ahead, you see the spire of Vasilievsky Island and the well-proportioned colonnade of the Old St Petersburg Stock Exchange between the Rostral Columns. Along the left bank is a line of palaces culminating in the royal Winter Palace, home of the world-famous Hermitage Museum. If a museumgoer were to stop in front of every exhibit for at least 30 seconds, a tour of the entire collection would take more than seven years (given an eight-hour viewing day). Best of all is just to wander the sumptuous halls, breathing in the extravagances of world culture and lingering only before the most famous masterpieces, such as Rembrandt's Portrait of an Old Jew.
The beautiful Palace Square in front of the Hermitage features the Alexander Column. Here, one should stop in front of the arch of the General Staff Headquarters, and then look to the right, at another arch almost as beautiful by the same architect, Carlo Rossi. It was there, by the Senate building, that the rebel Decembrists faced a barrage of royal shrapnel in 1825. Go there towards nightfall when St Isaac's Cathedral and the Senate seem to become weightless and are lifted up from the ground on the beams of projectors, while the famous monument to Peter the Great, the Bronze Horseman, freezes above the granite wave of its pedestal.
If you take the trouble to go to the Neva in the wee small hours of the morning, you will see the Petersburg bridges lift up their steel-entwined hands to the black heavens while beneath them slide vessels, silent as the Flying Dutchman. The city boasts 13 drawbridges. During the day, however, you are best advised to wend your way to Nevsky Prospekt. You will return here time and again, if only because most of the main museums are nearby, as are the most convenient Metro stations. But the first time, you should make the effort to fully acquaint yourself with Nevsky and its buildings.
Legends are what give the buildings their most bewitching qualities. From one café, for example, Pushkin set off for his final duel. If you cross the Moika Canal and turn to the right, you will come out by the Yusupov Palace where Russia's pop symbol, Grigory Rasputin, was murdered.
And from the bridge across the Griboyedov Canal (formerly the Catherine Canal), one can see off to the right the Kazan Cathedral, a much smaller Russian version of St Peter's Basilica in Rome, but every bit as elegant. To the left you can see the gingerbread Cathedral of Our Saviour on the Spilled Blood, erected in memory of Emperor Alexander II. This liberal-minded tsar emancipated the serfs and, for his troubles, was assassinated by a terrorist bomb.
If you walk a little way to the right you will find yourself in Dostoevsky's Petersburg, almost by the house of that author's great antihero, Raskolnikov. Go straight and on your left you will again see the Russian Museum, while on the right are the mid-18th-century arcades of the Gostiny Dvor store, combining Bolognese refinement with a Russian merchant's stinginess.
Continuing down Nevsky, take the Anichkov Bridge across the Fontanka Canal and admire Pytor Klodt's four famous sculptures - wild horses with their tamers - adorning its four corners. The statues symbolise an increasingly strong Russia.
Come darkness, you could visit the Mariinsky Theatre (which also boasts the world-famous Mariinsky Ballet company). However, in the exquisite little theatre of the St Petersburg Chamber Opera Company, tucked away on Galernaya Street under the Senate Arch, they sing just as beautifully.
The day has flown by. But if you have the good fortune to find another half hour or, better still, an hour, trust in fate. Turn down any street, side street, or embankment that appeals to you (the constant companionship of water is the city's signature), and you are sure to come upon another wonderful surprise.
1. The Hermitage. Situated in the centre of St Petersburg, the State Hermitage Museum is housed in five magnificent buildings created by celebrated architects of the 18th and 19th centuries.
2. The Russian Museum. Opened in 1898, this was the first museum of Russian fine art. Today, it's a unique depository of artistic treasures, leading restoration centre, a centre of research and the nucleus of a network of national museums of art with more than 400,000 exhibits.
3. Kazan Cathedral. Located on the city's main Nevsky Prospect, this cathedral was completed in 1815 and modelled after St Peter's Basilica in Rome. Following closure during Communist times, services resumed in 1992.
4. Boat trip through St Petersburg. See the "Russian Venice" from within via any of the dozens of boat tours offered at many points along the city's 93 rivers, 20 canals and more than 100 ponds.
5. Peterhof. The world-famous "capital of fountains" or "Russian Versailles" was founded by Tsar Peter I outside the city. In 1918, this summer residence of the Russian emperors became state property and, by 1941, 10 art and history museums had been opened on its premises.
Facts and figures
1703 The history of St Petersburg began on May 27, 1703, when Tsar Peter the Great built the Peter and Paul Fortress on Zayachii (Rabbit) Island in the delta of the Neva river during the Northern War against Sweden.
4.6m people (2005) live here. It is the second largest city in Russia, after Moscow, and the world's northernmost city with more than one million residents.
From the 18th till the beginning of the 20th century, St Petersburg was the capital of the Russian Empire. Throughout the course of history, the city has changed its name: St Petersburg (1703-1914), Petrograd (1914-1924), Leningrad (1924-1991), St Petersburg again (since September 6, 1991). Regardless of its official name, the Russians call St Petersburg simply "Piter".
St Petersburg and Moscow through Gogol's eyes
"She (Moscow) still remains a Russian beard, whereas he (Petersburg) is an accurate German. Old Moscow has so sprawled, so widened! How unkempt it is! And how stiffly erect foppish Petersburg is! ... Moscow is an old "stay-at-home" cooking pancakes, looking from a distance and listening (while not leaving its armchair) to what is going on in the world.
"Petersburg is always moving around - from the cellars to the attic; from midnight on, it begins cooking French loaves that will be all eaten up by Germans; all throughout the night, each of its eyes is glowing; all of Moscow sleeps at night, and the next day, having crossed herself to all four sides, she brings kalachs (kind of wheatmeal loaves) to the marketplace. Moscow is female, Petersburg is male. All in Moscow are brides, whereas all in Petersburg are grooms."
Nikolay Gogol, Petersburg Notes, 1856.
WHAT, WHERE, HOW MUCH?
TAXI CAB companies charge different rates, some according to distance, others according to destination or purpose. A trip from the airport to Nevsky Prospekt (16 km) costs between 600 and 900 rubles. A trip to Peterhof, the Summer Palace (32 km), costs around 1,000 rubles.
The most expensive taxis are the ones parked on the street: the drivers name exorbitant prices, taking advantage of the fact that tourists don't know the distances and standard fares. Most convenient of all is to order a taxi by telephone: the cost of the trip is stated when you place your order. However, the dispatchers, like the drivers, do not speak English. Best is to ask the administrator in your hotel, club, etc. to order the taxi for the right place and time. Some taxi service telephones: 068, 007, 777-1-777.
St. Petersburg has MORE THAN 300 BRIDGES, 13 of which are drawbridges. They work during the period of summer navigation: from the end of April to November. Their schedule changes very little from year to year. The first bridge to go up is the Palace Bridge (from 1: 25 a.m. to 4:55 a.m.), the last is the Alexander Nevsky Bridge (from 2:20 a.m. to 5:10 a.m.). A number of the bridges are let down at some point in the interim.
MUSEUM TICKET WINDOWS close an hour before the museum does. Tickets for foreigners cost more than for Russian citizens. Ticket prices average 300-350 rubles (6 or 7 pounds).
PETERHOF PARK is open from 9:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. The fountains are on from 11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. The park entrance fee in summer is 300 rubles; the rest of the year it is free.
CITY TOUR BUS EXCURSIONS: 350 rubles.
From May to October, from 9:00 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. The rest of the year: from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. There are audio-guides in 8 languages, including English.
BUS EXCURSIONS OUT OF THE CITY: to the Pushkin and Peterhof Palaces. The excursions cost 1,800 rubles apiece. The cost includes the price of the tickets to the museums and a guided tour.
BOAT RIDES cost from 350 rubles along the Neva, and up to 500 rules along the rivers and canals. Excursions in foreign languages cost from 590 rubles and must be booked in advance. Nighttime excursions along the Neva under the drawn bridges cost from 550 rubles.
St. Petersburg residents, including those who work in tourism, rarely speak English. On the other hand, they are very friendly and always ready to help.
St. Petersburg has over 400 wi-fi points of access to the Internet. In the center the ratio of paid to free hotspots is about even. There are no municipal programs for free Internet. Wi-fi has been made accessible at the initiative of hotel and restaurant owners. The signal is rarely strong enough to be caught on park benches. A complete list of hotspots is always available at: http://wifi4free.ru/spb/
In the city center there are many PUBLIC TOILETS (grey or blue booths marked WC). Cost: 15 rubles. Cafes and restaurant offer this service only for paying customers. In large malls the toilets cost 15 rubles and up.
CREDIT CARDS are accepted at most cafes, stores, bars, ticket booths, etc. Many ATM machines have an English-language option.
Currency may be changed at any bank or bank branch. You should never change money on the street.
To buy mobile phone SIM-CARDS you must show your passport. There are street stands where you can buy a sim-card "on the run", semi-legally, without documents.
Vacations in St. Petersburg are FAIRLY SAFE, as safe as in any large city. You should not walk around the city at night in an inebriated state; you should not display your expensive cameras, wallets, or documents. Document checks by the police, including for foreigners, do occur, but not often.
EMERGENCY MEDICAL AID is available at no cost (the telephone number is: 03). Any other medical care must be paid for in cash. And you may be required to show your proof of purchase of medical insurance that was part of your application for a Russian visa.
24-HOUR PRIVATE CLINICS
American Medical Clinic: Moika Canal, 78. Telephone: 740-20-90
EuroMed: Suvorovsky Prospekt, 60. Telephone: 327-03-01.
Scandinavia: Liteiny Prospekt, 55A. Telephone: 336-77-77, 600-77-77.
Stroganoff Steak House: Konnogvardeisky Boulevard, 4. International and Russian cuisine, wi-fi, average cost: 500-1,500 rubles.
Russkaya Ryumochnaya № 1: Konnogvardeisky Boulevard, 4. Russian cuisine, wi-fi, average cost: 500-1500 rubles.
Hotel Europa Restaurant: Mikhailovskaya Street, 1/7. European cuisine. Dinner: $70. Brunch: $50. Breakfast: $28.
Fyodor Dostoevsky: Vladimirsky Prospekt, 9. Russian cuisine: from 1,000 rubles.
Teplo: Bolshaya Morskaya, 45. European and international cuisine, wi-fi, average cost: 500-1,500 rubles.
PUBS, BARS AND CLUBS
James Cook: Shvedsky Pereulok, 2, and Kamennoostrovsky Prospekt, 45.
Tinkoff: Kazansky Street, 7.
Mollie's Irish Bar: Rubinshtein Street, 36.
Dickens English Pub: Fontanka Canal, 108.
Shamrock Irish Bar: Dekabristov Street, 27.
Golden Dolls: Nevsky Prospekt, 60. Best striptease.
Achtung Baby: Konyushennaya Square, 2. Dances.
Purga: Fontanka Canal, 11. A daily opportunity to ring in the New Year or celebrate a wedding in the manner of Soviet aesthetics.
Lyod (Ice): Kazanskaya Street, 2. The temperature inside is minus 10 degrees Celsius. Every customer is given a warm coat and felt boots.
Good buys: Alcohol, cigarettes.
Many food stores are open 24 hours. Sales of strong alcohol stop at 11 p.m.
Buying alcohol at a street stand will cost you more. A bottle of vodka (500 mil) on the street costs from 30 to 50 rubles. The same bottle in a food store costs 21 rubles.
Souvenirs may be bought at malls, special souvenir shops, stationary and book stores. The best place in the city for souvenirs is the booths near the Savior-on-the-Blood Museum.
Nest dolls: from 200 to 3,000 rubles.
Fridge magnets: from 30 rubles in stores, from 50 rubles at Blood-on-the-Savior.
Russian fur hats: from 450 rubles.