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July 10, 2004 -> A Grimy 'window On the west': st. Petersburg

I knew that we were at the right place, but I could not find the apartment number of the home we would be staying in for the next four days.  Russian apartment blocks are enormous and numbered in a confusing way.  I was afraid that I might be mugged as I walked up one dark stairwell after another.  Finally, a women smoking outside a pub took pity on me and used her mobile phone to call Larissa.  A few minutes later, Larissa arrived and led us up the darkest of all the stairwells - the one I had avoided because it looked too dangerous.

Their apartment block was a perfect illustration of contemporary St. Petersburg, and indeed, Russia.  The façade had once been quite grand, but now the molding was disintegrating.  Balconies appeared ready to collapse.  The stairwell was crumbling, a hazard exacerbated by the lack of lighting.  The little sunlight that made its way through dirty windows illuminated graffiti and cracked plasterwork.  But Boris and Larissa's apartment was clean and spacious, an oasis of orderliness beyond the double-bolted door and unsavory stairwell.

I didn't have to ask about the ill-maintained building.  Larissa volunteered the information, perhaps out of shame.  “Some of the flats are private, others are public,” she said.  In other words, the government did not have the money (or the inclination) to invest in public spaces like the stairwell, and the private owners did not want to keep buying light bulbs that others would probably steal.  Nothing would be done about the façade unless the whole block of apartments went private, and that seemed unlikely.  ‘Glorious' past and impoverished present, private versus public, capitalist versus socialist; all the important themes facing Russians today – summed up in an aging building.

Away from Nevsky Prospekt – St. Petersburg's high-end shopping street – and the areas around and including the Hermitage, beautiful buildings were slowly disintegrating.  Peter's “Window on the West” was looking grimy.  If St. Petersburg looks like an old city, it is due to rapid decay, not hoary beginnings.  Construction began in 1703, on an insalubrious stretch of swampland near the Gulf of Finland.  Peter the Great wanted to show the world that Russia – so backwards relative to industrializing Europe – could create a city that the West would envy.  Thousands of laborers lost their lives in the process, but as an emulation of the best of Europe, Peter's City is a tremendous success: grand, sophisticated and beautiful.

Though young, St. Petersburg has played a crucial role in modern Russian history. Poor initial Russian performance in World War I - combined with serious food shortages in the capital (then called Petrograd) - spurred social unrest that would eventually lead to the end of the tsarist period and the beginning of the communist. In 1941, St. Petersburg (then called Stalingrad) was the location of one of the most brutal stand-offs in World War II. The 900-day siege of Stalingrad by German forces resulted in the deaths of between 650,000 and 800,000 citizens and soldiers. In just two months (January and February 1942) more than 200,000 died of cold and/or starvation.

St. Petersburg is a city of islands, divided by the Neva River and a multitude of narrow canals, and linked by bridges and boats.  Some call it the “Venice of the North,” though the tourist literature of Stockholm makes the same claim.  On our first evening, we took a canal cruise with Amanda (the daughter of Rolf, a Swede we met in Uganda!)  It was nine, but the sun gave no indication of preparing for bed.  It was too late in the year for St. Petersburg's famous “White Nights,” but even now complete darkness lasted only a few hours.  Our boat navigated through the maze of canals, past the magnificent onion domes of the Church of the Spilled Blood, underneath bridges so low that we had to duck our heads, and out into the wide Neva.  There the boat turned to give us a spectacular view: the Winter Palace (the Hermitage), St. Isaac's Cathedral, and a wall of riverside mansions – their facades glowing with the light of a prolonged dusk.

St. Petersburg was the brainchild of a tsar, and it remained Russia's capital until the end of the tsarist period, when the Revolutionaries moved the capital back to Moscow.  For ‘tsar watching' activities, the city cannot be beaten.  In the Peter and Paul Cathedral, far below its wondrous golden spire, sit the marble sarcophagi of the tsars.  Their names are carved in relief in a highly stylized Cyrillic, but with patience one can find the tombs of Peter and Catherine the Great, Ivan the Terrible, and several Alexanders and Nikolais unremarkable enough to earn appellations.  South of St. Petersburg is the light blue and gold ostentation of Catherine the Great's Palace.  Just north of the Hermitage, across Dvortsovy Bridge is the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography - Peter the Great's very own ‘freak' museum.

Even the famous Hermitage Museum is housed in Peter the Great's ‘Winter Palace', a massive lime-green monument to tsarist wealth that sits above the Neva River.  The Hermitage is world famous for its mega-extensive art collection, though I found the baroque decoration of the Palace rooms more impressive, particularly the Golden Room.  I kept wondering what the older Russians were thinking as they moved through the rooms, each somehow grander than the last.  Did they feel anger at the avarice of the tsars, or instead a strange pride?  “Look how great we were!” some must think, as they sadly note the dilapidation of modern Russia. 

Note: Russia is ridiculously expensive to visit.  A tourist visa costs an outrageous US$150, and takes seven days to be “processed.”  To even be considered for a visa, you must first present an invitation letter from a Russian company.  That invitation letter costs US$25-40 depending on how quickly you need it.  Once inside Russia, you must register your visa within three days.  You cannot register your visa yourself (we tried); visa registration costs another US$25-40.  So before you have spent a single kopeck on borscht or vodka, you are out at least US$200.  It doesn't stop there.  It is very difficult to find a room for less than US$45.  A pleasant room will cost at least US$60, if you can find one during the short tourist season.  DO NOT LOSE ANY of the papers various immigration officials may give you if you plan on leaving Russia.