St. Petersburg impressions

If you were looking for a break from the Zimmerman trial (verdict good; race riots bad) here are my notes from St. Petersburg, Russia.  Please forgive any typos. It’s hard to write essays on an iPad.

It’s been 24 hours since we left St. Petersburg, and I’m still struggling to decide how to describe it. It’s a city that one sees on so many levels: the sprawling (yet surprisingly well-organized) layout; the wealth of history; the wealth of wealth, as seen in all those palaces that history left behind; or the bizarre spectacle of overwhelming capitalism in a city that was, for so many decades, including a significant part of my own life, Communist.

St. Petersburg is HUGE. Not only is it home to 6 million people, it covers a vast expanse of 600 square kilometers. Everything is built on a gargantuan scale. This is not some cozy European town. It is as sprawling as Russia itself. It has more straight vistas than any place I’ve ever seen. When you look down the the Nevsky Prospect, your view seems endless. It reminded me of Washington DC, with planned streets that stretch out forever — except that it makes DC look small.

There’s also water everywhere. In addition to the Neva River, there are canals (long, perfectly straight canals) all over the place. It’s no surprise that St. Petersburg is called “the Venice of the north.” However, just as its layout dwarfs Washington’s, its canals dwarf Venice’s. These canals are so vast that motor boats can speed along them.

St. Petersburg is a planned city — and it was Peter the Great who planned it. His monarchy spanned the end of the 17th century and the beginning of the 18th century. It was Peter who yanked Russia out of her medieval Russian ways and bullied her into being an 18th century, European-style player. As part of that modernizing, he moved the capital from Moscow (too old, too Russian) to St. Petersburg, which was just a swamp when he picked it.

Peter wanted the world to know his new capital’s greatness. In addition to mandatory buildings along Swedish lines (even though Sweden was a perpetual enemy), he built the overwhelming Peterhof, the official palace, with its vast gardens. We never even saw the inside of the Peterhof. Instead, after taking a hydrofoil there, we simply wandered the grounds. Some of the fountains were so large they were bigger than the average urban swimming pool. As was the case with all the royal palaces we saw, the exterior was blue, with white trim — exxept that the Peterhof also had golden statues.

It was, frankly, gaudy, but it was also very impressive, which was the whole point. Peter himself had a small house on the grounds where he could live without the burden of a palace so vast it couldn’t possibly be a home.

While Peter planned the city, it was his daughter, Elizabeth who gave it its distinctive Russian baroque look as well as its overall ostentation. We toured the Catherine Palace in the Tsar’s Village (the same village in which Nicholas, Alexandra, and their children were assassinated), and it was overwhelming. Huge, of course, and covered with so much gold it was blinding. Versailles looks shabby in comparison. There were a few rooms that Catherine designed, and she preferred a more classical style, but most of it is a testament to Elizabeth’s penchant for gold and curlicues.

Here’s the amazing secret about both the Peterhof and Catherine Palaces — they are meticulous re-creations. During WWII, the Germans blew up the Peterhof on the very day they first reached it as they headed to St. Petersburg (or Leningrad as it was then known). This was pure spite. There was no strategic reason to do so.

The Nazis then occupied the Catherine palace all during the long and terrible siege of Leningrad. (If you’re unfamiliar with the siege, it was the most destructive in history. A third of the city’s citizens were evacuated, a third — about one million, I believe) died, and only a third survived. When the Germans were finally routed, they blew up the Catherine Palace for the same reason they blew up Peterhof — sheer spite. They also stole all the inlays from the beautiful amber room.

Working for decades, first the Soviets and then the Russians returned both palaces to their former exquisite glory. They did an amazing job, relying for guidance on what remained after the bombing, on photographs, on paintings, and on written descriptions.

Within the city limits, the damage came, not from German bombs (because the Germans contended themselves with starving out a city they thought they’d own), but from intentional Communist neglect. Palaces were stripped or used as schools, while churches were turned into swimming pools, ice skating rinks, storage areas, “museums of atheism,” etc. (With regard to that last, the Communists also turned one of Tallinn, Estonia’s ancient churches into a “museum of atheism.” That didn’t last long, though. As our charming guide in Tallinn said, there’s not much you can put in a museum dedicated to atheism.)

The church that suffered the worst destruction because of the Communist disdain for religion was the Church on the Spilled Blood. Yes, that’s really its name. In 1881 (or was it 1882?), revolutionaries, or reactionaries, or anarchists (I’m not sure which) assassinated Tsar Alexander II. He was a genuine reformer, who reformed too much for some and too little for others. Of course, that made him a target. There were seven assassination attempts against him, with the eighth finally being successful.

Immediately after he was killed, the spot at which he died became a shrine, and it was a short step to consecrate it as a church. Construction on the church began in 1882 or 1883 and continued through 1907. Both inside and outside, the church rejects St. Petersburg’s western-style architecture and, instead, is built in the neo-Russian style popular at the time. Outside, it has those marvelous turnip-shaped towers lacquered in beautiful blue and green colors. Inside, every square inch is covered with gorgeous mosaics. It’s absolutely breathtaking.

We were also so fortunate to see it. The Communists used the Church of the Spilled Blood as a storage area. They never heated it. It was also hit by a bomb during WWII, but fortunately the bomb was a dud, which lodged in the ceiling over the altar. They didn’t fix that either, allowing water damage on top of the general neglect. By the early 1960s, those exquisite mosaics were so ruined, they looked like they’d been buried under sand for a thousand years.

In 1960, when Khrushchev had eased off a bit on the extreme communism, historians, and museum archivists and archeologists petitioned the government for the right to restore this architectural gem. They got that right and began work. Our guide told us that the church vanished under scaffolding and remained that way for decades. It was re-opened only in 1997 — in other words, it took longer to repair than to build originally. In its current state, it represents a triumph of restoration.

We also went to the Hermitage, of course, which is one of the world’s great museums — as well as being the former Winter Palace. In my humble and snotty estimation, large parts of the collection are garbage. As I tell my kids, just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s good. What was good, though, was wonderful. The Hermitage has an especially impressive Impressionist exhibit, because Russian merchants liked this modern art and brought it back to Russia before the rest of the world caught on.

Our final destination was the Yusopov Palace, which was a rich family’s home, rather than a royal palace. It reminded me of Hatfield House in England, in that it managed to be both magnificent and cozy. It also had the distinction of being the place in which Rasputin was killed. (Poisoned, shot, and beaten, only to die from drowning after his body was dumped in a canal.)

One of the most bizarre things about St. Petersburg as far as I was concerned was the rampant capitalism. Even though the Soviet Union has been gone roughly 20 years, I just couldn’t get over seeing American movies advertised everywhere, HP printers touted on subway ads, and designer labels on billboards and storefronts (Amani, Prada, Gucci, etc.). The kids couldn’t understand the adult sense of wonderment about this sea change to a former Communist country.

The people to whom we spoke don’t miss Communism, they hate Stalin, and they fear Putin. They’re worried that the freedoms they’re enjoying will vanish again. One young man told us that elections are completely corrupt. It sounded like Tammany Hall days as described a friend of his who was paid to cast seven votes for Putin. Everyone who spoke of the Putin threat mentioned his KGB past as a sign that he will stop at nothing to retain power.

I’ve now exhausted my St. Petersburg reminiscences and probably exhausted you as well. More later, but for me right now, a much needed rest.