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Culture news
St. Petersburg rarely sleeps
03.24.2006 16:40

st_petersburg Cultural colossus thriving again

By Denis Horgan

You can watch the sun set here at midnight. It's an odd business seeing a midnight sunset, standing with the scores of mellow people at the Neva River's edge, as is the happy, romantic and often tipsy custom, looking across at the kaleidoscopic changing of the hues over the Sts. Peter and Paul Fortress magically repainting the Hermitage's soft tint, etching the Rostral columns in stark, dark silhouette.

The sun safely down, St. Petersburg resumes its wondrous prowl -- a boomtown of clubs and music and restaurants running deep into the late-arriving night or early-arriving morning. Somehow, you don't feel quite so guilty or tired painting the town red (or red no more, yellow or green) so soon after "dusk."

Just as the winter's days are short, there are times during the summer -- the "white nights" -- when it never quite gets dark.

As it happens, having the sun go down so late in the seasons when you are likely to visit St. Petersburg is a good thing, too. A visitor to this great town might never see the sun at all otherwise, so much is there to do during the day. And night. You could spend a whole trip inside churches, museums and the amazing subways, fascinated by 300 years of history, culture, religion, government and social change -- and almost never get outside.

That'd be very sad, too, because "outside" in St. Petersburg is as beautiful as any of the treasures within. There are lively street scenes, glorious parks, elegant architecture, haunting cemeteries, evocative palaces and startling mansions, lovely countryside, canals and waterways.

In short, there is no time when this city doesn't fascinate.

St. Petersburg has again burst into its own as Russia's beautiful, dynamic, exciting center of history and culture, of cuisine, fashion, fun.

This was something of the goal in building the city three centuries ago -- and much has flowed down the Neva since. St. Petersburg did not evolve and grow from a crossroads or port's fortunate position, a dot in history expanding with the times. Peter the Great ordered up this amazing place from scratch precisely to create a new and vibrant center of culture, spirit and authority, something facing west to Europe and away from the grim reaches of Mother Russia's enormous, seemingly endless hinterland.

The Soviets renamed it Leningrad, and even under their rule, the place had an energy not always to be found in the lovely but government-dominated Moscow to the south. The Germans did their awful best to destroy the place in a monstrous, bloody siege, but with amazing courage and strength and humanity, the city survived.

Nevsky Street, the city's zippy commercial spine, is a mishmash of young women in miniskirts and women in babushkas and great galumphy overcoats, while dungarees and the other examples of the decadent West rule.

St. Petersburg beckons with such amazing beauty as to leave the stranger gasping for time to take it all in.

It is not even vaguely possible to dent the store of art in the Hermitage, Catherine the Great's enormous little art box.

The world's postcards might feature St. Basil's in Moscow as the signature cathedral of the land, but you could wonder how St. Petersburg's Church on Spilled Blood, or, more formally, the Church of the Resurrection of Christ, was slighted. The colors, the shapes, the architecture, the art, the beauty of workmanship carry one far beyond thoughts of the assassinated Czar Alexander II, whose spilled blood is so honored.

With its mosaics, semi-precious stones in precious application, Italian marble floors and stained-glass windows, the church was used as a warehouse for much of the Soviet era, reopening as a religious center only in 1997.

High above, the city is marked by wide routes and avenues -- and canals. The wonderful, practical presence of so much water also calls for bridges, and St. Petersburg is a much-bridged town.

At Petrogradskaya, across the Neva from the Hermitage and Field of Mars, old St. Petersburg exists at its essence -- in the Sts. Peter and Paul Fortress and its rich, complex compound of churches, offices, prison cells and historical centers within high walls. With the bustling river life to the south (and sunbathers at river's edge), Petrogradskaya and its environs reflect the style and substance of the city since its founding in 1703.

St. Petersburg's cemeteries are legendary for their sculpture: history and emotion captured in marble and metal. No visit to St. Petersburg is whole without a visit to the Lasarus or Tikhvin cemeteries. Less artistic if immeasurably more painful is Piskarevskoe Memorial Cemetery, which memorializes the 670,000 who died in the Nazi siege.

Russia's history is full of death, suffering, assassinations and heartache.

But St. Petersburg, which endured far beyond its share of all that and more, is marked as well by a vibrancy of spirit, the enormous beauty of natural and human creation and an awesome resilience and optimism.

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