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Culture news
Opulent history of Russia preserved in St. Petersburg
01.11.2007 16:12

st_petersburg Glorious on one block, dismal on the next -- St. Petersburg is a chalice holding the extremes of Russia's history.

For an outsider trying to grasp Russia's sweep and complexities in a short trip, St. Petersburg may be the ideal synopsis. It's the pinnacle of czarist ostentation and the place where Russian literature reached great heights. The city's miseries have been just as dramatic -- the poverty and degradation that Fyodor Dostoevski recorded, the three-year Nazi siege that drove the city into starvation and disease.

Yet for all its psychological importance to Russia, a visitor's initial impression may be of how St. Petersburg doesn't seem very Russian at all. The city that Czar Peter the Great founded three centuries ago on swampy islands at the mouth of the Baltic Sea to be Russia's "window to the West" also gave European culture an inroad into Russia.

The city's emblematic church, St. Isaac's Cathedral, doesn't have the onion domes and spires typical of Russian Orthodox churches -- it more resembles St. Peter's Basilica or a U.S. state capitol building. Nevsky Prospekt, the main avenue, displays an array of Western European and even American architectural styles.

Hermitage's vastness

The paradox is nowhere stronger than at the Hermitage. The buildings of the world-renowned museum, the essential stop of any visitor's trip, echo Italian and French baroque styles; inside, the highlights of the collection are Western art.

The most Russian aspect of the Hermitage may be its size: With more than 1,000 rooms (although not all are open to the public), it can be a bullying challenge as much as a delight. It's so overwhelming that a visitor may want to map out a strategy before setting foot inside the vastness. One can choose to concentrate on a few parts of the holdings, such as the impressionist and Dutch/Flemish collections, the latter including the world's largest collection of Rembrandts. Or try for an overview, which might seem cursory even after a full day. Simply taking in the rooms' elaborate decor without paying attention to what's on the walls could occupy hours.

Grand living spaces

If it's hard to imagine what life was like for the royals who lived in these rooms, the brain might be strained to breaking with the realization that these were only part-time residences. They also spent considerable time at an array of palaces, including two outside the city worth particular note. Peterhof is an operatic array of gardens, playful fountains and elegant buildings. The Catherine Palace is the home of the Amber Room, a reconstruction of the madly intricate mosaic panels that disappeared during World War II.

Other options for seeing opulence include the Yusupov Palace, notable as the site of the 1916 murder of Rasputin, or at least the murder's beginning -- he was fed poisoned cakes and then shot in the palace, but apparently didn't die until thrown into the river.

St. Petersburg's Western aspects don't mean it's lacking specifically Russian sights. The Church of the Resurrection -- also known as the Church on Spilled Blood because it is built on the site of the 1881 assassination of Czar Alexander II -- is a riot of colorful onion domes, rivaling Moscow's St. Basil's, and an interior exceptional for its mosaic icons.

The State Russian Museum, undeservedly off most tourist itineraries, offers a thorough overview of Russian art, from Mikhail Nesterov's portrayals of Russian mysticism to Ilya Repin's vast canvas of Czar Nicholas II meeting with ministers in which the czar's weak and glazed expression seems to foreshadow the doom that fell upon him. The museum's folk art collection is a joy in its own right, and a worthwhile guide of how tojudge the quality of tourist tchotchkes.

Also worth a trip to the end of Nevsky Prospekt is the Alexander Nevsky Monastery, slowly recovering from the deterioration that afflicted it during the Soviet decades.

Communist slumlords

Such dilapidation may be distressing to a visitor, but seeing the downside of St. Petersburg adds much to one's appreciation of the city. For Russians, the city is known both for its palaces and its hovels.

Visitors who venture a block or two off Nevsky Prospekt today find neighborhoods redolent of Dostoevski's St. Petersburg -- crumbling buildings, their courtyards dank and trash-strewn, prowled by stray cats and other creatures.

Many seek out the building along Griboyedov Canal where the pawnbroker was killed in "Crime and Punishment." Enter through the archway at Srednaya Podyachevskaya 15, look for the open door to a stairwell with brass railing balls worn bright by visitors and trudge up the narrow, dark stairs to the third floor. Try to remember the killing was only fictional, even though the stairs are so creepy that one suspects a real homicide is imminent.

The less thrill-seeking can content themselves by seeing the building from one of the tour boats that ply the canals on the Neva River. The boats also provide views of an array of other important sights, including the golden needle of the church at Petropavlovsk Fortress, where many czars are buried. And some routes give a look at the Mariinsky Theatre, whose ballet and orchestra lately have overwhelmed Moscow's in esteem.

Cultural events such as the Mariinsky performances can be a tough ticket in the summer, when the city is flooded with visitors basking in the White Nights, the period when the sun barely sets, the night sky glows and the jet-lagged thrash about in bed unable to get body clocks adjusted.

Tourist trade -- and hotel prices -- drops significantly in winter, but the city's appeal remains high then. The dark days and the ice-choked Neva lend St. Petersburg a baleful majesty in those months.

Both light and dark, gloomy and gay, Eastern and Western -- St. Petersburg distills all of Russia.

If You Go

VISAS: Russia's grinding visa regulations make short-notice travel essentially impossible. Start the application a couple of months ahead of departure. Paying a visa-assistance agency's fee is a good investment unless the traveler wants to stand in glacial lines at consulates staffed by uncivil servants.

GETTING THERE: St. Petersburg has no direct flights from the United States. Connect through Moscow or major Western European cities. The midnight sleeper trains from Moscow take eight hours; security, once infamously dicey, is tight in the top-class cars (though the bathrooms are still primitive). Three trains a day run from Helsinki, Finland, about a six-hour trip.

CULTURE VULTURES: Many museums charge foreigners twice the admission prices that Russians pay; the cashiers have sharp ears, and it's next to impossible to fake them out. But even the higher prices are reasonable -- 350 rubles or $13 -- for the Hermitage (and free admission on the first Thursday of every month). Tickets for performances at the Mariinsky Theatre can be bought online at

DON'T DRINK THE WATER: St. Petersburg's municipal water system is plagued with giardia and worrisome chemicals. Rely on bottled water or the coolers of purified water that some hotels provide.

GET READY TO WALK: Visitors from car-oriented cultures should be prepared to be footsore. Many major tourist sights are a long walk from subway stations and bus stops; sidewalks often are in poor repair. The subways and buses are generally inaccessible to the physically challenged, and the linguistically challenged will be flummoxed by the near-total absence of route maps, street signs and other information in any language other than Russian.

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