Window on the west, St Petersburg

I

To walk along the Nevskiy Prospekt is to walk along the main street of a European city. From the Alexander Nevskiy Monestary to the Admiralty, past the Moscow train station, the Kazan Cathedral and the House of Books, this bustling street, jammed with traffic at almost all times of day and night, has more in common with its spiritual brothers in Mitteleuropa than its big brother down the railway line. Peter the Great conceived of St Petersburg as a “window on the west”, the showpiece city at the heart of his project to Europeanise his nation.

That was over three hundred years ago, but even now you can see in the canals, boulevards, gardens and palaces that populate the heart of St Petersburg the concept in action. But despite Peter’s intentions, the city remains as much a window on Russia as it does on the rest of Europe, and at all times you are aware of the looming mass of the country spreading out east from this Baltic port all the way across the mountains and steppes to the Pacific shore, not least in the faces of the many and varied nationalities that call St Petersburg home, but whose origins lie elsewhere in the empire.

St Petersburg is undeniably beautiful, even if the excesses of the Tsars – still wonderfully and garishly apparent – were so outrageous they would drive even the most mild-mannered materialist to revolution. The city has a more positive legacy though when it comes to the arts, and the list of artists, poets, novelists and composers who were inspired to creative heights on these streets is as impressive as any city in the world. And it is this is what makes the city so appealing, as well as its oftentimes cruel but always fascinating history, whether as St Petersburg, Petrograd, or Leningrad.

II

At home Natalya has a shrine to a lost royal family, her holy Nicholas II, Anastasia and the rest, the icons saved by her family during the long years after Lenin’s revolution, bank notes from the nineteenth century, and a collection of literature that would persuade everyone of the righteousness of the Romanovs, if only people would read the right books. The men that murdered them betrayed Russia, and took the country into decades of decline. They are, to Natalya, simply “demons” that she would prefer not to even think about. She knows the names of every second cousin in the Russian royal family, the dates and places of every event big and small, but when asked what year a particular banknote adorned with Lenin’s bald head she refuses to remember. “It is so easy to forget this time,” she says, and it is clear she would like to forget it altogether.

At the Peter and Paul Fortress she pauses at the entry and crosses herself, the family who – thanks to God’s Will – have been sanctified and can now rest in peace. She delights in the stories of Russian royalty, of the glories of their palaces, their taste in art, and their humble service for the Russian people. Back then the peasants had “the best land” she insists, given to them thanks to the largess of Peter the Great, and you get the feeling that in Natalya’s imagination Russians lived in a perpetual Golden Autumn before the endless greyness of Communism and Collectivisation. In the Hermitage we pass portrait after portrait and Natalya describes them with rapture in her eyes and passion in her voice, the myriad dysfunctions of certain members of the family simply part of their colourful personalities as opposed to being symbolic of the hubris and decadence that would be fundamental to their downfall.

There is no way of arguing with Natalya, for we have read the wrong books, the wrong newspapers and the wrong history. This goes for most of her fellow Russians as well, but Natalya is keeping the flame alive even though she knows the chances of a Tsar once more ruling her country from the Winter Palace is as remote as the chances of the Red Flag flying once more over the Kremlin. But she loves her city in a way that is truly inspiring, and her enthusiasm for this city is infectious. She wastes no time comparing it to Moscow, which may be “the heart of Russia, but it is St Petersburg that is the head”. She harbours the hope that one day sense will prevail, and this glorious city will once more become the capital, and the exorcism of those demons who stripped it of its title and then changed its name to honour one of the worst of the lot will be complete.

III

Under dark clouds and light drizzle, the winter daylight struggling with little success against the conditions and latitude, St Petersburg has an overwhelming atmosphere of melancholy. We drive along the banks of the Neva, the rain adding texture to the river that is rolling slightly with the wind, the water high against the embankment. This expanse of dark, threatening wetness seems to somehow dwarf the various palaces that we pass, the constituent parts of the Hermitage look as if they are closing in together, huddled against the weather, only a few lights shining out of the gilded windows.

As we move along, slowly through the late afternoon traffic, we catch a glimpse through the mist of Lenin’s statue, the threatening façade of the Kresty Prison – where lack of space means the prisoner have to sleep in shifts – and boxy, off-white housing blocks reminiscent of suburbs all across the former Eastern bloc. It all serves to remind you that there is more to this city than Tsarist excesses and opulence to be marvelled at by the tourist masses. This is a city that since the collapse of the Soviet Union has become the Russian capital of organised crime, with local authorities and police implicated, as well as pockets of poverty – especially amongst the elderly – that is characteristic of elsewhere in the New Russia.

And as Lenin’s statue suggests, it was also the home of a revolution that changed world history, and looking down over gloomy, melancholy streets it is easy to imagine yourself back in the early years of the century, intrigues and upheavals playing out on these very embankments. With the Tsar holed up behind those gilded windows, men in heavy coats and hats pulled down over their ears would be scurrying across grand boulevards or over bridges across the Neva, monarchists, liberals, nihilists and Bolsheviks all jockeying for position in a country that was about to explode. As we finally reach our hotel and escape from the now darkened streets, the overwhelming sense one has is of a city that has lost a lot of what it once had, a city that for good or ill was where history played out, but no longer, and that is now trying to rediscover what it is for, what it should be, and what it can be.

Words & Pictures: Paul Scraton

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