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Home of Pushkin's and Dostoevsky's heroes, St. Petersburg is a city of canals and bridges as well as a capital of art and culture.
T he Rough Guide to St. Petersburg opens with an old Soviet-style joke:
- Where were you born?
- St. Petersburg.
- Where did you go to school?
- Where do you live now?
- Where would you like to live in the future?
- St. Petersburg.
To have lived in so many different places without ever having left the city of their birth is a distinction unique to St. Petersburgers. The name changes the city has experienced since the First World War reflect the various historical transformations it has undergone and the different eras that have followed one another in rapid succession. Built with incredible speed in 1703 as Russia’s window on the West, taking Europe’s foremost cities as its model, St. Petersburg quickly doubled in population, making it comparable to the biggest cities of Europe. This city project, erected by Peter the Great on former swampland, turned into one of the ‘biggest’ and ‘craziest’ urban undertakings in history and the symbol of Russia’s drive to modernize. As the new Tsarist capital, it represented urban modernism in contrast with the provincialism of Moscow, a splendid identity it would wear as a badge for more than two centuries to come. Until it lost its status as capital on the eve of the First World War when Russia began closing its doors on the West. The decline of St. Petersburg, which began at the start of the century, would gather momentum with the 1917 Revolution, which actually erupted in this city, at the Winter Palace.
And when the Bolsheviks turned their backs on St. Petersburg and transferred the government back to Moscow, the city’s star, in the economic and political sense, was completely extinguished. Ending its ‘Leningrad’ period with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, St. Petersburg recovered its former name if not its former status, and, for the time being at least, remained closed to the winds of change stirred by the free market economy. But today it stands on the brink of a major transformation, as evidenced by the furious wave of restoration that commenced in 2003 on the 300th year anniversary of its founding.
RUSSIA’S ‘OPPOSITE POLE’
But St. Petersburg is not just a city of names and movements. It is also a city of bridges with more of them than any other city in the whole world - a total of 539 including 315 in the city center. With its 101 islands it is also worthy of the title ‘city of islands'. Not only that, but it has enough canals to vie with Venice, Amsterdam and Stockholm.
But most of all St. Petersburg is a city of culture, of literature and poetry in particular.
As Dostoevsky’s protagonist puts it, “It is the most abstract and fantastic city on earth.” Osip Mandelshtam, a writer whose name is synonymous with the city, wrote in 1925: “It always seemed to me that something splendid and great was going to happen in Petersburg.” Pushkin meanwhile expresses his love for the city in his famous ‘Bronze Horseman', which has as its subtitle, ‘A Petersburg Tale': “I love you, capital city of Peter, I love your sharp and elegant visage, the Neva’s majestic flow, its granite banks, its ornamental iron railings, the pale light of its nocturnal darkness...” Although its political importance waned, St. Petersburg never ceased to be a capital of art and culture, an alternative or ‘opposite pole’ to Moscow. The city that breathed life into Pushkin’s and Dostoevsky’s heroes marched to a different drum even in the Soviet era. Alexander Sokurov’s ‘Russian Ark', shot in 2002 and one of the most original films in cinema history, brilliantly sums up St. Petersburg’s fortunes and the last three hundred years of Russian history. And it does so simply by strolling through The Hermitage without once taking the camera out on the street until the final scene. Moving from chamber to chamber, from hall to hall, through this magnificent museum following in the footsteps of an anonymous foreigner through the past of both the city and the country, the film pursues the trail of a lost dream. If The Hermitage Museum today heads the list of places where we can follow that dream - and this is a truly splendid ‘treasure trove’ where you can see works not only of Russian artists but by the greats of Western art as well, such as Rembrandt, Picasso, Matisse, Van Gogh - the other is the Nevsky Prospect, which continues to be the city’s main artery regardless of the sweeping changes that have chipped away at its soul. Some of St. Petersburg’s most beautiful buildings and most popular shopping malls, most notably of course the Gostiny Dvor, line this broad avenue.
PUTTING ON A NEW FACE
The bridges that arch across the Neva like necklaces, emerging before us large and small over the canals and opening to the sky in the late hours of the night, are the city’s trademark. But to call St. Petersburg a city of canals and bridges is to do an injustice to its soaring cathedrals - and it is perhaps one of the cities with the most cathedrals in the world - its sprawling parks, and its majestic monuments like the Alexander Column on Palace Square and the Marinsky Theater. It is a city that defies simple definition, a city of multiple identities like a Russian matroushka doll, a city that is constantly changing its appearance.
St. Petersburg’s center has undergone a rapid transformation in recent years. The monumental skyscraper that natural gas giant Gazprom is currently planning, for example, represents the epitome of this process. But despite the dizzying transformation, the city seems to have forfeited nothing of its soul.
The Petersburg tradition, immortalized in Russian literature, will never fade, and the mysterious, historically unique soul of this city will continue to haunt its streets one way or another. This is a spirit that comes out to meet you in a bronze statue in the park, on a slender bridge over the Neva, in a stone courtyard or, if you happen to be there in June, in the bitter cold of one of its White Nights. A spirit that has spread not just through the city center but into the tunnels of the world’s deepest metro system, 170 meters below ground, to neighboring villages like Tsarkoe Selo where the Catherine Palace is located, and even to the islands off the coast. A stout spirit with a will to live so strong that even during the famine years of the siege it inspired Shostakovich to compose his ‘Leningrad’ Symphony: the spirit of St. Petersburg.