Out of dereliction, St Petersburg is re-emerging as a great Russian city. The concrete of communism has peeled off to reveal a human logic in the streets, and the return of a belle époque atmosphereby Duncan Fallowell / June 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
Who would have thought St Petersburg would last three weeks, let alone three hundred years? Built on a mosquito swamp in the far north of Europe, freezing and snowbound in winter, stiflingly hot in summer, it was a problem at first getting people to go there at all. But in due course, its outlandish location became a feature of its appeal: glittering like diamonds in winter sunshine, or sinister and Kafkaesque in stormy weather, or wrapped in the shifting light of summer. The latter climaxes in the so-called white nights of June. I’ve never known why “white” is used to describe them. These cobalt evenings merging into pastel dawns glow with every colour except white.
The city’s architecture, although inspired by ancient Greece and Rome, ended up being entirely its own-a kind of tropical-arctic classicism, part stone but mostly delicious meringues of moulded and painted stucco, its genius to combine richness and coolness, opulence and a light-hearted gaiety bordering on the psychedelic. The atmosphere of St Petersburg, although frequently strange, is never heavy.
Peter the Great founded it where he did because he wanted a fleet for his landlocked realm-the city itself is an armada of islands, gorgeously plumed and connected by more bridges than Venice. He also wanted to connect Russia to the western world but in this the city has given as much as it got. Its cultural history-Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Diaghilev, Mendeleyev and all the rest-is of universal importance. Its political history has been no less earthshaking, battered by war and a revolution that it exported around the world.
Indeed, once established, St Petersburg proved impossible to kill. The Nazis failed in their two-and-a-half-year siege. The communists failed in their long campaign of quiet suffocation, even though they moved the capital to Moscow and turned St Petersburg into the world’s biggest squat. By the time communism caved in, the city was a shattered slum. Many cities have been annihilated or wrecked. Only St Petersburg was walked away from. That communism turned its back on the place became its good fortune-it wasn’t demolished and reinvented as a chilling modernist utopia.
The symbolic turnaround has since been rapid and surprisingly few explicit relics from the communist past remain. My favourite is the extraordinary statue of Dzerzhinsky on the approach road to Smolny Cathedral. He was a Pole who founded the Soviet secret police and had his own mother shot for counter-revolution. The pose is oddly beautiful, very languid, attenuated and effeminate, with an overcoat draped over his shoulders as though cruising for trade-long may he mince on his plinth.
The Yeltsin era did nothing for the city-all the big money action was in Moscow. I came in 1992 and my book, One Hot Summer in St Petersburg, was published two years later. Currency collapses were routine but there was a general belief that the rouble would become convertible within a year or two-which still hasn’t happened. In 1992, I was offered a fabulous flat on what was then the Red Fleet Embankment and has now reverted to its pre-revolutionary name of the English Embankment, always one of the choice spots in town. The price was $30,000, but I would have had to move in full-time and defend it with my life. Now its price would be at least eight times that, ownership fully guaranteed, and still a bit of a bargain. The only problem would be: although you own your flat, who is responsible for the building? This remains unresolved. St Petersburg is a town of mansion blocks and the exterior and interior common parts continue to deteriorate.
It seemed likely ten years ago that the end of communism would herald a cultural renaissance for St Petersburg, which was cut off suddenly in 1917 from the modern world it helped to create. But it didn’t happen. Some western Russians returned, like the sculptress Katya Galitzine, who recently married in her ancestral city in a kind of mad joyous international magnificence attended by violent thunderstorms. But despite fits and starts, the local culture hasn’t quite blossomed anew and few writers, artists or musicians followed me to St Petersburg and made it their subject. I don’t know why. To my mind it is especially conducive to creative work. The very climate puts one in an abnormal, imaginative, daring frame of mind. But I’m pleased really that no one followed. Its magic remains undiluted and somehow private.
Perhaps St Petersburg’s first job has been to revitalise its fabric and traditions. The opera and ballet of the Mariinsky under the directorship of Valery Gergiev has become Russia’s finest again (although it is still “state art”). And with one of the city’s sons as Russian president and no doubt embarrassed by the attention which the triple centenary is bringing, the government has thrown a fair bit of cash at the fabric.
Communists had no interest in “the street.” For them it was a road with buildings on either side. Our notion of a street as a place of free human interactions was wildly suspect. But after generations of oblivion the St Petersburg streets are reappearing like photos developing in a tray. Fa?es are being restored and emerging in their wondrous detail. There were always shops but you could never recognise them because they looked like offices; now their identity is once more being proclaimed. Communist pavements were simply raised tarmac and, like the roads, they were broken up and potholed. At last they are being beautifully paved with small blocks. Erstwhile crumbling backwaters, like Italian Street with its theatres, now stand revealed as glamorous thoroughfares. All this means that the human logic of St Petersburg can be read by the pedestrian for the first time in living memory.
The city was always very beautiful but in the past it was the beauty of decay, nostalgia, hopeless dreams. I was utterly seduced by that. Now I am seduced by the new beauty emerging at the centre and rippling outwards-the beauty of rebirth. Buildings one thought couldn’t survive another month stand gleamingly fresh. St Petersburg was thrown up and the restorations are being thrown up too, but this handmade, plaster classicism is essential to the gentle character of the buildings. The place has none of the stone ruthlessness of Paris. In London, such pale expanses of newly moulded and painted stucco would invite graffiti, but not here-the citizens love the architectural recovery. And the ecstasy of being in a great city without skyscrapers! As it clambers from its coffin of neglect, St Petersburg is more ravishing than I could have imagined.
Luxury wine shops, tobacconists, jewellers and confectioners are gradually appearing, bringing back the belle époque atmosphere that existed when aristocrats would spend fortunes here. Cafés sprout in odd corners. The Stray Dog, a famous avant-garde club before the revolution, is back in the Arts Square. The Mariinsky, not as beautiful as its reputation suggests, is hoping to build some much-needed ultra-modern additions. Everywhere remarkable, decrepit buildings wait patiently for a saviour.
Some building sites are being worked on 24 hours a day to complete projects in time for the official jubilee celebrations at the end of May. As many as 60,000 street lamps are being replaced with traditional copies. A major new floodlighting scheme is being installed to incorporate all the important buildings. The restored Amber Room at Tsarskoe Selo will reopen, as will the elaborate fountains at Peterhof. Putin will be the first Russian leader since Nicholas II to have a permanent official residence in St Petersburg. This will be the restored 18th-century Konstantinovsky Palace on the Gulf of Finland, which will not be sealed behind enormous gates but trendily combined with a smart hotel. Work is steaming ahead on that. Rocco Forte has almost completed his reinvention of the Astoria as one of the world’s most glamorous hotels (gossip says Putin has shares in it).
The official founding of St Petersburg, the day when Peter the Great is said to have cut the first sod, was on 16th May 1703. Peter put up the first building, his log cabin, a few days later. It is preserved on its site and you can visit it. But this was according to the old Julian calendar. Lenin switched Russia to the modern Gregorian calendar in 1918. Eleven days were lost and so the city’s official founding date jerked forward in time to 27th May. Consequently, it is the last week of May which will be filled with parades, concerts, receptions, sporting events and fireworks. On 31st May, heads of state will gather as guests of the president for a banquet in some giant palace or other, perhaps the Engineer’s Castle which, painted flame red with green and gold trimmings, has become the pivotal building of the city.
And the people? They seem to have turned the corner psychologically. Still plenty of problems but the probability of eventual prosperity is clearer. Russians always did have better posture than westerners, but now their walk is happier, more purposeful. Recently, I called on one of my landladies from ten years ago. Her flat is refurbished and her son is at Harvard. One of my student interpreters has become Valery Gergiev’s personal assistant and has to work 48 hours a day. A photographer I knew on an obscure, alternative magazine is now a big publisher. A former army cadet withdrew from his officers’ college and is a successful property developer. Other friends and contacts from 1992 have disappeared without trace. Some lives have not changed at all.
That year of 1992 was special. It was the dreamlike hiatus between two different ways of life, one of the hinge moments when Russian history stopped in its tracks and drew breath. Many of us look back on it with a sense of enchantment, as a time when the city was paralysed at the official level but terribly alive and charged at the human level. The cold, dead hand of the past had seemingly vanished. The drudgery of capitalism had not quite dawned. Everything seemed possible.
But many were desperate, stunned by the blast of a new world. Nevsky Prospekt was lined with people selling their shoes, books, records, anything, in order to eat. Much of the nasty edge has now gone-fewer comatose or fighting drunks, less public vomiting, no more paramilitaries in shades with machine guns outside banks and hotels, the mafioso element much more discreet. The only beggar is the occasional bold child. The hordes of thieving gypsies have disappeared altogether. These days St Petersburg is a 24-hour party town; very sexy, but with great tracts of utter peacefulness and far safer than London from the mugging point of view. They still say that no Russian trusts another, but the young people, particularly, appear natural and spontaneous with each other.
Not everything is improved. The great prospekts, so wide and once so serene, are becoming a traffic nightmare. There are many half-abandoned crumbling palaces but few hotels for a quick stay. The mechanics of getting in and out of the country are still Stalinist (on the other hand, a place with few tourists is far more rewarding than one that is full of them). The educated, professional class, which was particularly hard hit by the new Russia, is still beleaguered. And St Petersburg’s greatest annual celebration, Navy Day, always the last Sunday in July, has not returned. On Navy Day the vast watery space of the Neva at its centre would fill with beflagged battleships, cruisers, submarines and masses of private craft. Afternoon gun salutes and fireworks would swathe the palaces in coils of infernal smoke. It was a unique spectacle but now is said to be too expensive.
Otherwise, it is still very much its own place: wonderfully unplastic. Like Calcutta or Rio de Janeiro-two other abandoned capital cities-St Petersburg’s official systems are often rudimentary or unworkable. Nearly everything is done through people. On some level, everyone is on the game and has to be for anything to be achieved. It is not corruption but an opportunity (far more possible here than in Moscow) for wandering and making connections. Taxis, for example-just hail the local traffic and, when someone stops, negotiate a price (usually 50 roubles for a lift across the centre). Don’t be afraid, they won’t murder you. St Petersburgers can seem shy, reserved or blunt-Muscovites say they are snobbish too-but most of them long to make contact.
I am constantly amazed by the quality of local food when it isn’t trying to ape the west. The Russian staples-cheese, bread, eggs, vegetables-are generally natural and full of flavour, coming from a pre-supermarket world. Why does the Astoria Hotel use the tasteless, oversugared mini-pots of western jam when the local stuff is so superior? Russians are always very shocked to discover the tastelessness of western food products. Private food is much better than public food.
But if the romance of the ruinous is still your desire, there will be plenty of that for years to come. Sometimes the dereliction can take your breath away. It will need a lot more than the anniversary cash to get behind all those fa?es and deal with the structural guts. Taps run dry, doors drop off, ceilings fall, wiring packs up. For a taste of social necrophilia visit the Stieglitz Museum, a 19th-century extravaganza gone to seed-but be quick, they’re doing it up.
Many things remain weird, inexplicable. Why do all Russian car number plates have RUS on them in the Latin alphabet? Why do Russians smoke themselves to death in closed rooms? Why don’t private bedrooms have proper curtains to shut out the light? Why can’t I buy Russian vodka in London? Why don’t they do something about the derelict Bobrinsky Palace? Why did the Patriarch refuse to bury the last Tsar and his family? (It was done by an independent priest and the tomb in the cathedral of St Peter and St Paul is very poignant, even for republicans.) And most of all, why do I feel anxious about going to St Petersburg and yet so happy when I arrive?