I’ve recently returned from a four-day visit to St Petersburg—a birthday treat for my husband. He was delighted to practise the Russian that he learned at university over forty years ago and I was delighted to visit a city that’s been high on my wish list for a long time. I knew there would be lots to see with numerous palaces, museums and cathedrals, and we did our best to scratch at the surface of this intriguing city. But my memories will inevitably fade and so, in an effort to hang onto something, I’ve chosen five ‘objects’ which represent different aspects of an extraordinary history which swoops and soars like the imperial double-headed eagle.
Our first day was spent at Peterhof. This was commissioned as a rival to Versailles and is twenty-five kilometres from St Petersburg. We travelled by hydrofoil, passing the ornate buildings that line the city’s Neva River in shades of primrose yellow, mint green and birthday cake pink. Unlike most cities which grow haphazardly, St Petersburg was always destined to be impressive. It was built on unsuitable, swampy land in the early eighteenth century and gave Peter the Great the ‘Window to Europe’ that he desired. Serfs and Swedish prisoners of war laboured with their bare hands, and the bones of over one hundred thousand lie beneath the pavements.
As we left the Neva and headed towards Peterhof, the hydrofoil picked up speed. We thrashed across the Gulf of Finland and the brown foamy sea crashed at the windows. When we reached the estate, its size was overwhelming so we wandered through the gardens, taking in the scale of the palaces and fountains. Later, inside the Grand Palace the dazzle exceeded anything I’ve ever seen before, suffice to say that there is a lot of gilt. I may have been indoors but I still needed my sunglasses. There are many things that I could select to represent this imperial opulence but as my first ‘object’ I’ve chosen the water feature which cascades down from the Grand Palace complete with sixty-four individual fountains, dozens of bronze ornaments and a huge gilded statue. We stood above it on a hot day, enjoying the cool mist and gazing down at the tiny glinting rainbows.
The Hermitage Museum is also unmissable. Right at the heart of the city, it’s housed in the Winter Palace which was the official residence of the Russian Monarchy until 1917. And like Peterhof, it’s vast. The building has 1,945 windows, and it’s said that it would take eleven years to see all of its treasures. We had half a day…
It was Catherine the Great who started amassing paintings and it’s now the largest collection in the world. Just about every major classical artist is represented and there are plenty of portraits of Catherine, too. She was a German princess who married Peter the Great’s grandson, nicknamed Peter the Petty Minded. It was an unhappy marriage and six months after he became Tsar, she led a palace coup that forced his abdication. He was later assassinated—probably by her lover—and she ruled Russia for the next thirty-four years. As I moved through the museum I began to recognise her…ruddy cheeks…imperious…usually seated on a horse…and for my second ‘object’ I’ve chosen something that conjures up some romance—Catherine’s carved golden state sleigh. After I’d seen it, I looked out onto the Neva from the windows of the Winter Palace. I was glad to be visiting St Petersburg in the summer, but I couldn’t help thinking how beautiful it must be when the river freezes.
Everyone knows that the Russian Imperial age came to a violent end in 1917 and in The State Museum of the Political History of Russia we saw a portrait of Tsar Nicholas II. He looks regal in his military uniform but it’s impossible to ignore the great marks where it was slashed with bayonets at the start of the Revolution. This is my third ‘object’ and it hangs near some poignant, flickery film of the Russian Royal family swimming, and swinging in hammocks. This can’t have been long before they were all arrested, imprisoned and shot.
The museum is in a small mansion that was the home of the Russian prima ballerina Matilda Kshesinskaya until it was seized by the Bolsheviks. She never got it back. There’s speculation that she had an affair with Tsar Nicholas and a controversial film about their relationship is due to be released this autumn. We saw the room where one hundred years ago, Lenin worked on essays and speeches in the months leading up to the storming of the Winter Palace. And outside the window is my fourth ‘object’—the balcony where he stood and addressed the crowds of workers and soldiers, below. The museum was quiet when we visited and there was plenty of time to take in the dusty, bookish atmosphere of this room that changed the world.
Another day, we spent an interesting few hours hopping on and off the Metro. St Petersburg has the deepest subway in the world thanks to its difficult geology, and is well worth a visit for its own sake. It was opened during the Soviet era and many of the stations have huge chandeliers, marble columns, statues, and mosaics. We saw tributes to Lenin, Pushkin, Russian sport, and Soviet industry. However, Narvskaya station has a particularly revealing story. It was originally going to be called ‘Stalinskaya’ but before this could happen, Stalin was denounced by Kruschev. There’s a big carved stone panel at the top of the escalator called ‘Glory to Work’. Stalin’s fall from grace meant that he was never included and so the effect is rather odd, with a crowd of people all looking towards a missing figure. The elephant in the room does nothing to mitigate the fact that he ordered the deaths of up to three million people during the Great Terror. This panel is my fifth ‘object’.
On our last day in St Petersburg we visited the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul and there, amidst a great deal of gilt, we saw the final resting places of some of the characters that we’d got to know during our visit. Peter the Great lies in a marble tomb close to that of his grandson, Peter III, who is next to Catherine the Great, the wife that betrayed him. And in a side chapel lie the remains of Tsar Nicholas II, Tsarina Alexandra, their five children, and some loyal servants, interred there in 1998, eighty years after their death. I’ve chosen my five ‘objects’ to represent wealth, romance, revolution, Communism, and terror. But despite all the upheavals, it’s sobering to discover that Credit Suisse recently named Russia as the most unequal of the developed economies. It’s easy to see who benefits from the 13% flat tax rate—and it’s certainly not the poor. Churchill called Russia, ‘A riddle wrapped in an enigma,’ and that continues to be true at the centenary of the Revolution.
If you’ve been to St Petersburg then I’d love to hear which objects defined it for you. And if you haven’t visited and get the chance, then I highly recommend it—just don’t forget your sunglasses.