St Petersburg

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2003 marks the year when Peter I stood in the middle of a mosquito-infested swamp he had just wrested from Sweden and announced that this would make a really great spot to build his Window on the West. St Petersburg is the net result and its history and means two things. Firstly, that it is built on 40 odd islands interspersed with canals, which makes Venice of the North comparisons absolutely irresistible. And secondly, the speed which which building took place coupled with the reason it was going up in the first place made the whole of the (central) city achieve an elegant and harmonious whole not found in cities which have grown up naturally over time under the less authoritarian eye of people like Peter and his successors. Stand on one side of the Neva, in front of the Peter and Paul fortress, and look up and down the opposite bank and you will see an almost unbroken line of pastel-shaded neo-classical mansions. Wander around the center and you get the same. St Petersburg is a spectacularly beautiful city.

Particularly, you figured, this year, what with the aforementioned anniversary promising that you might get to see the city looking at its best. Or nearly its best as, in fact, the offer from B's relatives of free board and lodging over the May holidays pitched you up there a few weeks before the celebrations actually began, when rebeautification was still in full swing. The Peter and Paul fortress (really one of the focuses of the affair one would imagine, being one of the first buildings to go up actually under Peter's supervision) was still entirely swathed in scaffolding and painters; the Winter Palace was also a frenzy of incomplete renovation, though the big pile of stones in the middle of the square did disappear while you were there; St Issac's cathedral was likewise under remont; half the roads in the center were still half up; and the grubby fa├žade of the Kazan cathedral had obviously been given up on entirely. Still, the repainting of the Russian Museum had reached its closing stages, and I'd say that the evidence of later television pictures showed that the whole enterprise was completed satisfactorily, always assuming that you weren't actively looking for the dust swept under the carpet, the clothes stuffed anyoldhow into bulging cupboards, and the toys slung higgledy piggledy into the spare room.

Still, I'm getting ahead of myself. You arrive at 6.30 am and stagger straight into a family reunion of Russian proportions, which involves wine at 8am and more food than you can possibly eat, although you, as a guest, the newest family member, a foreigner and someone who obviously enjoys her food are expected to try.

Then the sightseeing began. It turns out that there are two sights of interest in that region and both of them are cemeteries. I don't know what it is about being a tourist, but cemeteries do seem to loom large on the itinery. At a later date you found yourself at the Alexander Nevesky monastery, not only duly squinting at the row of graves containing Borodin, Rimsky Korsakov, Mussorsky, admiring Stasov's Russian outfit on his monument and searching madly for the positively modest grave of Lermontev, but also actually paying to go round an exhibition devoted to headstone art, amusingly enclosed in the Museum of Urban Sculpture. However, the first one you visited was much less historically justified, but did happen to contain the last resting place of Victor Tsoi, the singer in Kino, one of the 80s underground bands, who I might compare to Jim Morrison if I didn't want to end up with a long list of all the myriad ways that they were different. Including the fact that Tsoi's grave was considerably more impressive than Morrison's, though lacking in the atmosphere provided by hoards of moping fans and their graffiti. It seems that the graveyard has gone upmarket since B's last visit, and is now stuffed full of generals, writers, professors, and rich new Russians, who take their talent for tacky, er, to the grave. Still, the tradition seemed to be to leave the man a cigarette, so you do and then move on to graveyard number two.

Which is one of those utterly depressing places contrived by and an enduring reminder of Man's bloody stupidity. It's the cemetery for those who died in the Blockade, the capital letter being justified by the 900 days of slow starvation suffered by the people of St Petersburg during the Second World War siege. Now the reason you go is actually because there are a fair number of people from B's family who are buried there, so having arrived you set out to find them. Except, of course, 'find them' is a rather loose concept as this cemetery actually consists of vast fields of mass graves, slightly raised above ground level and marked with a date and a number up to 80 odd. By the winter of 1942, people were dying at such a rate that even if the survivors had had the strength to dig through the frozen earth to bury them, existing cemeteries no longer had the space, so the bodies were collected by the authorities, brought here, and chucked into large holes. So you stand in front of number 8 and number 11 and gaze down and down and down the long expanse of unmarked green grass, and allow your mind to boggle slightly at the thought of experiencing something quite this appalling yourself.

I will spare you a blow by blow account of the rest of your visit, except to say that the next day was mostly taken up by you collapsing with laughter all over the center of the city as B slowly lost the battle with his cousin's umbrella and the driving rain and wind. The twisted remains were later interred in a rubbish bin, you being too embarrassed to take them home. But we did make it into Kazan cathedral, now reclaimed by the church from its communist fate as a museum of the revolution and, inevitably, under restoration. This is, of course, a par for the course for churches in Russia. Churches seem to have been put to the most inventive uses by the communists. There's the Christ the Saviour cathedral in Moscow, which having been knocked down to make way for some kind of revolutionary ubermonument ended up as a swimming pool before being reerected again recently at massive expense. But the one in St Petersburg which is now undergoing a retransformation from its incarnation as an ice-skating rink also has a soft spot in your heart.

Churches, in fact, are another thing you seem to end up doing the rounds of, at least in Russia. Your protestant soul may revolt at the sheer gaudiness of it all, but they are certainly a riot for the senses. The best one in St Petersburg is quite possibly St Issac's, and it's interesting to compare this old version to the sparklingly new Christ the Saviour cathedral. One of the few stained glass windows in Russian churches is in it, and it's a splendid affair. But in some ways the Churches in St Petersburg are all wrong, as the majority are as far away from traditional Orthodox buildings as they could be made. The exception being the Church of the Blood, which is basically a bluer version of St Basil's, at least on the outside. Inside it's got some fantastic mosaics in place of the more traditional wall paintings, which you were prepared to be impressed by as some of them were executed by your favourite mad Russian artist, Vrubel. It's also got the exact cobblestone where Alex. II went down after being shot by a revolutionary (it's his blood we are commemorating, you understand), which is suitably gruesome in the absence of some decaying part of a saint in a reliquary. Altogether well worth seeing, even if you did have one of your now traditional tiffs with the babushka on the entrance as B tries to get you in as a Russian ("but she's my WIFE." Surprisingly, this actually worked).

It's not that you mind paying 30 times more than Russians for things like the Hermitage, where you could spend at least a whole day wondering around without possibly being able to see everything. The price for foreigners is about the same as you'd pay for any museum of its kind anywhere else in Europe, and the price for Russians reflects the fact that if it were the same then many people couldn't possibly afford to go. But it is a tad irritating for a church where, no matter how beautiful it is, you are probably going to idle for a mere 15 minutes or so. Not that you didn't make a spirited attempt to get the special price for foreigners who live and work in Russia when you went to the Hermitage (only twice the Russian price). But sadly, it seems that the amount of paperwork you have to bring with you makes the option attractive only for the very truculent, so 300 rubles lighter, you start your mission to see the da Vinci pictures here you missed last time.

The trouble with going round the Hermitage with B, apart from the fact that he has a limited tolerance for pictures in general, is the sort of running rant castigating the revolution and all its makers to the fieriest depths of hell he keeps up under his breath all the way round the state rooms. Particularly in the room where the members of the post-first-stage-of-the-revolution government were finally arrested by the Bolsheviks during the October revolution. With the clock still stopped at the exact time the soldiers burst in and everything. What set him off was the unfortunate failure of the museum to update its explanatory placards. Where they are still calling the aforementioned sore losers 'members of counter-revolutionary forces'.

Still, not only did you survive that, but you did also find the da Vinci pictures. And your third Black Square by Malellevich, which was given a whole room to itself with the exception of a long essay detailing why a series of black squares on a white background is just the last word in avant guarde. You particularly liked the reasons given for why the first one (to be found in the New Tretrekovskaya gallery in Moscow) has cracked and is showing signs of red. He meant it to go like that. Apparently. Just as this latest one is meant to be much blacker and sturdier. And both of these variations have a very profound significance. Although you forget what that is, exactly.

Overall, though, you perhaps preferred the Russian museum, although it was a little disturbing to find that you have spent so long haunting the Tretrekovskaya gallery that you can now spot other paintings by your favorites at fifty paces. But perhaps the best things about St Petersburg is just the wandering around the city, where the sheer regular beauty of it all is very soothing, particularly for someone who comes from Stevenage. Having said that, it turns out that the only building you find that you would actually like to live in is Peter's old Summer Palace, which is the sort of manageable comfortable size and shape that suits someone as resolutely bourgeois as you, although it is a bit of a shock to imagine the Tsar of all the Russias hanging out here. Though, in some ways, although the man was clearly a bit of a psychotic, that's part of his attraction. Anyone who clearly had such delight in installing a heath-robinson type wall clock/pressure gauge/wind direction finder all over the wall of one of the rooms can't be all bad, and you can just see him gleefully shepherding people into his room of oddities mostly consisting of deformed pickled embryos, now sadly shifted to another location which you didn't have quite the burning need to seek out. Plus the house does have two (count them) of those darling Russian stove-oven combinations.

What other delights? Well, on your pootlings round Vasilovsky island it was faintly amusing to note the fact that different sides of the streets have different street names (thank you, Leonid) even if there is actually a reasonable explanation for this, and you did get to see the unveiling of the Sacharov statue in front of the University. A rather modern afair all told, and one which is oddly suitable for the a scientist involved in bomb-making as frankly the most abiding impression of it is that he's melting. However, at least it's not by Tsariatelli, which was a bit of a shock until you remember that you are not in Moscow any more, Toto. Anyway, lots of speeches by people who B recognises and you don't and another opportunity for B to mutter rude comments as a lot of them are what he calls 'stary democrats'. This name is particularly suited (if you mess with the grammar a bit) as a comment which works both in Russian (where 'stary' means old) and in English, as the speeches are mostly about how utterly chuffed Sacharov would be to see the glorious state of Russian democracy today.

And that reminds you that you did rub shoulders with other famous people while you were there, who you would list if you could remember their names with more accuracy than 'the man in the hat', and 'that geezer who is doing the series about St Petersburg.' But then it isn't surprising that you would find some names wheeled out to help celebrate 'Victory Day'. It was an oddly muted affair for all that - no one does bread and circuses as well as Lushkov - although in fairness the city was probably saving its powder for the Birthday Party. And its entirely your fault that you missed the parades and the fireworks.

And that's about it, really, except to say what a horrendous cold you caught on your return. But I think you would agree that it was worth it, wouldn't you?

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