Built on the bones of history


St. Petersburg: As it nears its 300th anniversary, the great Russian city looks back on artistic achievements that dazzled and political events that shook the world.

March 16, 2003|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia - This is, the Russians say, "a city built on bones."

Constructed by forced labor on a malarial swamp, St. Petersburg has been witness to revolts, massacres and momentous political assassinations. It is dotted with mass graves containing tens of thousands of victims of war and terror.

Over time, a brooding spirit settled over the city, and Russian artists absorbed it, with extraordinary effect. They endured their grim history and in turn produced some of the world's greatest literature and music, dance and painting.

"In Russia, artists don't watch tragedies; they are part of them," says Vladimir Lenyashin, an art historian and curator with the Russian State Museum, which owns the world's largest collection of Russian art. "They participate in history."

As so often before, St. Petersburg finds itself at a pivotal moment in that history. It is struggling to emerge from the destructive effects of the Soviet years, at a time when much of Russia's financial means is concentrated in Moscow, the capital.

In May, Russia is celebrating the city's 300th anniversary, and St. Petersburg has been using the attention to fix itself up and attempt to regain its place in the world's imagination. Even cities in far away America have joined in, as with Baltimore's Vivat! St. Petersburg festival. (Baltimore still has time to regard St. Petersburg, at the Walters Art Museum, with an exhibit of the Russian avant-garde and of Faberge animals through May 25, and at the Baltimore Museum of Art, displaying the art of the Ballets Russes through May 4.)

St. Petersburg, though faded from the wear of the Soviet years, still has dazzling reminders of its 19th-century splendor, when it was the fulcrum of wealth and power in this vast nation. Its golden spires and delicate pastel facades are knit by graceful stone bridges and canals. It is a vast open-air museum, whose neglected palaces suggest the lost elegance of a golden age.

Even during the tears and terrors of the Soviet era, St. Petersburg was a haven for many dissident artists. "This great suffering gave a huge impetus to art," says Pavel Dolsky, a 24-year-old graduate of St. Petersburg's famous Repin Institute of art. "A large number of masterpieces appeared, thanks to that suffering."

Founded in 1703, the city owes its existence to the will of one person, Czar Peter the Great. Gifted, creative and cruel - he had a son tortured to death - Peter was determined to remold medieval Russia in the image of the West, regarded by many of his countrymen with suspicion and disdain. St. Petersburg represented, in wood, brick and stucco, that stubborn ambition.

The czar loved Amsterdam, and he impulsively decided to re-create the Dutch city's system of bridges and canals in a frigid swamp, despite tremendous obstacles.

Peasant laborers and artisans were summoned from all over Russia. By some estimates, 30,000 of these forced laborers lost their lives in the first few years, mostly from malnutrition, exposure and disease.

To cut costs, the first builders improvised, using stucco slapped over masonry or woodwork to imitate marble, a practice that continued through the centuries. The material requires constant repair and helps give the city its feel of perpetual decay, of melancholy grandeur.

Gradually, Peter diverted talent and resources from Moscow, Russia's ancient seat of power, moving Russia's capital here in 1712. Few Russian nobles cared to live in such a remote corner of the empire, but the czar commanded it.

After Peter's death in 1725, St. Petersburg's fortunes waned, briefly, as Russia's new rulers retreated to Moscow. But it resumed its growth under Peter's daughter, Elizabeth, who became czarina in 1741 and held court in her father's city.

Catherine, the German bride of Czar Peter III, conspired with her lover to murder her husband - becoming czarina in 1762. Catherine the Great was the first Russian monarch to live in the gingerbread Winter Palace, which she decorated with more than 2,500 paintings, 10,000 drawings and tens of thousands of other baubles. Her hoard formed the core of the collection of the world-renowned Hermitage museum.

The empress also founded the Russian Academy of Arts in 1757, to provide artwork for the palaces under construction in the expanding capital.

In the 19th century, St. Petersburg would reach the height of its imperial power - and begin to rot from within.

Secret revolutionary societies sprang up, discontented with the absolutist Russian monarchy. In December 1825, young officers who had fought Napoleon's army in Europe - and been exposed to liberal political ideas - staged a revolt in St. Petersburg's Senate Square. The uprising was crushed by canon fire. The rebel leaders were hanged.

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