City of Superlatives

St. Petersburg has seen the best and worst of times during its 300-year history.


April 06, 2003|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

Natalya, the owner of our very informal bed and breakfast in St. Petersburg, is apologetic. We've just arrived in the Russian city for a few days, and decided to stay as guests in her family's rambling apartment on the Moika Canal.

The apartment is in one of the most fashionable parts of town -- a second-floor flat not far from St. Isaac's Cathedral and just down the block from the birthplace of novelist Vladimir Nabokov.

More luridly, it's across the canal from the Yusupov Palace, where about a century ago the sinister mystic Rasputin -- who bewitched a czarina -- survived being stabbed, shot and beaten. From one of Natalya's bedroom windows you can see the spot in the canal where the rascal finally drowned.

As soon as we're in the burglar-proof steel front door, Natalya informs us that the hot water, supplied by a central city plant, has been cut off for a month by authorities, for repairs. There's no particular emergency -- it happens every summer. Do we mind taking showers with water from her teapot?

Well, we answer, with what-have-we-gotten-ourselves-into? smiles, of course we don't mind. And truthfully, we don't, much. We've stayed with Natalya and her husband, a prominent physicist, before. They are accommodating, low-key hosts. Their apartment is big and fairly well-furnished. And they know a little about the peculiar habits of Americans because their daughter lives in Colorado with her family.

Catch the white-haired Natalya at the right moment and she'll reminisce about surviving the 900-day siege of Leningrad (one of St. Petersburg's former names) by the Nazis in World War II, when people dropped dead on the streets every day of disease and starvation. She'll talk about how her family's life savings were wiped out during the economic crash after the fall of the Soviet Union. And she'll describe how her impoverished neighbors are being bought out by fabulously wealthy "New Russians."

Welcome to St. Petersburg, where hardship and opulence are well-acquainted.

For two centuries, the wealth of Russia poured into this chain of islands on the Gulf of Finland. It became one of the wealthiest, gaudiest and grandest cities of the world. It also became the scene of revolts and revolutions, assassinations and slaughter. By some estimates, one-quarter of St. Petersburg's population was exiled or executed during Stalin's purges in the 1930s.

Today, tourists can catch some of the world's greatest ballet or sample some of the city's well-stocked art museums. But even as St. Petersburg puts on its best face for its 300th anniversary celebration next month, tourists will still see constant reminders that this is a city where, for many, survival has always been a struggle.

"In St. Petersburg ... poverty and wealth, luxury and misery, splendor and shabbiness, civilization and barbarism, go hand in hand, lie side by side together," an English visitor wrote in 1867. "It is a place which can only be described by superlatives."

As in most of Russia, not much has changed in the intervening 136 years.

St. Petersburg's birthday will be marked by a series of events May 24 to June 1. The extravaganza will feature art shows and operas, ballets and plays, rock concerts and fireworks, as well as a parade of historic ships.

(Baltimore's tribute to St. Petersburg, Vivat!, began in February and concludes with an exhibit of the Russian avant-garde and of Faberge animals at the Walters Art Gallery through May 25, and a Baltimore Museum of Art exhibit of the Ballets Russes through May 4.)

This being Russia, the anniversary festivities will include an orgy of official ceremonies, speeches, receptions and private parties. All this will coincide with the "White Nights" -- when the Northern Lights make nighttime as bright as day -- which is the height of the tourist season in a normal year. Expect traffic gridlock, jammed restaurants and thronged museums, especially at the world-renowned Hermitage.

But if you come to this city of about 5 million people, don't expect Europe. Don't expect the orderly, the antiseptic, the feeling of being insulated from the people who live here.

Serious about art

The main tourist attractions are hard to miss, and shouldn't be missed. The first place everyone heads is the Hermitage, with its unmatched collection of European masters and other bric-a-brac of the czars. (Go in the afternoon and avoid the lines of diesel- and tourist-belching buses that line up out front in the morning.)

There is also the legendary St. Petersburg Philharmonic, and the celebrated Mariinsky ballet and opera. Prepare to be dazzled by Russian musicians and dancers: Their passion and dedication sometimes startle natives of more laid-back Western cultures.

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