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The Other St. Petersburg: A story around every corner

A trip to St. Petersburg, Russia, presents the tales of woe and wonder that define this city of eternal dichotomy. It is easy to lose oneself in its grand history. A kopeck for your thoughts?

By JERRY HAINES

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 11, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- I so wish that I had paid attention in Western Civ. But because I didn't, I'm now wandering around, smiting my forehead and mumbling things like, "Nevsky . . . Nevsky . . . I should remember who that was . . ."

My wife, Janice, and I are in the other St. Petersburg, the older one, and as we walk the various historic avenues -- including Nevsky Prospekt -- all the gaps in my education are glaringly revealed.

It is as if it is final exam time, and while the other students were reading Dostoevski, I've been in the TV lounge watching Seinfeld reruns.

We did not come here for self-flagellation, and, to be fair, such introspective moments are infrequent, given the many ways St. Petersburg can keep you happily busy. But I cannot help wishing that I remembered more of what I once knew about this fascinating country, and that I had a firmer knowledge of its arts, history and culture.

And it is not just the college courses that I regret; it is the newspaper coverage that I never read and the TV news that I surfed out of. It all seemed so vague and remote then. But here we are, in the reality of it.

Fortunately, we have Slava, the guide who comes with our hotel package. He takes us on a car tour of the city the day after we arrive, dutifully pointing out the cathedrals, the palaces and the monuments, but also filling the spaces in between with historical context.

Luckily, traffic is bad and, luckily, Slava seems to feel that these extra moments in the car should be put to use. There is a story behind everything we see:

Maybe because we lack the broader background in Russian history and arts, we seize on such anecdotes. St. Petersburg seems to be a city of them.

That cathedral, for example, is the Church of the Resurrection, but, because of Alexander's murder there, it is known also as the Church on Spilled Blood. With its ornate, Christmas ornamentlike domes, it is one of the most photogenic buildings in the world, particularly if you walk about a block and shoot it with its reflection in the canal. The cathedral is no longer used for religious services but is a museum.

Another cathedral never was used for services: Empress Elizabeth decided that she wanted to be a nun, but, then, a czarina cannot use just any old convent, so she had one built for her. As a result, we have the Smolny Cathedral, a vision in blue baroque loveliness. It took nine years to build, and by the time it was done, Elizabeth was out of the mood.

For many travelers, St. Petersburg is synonymous with the Hermitage. It is a contender for "largest museum in the world" -- it has 13 miles of corridors and so many works of art that even if you spent only five seconds on each of them, it reportedly would take you a full year to see them all.

And the Hermitage really makes me wish that I had taken that art history course.

Fortunately, again we have Slava. He knows the museum's organization (a logical one, by country and period) and its history (it was a palace once, so the rooms themselves are also works of art).

We have limited time, however, so Slava asks whether there's anything in particular we would like to see. I respond that it might be useful for him to show us the Russian art. He politely explains that the Russian art is down the street at the Russian Museum, that the Hermitage has mostly Western European art.

(You probably knew that. You probably did take the art history course.)

We leave Slava for a couple of days and tour on our own. For a city with much tourism, St. Petersburg lacks a tourism infrastructure. We see no tourist-information offices, for example, and no one is marketing a unified pass that will admit you to multiple museums.

I wish I had signed up for a conversational Russian course because, while many of the English-speaking people we encounter are helpful and gracious, those people most likely to deal with tourists' questions treat us with indifference.

An Internet posting that I read while home warned that the English-speakers one encounters on the street often have some kind of "hustle," and they do seem to have double majors in Marketing and Street Smarts.

We spend a lot of our time rejecting offers of tours, amber jewelry, art reproductions, money exchange and stackable, matryoshka dolls -- including the characters from The Simpsons and South Park.

But we have a good guidebook, the weather is fine (although it is so changeable as to defy forecasting), and the dollar is strong against the ruble.

We climb the stairs of the colonnade of St. Isaac's Cathedral for a closeup view of its magnificent gilded domes and for an aerial orientation to the city.

We can see the Hermitage adjacent to the Neva River and, in the river, the cruiser Aurora, which in 1917 fired a gun to signal the Bolsheviks' assumption of power.

To the east we see glimpses of the 2.5-mile-long Nevsky Prospekt. To the south are the sapphire blue towers of Trinity Church and Moskovsky Prospekt (the best maintained street in town, because it is the road used by visitors from the airport and by senior military officers from Moscow).

To the north is the Finland Station, the railroad depot at which Lenin announced his return from exile.

And, off to the west, is the Gulf of Finland, the access to the sea that caused Peter the Great to have St. Petersburg built. It is said that the city is so beautiful because it is built on the backs of 10,000 serfs forced to work in the swamps to create it.

Back on the ground, we observe near an equestrian statue of Peter the Great that an entrepreneur makes his horses available so that new brides and grooms may be photographed riding on horseback in their wedding clothes.

That is the memory of the park I'd prefer to keep, but unfortunately, on the other side of it, we are set upon by a gang of kids who pull at Janice's purse, knock my glasses to the ground and try to steal our wallets and camera.

Fortunately, they are not very good at thievery, and our yelling seems to discourage them. Instead, they travel a few yards and set upon some Canadian tourists. This all occurs in daylight, at the edge of a busy street. (I wish I had taken that self-defense class, too.)

The Russian Museum is a better memory. Unfortunately, many of the paintings are hung opposite windows, and the daylight sometimes makes it difficult to see all of the artworks' details. But we find that the paintings -- particularly those depicting Russian country life -- are worth the two-plus hours we take for our hurried tour of this huge gallery.

As in the Hermitage are lots of scenes of Italy and lots of Greek/Roman gods/mortals happily engaged in flirting/partying/slaying. (I wish I had taken a classical mythology course.) But all of these artists were Russian.

We also find the folk art galleries rewarding: toys, dinnerware, window sills, mittens. And, of course, there is an extensive display of icons, elegant and awkward at the same time, and of other examples of Orthodox religious art.

One thing we don't see is a lot of Soviet-era "boy-loves-glorious-tractor" art.

But there are reminiscences of the bleaker side of Russian life:

Out near the airport, the Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad honors the citizens who spent a good deal of World War II under bombardment and the 900-day siege by the Germans.

At the Peter and Paul Fortress, across the Neva from the Hermitage, is the Trubetskoy Bastion prison, where Peter the Great had his own son tortured to death. Its cells would prompt protests from animal rights activists were they to be used in a modern zoo, but until the Revolution they were used to confine political prisoners. (In an odd juxtaposition, just outside the prison walls is a beach.)

The fortress is the oldest building in the city, which isn't saying much because St. Petersburg is relatively young. It was founded in 1703, so 2003 will be its tricentennial year, and the anticipatory cleanup already has commenced.

They have got a ways to go. Many formerly beautiful buildings show heartbreaking evidence of war, inattention and lack of funds. The tap water can give you weapons-grade diarrhea. The subway is efficient, but much of the surface transportation is left to jitneylike vans whose drivers overload with passengers while battling potholes, tram tracks and crazed taxi drivers.

One thing that is off-putting to tourists is the two-tiered price structure. Russians often pay considerably less than do foreigners to enter museums or to attend the ballet. But looking at it philosophically, you think maybe they will use that extra money to fix up something.

On our last full day in the city, we hire Slava to take us out to Peterhof, the palace of Peter the Great. Despite the advice of our Lonely Planet guidebook, we would have been lost without our guide.

Located about an hour's drive into the suburbs, the palace and gardens are Peter's successful attempt to match the grandeur of Versailles and other Western European royal retreats. The imaginative fountains alone would be worth the trip. One of them, the Jester's Fountain, spritzes the unwary, if you know which button to press.

On the long trip back to the States (via Frankfurt), I have time to think about the experience. You can fault yourself for not having taken your classes seriously or blame your freshman adviser for not steering you to courses that might have better prepared you, but travel is in itself an education. School isn't over; you can learn those things now. Indeed, it's more fun to learn them now.

With six hours to go on a nine-hour flight, I sit in economy seating, wishing that I could stretch, and I ponder such things. (And I wish I had taken that yoga class.)

Freelance writer Jerry Haines lives in Arlington, Va.

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