You’re coming to Russia soon, so I thought I should tell you a few things about the place.
St Petersburg is beautiful, on many levels.
There’s the city centre – the whole of it a UNESCO World Heritage Site. When I first came here as a boy in 1994, it was a mess. All the grandeur faded and crumbling, no fresh paint in too many decades. No fresh plaster. They have spent billions – in any currency – on restoring it. They’ve done about a third, I suppose, which gives a pleasing contrast between the pristine, perfectly proportioned Ulitsa Rossi, for example, and any of the old back streets in the Kolomna district – faded, crumbling, seedy, screaming Dostoevsky into the blizzard.
There are the industrial districts of the old city – a mixture of buildings from back when titans hoped to inspire their downtrodden labourers with the beautiful designs of their industrial architects; together with the frightful practicality of late-Soviet panel construction: cheap, immediate, ugly as sin doing very sinful things, with no regard for the future, the view, the long term, or the workers’ downtrodden spirits. Railway sidings, dereliction, an adventurer’s playground, a drunk’s safe haven, and base to countless soul-destroying trades of ill repute. I imagine. Its beauty I find jarring, what’s-round-the-next-corner fascinating, dotted with nature’s humorous reminders – a tree growing from a rooftop here, a flowering bush of weeds cracking through old pavement there.
The unimaginative look to the canals and rivers and call it the Northern Venice, their shrieks echoing through the tunnels as they chug their way about on a tour boat. Yes, it has water. Yes, it has a variation on classical Venetian architecture. But it’s so different. St Petersburg is a folly, in the English park tradition. A human folly – it’s impractical, it’s imposed on the landscape, it’s a statement of arrogance from the very name upwards. It was built by edict, on the bones of serfs, to satisfy one man’s inferiority complex. And still it’s beautiful. What a feat!
Then there are the modern monstrosities – fortunately, they have mostly left the centre alone, but the far banks of the Neva are covered in the answer to modern Russia’s most pressing issue – ‘the apartment question’. Great big towers of apartments. Everywhere. Some built with nods to the classical – but they look obscene, like mutants. Some with nods only to cost – they look Soviet, and probably have their roots there in one planning application or another. Some carry on the ‘burg’s gaudy palatial traditions, with outsized marbling and strings of light to replace the gilding. They build 3-5-10 of these monsters all close to one another, seldom adding any extra road capacity, or parking. They might get round to a few shops and a kindergarten. Russians love them – modern, finally apart from the parents or random family members. But the hideousness of walking ten minutes to get past just a couple of these wind-producing cement mounds is soul destroying – for me, at least. And that, too, has a beauty to it, of sorts.
And then there are the palaces in the city’s satellite towns – or as the tourist bumph will tell you, its ‘suburbs’. Peterhof, Tsarskoe Selo, Gatchina, Pavlovsk… All mostly destroyed by the Nazi siege of Leningrad, all completely restored since. They are bling, they are huge, they are so in-your-face they’re rude. But they are also majestic, and befitting the largest country in the world.
Next time – what to read before coming.