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St. Petersburg, Russia Now

Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood,Griboyedov canal,exterior,turret

Photo: Ambroise Tezenas

The maestro is late. The audience at St. Petersburg’s new Mariinsky II theater waits, anticipation palpable. The 2,000-seat space is all curved pale wood, austere, a little chilly.

I’m restless. These seats are hard. My neighbor shoots me a look that says, Well, everyone knows tardiness is part of the glamorous persona of the peripatetic Valery Gergiev, artistic and general director of the Mariinsky, who has made St. Petersburg a world-class music city.

And then: he arrives. The audience goes nuts. Under those bushy eyebrows Gergiev’s eyes glitter in the spotlight, he turns, raises a hand, the orchestra begins Puccini’s Tosca.

Even the most cynical critics believe Valery Gergiev is a great talent, this in a city that has always adored culture. St. Petersburg was, in a sense, born out of the very ideal of classical European culture. When Peter the Great laid down the first stones, in 1703, he was like a movie director with an epic back lot, or Walt Disney creating a theme park.

“He gave Russia a European window on the world, and Europe a Russia they could understand,” says Svetlana Kunitsyna, an old friend of mine who is an art historian and cultural reporter for Russian TV.

During the intermission, le tout St. Petersburg sips Prosecco, nibbles smoked-salmon sandwiches, and poses against the burnished, gold-colored walls.

The new theater is not universally admired, but philistine that I am, I like the lobby; I like the way the glass walls reflect the original theater across a tiny canal; the Neoclassical pale jade and white confection where Russian ballet was born and Balanchine and Baryshnikov danced under gilded ceilings. Vladimir Putin, a hometown boy and former deputy mayor, has put plenty of money into the city, and has had a long relationship with Gergiev. Art and politics have always gone together in St. Petersburg; without skill in cultural gamesmanship, nobody survives.

After the opera, we think about food. Supper of hot squid salad and cold wine at Vincent, two minutes’ walk from the Mariinsky? Spicy stew and cheese-stuffed Georgian bread at Hochu Harcho, where chefs in red jackets wield their sabers to slice up lamb shashlik? We pass the just-opened Jamie Oliver restaurant, Jamie’s Italian, and see men with stubble making deals on their phones while women in six-inch Louboutin heels haul their Birkins into the street for a smoke. As we continue toward the new Four Seasons Hotel Lion Palace, where I’m staying, puffs of gilded clouds holding the late sun drift across an amethyst sky. During these White Nights, the weeks around the summer solstice, it’s still light at 11 p.m.; there are parties all night, in bars on Rubinstein Street, noisy, joyful, young; or on boats that cruise the waterways past New Holland Island, currently being redeveloped by oligarch Roman Abramovich as a cultural center. The island was originally the site of a naval base established by Peter the Great in the 1700’s.

Peter built the city quickly, at the Gulf of Finland at the far northwestern corner of Russia, a chaotic country mired in byzantine politics and medieval religion. He built the Peter and Paul Fort on what is now the north side of the city. He taxed everyone. He imported Italian architects, French sculptors, Dutch shipbuilders; he raised the status of women. Peter dreamed of an 18th-century Enlightenment City with avenues that ran straight to the horizon, lined with perfectly Neoclassical buildings. In the still water of the Neva are reflected gilded churches, pale pink mansions, the aquamarine Winter Palace. It is almost impossible to tell sky from water, buildings from their reflections, this hallucinogenic reality from illusion, in what Joseph Brodsky, one of St. Petersburg’s great writers, called “the most narcissistic of cities.”

In the cozy, wood-paneled Four Seasons bar, Svetlana and I sample vodka and caviar, then the best fish-and-chips I’ve ever had. I hate hyperbole about hotels, but this one, open since last summer, is luxurious, comfortable, and elegant, with a staff that makes you feel royal, even when it rains and you walk in looking like a wet dog, as I often did.

The rooms are enormous, the bathrooms big enough for Peter the Great (he was six foot eight). Indeed, this is a painstakingly restored St. Petersburg palace. In the early 18th century, Peter thought St. Isaac’s Square a bit lacking in style, so his pal Prince Lobanov-Rostansky built the pale yellow palace with its white colonnade and marble lions out front; a St. Petersburg landmark, it is described in Pushkin’s poem “The Bronze Horseman.” (The actual horseman is a short walk from the hotel.)

Over dinner, Svetlana and I reminisce. When I met her in 1988, she was a rock chick, six foot two in a miniskirt, attending a concert by Boris Gribenshikov, a local rock star who sang in Russian.

It was my first trip. Leningrad, as it was called then, was grim and dirty. Wind howled along the Neva River, which overtopped its embankments. Half the Hermitage was shut, though you could buy black-market caviar from a waiter at some restaurant who kept a tin of it in the leg of his pants.

The pleasure of St. Petersburg is still the shock of the old, the scale of the city’s center. In the morning, I put on my sightseeing shoes and traipse through the immensity of Palace Square, watching a phalanx of young soldiers—the changing of the guard.

The Hermitage is a museum on an impossible scale, much of it housed in the Winter Palace (there are four more buildings along Palace Embankment). This was the formal home of Russian czars, the absolute center of power, its physical expression in gold, marble, malachite. In 1753, Elizabeth, Peter the Great’s daughter, commissioned Bartolomeo Rastrelli, a French-born Russian-Italian architect, to build the Winter Palace. Rastrelli and the other European architects must have felt a little like restaurant guys in 1990’s Las Vegas: suddenly there’s endless empty space, patrons who want the biggest and most opulent, and have money to burn.

Catherine the Great came to the throne in 1762; she was an obsessive collector: Rembrandts, Rubenses, Titians, Raphaels, Van Dycks; sculpture, artifacts, furniture. She consulted Voltaire on philosophy, and imported French intellectual Denis Diderot’s library. In the decades that followed, more and more art was added, including French Impressionist works plundered from Germany at the end of World War II.

Outside, I head off across the Golden Triangle, the iconic center of St. Petersburg—most of the great buildings are here. A puff-pastry pie (pierogi) stuffed with chicken costs me 10 bucks at Stolle, on Nevsky Prospekt, the main boulevard. It’s bordered by Nevsky, and the Neva and Fontanka rivers. On my way I pass by the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, a late-19th-century structure of striped pineapple shapes and gilded onion domes.

There are no crowds at the Russian Museum, housed in the pale lemon Mikhailkovsky Palace near the lush Summer Gardens. I walk up the curving staircase past icons and portraits of great Russians, to the modern art. I love Leon Bakst’s turn-of-the-20th-century portraits, and his designs for the Ballets Russes. And there are Chagalls and Kandinskys and several of Kazimir Malevich’s ground-breaking “Black Square” paintings.

The spirit of the Russian avant-garde can still be found. “There are many people here who see themselves as actors in this theatrical city,” says Marina Albee, proprietor of the Café Botanika. Inside, a short walk from the Russian Museum, you can smell curries and freshly baked carrot cake. Against all odds, Marina, an American, opened a vegetarian café in this land devoted to meat and cigarettes. Dilraj Singh, her Indian chef, simply walked in one day and never left. Marina first came to Petersburg in the 1980’s. “It seemed to have fallen out of time because all the clocks were broken,” she says. “There was a feeling of Radio Silence, but with great cultural masterpieces at every turn.” She tells me she detests the “barbarous” inclination to tear down old buildings, and the homophobia that is on the rise. But, she says, “you can still look at Petersburg through the eyes of Dostoyevsky or Pushkin. I prefer Pushkin.”

Moika Canal. February 10, 2:45 p.m. At the precise time the writer’s heart stopped, following a duel, a moment of silence is observed annually in the courtyard of the Pushkin Memorial Museum. Considered Russia’s great poet, a cultural figure of almost official standing, he was a son of St. Petersburg, where he lived in this pretty nobleman’s flat on the water—light, airy, and filled with books.

I think of Pushkin as a summer writer, out on the town during the White Nights. “Pushkin saw himself as St. Petersburg’s host,” says Anna Brodsky, professor of Russian literature at Washington and Lee University. “He invited readers to follow him to balls and champagne suppers. Rebel, patriot, intellectual, ironist, historian, lyric poet—all at once,” she says.

“Everyone,” Svetlana says, “wants to be like Pushkin.”

If Pushkin is lovely summer Petersburg, Dostoyevsky is autumn here, dark, wet, with a certain decadent beauty.

Dostoyevsky called St. Petersburg “the most abstract and intentional of cities.” In the grand avenues, the imperial vistas that stretched to the horizon, the chilly squares, there was no place for the poor and huddled—here humanity was dwarfed. By the middle of the 19th century, the city had become a boomtown of big money and the terrible slums that Dostoyevsky chronicled in Crime and Punishment.

In his cramped apartment, now a museum, a few teacups are on the dining room table, an umbrella in the hall, pages from The Brothers Karamazov on the desk. Outside a large tractor is digging up the street in the once-seedy area; pricey new condos are being built.

You can take a Crime and Punishment tour of the neighborhood, but I opt for the “Raskolnikoff salad” at the nearby Idiot Café, where there are vintage typewriters on the bookshelves. Locals drink, smoke, laugh. In full Russian mode, I down a vodka. Rain is falling hard as I cross the river.

In November 1917, signaled by a shot fired from the cruiser Aurora, Lenin took over the Winter Palace. You can’t go into Palace Square without replaying Sergei Eisenstein’s iconic 1928 film, October: Ten Days That Shook the World, in your mind. In this city, fiction, cinema, and history often merge and blur.

Lenin moved the capital back to Moscow. In a sense, this saved St. Petersburg; it became a provincial backwater, suspended in time. Even during the 900-day siege ending in 1944, when close to 2 million died—Piskariovskoye Memorial Cemetery is a terrible place worth seeing—the city stood.

Anna Akhmatova, the poet, survived the siege, and much else: the secret police, the purges, Stalin. I make my way to Fountain House, and the memorial and museum in her honor. Her first husband was murdered by Bolshevists, her son sent to the gulags, her friends exiled or killed. Here you can feel an indomitable force, and inexpressible sadness. She wrote this line: “Terror fingers all things in the dark.”

The new St. Petersburg, gilded, gorgeous, has also seen some of the worst racism and homophobia in the country. What to make of local legislator Vitaly Milonov, who pushed through a law banning “propaganda of homosexuality and pedophilia to minors” as if they were the same thing, and both evil. Here, the homophobia is very real.

Still, many locals in this city of 5 million do not consider it as their problem, enjoying what they see as a better life. “Laws are beginning to work, the economy is improving,” says Dimitri, my chatty driver, one day. He notes that when Gazprom, the gas and oil company, tried to build a skyscraper, citizens protested, and the building was moved outside the city. “Putin didn’t want to be the man who destroyed the St. Petersburg skyline,” says Sergei Sholokhov, who runs the local Polar Shining Film Festival. “I don’t care about politics or any of it,” he adds. “I care about the view from my window.”

“Let’s eat,” Svetlana says.

At Koryushka, we drink Georgian red wine on the broad terrace overlooking the city. A newlywed couple poses for photos, giggling, toasting each other with champagne. The city is spread out before us, summer sky spiked by the Admiralty tower, the dome of St. Isaac’s plated with real gold. St. Petersburg in all its glory.

Reggie Nadelson is a T+L contributing editor.

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