The days grow short and the temperature drops, but St. Petersburg, Russia's imperial city, barely slows down

I had no idea what Russia would be. If I thought of it, I saw milky white ballerina legs and craning feathered heads. I saw Stalin's fat mustache, Khrushchev banging a shoe at the United Nations, and the birthmark on Gorbachev's head like ink splattered from a height. I saw heads of state lined up at the Kremlin and people lining up for food, their feet buried in snow.

I stepped off the Tupolev 134 that had brought me to St. Petersburg, and barely two hours later found myself on the tin roof of a house overlooking the Neva, gingerly taking the external route between adjoining apartments that serve as the studios of a young Russian artist called Sergei Bugaev, also known as Afrika. With one hand on the outside wall of the house for balance, I admired the indigo cupolas of Trinity Cathedral while trying not to trip over Afrika's cat, Melissa. The first apartment was inhabited by images etched into sheets of copper; the second, by political "souvenirs"—busts of Stalin, a rug with Lenin's head woven into it, a black-and-white photograph of Rasputin, eyes burrowing luminous holes in the emulsion.

His own wild blue eyes leaping from behind wisps of longish blond hair, Afrika led me on a walk along the twisting Griboyedov Canal. We went by a building where a woman lives with 35 dogs. An imposing blonde in a pink blouse, she was standing in the courtyard with a half-dozen beasts looking up at her respectfully. Later, we passed the bronze griffins of the Bank Bridge and the stone lions of the Lion Bridge. Pale yellow, gold, and the blue-gray of the water seemed to be the city's recurring colors. I hadn't yet seen the burnt red of the Mikhailovsky Castle, the aquamarine of the Winter Palace, or the brilliant turquoise of Smolny Cathedral. As we walked, Afrika told anecdotes: one building was where Dostoyevsky lived before he was sent to Siberia; another was Yusupov Palace, where Felix Yusupov had been dressed as a girl by his mother till the age of five, and where he later dressed himself as a woman to attract men. It was here, too, that he and a group of other noblemen assassinated Rasputin in 1916 because they resented his closeness to the last czar, Nicholas, the czarina, and their hemophiliac son. They laced his cordial with poison, then shot him in the heart three times, and when even that failed, threw him into the freezing waters of the Moyka.

A few weeks earlier, Afrika, who is a bit of a politician and a celebrity in the Warhol tradition, had been asked by a newspaper to write something on President Yeltsin. He made a seven-hour car journey to Yeltsin's dacha on the outskirts of Moscow, and started walking through the woods, picking mushrooms as he went. Suddenly, he felt a hand on his collar and was taken to the police station for questioning. The next day's headlines blared that a young artist from St. Petersburg had attempted to assassinate the president.

In the evening we went to the opening of a vast steel-clad restaurant, discotheque, and beer hall called Tinkoff, owned by a friend of Afrika's who is married to an androgynous Russian version of Brigitte Bardot, with whom he has a child and a sports car. A rock band consisting of willowy men in clinging knit shirts and bell-bottoms sang from behind billowing clouds produced by a fog machine. At the end of a dinner of baked fish, caviar, and very little vodka, we were joined by a grave dandy in a long, flowery green-and-orange jacket who was introduced as Stalin's grandson as well as an architect. While stylishly pornographic videos flashed on monitors above his head, he sang the praises of St. Petersburg—it was a city of poets and artists, he said, and of the possibility of a gently wayward life. Muscovites cared only for money and making deals. He was reminded of this every time he visited Moscow, which, he admitted, was quite frequently.

The struggle for supremacy between St. Petersburg and Moscow was set off by Peter the Great when he decided Russia should have a European capital, a northern Venice, to be built over swamps in the humid, frigid climate of the Baltic. Italy's finest architects of the time—Rastrelli, Quarenghi, Rossi, Rinaldi—were later brought in to help.

The style the Italians used was a no-expenses-spared Rococo, or, as one guide pronounced it, "ro-cuckoo." Catherine the Great's Chinese Palace, on the shores of the Gulf of Finland, 25 miles from the city, is a delicate villa by Antonio Rinaldi with a pleasant lilac-and-vanilla façade of arched windows overlooking a lake. Outside, an old woman in a scarf and peasant skirt tends a big container of felt shoe-covers that visitors are made to wear so as not to ruin the intricate intarsias of the parquet floors. She bangs two together in the air above her head, then places them in an iron wheelbarrow for the next group of tourists. Her stoic efficiency is a remnant of Soviet times. I thought there'd be more like her in Russia but what I noticed instead, peering out the window of my room at the Grand Hotel Europe, was that the women of St. Petersburg have an individual glamour reminiscent of 1970's Parisian women on the Boulevard St.-Germain.

Over dinner at the Café Idiot a few nights later, I was joined by Alexander Borovsky, chief curator of contemporary art at the State Russian Museum, and his friend, a singer of Gypsy songs who let him pour wine into her glass though she did not touch it. When Borovsky was 14, he fell in love with a professor's wife. He would ride his bicycle to her house bringing flowers, only to find that the poet Joseph Brodsky had preceded him. The entire house shook with their passion, Borovsky recalls, and he was so jealous he contemplated suicide. Encountering the despondent young man on the stairs, Brodsky told him kindly, "Don't be sad, there'll be a million women for you one day."

Russian writers and princes neither slept nor bathed, I decided, judging from their flats and palaces. At the Yusupov Palace and at Dostoyevsky's house I could not find a single bed or bath—they are not considered proper displays. Tatyana, a journalist who accompanied me, had gone to school with Dostoyevsky's great-grandchildren. At the time, the writer was banned from the country's official memory. Dostoyevsky's grandson came to the classroom one day and said, "I will take you to see where a great writer lived." He showed the students around, and the next day the teacher who had permitted the excursion was dismissed.

Pushkin never endured such neglect. These days, in his flat on the river Moyka, there are huddles of schoolchildren in each room. In one, on the day I visited, a boy was reciting a poem of Pushkin's by heart. The room, another bedroom without a bed, had high ceilings and wooden floors, and was flooded with light. Next door, overlooking the courtyard, were the study and library lined with shelves of leather-bound volumes. It was easy to imagine Pushkin's effortless prose proceeding from those cheerful rooms, spinning tales of gallant officers sent to deserted military outposts where the daughter of the general happened to be a timid, enchanting creature eager to be swept off her feet just hours before the brutal murder of her parents by a barbarian impersonating the lawful czar. One feels that life might turn out well in the end, in Pushkin's house.

In Dostoyevsky's, I didn't need to read a biography to know that daily life there must have been hellish. I knew it for certain when I stood in Mrs. Dostoyevsky's cramped, airless study, where she also slept. On a little desk was a notebook filled with columns of numbers and a list in her precise Cyrillic script.

Writers' houses are a peculiar fixation of mine, and St. Petersburg has more than any city I know. Even when the Soviets censored and exiled writers, it was a sign of respect—proof that they thought their words could affect people.

I wanted to see where the poet Anna Akhmatova had lived in the years of Stalin's purges. Her son had been arrested for the second time; her husband had already been murdered, though she did not know it then. One day, while she was waiting in line outside the prison in Leningrad (the city's Soviet name) for news of her son, as she did every day for 17 months, a woman "with lips blue from the cold," wrote Akhmatova, recognized her and whispered, "Can you describe this?" Akhmatova replied simply, "I can."

I went to the address on Lityeny Prospekt, behind the Sheremetev Palace, listed in an English guidebook as Akhmatova's. I entered, by mistake, a theater of burlesque. The box office was a cubbyhole in which an old woman sat by a stove. I asked where the Akhmatova Museum might be, and she slammed a flimsy door shut between us, yelling truculently, "Nyet, nyet, nyet." In Russia, nos often come in threes.

Finally, at the end of a long path, I walked beneath stark, towering branches, through an opening between two walls, and there before me was the Fontanka embankment and the gold-crested black gate of the Sheremetev Palace. I recognized the lion on the gate—it is spitting a gold flame—from the cover of Joseph Brodsky's book of essays Less Than One. (He had been "anointed" by Akhmatova and later made her known in the West.)

The museum shows Akhmatova's trajectory from exhilarating inspiration to utter despair and destitution. In the years when her poems first became known, and she began to read them in public, Akhmatova was a magnetic beauty. There is a photo of her sitting on a wicker chair on a wrought-iron balcony. She is wearing black suede lace-up shoes—the laces crisscross over her stockinged ankles and vanish up a romantically long skirt. Her hair is in a style that's once again fashionable: bangs cut short, well above the eyebrows, emphasizing her crooked patrician nose, which seems to have been broken at the bridge.

In a wonderful book titled Encounters with Akhmatova, Lydia Chukovskaya explains how the two exchanged information so that the spying neighbors would have no opportunity to eavesdrop. Akhmatova would say something ordinary, such as, "Would you like some tea?" while scribbling lines of her latest poem on a slip of paper that she then handed to her friend, who memorized them before handing the slip back. Akhmatova would burn it in an ashtray, murmuring, "Autumn came so quickly." Those were dark years, as Nadezhda Mandelstam pointed out, "for the only country in the world where a poem could get you killed."

I met up with Olesja Turkina, a curator at the State Russian Museum, in front of my hotel. "Akhmatova was a romantic, melancholic old-style poet," she said, "but her house is a very Soviet place because she was so ascetic." The word ascetic was to crop up several times in my conversation with Olesja. Artists were becoming monks, she told me; even her hairdresser had entered a monastery.

"In Russia there is an idea of suffering," she said, "which helps people to survive. The most common idea of consumer society is, 'Enjoy yourself.' The most common Russian idea is, 'You have to suffer.' It's a good sign of a religious education." In spite of the fact, I thought, that many churches in Soviet times were turned into pools, skating rinks, and parking lots for ambulances.

Because it's illegal to do business in U.S. dollars in Russia, many hotels and restaurants list prices in "units." Each unit is the equivalent of a dollar.

Sights & Palaces
Near the town of Tsarskoye Selo, 19 miles from St. Petersburg, is opulent Pavlovsk Palace (20 Ul. Revolutsii; 7-812/470-6536)—the summer residence of Czar Paul I. Catherine's Chinese Palace (Oranienbaum, Lomonosov; 7-812/422-3753) is perhaps more appealing for its relative sobriety. Mikhailovsky Castle (2 Sadovaya Ul.; 7-812/210-4173) was also built by Paul I. In terms of pure architecture, the Summer Palace of Peter the Great (Letny Sad; 7-812/314-0456), is my favorite, with its yellow exterior and inset terra-cotta relief panels, and the expansive Summer Garden. The most beautiful view of the city is from the Peter and Paul Fortress (7-812/238-4550); the last of the Romanovs are buried in the cathedral.

Kunstkamera Museum (3 Universitetskaya Nab.; 7-812/218-1412) was founded by Peter the Great to house his collection of ethnographic and zoological curiosities, such as two-headed fetuses. The State Russian Museum (Mikhailovsky Palace, 2 Inzhernaya Ul.; 7-812/314-3448) contains Russian art ranging from medieval icons to avant-garde painting. The Hermitage (Dvortsovaya Nab.; 7-812/219-8625) has more than 400 halls, and each deserves a visit. Also worth checking out: the Anna Akhmatova Museum (34 Reki Fontanki Nab.; 7-812/272-2211); the Pushkin Flat Museum (53 Arbat Ul.; 7-812/241-3010); and the Gas-Dynamics Laboratory Museum (Peter and Paul Fortress; 7-812/238-4550).

Everything about them is fantastic: the performers, the halls, the audiences, the intermission buffets. Admissions range from 50 cents to $5, except at the Mariinsky Theater (1 Teatralnaya Pl.; 7-812/114-4344), where Pavlova and Nijinsky performed. It charges $50, cheap considering the caliber of the dancers. The immense Neoclassical Philharmonic Hall (2 Mikhailovskaya Ul.; 7-812/110-4247) is where Tchaikovsky conducted some of his music. Also worth hearing: the Boys' Choir at the Glinka Capella Theater (20 Reki Moyki Nab.; 7-812/314-1058).

The DLT department store (21 Bolshaya Konyushennaya Ul.; 7-812/312-2627) is a lively place, with very proper salesladies selling linens and lacquerware. The gift shop of the Yusupov Palace (94 Reki Moyki Nab.; 7-812/311-5353) has the best selection of lacquered papier-mâché spoons, bowls, and Russian dolls.

Restaurants & Cafés
I liked the lamb chops and the wood-paneled, vaulted interior at Senat Bar (1 Galernaya Ul.; 7-812/314-9253; dinner for two $70). 1913 (13 Voznesensky Pr.; 7-812/315-5148; dinner for two $40) is an insiders' favorite for food and atmosphere. Restaurant St. Petersburg (5 Kanala Griboyedova Nab.; 7-812/314-4947; dinner for two $80.) offers classic Russian cuisine; its outdoor café is good for pastries and tea in the summer. Once a brewery, the immense Tinkoff (7 Kazanskaya Ul.; 7-812/314-8485; dinner for two $50) draws a crowd of models and actresses, with live bands on most nights. A warren of underground rooms, Café Idiot (82 Reki Moyki Nab.; 7-812/315-1675; dinner for two $20) serves vegetarian food.

Grand Hotel Europe (1/7 Mikhailovskaya Ul.; 800/426-3135 or 7-812/329-6000, fax 7-812/329-6001; doubles from $335), off Nevsky Prospekt, is across the street from Philharmonic Hall and walking distance from the State Russian Museum, the Summer Palace, and DLT. Its mezzanine café is one of the city's prime meeting places. The Astoria Hotel (39 Bolshaya Morskaya Ul.; 7-812/210-5757, fax 7-812/210-5133; doubles from $365) is more genteel, with Art Nouveau architecture. If you like Sheratons, there's the Sheraton Nevsky Palace Hotel (57 Nevsky Pr.; 800/325-3535 or 7-812/275-2001, fax 7-812/301-7323; doubles from $290).

Don't Miss
Peter the Great's first house (6 Petrovskaya Nab.), where he lived while waiting for the Summer Palace to be completed, is touching for its modesty. It has only five little rooms.