St. Petersburg is a feminine city. She is an elegant and noble woman sitting draped with the jewels of her youth waiting for her prince to return. It is the most beautiful Italianate city in Europe. This “Venice of the North” with its symmetry, canals, architecture, statuary, museums, performing arts, palaces, gardens and languid summers with endless days make it a city never to be forgotten. The palaces are more flamboyant than Versailles and more numerous than anywhere in the world. I used to call it “Paris without paint,” but for the 300th anniversary in 2003, the lady polished her nails, groomed her hair and donned a clean and colorful dress. St. Petersburg is not Russia; it is the historical myth of Imperial Russia. St. Petersburg is charming, gentle, romantic.
St. Petersburg is a city of cats. From the streets at night, you can see their shining eyes, peering through the arches from the inner decay of “Dostoevsky’s St. Petersburg,” the faceless blocks of communal flats behind the Italianate buildings on the main streets. The cats hang comfortably in the dead trees, dine elegantly in the overflowing garbage, sit regally on the broken steps. In front of our office, in the winter, the last car to park was identified by the presence of the cats curled up on the warm hood. For some reason, the cats always look healthy and fat.
Petersburg is a proud city which keeps itself as different from Moscow as possible. On one hand it disdains the crass commercialism, the naked power of Moscow, and on the other it is jealous for some of it. With about half the population of Moscow, it has maybe only a sixth of the economic activity. It is as different from Moscow as, say, San Francisco is from Chicago.
The heart of the city is the theater. The Mariinsky Theater with its ballet, opera and orchestra is the standard by which all others are judged. Once you see such perfection, nothing else will do. The stage curtain in the Mariinsky, I was told, was designed from the gown of Catherine the Great.
There are two world-class orchestras in this city. The St. Petersburg Philharmonic, under Yury Temirkanov, performs in the famed Shostakovich Grand Hall on Art Square, guarded by its expressive statue of Pushkin. In the fabled Mariinsky Theater we hear the celebrated orchestra of Valery Gergiev and we see the most famous ballet troupe in the world and the opera.
St. Petersburg is not a natural city. There are no geological or economic reasons for its being. It was built by the will and the whip of Peter the Great and the lives of thousands who struggled and died in the swamps of the Neva with Peter’s dream on their backs. Peter’s desire to break away from Muscovy had, as always, an opposite and equal reaction. In the end, the nobility had come too close to Europe and, like at the end of a cultural rubber band, Muscovy snapped the power back to itself in a new dictatorship of the orthodox, at that time called the Soviet Union, and there it stays today.
In times other than The White Nights, walking through the back streets of St. Petersburg at night, even off some of the main streets behind Nevsky Prospect, is a revealing experience. It is dead quiet. The only sign of life are the yellow lights of a few windows in the decrepit four and five story buildings built between 1870 and the 1950’s, if they survived the 900 days of Nazi bombardment, and with little or no improvement since. This is deceptive as behind these walls are some of Europe’s best music clubs. The silence of history is rapidly changing.
One could think that Leningrad, never fully recovered from those horrible days of 1941-1943, could also be compared to an old man whose broken bones are healed. He can smile again, but walks with a limp. St. Petersburg, having been shorn of its vitality by the Germans and of its honor as a capital by the Communists, struggles upstream to recapture both. It strives against the impossibility of having to make up for seventy lost years in a world progressing at warp speeds. Those dark windowed buildings are being bought now by the oligarchs and sold for millions.
Beginning in 2003 with the facelift for its 300th anniversary, the city is recapturing its shine. The golden domes and soft blues, greens, and ambers of its buildings glisten in the soft northern sun. There are elegant restaurants and cafés for every taste and means. Internet cafés are plentiful — there’s one even in The Hermitage. The streets are crowded with Mercedes and Jaguars. Ford has built a factory there, and Nissan and Toyota are next. Yet, there is as always another side of that shiny coin, and it is dull and depressing.
The trash cans that feed the cats also now supply the trash pickers with bottles from which they drain the last drops of alcohol. Some pickers specialize in cans, others in cardboard, or plastic for recycling and a little cash to buy bread, while still others look for anything edible. Alcohol, so mythologized in Russian culture, is a major deterrent to reaching the civilized levels of the West which Peter the Great intended for his city. The young, both men and women, parade, cigarettes dangling from their lips and fingers, a beer bottle or an Aqua Minerale bottle with a suspicious white liquid inside.
Still, the magic is here. The tangerine summer sunsets behind the Peter and Paul Fortress reflecting in the Neva; the great museums, The Hermitage and The State Russian Museum and others are unmatched. The majesty of Palace Square, the Summer Gardens; the Mariinsky, where once I sat in the tsar’s box to watch the ballet. It’s the past that is so glorious. The future, as always in Russia, is hopeful, but unpredictable.
St. Petersburg is all things, but one wonders at times if it really exists. To me, it is the most thrilling city in Europe.
The column is about the ideas and stories generated from the 20 years the author spent living and doing business in Russia. Often about conflict and resolution, these tales at times reveal the “third side of the Russian coin.” Based on direct involvement and from observations at a safe distance, the author relates his experiences with respect, satire and humor.
Frederick Andresen is an international businessman and writer with a lifetime of intercultural experience in Asia and for the last twenty years in Russia. He now lives in California and is President of the Los Angeles/St. Petersburg Sister City. While still involved in Russian business, he also devotes time to the arts and his writing, being author of “Walking on Ice, An American Businessman in Russia” and historical novellas.