Visiting St. Petersburg by cruise ship feels like a bit of a tease: so much to see, so very little time.
All cruising is like that, of course, and you learn to make the most of the time you have. But the Russians add a layer of complexity to the issue: you’re not allowed to explore Peter’s great city on your own. That is, not without forking over a couple hundred dollars, well in advance of your trip, for the required visa. Our first time there, we didn’t think it was worth the expense, so we stuck with the guided tours.
Trailing along behind our guide, we glimpsed a city unlike any other we’d seen: an orgy of art, architecture, history, music, booze, seething crowds, noise… What on earth were we thinking? Two years later, given a second chance, we sent off our passports and our cheques and were free to explore.
It was a bit of an overload. Looking back on the experience, I find it hard to reconstruct any kind of a narrative. The memories flood back as images— hyper saturated, fish-eye pictures of one of the world’s great capitals in decline. Or, more fairly, in metamorphosis, again…
I’m strolling the streets after 11 pm, the sky still bright and blue. The famous White Nights aren’t in full swing yet—it is still early June—but the streets are bustling under the near-midnight sun. Bathed in long evening shadows, the architecture of St. Petersburg is beyond compare. The closest thing I’ve seen to this is perhaps Paris or Berlin—but this is bigger. It stretches for miles and miles: grand boulevards lined with giant, sprawling, neo-classical structures, most of them faded and peeling and crumbling away. If you want to see St. Petersburg at its best, they say, you go to Helsinki.
Squeezing into the Hermitage in the morning, with only the vaguest notion that it is an important art museum, I am greeted by a staggering percentage of the finest paintings in history. I had no idea. Rafaels, Matisses, Picassos—literally acre after acre of stunning canvases, the largest collection on Earth. Never have I been so happy to be 6’3″ (1.91m) tall; I wouldn’t see a thing otherwise. The crowds are dense, seething, sweaty and vast. One doesn’t linger before a painting so much as ooze by it in a queasy, never-ending mudslide of humanity. Like the Louvre, the collection is housed in an great royal palace. Unlike its French counterpart, they never updated the HVAC. There is no humidity control, no temperature control and precious little security aside from the ubiquitous Babushkas protecting their treasures with their trademark evil eye. I fear for the collection. I’m gazing at a fantastic Cézanne, and a young man squeezes a little too close to it trying to get out the door. He catches it with his elbow and leaves it swinging violently on the wall. A Cézanne. No alarms sound; nobody bats an eye.
I’m visiting the Fortress of Peter and Paul, with an eloquent local guide. A master historian and storyteller, she conveys the unbearable heaviness of Russia’s history with the simplest of stories. I wish she were mine alone; I want her to tell me about Catherine and Peter and young Anastasia and Chekov and Pushkin… but she has an entire busload of tourists to please. “And here, ladies and gentlemen, it is the Gate of No Return, in the time of the Tsars, where political prisoners walked through but never came back.”
Long, quiet pause. Then: Cockney husband: “Wha’d she say?” Cockney wife: It’s the gate of no return.” Cockney husband: “Eh?” “IT’S THE GATE OF NO RETURN.” Husband: “Yeah, you’d like to see me go through there, wouldn’t you?”
Moving on, then.
At every monument, statue or cathedral, we see brides and grooms. A lot of brides and grooms. This is how they spend their day, once the ceremony is done: they ride from famous site to famous site—the whole bridal party, champagne in hand—to be photographed laughing and kissing and dancing in front of the Neva River, the Church on Spilled Blood, the Winter Palace. The Russian grooms are shy and awkward in front of the camera; Russian brides are tall and brash and sexy.
Walking through traffic, I notice for the first time that there are sleek black BMWs and there are ancient rusting Ladas, and not much in between. I begin to see the class duality everywhere: there are dour, Soviet-era department stores offering 60 variations of the same hideous shoe, and there are gleaming, fabulous, marble-and-steel boutiques with the finest offerings from Armani and Hermès. And then it hits me: this is our future. This is urban life without a middle class—there are the rich and the poor, the winners and the losers, and really precious little in between. It is a sobering picture.
I find myself outraged at the disparity, at the clear abdication of responsibility on the part of the country’s leadership. But it occurs to me that they have never known good governance, these people. For centuries, they’ve known excess and oppression and violence of all ideologies… and they have meted these out in equal measure onto their neighbours.
So much of Europe feels like a museum; it is rare to visit a place where one feels not only the weight of history but the momentum of its continuity. I’ve only sensed it once before, in Jerusalem: the feeling that everything that has ever been, still is.
Russia is like that. Despite everything, despite the war that nearly extinguished a generation, despite decades of totalitarianism, despite the Mafia, despite the poverty, they are still everything they were five centuries ago. Judge them if you will.