The Art and Soul of St. Petersburg

The imperial city has reawakened, reclaiming its birthright as the capital of Russian culture.

"It was a madness to build St. Petersburg here, a very special Russian madness," my friend Boris Grebenschikov once told me. "At the beginning of the eighteenth century, there was nothing here but sky and sea and swamp. But Peter the Great, in his wisdom, decided he wanted a fortress; and then he decided he wanted a port. Yet even before he died, both had become superfluous. Who was the Fortress of St. Peter and St. Paul supposed to be defending against? The war with the Swedes was over. And as for the port, there were soon much better ports in Russia that weren't frozen up for so much of the year. So there you are," he said, shrugging his shoulders. "In just a few years, St. Petersburg had become a weird and lovely Russian anachronism."

Grebenschikov, who adores the city's "beautiful forlornness," is a singer-songwriter, sometimes called the Bob Dylan or John Lennon of Russia; and preserved in him is the pure, cheerful cynicism he acquired defending his music in a long battle with the old Soviet authorities. But in one thing, I think as I begin the drive in from the city's airport, he's right. The meaning of St. Petersburg was somewhere along the way taken from it. Under the tsars and tsarinas, it was a grandiloquent theater, a show; but thereafter, whenever great events erupted within it, they ebbed away quickly, leaving behind only shrines and disconnected memories.

Lenin staged his Revolution here, and then later moved the country's capital to Moscow; the days of October and November 1917 were packed away in museums. And the unsuccessful 900-day siege of the city by the German army during World War II was turned not into some lasting spirit of resistance but into giant memorial statues, like the one on Victory Square, as well as into the dogged postwar reconstruction of the imperial palaces that the Germans had destroyed. Even the old Astoria Hotel seems weighed down by all this frozen past. Though it's now in the middle of a complete renovation, it remains for me and for all St. Petersburgers the place where John Reed wrote his version of the Revolution, Ten Days That Shook The World, and where Hitler publicly announced that he would hold a victory banquet on November 7, 1942. He even printed up invitations.

Despite all its 20th-century suffering, though, and regardless of its forced identity changes (to Petrograd in 1914 and Leningrad ten years later, then back again to St. Petersburg a decade ago), the city has somehow managed to cling to its embattled birthright as the capital—the heart—of Russian culture. This, after all, was where Russian literature and music were born, and the histories of both have wound through the city, like its canals, deep into its fabric. If you go to Grand Philharmonic Hall on Mikhailovsky Street, for example, you will be where Berlioz and Wagner performed, where Shostakovich premiered his Leningrad Symphony in the middle of the German siege. Walk down the Griboyedov Canal, and you'll come upon the tenement where Raskolnikov killed the old moneylender in Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. Have lunch at the Literary Café on Nevsky Prospect and you'll be rubbing shoulders with Pushkin, who stopped here one day in 1837 on his way to the duel with a French adventurer that killed him. Go to the Mariinsky Theatre for a production of Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades, and as the curtain rises, you'll find yourself immediately transported to an 18th-century vision of the city's Summer Garden, where today musicians greet each passing visitor with a version of his or her national anthem.

Twenty-first-century St. Petersburgers still claim to speak the purest, the most literary, Russian; they persist in believing Moscow to be an Asian city of ignorant parvenus. However bad a time they may have recently had in the shambles of the Russian cowboy economy—I think as dusk comes down over the huge bulk of St. Isaac's Cathedral—they've had the consolation of pride in a city in which fiction and fact, history and art, seem almost interchangeable.

The next day, though, as soon as I take to the streets, I sense that something here has changed. The makeshift kiosks that used to be everywhere, offering vodka and tatty Western goods, have gone. So have the lines of elderly Russians selling whatever they could find in their cupboards and attics for food.

The quiet desperation that one saw in faces on the street has also disappeared. Even the buildings look better. The long facade of the Russian Museum in the Mikhailovsky Palace has a fresh coat of paint, shining in the summer sun; the Stroganov Palace has a new courtyard café; and in The State Hermitage Museum, its 24 Rembrandts are now housed in a completely refurbished room of their own. There's even a reception area here for Friends of the Hermitage, and an extension of the museum, in the General Staff Building across Palace Square, developed in a partnership with the Guggenheim Foundation. It's as if the city and its institutions have finally managed not only to shrug off the aftermath of what everyone calls the crisis of August 1998—when the bottom fell out of the ruble and most of the savings of the middle class were wiped out—but also to escape from the dead hand of Moscow, which used to rule it with deep suspicion. Perhaps this renaissance has to do with the fact that the country's president, Vladimir Putin, is a native St. Petersburger. Or has something more subtle happened? Has St. Petersburg at last become Russia's link to the rest of the world—the "window on the West" that Peter the Great dreamed it could be?

From our point of view," says Mikhail Piotrovsky, the director of the Hermitage, sitting in his office on the Palace Embankment in the heart of downtown, "the situation has definitely improved. We used to suffer terribly in the matter of funding. It was the same old story: The Russian government cut and cut its budget and was two years late in the payment of what it promised. Now we get not so much, it's true, but it arrives on time; and in return for less state money, we've gained the freedom to make our own decisions: We can plan."

Vadim Znamenov, the director of Peterhof, Russia's version of Versailles, built by Peter the Great outside the city on the Gulf of Finland, agrees. "We get maybe forty percent of our funding from the Parliament and the Ministry of Culture," Znamenov says. "But we don't pay tax on the land; and today's situation is brilliant by comparison with the past. Now we're allowed to rely on what we can make from our entrance fees, souvenirs, and shops, and more important, on our own guts, courage, and decisiveness. It's a breakthrough, and it works much better than it did ten, or maybe even two or three, years ago."

Both Piotrovsky and Znamenov do everything within their power these days to attract foreign visitors to St. Petersburg. The Hermitage offers guided tours of its extraordinary collections when the museum is closed, and hosts occasional "receptions, if they directly involve the welfare of the Hermitage, for our American Friends, for example," says Piotrovsky. Znamenov says that he can arrange receptions in Peterhof's Great Palace, "or a lunch in the Throne Room, or perhaps a picnic on the balcony of the Cottage Palace," referring to the small neo-gothic house built for Nicholas I in the late 1820s. Ivan Sautov, the flamboyant director of Tsarskoye Selo—the site of the out-of-town palace begun by Peter's wife Catherine and then transformed into a massive baroque fantasy by Elizabeth—suggests that it's the foreign customer who is now king. "In the Catherine Palace here, he or she can have a woodwind orchestra," he says expansively, sitting in his office in what were once servants' quarters, "and then retire to the Alexander Palace [where Nicholas II and his family were held under house arrest by the provisional government before being shipped to Siberia] for a glass of Champagne. There can be a dressage of horses from the Riding School, lunch in the restaurant with Russian cuisine followed by a concert in the Polish church, or a picnic in the park with flowers and carpets.

"In the winter," he goes on, raising a cup of tea with a flourish, "we can have troikas, pancakes cooked in the open air, fireworks, a treasure hunt. We also have a ball on New Year's Eve, when guests come at eight and leave at four in the morning. You can arrive from the Gulf of Finland by luxury speedboat; you can rent a balloon and fly round the complex. You see," he says, taking in with a gesture the palaces, the park, the Riding School, the Lycée, where Pushkin was a student, "there's a long tradition of entertaining here, of guests in the Catherine Palace. That's what it was for."

Everywhere I go in St. Petersburg and its environs, the story is the same. After years spent earning hard currency abroad via traveling exhibitions, concerts, and performances, the heads of the city's cultural institutions are finally confident enough to sit still and permit foreign visitors to travel to them. Yuri Temirkanov, for example, the director of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, with its home base at Grand Philharmonic Hall on Mikhailovsky Street, has recently started an annual International Winter Festival, complete with a New Year's Ball at the Yusupov Palace (where Rasputin was assassinated). Valery Gergiev, the charismatic head of ballet and opera at the Mariinsky Theatre, which in 2000 had a long and triumphant season in London, last February hosted the first of what he plans as yearly international ballet festivals, with guest stars from far-flung companies.

Vladimir Gusev, director of the Russian Museum, has not only opened a new café in the Stroganov Palace on Nevsky Prospect, one of the 12 buildings in the city he now controls, but he's also planning to turn two of his smaller charges into medium-priced hotels. And as for the Hermitage, it's hard not to see its policy of opening new gallery spaces in the West as an elaborate form of chamber-of-commerce boosterism. The majority of its three million objects, after all, would otherwise remain locked away in its vaults; and there are treasures, like some of its 37 Picassos and masterpieces by Leonardo, Joshua Reynolds, and Matisse, that will always remain here.

This new welcoming spirit extends beyond the city's cultural institutions to its restaurants and hotels. Yes, the best hotels in St. Petersburg, like the Hotel Astoria and the miraculously good Grand Hotel Europe, are still extremely expensive, partly because of the costs of training Russian staff and importing foreign foodstuffs. (Russian produce, though excellent, can dwindle to meat and pickles in winter, and in any case "has uncertain delivery," says the Astoria's general manager, Michael Goerdt.) And yes, the best restaurants charge as much as the finest in London, Paris, or New York (that is, about $80 per person—approximately two months' salary for a violinist in the St. Petersburg Philharmonic). But the air of cynicism that used to inhabit these places, the feeling one had that they were in business for the short term—simply to make as much money as they could because of an uncertain political future—has disappeared entirely. There is a real effort, in restaurants such as The Noble Nest and the Taleon Club, to provide a memorable, uniquely Russian, dining experience: a harking back to imperial days, when the menu boasted sun-dried sturgeon and burbot livers, and the Cossack waiters wore long red linen coats.

"It's tourism that will save the beauty of this place," says English-born sculptor Princess Katya Galitzine, the author of St. Petersburg: The Hidden Interiors, "even though not everyone here has realized it yet."

We meet in a new restaurant, called simply Restoran, that exemplifies the new spirit of St. Petersburg. Carved out of a ruin of old workshops by young designer Andrei Dmitriev (who has also designed a new restaurant for the Mariinsky Theatre), Restoran is airy, elegant, and original. It offers haute Russian cuisine as well as more moderately priced fare, and the service is sunny and friendly. "On the surface, the city's less fun than it was; there's less of a crazy scene," says Galitzine, sipping a glass of Sancerre while I eat freshwater kuroshki from the Neva. "But," she says, taking in her surroundings with a smile, "there are compensations."

A decade after the fall of Communism, there are still more than 200 museums and monuments in St. Petersburg associated with Lenin and his Revolution. He remains on a bronze armored car outside Finland Station, his right hand pointing, cynics used to say, to 11 o'clock, the opening time of the pubs. But it is no longer Lenin's city: It is once again the city of that other tyrannical genius, Peter, who, almost three centuries ago, bullied and hectored it into existence.

Peter wanted a port, and then a city that would rival those he had seen in Holland, England, and France, and he didn't care how many workers were drowned and crushed in its creation. He wanted his people, who were the most backward in Europe, to enter the modern age (which he anticipated brilliantly) as full-fledged Europeans. So he forced his aristocracy to move here from Moscow. He tore off their long robes, cut off their beards (wielding the knife himself), and forced them into knee breeches. He beat them, caroused with them, and bent them to his vision, while he made boats and shoes and furniture, and experimented with gunnery, etching, engraving—every craft that took his fancy.

Peter is buried in the first complex he built here: the golden-spired Cathedral of the St. Peter and Paul Fortress. But everywhere else that his presence is felt has been turned into a place of pilgrimage: his Cabinet of Curiosities (in the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography), his first log cabin, his little summer palace—and above all, the monumental statue of Peter on his rearing equestrian mount, near the Admiralty and St. Isaac's Cathedral, dedicated in his memory by Catherine the Great. The statue, known as The Bronze Horseman, lent its name to one of Pushkin's most famous poems and is a magnet for the city's newlyweds, who bring flowers and have their marriages blessed here after the ceremony in the nearby Palace of Matrimony.

All around him, of course—and across the broad avenue of the Neva River—Peter's dream of belonging, of Europe, was turned into stone: symphonies and operas of stone built by the tsars and tsarinas who came after him. Nowhere else on earth was 18th-century classicism and the Baroque given such enormous scope, such room to move in, as in Peter's New Town. Today, vast ensembles of buildings, yellow and blue and green and apricot, parade before the eye along the streets of central St. Petersburg, in a rectilinear geometry as formal as a Mozart minuet. Colonnades and pilasters and porticoes multiply around echoing squares and half-empty gardens. Allées of marble and plaster columns spring to the eye along palatial facades, their look of being permanently at attention softened only by the arcs of the city's bridges and the mazy wanderings of the canals beneath them.

It's breathtaking, but it's not a comfortable domestic architecture. It's too infected with the prestige of size; and it's hard to forget, as you walk the streets and the embankments, the offhand arrogance and wealth of those who built it. Six thousand aristocrats and staff spent each winter in the Winter Palace; up on the roof, among the hundreds of bronze statues, lived another, outdoor, community, which spent its time throwing red-hot cannonballs into freezing tanks to keep the water flowing. The Stroganovs, with their palace down on Nevsky Prospect, were billionaires, the Rockefellers of Russia, who once hired a private army of Cossacks to drive the Tatars out of Siberia. And as for the Yusupov family (the last of whom helped to murder Rasputin), its palace out on the Moika Embankment was the largest of seven that it owned in the city; it also had 37 estates. No, if you want peaceful architecture, you have to go elsewhere: to the park on Yelagen Island, where the governor of the city plays tennis and where, when I go, the city's Swedish community is having an end-of-the-season barbecue. Or else to Pavlovsk.

Pavlovsk is my favorite of all of St. Petersburg's palace-parks. The first of them to be restored and rebuilt after destruction by the Germans, it today has a faded, intimate, elegiac quality that the others, still undergoing or even awaiting restoration, lack. I'm met here one morning by Alexei Guzanov, the young chief curator of the museum-park complex. Guzanov, a scholar and a considerable expert on Pavlovsk's original builders, Pavel (later Paul I) and his wife, Grand Duchess Maria Fyodorovna, is immensely proud of what's been achieved here. "By the end of the war, some seventy thousand trees had been cut down or destroyed," he says, looking back at the now immaculately landscaped park as we walk across the forecourt. "Whole vistas, pavilions, had to be re-created from paintings and prints and photographs. At the same time," he adds, looking up at the central part of the palace, designed by Charles Cameron—the greatest of Catherine the Great's imported architects—"fourteen thousand objets and pieces of furniture, which had been evacuated, were returned little by little to their exact places in what had been a ruin." Guzanov shows me a series of photographs displayed in what was once Pavel's library: They are of Pavlovsk after the war: a half-standing structure of bombed-out masonry jutting from enormous piles of rubble.

For the next hour and a half, as he leads me through Pavel and Maria's state and private quarters, Guzanov spins an extraordinary commentary that takes in the architecture, the struggle of restoration, and the story of Pavel's fractious relationship with his mother, Catherine the Great. Many of the furnishings, which Guzanov seems to know as intimately as if he'd made them himself, were acquired, he says, during an unprecedented 14-month tour of western Europe that Pavel and Maria made in the early 1780s to get away from life at court. (There's a 62-piece Sèvres toilet set that was a gift to Maria from the doomed Marie-Antoinette.) It is a dizzying performance, which goes on as we proceed, by horse-drawn carriage, out into the park, through a series of follies and meadows and carefully tailored vistas, and then continues in the afternoon through the enfilades and the Amber Room of the Catherine Palace at nearby Tsarskoye Selo. Here Guzanov introduces me to scholar-curators as young as himself, and then he gets back to the telling of his tales—stories in which the past and the present meet, stories full of knowledge, delight, humor, and loving pride.

I love you, Peter's creation," wrote Alexander Pushkin of St. Petersburg in the early years of the 19th century. "I love your strict and gracious look; the imperious flow of the Neva River and its granite-dressed shores." And I wonder, after meeting Guzanov and others like him in the city, whether what has happened here isn't something very simple: a people coming to terms with its legacy, finally claiming its city for itself. Perhaps the ghosts of the past have finally been laid to rest—and the rhapsodic melancholy of the place (which comes from being penetrated and surrounded by so much water) now merely masks a growing self-confidence.

On the surface, as Katya Galitzine says, St. Petersburg is perhaps less fun than it was. But then again it's no longer a heady, born-again child at play—after the collapse of the Communist party, amid the ruins of history. Instead, "The people of the city," says Vladimir Gusev of the Russian Museum, "are coming back to themselves after a very difficult period. Conditions are much better than they were; the museums are packed during the holidays; and bit by bit the city is getting a better facade."

Boris Grebenschikov, meanwhile, captures the mood of St. Petersburg perfectly. He once described the intoxicating freedom of the post-perestroika years to me as "the Summer of Love—but without the love." Now, he says, leaning forward over a glass of wine in a Georgian restaurant in the north of the city, "St. Petersburg is like a young girl waiting indoors on the brink of adulthood, who doesn't know whether she's a child or a woman until she opens the door and goes out among people who will tell her." A shy and elusive new spirit of independence is alive in the city. There is a growing awareness that the state, with its tentacle flailing, is now irrelevant. What matters in St. Petersburg today is the individual—and about this, I think, Peter the Great would be pleased. Though he could force his people into Western dress, he could never make them individuals. Though he could show them his "window," he could never quite push them through.

Jo Durden-Smith wrote about pinstripe suits in the September 2001 issue of Departures.