March 12, 2014
St. Petersburg (Part 2)
Russia’s “Cultural Capital” St. Petersburg is a city that has proved it can survive the greatest of challenges. As I wrote in a previous article, St. Petersburg – The Beautiful City of Ghosts, from its very beginnings, it has seen bitter struggle of all kinds including war, repression, revolution and one of the deadliest sieges the world has ever seen. But today it attracts visitors by the million, lured there by the numerous palaces, museums, and attractions it has to offer. It has become one of the most expensive cities in the world and yet even today the historic heart of the city – now a UNESCO World Heritage Site – is ringed by huge apartment blocks and residential complexes that are like miniature cities in themselves, complete with all the facilities that a small town needs. St. Petersburg has struggled to house its growing population, which now approaches 5 million people.
The modern visitor, however, will find a place of wonder. With an estimated 8,000 monuments, this is a city full of interest and yet the center itself, straddling the wide Neva River, is compact enough to see the major sites on foot. Among the must-see attractions, the Hermitage Museum in the Winter Palace is on every visitor’s list. This stunning building, which dominates the vast Palace Square, is one of the oldest and largest museums in the world. It has around three million objects though not all are on permanent display and also boasts the world’s largest collection of paintings. For those on a budget it is free to all on the first Thursday of each month but whether you manage to grab a free visit or pay the asking price, this is one place to spend some time – half a day wouldn’t do it justice.
In addition to the Hermitage, there are enough Palaces and Museums in the center to keep even the most ardent culture vulture happy. There are also several pleasant parks and riverside walks as well as churches and cathedrals. Of these, the ornate and brightly colored and gilded onion domes of the wonderfully named Church of Our Saviour on the Spilled Blood is the most arresting although be prepared to pay for the privilege of looking inside – no free Thursdays here. Outside the city, most visitors take in at least one trip to the Catherine or Peterhof Palaces. I opted for the excellent Peterhof Palace, taking an organized tour that took us there by coach and back by Hydrofoil, which was a great way to see the city from a different perspective.
If you get chance to speak with the modern residents of St. Petersburg you will find that some of them still recall the terrible events of the siege and its aftermath. There is also a sense of mixed feeling about the break-up of the old hard-line Communist regime. While few would want to go back to the fear and repression of those days, the economic and social impacts have been enormous and, as is so often the case, it is the individual experiences that tell the story best. One man told me how his life changed with the collapse of Communism. He trained at St. Petersburg’s Naval Academy, spent over 30 years in the Navy eventually becoming a senior officer, and was about to retire on a decent pension with the promise of a good free apartment for life. Due to the upheaval that came with regime change he finished up with a small pension and no apartment. He had to live with his parents, share their apartment and found a job. Indeed others too remember how, in the old days, everyone had an apartment provided by the state but bemoaned the fact that spiraling costs and housing prices are making it impossible for many young families to get their own accommodation. Even in today’s St. Petersburg the ghosts of the past are everywhere.