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Washington Post
January 5, 2003
Imperial. Imposing. Imperiled.
St. Petersburg Marks 300 Years With Pride -- and a Plea for Preservation
By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer

When Vladimir Putin invited President Bush to Russia last fall, the Russian leader designated a palatial site near St. Petersburg's airport as a meeting place. The November presidential visit was simply too brief for the main event: the historic center of St. Petersburg, a rare enclave of 18th- and 19th-century architecture and one of the marvels of our modern world.

Happily, the St. Petersburg experience is coming to America. Beginning this week in Washington and continuing coast to coast throughout 2003, cultural institutions in both countries are joining forces to honor Putin's home town. The remarkable city founded by Peter the Great turns 300 this year.

A birthday bash of unprecedented ambition is promised. More than 40 happenings -- exhibitions, performances and lectures -- are planned for Washington alone. Smithsonian Associates will conduct more than 30 programs exploring Russian art, architecture, literature, film, politics, religion and science. A National Building Museum lecture on Jan. 15 will address the city's architectural heritage -- certainly one of the most provocative topics facing St. Petersburg today. Hillwood Museum & Gardens, which houses a spectacular collection of Russian fine and decorative arts, will open its doors on Feb. 4 for a year-long display of imperial treasures. And for Valentine's Day, the National Museum of Women in the Arts is borrowing 49 extraordinary works from the State Hermitage Museum.

No St. Petersburg festival would be complete without Valery Gergiev, dynamic director of the Mariinsky Theatre (also known by its Soviet-era name, the Kirov) and a central figure in the city's pressing architectural drama. In March, he will make an appearance at the Kennedy Center with his incomparable ballet troupe.

Baltimore will launch its own three-week extravaganza, called "Vivat! St. Petersburg," on Feb. 13. Major institutions and more than 50 community groups and galleries have signed on. The Walters Art Museum will showcase gem-encrusted treasures from the imperial workshop of Faberge, as well as the 20th-century brilliance of the avant-garde movement. Other special events include a showing in its entirety of the 1927 film "October," which was commissioned to commemorate the Bolshevik Revolution but was cut on orders from Stalin. Actors from the Baltimore Theatre Alliance will stage readings of Russian literary masterpieces. The Great Blacks in Wax Museum will conduct a "Pushkin Poetry Slam." And that is only a tiny sampling of the Baltimore program, which offers as many as 20 happenings a day.

Elsewhere, exhibits and performances are planned at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Lincoln Center in New York, as well as at Columbia, the University of Michigan, Rutgers and Yale. The number of tricentennial events planned in St. Petersburg itself only adds to the city's grandeur.

If musicians, dancers, historians, designers, poets, actors and more are reintroducing St. Petersburg to center stage, the attention comes in the nick of time. Buildings are crumbling. Population is declining. Tourism is stagnating. The cultural community is dispersing. And modernity -- in the form of bold new architecture -- is knocking aggressively at the door.

The years since glasnost have not been kind. UNESCO declared the city center a World Heritage site worth saving in 1990. Since then, the World Bank has lent $31 million to shore up endangered structures, including parts of the Tsarskoe Selo palace in which Bush and Putin met. Under consideration for 2004 are hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of urgently needed reconstruction, simply to stave off the threat of fire.

"We consider the cultural assets of the city are as valuable as economic assets," says World Bank specialist Jean-Jacques Soulacroup.

Like Venice, St. Petersburg is a jewel, he says.

Like most Americans, I have not yet been. But globalism has made the world very small indeed. I toured vicariously through the eyes of knowledgeable bankers, architects, a cultural entrepreneur, an intellectual emigre and a globe-trotting concert maestro who divides his time between the St. Petersburg Philharmonic and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

They and others assure me that the myths of St. Petersburg, like its buildings, are larger than life.

The official celebration began Dec. 27 in the Great Hall of the St. Petersburg Philharmonia, where Yuri Temirkanov raised his baton to start the winter festival. Temirkanov also serves as music director for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and is credited with sparking the citywide festival there. In an interview before his return to St. Petersburg, an interpreter translated Temirkanov's words. The anxiety was written on his face.

"Russian culture is endangered," he said. "I told Putin, 'You have to save Russian culture.' "

Utopian Origins

Czar Peter created St. Petersburg as a window on Europe but also as Russia's cultural heart. The enlightened despot imagined his own utopia as serfs dredged a swamp at the country's western edge. Many died on the spot. Imperial heirs, notably Catherine the Great, burnished the vision to near-perfection.

The name has changed several times, but not the spirit. Peter was inspired by the canals of Amsterdam and gave the city a Dutch name, "Sankt Petersburgh." It was Russianized to Petrograd, which sounded less German, in 1914. Bolsheviks honored a native son with the name Leningrad in 1924, then quickly moved the capital to Moscow. Other titles have stuck, from "Cradle of the Revolution" to Venice of the North. For survivors of the 900-day siege by the Nazis during World War II, when half the city's 3 million residents died (Jan. 18 marks the 60th anniversary of its end), Leningrad resounds with a deep patriotic dimension. Thus, the 1991 switch back to the imperial St. Petersburg was not universally loved. Whether the city can now live up to the forward-looking legacy of its founding father is the next question.

The historic core has remained a period stage set, remarkably unaltered since 1917. Ornate plaster facades stretch for blocks. The modulated grace of baroque, neoclassical, Italianate and Swedish detail is Russianized in scale and scope. A visual symphony of symmetry and order, it reflects Peter's desire to drag a backward Russia toward the more advanced European model he admired. Unfortunately, buildings were constructed in haste and faced with plaster, not stone. Irregular maintenance has left more than the facades in disrepair.

The Mariinsky Theatre was described by one banker as a "time bomb of safety and security issues." The 450,000-square-foot General Staff Building, part of the State Hermitage Museum on Palace Square, is in dire need of a foundation-to-roof upgrade. Other needy structures include the Peter and Paul Fortress, the State Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory, the Shostakovich Philharmony and the Inzhenerny Castle. The head of the Russian State Construction Committee has publicly hoped for $100 million to $300 million in loans. The World Bank won't say how much it intends to lend.

"What we are trying is to cope with years of neglect by investing in those cultural assets where we want to prevent further decay," said Soulacroup of the World Bank, who visits every few months.

The New Cold War

As Peter dreamed, windows are being opened. The bad news is that they are being opened at the Winter Palace, home of the Hermitage. The world's third-largest museum, repository of centuries of art world treasures, still relies on what insiders call "Socialist air conditioning."

World Bank specialist Felix Jakob, who visited last year on an aid mission, recalls standing in a gallery filled with priceless paintings. When the room overheated, the woman on duty simply threw open the window.

She was fortunate to have heat. A few bad winters ago, state-funded museums failed to get their full share of the Russian Federation's appropriation. As Stuart Gibson, vice president of the American Friends of the Hermitage Museum, tells the story, the Hermitage had to rotate heat, room by room. Gibson is quick to say the art was never endangered. But the corridors were cold, and museum director Mikhail Piotrovsky, who is one of St. Petersburg's most important public figures, took to wearing a long black scarf.

He also staged a news conference to complain about the museums' plight. And he declared that he would wear the black scarf until funding was restored. Piotrovsky got the money. He has not given up the scarf.

"It became a signature," says Gibson, and there is still "massive, massive need throughout the city."

Truth and Fiction

Svetlana Boym, a professor of Slavic languages and literature at Harvard University, grew up amid the monuments and canals. During the Soviet era, she worked as a tour guide.

"I wasn't a good tour guide," she warns in her book "The Future of Nostalgia" (Basic Books), which includes a chapter on "St. Petersburg, the Cosmopolitan Province."

Boym once forgot the location of a famous hut where Lenin lived in exile "subsisting on mushrooms and berries," as guides were taught to say. Instead, she declared that the memorial hut had been temporarily removed for repairs and directed tourists to an artist friend of hers who sold perfectly retouched photographs of the city against a cloudless sky.

"It is the only place I am actually nostalgic for in Russia," she said by phone from Boston.

Boym will take part in a Jan. 16 panel discussion on St. Petersburg's architectural legacy at the National Building Museum. What concerns her is that "St. Petersburg used to be the modern city in Russia. It became frozen in time. It was the most developed, ultramodern, European. Then it almost turned into its opposite."

In her book, she writes of a Potemkin village, where the spectacle of Russian Westernization tried to pass for reality. After the city lost its status as the capital, it acquired a different persona, as a provincial city with the defense industry as its major employer.

Architecturally, a disturbing duality emerged. Outwardly magnificent facades opened onto grim, partitioned communal apartments with hallways in ruins. (Boym worries that for the 300th anniversary, the government is "basically restoring facades.")

The duality infected culture as well. Classical ballet was preserved and fostered as the official art form, while unsanctioned culture went abroad or underground. Boym recalls that as late as 1991, when President Mikhail Gorbachev was on vacation and the perpetrators of the brief August coup tried to reestablish power, the instigators shut down all television programming and broadcast "Swan Lake."

In the end, the city grew up to be a beautiful sham living on its own illusions, she suggests. Boym sees it now as a Sleeping Beauty waiting for one big expensive kiss.

"It could be a really touristy city," she says. "That's really what would sell now."

Bilbao of the North

Ever since the city of Bilbao, Spain, got its Guggenheim, would-be tourist meccas have looked to architecture to create novelty. Even in St. Petersburg, epicenter of period architecture, the desire for something new and even radical has been expressed, at least by the charismatic and influential head of the Mariinsky Theatre. Whether director Gergiev can bring St. Petersburg along is the next question.

For Eric Owen Moss, a Los Angeles architect, the experience has been as breathtaking as the visionary structures he would like to build. He was invited to enter a contest to design a new Mariinsky opera house. Like any architect at the cutting edge, he works in a 21st-century idiom of glass walls, undulating forms and blown-out blobs, rather than classical boxes.

For Gergiev's institution, he delivered as bold a design as Frank Gehry offered Bilbao: A gigantic block of glass and polished granite with a crumpled mass of glass exploding beautifully from one side. The only other competitor was a Russian architect, and Moss was told he had won.

Moss showed his plans on DVD at the National Building Museum a few weeks ago. The audience was spellbound as a larger-than-life ballerina was projected on the granite exterior. Moss was pleased to announce that his models had been chosen as the Russian Federation exhibit at the prestigious Venice Biennale of architecture. But his satisfaction was short-lived.

Conservative elements in St. Petersburg were not charmed. They derided the design as "rubbish bags." Gergiev rushed to Moss's defense, telling the news media, "We've got to be radical to attract attention to ourselves." But just before Christmas, he announced a second contest. Moss was invited to reapply. This time, he will compete against a slate of six international stars, including Arata Isozaki and Mario Botta, plus five Russian architects.

Moss may still win. In the meantime, he is focused on a second St. Petersburg project: a performing arts complex for a forlorn island known as New Holland near the city center. The complex would become the primary venue for the summer White Nights Festival.

Moss would reuse existing brick buildings, including a circular prison. But he would add a multistory glass structure with an undulating roof to house a hotel, a restaurant and an exhibition hall. The heart of the complex is a lagoon where boats were once built. There, he would create a 30,000-seat outdoor concert space around a waterside stage. Above it all, he would perch a gigantic glass cube housing a 700-seat concert hall.

Residents have already dubbed it the Ice Cube.

Moss heads back to St. Petersburg for the first meeting of the new competition on Jan. 13. He remains hopeful about the New Holland project, saying, "I have no reason not to think that will go forward."

Ever the tour guide, Boym considered his designs (they are viewable in detail at www.ericowenmoss.com) and volunteered from Boston: "I almost feel that whatever will be done will be a good idea. I'm sure it would be a scandal."

Raising Spirits

From his backstage quarters at Baltimore's Joseph Meyerhoff Hall, Temirkanov was chain-smoking and talking Russian a mile a minute. During the communist era, officialdom supported art and used it for propaganda. Everyone lived very well -- great musicians, composers, artists -- as long as they conformed. But artistic freedom was regulated.

In the post-Soviet era, the economy collapsed, and artists were free but badly paid. A disheartening diaspora of musicians, performers, teachers, students and soloists resulted.

He allowed that the departed talents will exert influence elsewhere. He himself holds positions abroad. But in his view, Russian culture has lost something irreplaceable.

Temirkanov says that since his appeal, Putin has agreed to "a big increase" in salaries for the cultural workforce. Only time will tell whether it is enough to entice departed countrymen home.

"Everyone was worse off," Temirkanov says of his country's transition. "The first to suffer is culture. In a global culture, it's a world tragedy."

Before he departed, he slipped in a message to Americans. "In spite of all the propaganda of previous years, we are the same people. Our problems are very similar. . . . Russians were shocked so much at 9/11. Civilized people must be united. The best defense is spiritual richness."

As they say in Baltimore, "Vivat! St. Petersburg."

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CELEBRATING ST. PETERSBURG'S 300TH FROM AFAR -- Linda Hales

Highlights of the tricentennial celebration of St. Petersburg include:

"Splendors of Russia," presented by Smithsonian Associates, includes 30 programs between Jan. 11 and March 31. 202-357-3030 or www.residentassociates.org.

"St. Petersburg: Architectural Legacy and Restoration Challenges," Jan. 15 at the National Building Museum. 202-272-2448 or www.nbm.org.

"The Myths of St. Petersburg" runs Feb. 4-Dec. 31. at Hillwood Museum & Gardens. A "White Nights Festival" will take place in June. 202-686-8505 or www.hillwoodmuseum.org.

The Washington Performing Arts Society features concerts on Feb. 8, March 18 and May 3. 202-785-9727 or www.wpas.org.

"An Imperial Collection: Women Artists From the State Hermitage Museum" runs Feb. 14-June 18 at the National Museum for Women in the Arts. 202-783-5000 or www.nmwa.org.

Concerts at the Kennedy Center begin Feb. 27 with an all-Prokofiev evening. Bolshoi and Kirov (Mariinsky) ballets perform in March. 202-467-4600 or www.kennedy-center.org.

In Baltimore, the "Vivat! St. Petersburg" festival runs Feb. 13-March 2. A comprehensive Web site, www.vivatfest.com, spotlights 50-plus participating arts organizations. Or call 1-877-Baltimore. Back to the Top    Next Issue