Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
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Baltimore Sun
April 6, 2003
City of superlatives
St. Petersburg has seen the best and worst of times during its 300-year history.
By Douglas Birch
Sun Foreign Staff

Natalya, the owner of our very informal bed and breakfast in St. Petersburg, is apologetic. We've just arrived in the Russian city for a few days, and decided to stay as guests in her family's rambling apartment on the Moika Canal.

The apartment is in one of the most fashionable parts of town -- a second-floor flat not far from St. Isaac's Cathedral and just down the block from the birthplace of novelist Vladimir Nabokov.

More luridly, it's across the canal from the Yusupov Palace, where about a century ago the sinister mystic Rasputin -- who bewitched a czarina -- survived being stabbed, shot and beaten. From one of Natalya's bedroom windows you can see the spot in the canal where the rascal finally drowned.

As soon as we're in the burglarproof steel front door, Natalya informs us that the hot water, supplied by a central city plant, has been cut off for a month by authorities, for repairs. There's no particular emergency -- it happens every summer. Do we mind taking showers with water from her teapot?

Well, we answer, with what-have-we-gotten-ourselves-into? smiles, of course we didn't mind. And truthfully, we don't, much. We've stayed with Natalya and her husband, a prominent physicist, before. They are accommodating, low-key hosts. Their apartment is big and fairly well-furnished. And they know a little about the peculiar habits of Americans because their daughter lives in Colorado with her family.

Catch the white-haired Natalya at the right moment and she'll reminisce about surviving the 900-day siege of Leningrad (one of St. Petersburg's former names) by the Nazis during World War II, when people dropped dead on the streets every day, the victims of disease and starvation. She'll talk about how her family's life savings were wiped out during the economic crash after the fall of the Soviet Union. And she'll describe how her impoverished neighbors are being bought out by fabulously wealthy "New Russians."

Welcome to St. Petersburg, where hardship and opulence are well acquainted.

For two centuries, the wealth of Russia poured into this chain of islands on the Gulf of Finland. It became one of the wealthiest, gaudiest and grandest cities of the world. It also became the scene of revolts and revolutions, assassinations and slaughter. By some estimates, one quarter of St. Petersburg's population was exiled or executed during Stalin's purges in the 1930s.

Today, tourists can catch some of the world's greatest ballet or sample some of the city's well-stocked art museums. But even as St. Petersburg puts on its best face for its 300th anniversary celebration next month, tourists will still see constant reminders that this is a city where, for many, survival has always been a struggle.

"In St. Petersburg ... poverty and wealth, luxury and misery, splendor and shabbiness, civilization and barbarism, go hand in hand, lie side by side together," an English visitor wrote in 1867. "It is a place which can only be described by superlatives."

As in most of Russia, not much has changed in the intervening 136 years.

St. Petersburg's birthday will be marked by a series of events scheduled for May 24 to June 1. The extravaganza will feature art shows and operas, ballets and plays, rock concerts and fireworks, as well as a parade of historic ships.

(Baltimore's tribute to St. Petersburg, Vivat!, began in February and concludes with an exhibit of the Russian avant-garde and of Faberge animals at the Walters Art Gallery through May 25, and a Baltimore Museum of Art exhibit of the Ballets Russes through May 4.)

This being Russia, the anniversary festivities will include an orgy of official ceremonies, speeches, receptions and private parties. All this will coincide with the "White Nights" -- when the Northern Lights make nighttime as bright as day -- which is the height of the tourist season in a normal year. Expect traffic gridlock, jammed restaurants and thronged museums, especially at the world-renowned Hermitage.

But if you come to this city of about 5 million people, don't expect Europe. Don't expect the orderly, the antiseptic, the feeling of being insulated from the people who live here.

Serious about art

The main tourist attractions are hard to miss, and shouldn't be missed. The first place everyone heads is the Hermitage, with its unmatched collection of European masters and other bric-a-brac of the czars. (Go in the afternoon and avoid the lines of diesel- and tourist-belching buses that line up out front in the morning).

There is also the legendary St. Petersburg Philharmonic, and the celebrated Mariinsky ballet and opera. Prepare to be dazzled by Russian musicians and dancers: Their passion and dedication sometimes startle natives of more laid-back Western cultures.

Be sure to see the Russian State Museum, which holds the world's largest collection of Russian fine art. (Russian painters prefer canvases the size of billboards -- probably because they had all those St. Petersburg palaces to fill with art.) The museum is filled with masterpieces that are seldom mentioned in Western art appreciation classes.

But St. Petersburg is far more than its paintings and performances, and well worth exploring outside the big-name museums.

There are the elegant slums of Sennaya Ploshchad, the setting of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. There is the office of Sergei Kirov, the Leningrad Communist Party secretary whose assassination -- rumored to have been ordered by Stalin -- became Stalin's excuse for unleashing the orgy of murder called the "terrors" of the 1930s.

Be sure to prowl around inside the log cabin that Peter the Great preferred to the Kremlin in Moscow. The czar, likely one of the smartest hereditary rulers in European history, founded St. Petersburg on a swamp in 1703, building it with conscripted Russian peasants and Swedish prisoners of war. He was a pitiless man -- tens of thousands died to establish the city.

But he was also a creative and original thinker, and a notable oddball. His cabin says a lot about him. It's the refuge of a private person trying to escape boring official duties, the lair of a restless intellect and dedicated tinkerer.

Visit the Trubetskoy Bastion in the Peter and Paul Fortress. Carefully preserved by the Soviets as an indictment of czarist cruelty, it actually demonstrates how savage their Bolshevik conquerors were. Compared with the forced labor camps of the gulag, this place is a Hyatt Regency.

And don't miss sampling the small, obscure and fascinating places, like the dusty museum in the Arctic and Antarctic Institute, located in an Old Believer's Orthodox Church, which includes artifacts and displays of Russian expeditions to the poles. A full-scale Arctic research plane hangs from the rafters.

Jarring sights

Some may find a stroll around the city culturally disorienting. There is a man with a dancing bear who performs outside the Hermitage. Cell phones beep Swan Lake and the Russian national anthem. Admission prices at museums and theaters are generally 10 times higher for foreigners than for Russians. Teen-agers march down the street drinking beer or sipping gin-and-tonics out of aluminum cans. Pensioners hawk vegetables on the sidewalks.

Arriving in St. Petersburg in spring and summer has several advantages; one is that the temperature is less prone to plunge below freezing. The other is that falls and fractures are less likely. But the best time to get the feel of this fantastic, and occasionally frustrating, city is in the winter. St. Petersburg's stucco and stone were built to be clad in a mantle of snow and ice.

Few experiences feel more thrilling -- or more mystical -- than crunching over a wrought-iron bridge over a frozen canal, the ice twinkling with the reflected light of street lamps. It's like walking through the pages of Dostoyevsky, Gogol and Pushkin.

Visitors should brace themselves for more than weather: Russia is not like Europe. Impersonal efficiency has no place here. The Russians take hospitality seriously, they don't mass produce it.

If you're lucky enough to be invited to someone's home, you will likely be overwhelmed. Your eager hosts will serve heaping piles of pickled mushrooms, cucumbers and herring as if their lives depended on you gaining a kilo or two. And prepare yourself for toast after toast of vodka. (Or you will have to demur, protest and finally turn over your glass. A single, simple refusal is never enough.)

Walk in the wrong restaurant, at the wrong time, and you can expect the worst. My wife, Jane, and I stopped at a nearly deserted sidewalk restaurant in the city for lunch last summer. Within a few minutes, all the other tables on the sidewalk were filled. (You'll find it's easy to set trends in Russia. Stop to look in a shop window, and a few seconds later you'll find yourself surrounded by others craning their necks.)

After a few minutes, a waitress came out, took one look at all the diners waiting for her and ran back inside. We never saw her again.

Whatever time of year you visit the city, try to hook up with someone who can show you around. Russia is a relatively tricky place for anyone who is not part of a tour group. (The Soviet tradition -- still dominant here -- is for visitors to travel in herds tended by earnest and loquacious guides.)

Independent travelers will have to negotiate odd visa rules (you have to have an invitation to come) and maddening currency restrictions (you can't take out any cash that you didn't declare with customs coming in.) It is even a chore for Westerners to find their way around, especially because most can't read the Cyrillic street and shop signs.

You can hire a professional guide, but that's not strictly necessary or even desirable. Ordinary St. Petersburgers are very proud of their city's history and for the most part incredibly knowledgeable about it. If you can track down a friend of a friend who lives here and speaks decent English, try giving them a call.

They'll show you parts of the city that you wouldn't see with a professional guide, and may even invite you to their homes.

Memorable moments

It's simple getting around, street signs notwithstanding. Subway rides cost 6 rubles, about 20 cents. Or just flag down a passing motorist. He or she will probably take you wherever you want to go for a hundred rubles -- about $3. If you like, you can easily find someone willing to be your chauffeur for $50 a day.

A word of warning. These rates are highly negotiable, and likely to go up considerably during the anniversary celebration. Also, taxi prices at the airport are high. Try to have someone meet you there.

St. Petersburg's restaurants generally come in two flavors. The first are elaborate, expensive hangouts for the super-rich and businessmen on expense accounts. The second are simple, fast-food places where Russians of modest means will enjoy an occasional night out.

If you're like us, and don't care for either the pretension of high-end joints or the tasteless fare of cheaper eateries, St. Petersburg has a few in-between places. One is a not-bad Mexican restaurant, La Cucaracha. There is also an excellent Indian restaurant, Tandoor. Also, there is a rule of thumb in Moscow and St. Petersburg -- just about any Georgian restaurant is probably a good one.

Don't worry about finding authentic Russian cuisine. There really isn't any. This was never a restaurant culture. Russian dishes consist largely of stuff borrowed from Ukraine or Georgia, or of concoctions, like beef Stroganoff, invented by French chefs for Russian royalty.

Accommodations range from Russian tourist hotels -- which charge about $30 a night or so -- to the posh Astoria Hotel, where Hitler hoped to celebrate the fall of Leningrad. Guest rooms, like Natalya's, run from about $40 a night. During the 300th anniversary, your best bet is probably to find a spare room in someone's apartment.

So, go. Travel in Russia is sometimes difficult, but often rewarding in unexpected ways.

Take our night out at the Old Cafe, a neighborhood restaurant facing the Fontanka Canal, where an acquaintance, a St. Petersburg artist, took us. We arrived late one evening recently, and I asked for shashlyk, the Russian version of shish kebab. No luck. They were out of it.

I asked for a Baltika beer. No beer. I expressed mild shock. A joke, surely? (If they wanted to be accommodating, I knew, someone could run out and buy some.) I pleaded with the waitress. She stared at me pitilessly through her pretty brown eyes. I had to settle for a glass of apple juice and a bowl of borscht.

A plug-shaped musician pounded on the keys of an upright piano, ripping expertly through a medley of love songs, a Chopin tune and the theme of Once Upon a Time in America. He played feverishly, even though the place was almost deserted and the tips few. My Russian companions grew misty-eyed.

As I sipped my excellent borscht, a mustachioed man at the next table ordered a beer -- and the waitress reached behind the counter, producing a bucketful. When I dug out my camera to take a snapshot of one of my companions, the lucky customer swaggered over and growled a warning: no photographs, he said.

Outside, we set off in search of an elusive pivo -- beer.

The canal was frozen, flinty and glittering. Clouds covered the night sky. The sidewalk was as slick as a skating rink, and the naked trees resembled photo negatives of lightning bolts. But the atmosphere was electric, the music floating from the Old Cafe bittersweet. The scene has been engraved in my memory.

Getting there: Flights from the United States to St. Petersburg connect through London's Heathrow, Charles de Gaulle in Paris or Frankfurt. Major carriers include Lufthansa, Air France and Finnair. Airfares generally run about $1,350. Flying time from New York's JFK is about 12 hours.

While in St. Petersburg, you may want to take a trip to Moscow. You can get there by air, boat or rail. You may prefer an evening express train, which takes only about six hours and costs about $70 round-trip. Aeroflot and Pulkovo Airlines fly regularly between the two cities. A round-trip costs about $180.

Lodging: There is a shortage of decent, budget hotels in St. Petersburg. Instead, the city's hostelries are palaces on the one hand, bland sleep factories on the other. Bed-and-breakfast inns can be terrific places to meet Russians and learn what really makes the city tick. There are also apartments converted into guest suites, scattered in buildings around the city. Here are a few traditional and not-so-traditional choices:

Hotel Astoria, 39 Bolshaya Morskaya, St. Petersburg 011-7-812-313-5757 (Dialing from the United States, you must first dial the international calling code, 011, then Russia's country code, 7, and St. Petersburg's city code, 812) www.astoria.spb.ru

The city's most famous hotel, where Hitler planned to celebrate the capture of St. Petersburg with a banquet. (He even drew up the guest list.) The Astoria is located near the Hermitage, the Russian Museum and across the street from St. Isaac's Cathedral. Rates from $390 a night in high season. Okhtinskaya-Victoria Hotel, 4 Bolsheokhtinsky Pereulok, St. Petersburg 7-812-227-4438 www.okhtinskaya.spb.ru

A reasonable place with sunny rooms on the banks of the Neva River. There's a view of the Smolny Cathedral. Rates from $85 a night. Pushka Inn Apartments, 14 Moyka, St. Petersburg 7-812-312-0913 www.pushkainn.ru/hotel

Apartments with kitchen, available by the day. This early 19th-century mansion once belonged to the best friend of the poet Alexander Pushkin. It's located in one of the city's most picturesque neighborhoods, a short walk from Palace Square. English-style breakfast included at the restaurant next door. Rates from about $80 per night. Natalya V. Kushmyulyova, Bolshaya Marskaya Ulitsa, St. Petersburg 7-812-311-9141

Natalya Victorovna and her husband run a small bed and breakfast out of their apartment in one of the oldest parts of the city, across the canal from the Yusupov Palace. Natalya speaks great English. From $25 a night.


Tandoor, 2 Voznesensky Prospect
Indian food. Great homemade breads. One of the city's best restaurants.
La Cucaracha, 39 Nab Reki Fontanki
A little bit of Old Mexico right here in the capital of Imperial Russia.
Serves surprisingly authentic food, and stays open until 1 a.m. Sunday through Thursday.


Normally, St. Petersburg is thronged with tourists for only a few weeks each year, during the White Nights of late June. But this year's anniversary celebration will likely see a stream of visitors starting in early May. Beware: during the official celebrations, many of the city's hotel rooms will be filled with foreign dignitaries and other VIPs.

In the summer months, temperatures average from the 60s to the low 70s, although they can occasionally spike into the 90s. Then again, it might snow. The average temperature in January is about 10 degrees Fahrenheit.

Tourism information can be surprisingly hard to come by: Russia is not set up for independent travelers. All of the major hotels provide information to guests at their concierge desks.

The German-managed Ost-West Kontactservice runs a travel service and offers free information. They're recommended by at least one major guidebook and can be reached on the web at www.ostwest.com. (They are also one of several agencies that can help you secure an invitation for a visit to Russia, and a visa.)


An ideal day

9 a.m.: Wake up at a bed and breakfast, and partake of an English-style breakfast. You can get up earlier, but there won't be much to do. Russians sleep late.

10 a.m.: Take a boat tour of the city's canals, and ask the guide to point out Chizhyk Pyzhik on the Griboedov Canal. It's a sculpture of a bird, the hero of a popular St. Petersburg rhyme. Hitting the bird on the head with a coin is supposed to bring good luck.

Noon: Lunch at Tandoor restaurant, then on to the Hermitage. By now, the crowds that arrived at 10 a.m. sharp in a line of tourist motor coaches have vanished. You have one of the world's greatest art collections more or less to yourself. Slava Boga! (Thank the Lord.) Hint: before you get to the museum, reserve a place in a group tour of the museum's collection of Scythian, Greek and European gold, silver and jewels. Tours are available in English.

3 p.m.: Tour the Peter and Paul Fortress. Check out the czarist prison, the terrifyingly white sunbathers and, in the summer, personal watercraft races on the Neva.

5 p.m.: Take a nap. This is going to be a long night.

7 p.m.: Catch Prokofiev's opera War and Peace at the Mariinsky Theater, and ponder the darkness of life's mystery.

10 p.m.: Dinner at the trendy Propaganda Cafe. The restaurant, with its Soviet military theme, has a men's room modeled on a Soviet nuclear submarine.

1 a.m.: Hire a boat and watch the drawbridges open on the great, green Neva River. (Technically, it's illegal to be out on the Neva at this hour. But your tour operator probably knows the right people.) Then stroll Nevsky Prospekt as the twilight falls.

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