Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
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USA Today
June 27, 2003
The czars are shining again
By Veronica Gould Stoddart

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia On a sunny June afternoon at the Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood here, 25-year-old Mikhail Dragunov, an actor costumed as Peter the Great, poses with tourists who want their photos snapped with the city's founder. Business has been brisk since this newly spruced-up former imperial capital celebrated its 300th anniversary on May 27 with all the fanfare of a czar's ball.

But the fact that Dragunov is in business at all portraying the larger-than-life early Romanov ruler is both startling and telling.

"Only in the last three years have there been 'Peters' here," he says, squinting at the Byzantine church, a riot of ornate, multi-faceted onion domes. "They weren't allowed (in Soviet times) because they were considered an imperial symbol."

But these days, it seems, St. Petersburg can't get enough of imperial symbols.

Indeed, in its anniversary year, this sprawling city of nearly 5 million on the Neva River is embracing its czarist past with a Russian bear hug. Emerging from the shadows of the Soviet era, the czars are stars again, taking center stage in every corner of the city: in the tiny busts for sale at the crafts market, in the Romanov figures on display at the wax museum, and especially in the anniversary exhibit to Peter the Great at the Hermitage Museum.

The exhibit showcases 300 works never before shown together, from his personal belongings to family portraits to oddities such as 32 teeth extracted by the multi-talented sovereign (who reigned from 1682 to 1725) himself.

In marked contrast to Soviet times, when communist rulers eclipsed the czars, there's a veritable Romanov revival going on. More than $1.3 billion was spent on repaving roads and restoring the city's pre-revolutionary masterpieces for the tricentennial from the repainted Hermitage to the restored faade of St. Isaac's Cathedral to the regilded spire of the landmark Admiralty building. Despite criticism that the improvements were only Potemkin-village deep, Petersburgers are proud of their reburnished treasures.

"We expect the anniversary to boost tourism for many years to come," says Marina Beskrovnaya, chairman of the city's tourism commission. She anticipates that the 3 million tourists a year will grow to 5 million by 2005.

One new draw is the re-created Amber Room, unveiled for the anniversary in the freshly painted Catherine Palace in the suburb of Pushkin. The most famous piece of trophy art looted from Russia by the Nazis in World War II and missing ever since, it has been 20 years in the remaking. Using prewar black-and-white photos, craftsmen painstakingly duplicated the original at a cost of $11.5 million. Even in a city of dazzling excess, this extravagance in amber (a translucent fossilized tree resin) stands out. Its walls are covered, floor to 26-foot-high ceiling, with 500,000 inlaid amber tiles in 20 shades from buttery yellow, honeycomb and topaz to tangerine, blood-red and mocha. Gilded chandeliers and mirrors magnify the room's over-the-top radiance.

Reclaiming royal roots

But overstatement is what St. Petersburg is all about, a legacy of one of the wealthiest and largest empires on earth. Those czars didn't think small. Like the Amber Room, the city is an ostentatious work of art, with 260 museums, 80 theaters and countless palaces and mansions. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, many showpieces have reverted to their pre-revolutionary names (the famed Kirov theater, named for a Communist party boss, is the Mariinsky once again) and have reopened to the public after decades off limits. The baroque Stroganovsky Palace, for instance, opened just this year, as a branch of the Russian Museum.

"My husband's great grandmother was born there," says Princess Celene Obolensky, whose husband, Prince Alexis, is descended from Rurik, founder of Russia's first dynasty. The Obolenskys, who lead occasional tours to St. Petersburg from their home in Washington, D.C., applaud the return to roots.

"People can now retrieve their glorious imperial past that they didn't even know much about before," Celene says. "They would ask me, 'How do you know more about our past than we do?' The anniversary gives them a chance to bring it to life and take pride in it."

No one is doing that more than President Vladimir Putin, who symbolically welcomed world leaders (including President Bush) to his native city's birthday bash near the equestrian statue of Peter the Great, Petersburg's keynote monument. Further, he praised Peter when he opened a renovated square renamed after the emperor. He has even restored Europe's largest palace, the abandoned Konstantinovsky, on the outskirts of the city, for his own use. Like Peter, Putin is strengthening his ties with the West and using his hometown to host foreign leaders. Many residents, such as actor Dragunov, credit Putin for restoring the historic monuments along with Peter's vision for the city as a "window to the West."

Visions of splendor

This youngest of Russian cities was created to express that vision, designed entirely by outsiders and built by forced labor (thousands of workers died in the process) in just 10 years. Naming it for his patron saint, Peter I chose a strategic spot near the Gulf of Finland and modeled his new capital after Amsterdam. His desire to compete with the monarchies of Europe eventually turned the city into an aristocratic confection as ornate as its colonnaded, "wedding cake" palaces. His summer digs at Peterhof, for example, were meant to surpass Versailles, nothing less. Catherine the Great, who reigned from 1762 to 1796, lived large, too, amassing one of the world's greatest art collections in the Hermitage.

Still, it is Peter's image that is inescapable today in statues, paintings and billboards everywhere.

Despite reincarnations as Petrograd in 1914, Leningrad in 1924 and back to St. Petersburg in 1991, the city over the years retained what beloved poet and city resident Alexander Pushkin called its "elegance severe." Its graceful, neo-classical panorama was relatively unmarred by hulking Soviet architecture. Rows of sorbet-hued buildings in lime, raspberry, lemon and orange none taller than the 400-foot spire of St. Peter and Paul Cathedral line the river embankments like stately ballerinas.

More European than Russian, the city blends the monumentality of Paris with the canals of Venice and the art treasures of Florence and enough Greek columns to fill the vast Russian steppes.

"St. Petersburg has always been the cultural capital of Russia," says outgoing Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev, who oversaw the anniversary preparations. "It's important for people to return to their historical roots, and the anniversary has contributed to the rebirth of the city's status."

That status takes a modern turn on Nevsky Prospekt, Petersburg's own Champs Elyses, where long-haired fashionistas in skin-tight pants and stiletto heels strut into tony boutiques and cafes. Tourists walk slack-jawed from one opulent site to the next. Sleek Mercedes sedans crawl through choking traffic. You know you're not back in the U.S.S.R. inside the flashy clubs, bars and, yes, casinos full of moneyed "new Russians" in requisite black leather.

For some, at least, the city is in a regilded age.

Nightlife especially revs up during summer's famous White Nights, when an icy-blue twilight lasts until dawn. Giddy in the ethereal light, late-night partygoers stroll the boulevards or ply the canals by boat until the wee hours.

"Don't get caught on the wrong side," tour guide Olga Prudnikova, 20, warns a visitor, referring to the fact that around 1:30 a.m., 21 of the 340 bridges that connect the city's 42 islands are raised to allow for boats to pass. Unsuspecting revelers can get stranded until sunrise on the wrong side of a bridge.

On one of those islands, tiny Hare Island, Peter laid the cornerstone of the city in what became the Peter and Paul Fortress. On this June eve, the Male Choir of St. Petersburg performs inside the companion Peter and Paul Cathedral, the burial place of every Romanov monarch. The singing group, formed in 1993, has revived Russia's rich choral tradition of both sacred and folk music.

As the stirring voices pour over the ancient tombstones in a throwback to the early empire, the audience is visibly moved. Three hundred years ago, similar choristers sang praises to their young czar on the city's founding day.

"When I hear that music, I feel a rebirth deep within me," admits first-time concertgoer Vladimir Gushchin.

Perhaps a rebirth like that being felt by St. Petersburg itself.

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