Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
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#17 - JRL 7260
Times Literary Supplement (UK)
July 17, 2003
Heaven and hell in St Petersburg
Behind the facades

Lindsey Hughes
Full story not displayed

Kyril Zinovieff and Jenny Hughes
478pp. Woodbridge: Companion Guides.
£14.99 (US $24.95).
1 900639 40 8
Laurence Kelly, editor

285pp. Robinson. Paperback, £9.99.
1 84119 707 6
US: Interlink Publishing Group. $24.95.
1 566 56492 1
Frank Althaus and Mark Sutcliffe, editors

320pp. Booth-Clibborn. £32 (US $49.95).
1 86154 260 7

On the evening of October 25, 1917, the American journalist John Reed passed up an opportunity to see a ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre in favour of participating as an extra in the more gripping live performance taking place in and around the Winter Palace as the Bolsheviks seized control of Petrograd from Kerensky's Provisional Government. The following day eight-year-old Kyril Zinovieff was taken for a walk past the Palace and was disappointed by the lack of visible damage. Reed, an enthusiast for the Communist cause, now rests in a grave on Moscow's Red Square. Zinovieff, whose memory, as he jokes, stretches from Putin to Rasputin, has survived in emigration to add his engaging Companion Guide to St Petersburg to the pile of publications scheduled to coincide with the 300th anniversary of the founding of the city by Peter the Great. Among them, Laurence Kelly's slightly revised Traveller's Companion to St Petersburg (first published in 1981) offers a colourful selection of literary extracts and eyewitness accounts dating from St Petersburg's foundation to the fall of tsarism, including Reed's Ten Days That Shook the World (1919), while Petersburg Perspectives, edited by Frank Althaus and Mark Sutcliffe, explores the city's past, present and future with six essays, two stories and 250 superb photographs.

Few living witnesses can compete with Kyril Zinovieff for length of memory or personal links with old St Petersburg, which include an ancestor who was the mother of one of Catherine the Great's lovers and a father and grandfather who served in the tsarist government and Duma. He has lost his sight (hence the assistance of Jenny Hughes in completing the book), but his sense of the city remains acute. Such credentials are not a prerequisite for developing a special relationship with St Petersburg, however. In November 1991, seventy-four years after the schoolboy Zinovieff followed a similar route, I myself walked past the palace and stopped to listen to dignitaries delivering speeches to celebrate the restoration of the city's original name. This new anniversary and accompanying festivities replaced the Great October Revolution parades that just a couple of years previously had seemed such an inescapable landmark in the Soviet ritual year.

In the autumn of 1703 there would have been nothing man-made on the site of the future Winter Palace, although across the wide Neva River you might have glimpsed the first primitive earthwork and timber structures of the new fortress with its wooden chapel dedicated to Sts Peter and Paul. Fortress and church were intended to provide protection, material and divine, against the Swedes, from whom the territory had just been captured. And to the west of the future Palace, near the site now occupied by Andreian Zakharov's Admiralty (1806–23), its golden spire one of the city's major landmarks, a few huts and excavations heralded the naval activities which were the city's practical raison daetre and its founder's great obsession. Among the many fine sculptures and bas-reliefs that adorn the Admiralty (like the building, all the work of Russian artists) is a scene representing Neptune handing a trident to Peter the Great while Minerva and Hercules look on approvingly. Such allegories, in which St Petersburg abounds, give a clue to the city's wider significance in Russian history.

The new city of St Peter replaced the old capital Moscow, that "Third Rome" deeply rooted in Orthodox piety, with Peter the Great's vision of Russia, a Russia integrated into the history of modern European civilization and eager to adopt its classical underpinnings and its new technologies, especially in the arts of land and naval warfare. St Petersburg had fewer churches than Moscow, but it offered a new type of sacred landscape, protected not only by Neptune and Minerva, but also by St Andrew (a fisherman) and the warrior saint, Alexander Nevsky, who had beaten the Swedes nearby in the thirteenth century. Peter called it "Paradise" even when it was still a swampy building site. His motives for doing so were partly personal -- he adored the watery location -- but he was also referring to a future vision of the city, to what would be, rather than what was. Such futuristic projections are a leitmotif in Russian history.

There have been times when St Petersburg seemed much closer to hell than to heaven, for example to the forced labourers who constructed it or the hundreds of thousands dying of starvation during the siege of 1941-4. The St Petersburg of Peter's dreams was not completed in his lifetime (he died in 1725, at the age of fifty-two), and his immediate successors added little, even though the vision endured. Among the many phantoms that Zinovieff mentions in his recommended walks around the city are the mysterious canals of Vasilevsky Island, that appeared on a fiftieth-anniversary city map of 1753 because Peter had projected them, despite the fact that they were never dug. Between 1741 and 1825, Elizabeth I, Catherine II and Alexander I added many magnificent baroque and classical structures, including the present Winter Palace and its annexes, but some observers claim that the city has always had a temporary feel, depending for its impact on outward show, on “façades” reminiscent of theatrical sets. There is a Russian term fasadnost that suggests reliance on external appearances. Peter himself had his first wooden cabin (visit it on pages 44–46 of the Companion Guide ) painted to resemble brick, and subsequently, for all the talk of a "stone" capital symbolically replacing "wooden" Moscow, even the grandest buildings were usually constructed of stuccoed brick painted in bright colours. "In St Petersburg everything has an air of opulence, grandeur, magnificence", wrote the Marquis de Custine when he visited the city in 1839 (the Frenchman's often caustic comments feature in all three books under review), "but, if you judge the reality of this appearance, you will find yourself strangely deceived."

In Custine's view, Petersburg represented "real barbarism, barely disguised under a revolting magnificence". He echoes the Revd William Coxe, visiting Russia in the early 1780s, who claimed to detect "many traces of . . . antient \ Asiatic pomp, blended with European refinement". At the same time as some foreigners were unwilling to concede that St Petersburg was genuinely, solidly European, many castigated it, as did Russian traditionalists, for its alleged deviation from true "Russianness". "A capital without roots either in history or in the soil", was Custine's verdict. Even his host, Emperor Nicholas I, conceded somewhat ambiguously that "St Petersburg is Russian, but it is not Russia".

I remember that on my own first brief visit, more than thirty years ago, I could not wait to return to Moscow, where I was spending my year abroad studying Russian. Leningrad (as it then was) was unsatisfactory precisely because it looked, to my still untrained, prejudiced eye, so Western. Like many novice Russianists, I craved stronger experiences of otherness than the merely everyday Soviet. Slogans, shortages and statues of Lenin, all these Leningrad had in abundance, with rather worse shops than Moscow, but it failed to supply a Kremlin or much in the way of onion domes. I could not see the point of it and returned to the medieval Russian architecture that was then my particular passion. (Nowadays, a visit to Moscow feels like an unwelcome diversion.) At that stage I was rather less well-informed than the eccentric Englishman, mentioned in several early nineteenth-century sources, who, on hearing rumours of the extraordinary beauty of the iron railings of the Summer Palace, travelled to St Petersburg to verify this claim with his own eyes. Having inspected the railings and acknowledged their very fine qualities, he immediately returned to his homeland. The story may be apocryphal, but it contains one truth -- that St Petersburg charms as much in its details as in the broader sweep. Pushkin himself praised "the iron lacework of thy fences" (quoted in the translation of his 1833 poem The Bronze Horseman in Kelly's anthology). On the one hand, the city has spaces almost too vast for the buildings in them; on the other, it is "infinitely picturesque" and does not yield up all its secrets in one go. . . .

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