I’m in RUSSIA
Well, not really, on two counts: I’m not ‘back’ since I’ve never been and by the time I posted this I had already left.
And, well, you know it’s no longer the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics since the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1991.
I arrive a bit bleary-eyed not really knowing what time it is. The bright, blue sky overhead beguiles me into thinking it is still daytime. It is not. So this is what the phenomenon known as White Nights is all about. It is 10:00pm and yet completely light outside.
It isn’t until about midnight that the sky turns ablaze with reds and oranges and the sun melts ever-so-slowly back beyond the horizon. Because of how far north St. Petersburg is, the sun barely sets all summer long. And as a result, everyone comes out to play and there’s a palpable energy in the air, that may not be reminiscent of days gone by.
A Wee Bit of History
In 1917, the Russian Revolution caused the fall of the Russian Empire (you know, czars and palaces and drippy, gold-leafed excess). Lenin’s Bolsheviks won the civil war and from then on began the rule of this single-party state. Then Lenin dies, and Joey Stalin is in. The USSR becomes the world’s second largest power after Stalin transforms it into an industrial giant – and of course in the process, executing hundreds of thousands who opposed the regime and sending millions of people into forced labor camps.
Enter World War II – Nazi Germany invades the Soviet Union resulting in 4 years of battle. Soviets win and so the Cold War begins as Russia fights for global dominance, pitting itself and its eastern allies known as the Eastern or Communist Bloc (communist states of eastern Europe such as Hungary, Romania, Czechoslovakia, etc.) against the U.S. and other Western allies.
Eventually, due to a rapidly declining economy and domestic and foreign political uprisings, the Soviet Union begins to collapse. Even Gorby (Gorbachev) with his perestroika and glasnost of the 1980s can’t help. The Soviet Union was formally dissolved in December 1991.
Tear Down Those Walls
It’s been a little more than two decades since the walls were torn down and the steely iron curtain of Communism fell. St. Petersburg (or you may remember it as Leningrad) has seen tremendous change since that time. The “Venice of the North” has come a long way from post-communist neglect to easily becoming one of Europe’s most beautiful cities. But it’s perhaps what hasn’t changed that’s most remarkable about this city. St. Petersburg’s historical network of romantic canals, glittering onion-domes, fabulous pastel-colored palaces, and ornate baroque architecture give the city a grand European flavor.
In fact, I soon realize that this “second city” of Russia has more in common with Chicago then meets the eye. It is the second largest city in Russia after Moscow and home to about four million people. It is also the birthplace of the current president, Vladimir Putin, although the similarities between our two leaders may end there. Just as Chicago has gained more worldwide attention basking in the spotlight of its hometown president, St. Petersburg has become a showcase for the ‘new Russia’ hosting summits and getting facelifts to its infrastructure. And it is a city built on and around the Neva River which is spanned by three hundred bridges. Unlike Chicago, these bridges are raised every night during the summer in quite a spectacle that many come out to witness.
This former Russian capital was taken from a swampy backwater to world-class city built by Peter the Great. He took his inspiration from the architecture of Paris, Vienna, and London. Over the last decade, this city known for its revolutions, has had a new kind of uprising – the more trendy kind with hip hotels and restaurants opening up every week.
- 2nd city of Russia
- Hometown of the current president, Vlad Putin
- 4 million people
- 300 Bridges
- Former capital
- Smoking not banned (it seems I’ve reached that invisible border in the world where smoking begins again…from here through Asia…)
- Free wifi abounds – just stand out on the street and there was usually a coffee shop or café with free wifi that I could jump on to download my email in just a few seconds. Even the large synagogue had free wifi. That’s right…I easily found their router named: “Syn-a-Goga.
Some words to describe the heart of the city and its architecture (and yes some of the fashion):
Do Not Miss
The Hermitage Art Museum rivals the Louvre asthe world’s best and largest art museum. This mint-green jewel box is housed in the over-the-top Winter Palace with room after room of masterpieces, from Monet to Matisse to Van Gogh. I was just as impressed with the art collection as I was with the ornate building itself, dripping with gold leaf and opulence. Post to come soon with more on the Hermitage.
Nevsky Prospekt is St. Petersburg’s “Michigan Avenue.” This is the city’s famous major commercial thoroughfare and a great place for architecture buffs and people watching. Browse at the Dom Knigi bookstore, housed in the former headquarters of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, or the one block-long Gostiny Dvor, the famous 18th century department storeor shop at some boutiques (from Western names like Zegna to famous Russian designer, Tatiana Parfenova). Then check out the imposing Kazan Catherdral and take a boat ride on one of the canals it crosses.
Take a ride on the engineering marvel of a Metro. Not only is it probably the most efficient metro I’ve ever taken, it is one of the most beautiful and elegant metros in the world. Many stations are adorned with columns, chandeliers, and art work. Adding another superlative to the list, it is also one of the world’s deepest – the stop near the W Hotel, being the deepest in the entire system at nearly 350 feet below ground. Post to come soon with more on the Metro.
Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, is a confection of a church looking like something out of a candyland fairly tale. It was built on the site where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated and was dedicated in his memory.
Climbing up the 250 steps to the colonnade of the dome St. Isaac’s Cathedral for 360-degree views of the canal-filled city is a must.
Finish off your day at the Mariinsky Theatre, home to what is arguably the best ballet company in the world. In a city mad for theater, ballet, opera and music – there’s something going on almost every night.
More to come on the Metro, the Hermitage, Russian girls (yep), and, of course, the food!
Disclosure: During my time in St. Petersburg, I was a guest of the W St. Petersburg. As always, all writing and opinions here are my own.