This weekend I found myself in St. Petersburg, or as some of the locals still call it, Leningrad. Having taken my share of Russian history classes in college, I was excited to see the city founded by one of Russia’s great europhile tsars, Peter the Great. I was in Moscow a few years ago, but I knew that St. Petersburg was really the cultural capital of Russia, with its beautiful architecture, great museums, and of course the Kirov ballet.
My trip started out on a typically Russian note. I arrived at the airport and was met by the driver my paranoid boyfriend sent to pick me up (‘I don’t want you taking Russian buses by yourself at night’ he explained when he told me to look for my name on a sign in the arrivals terminal).
Upon greeting my driver, the first thing he said to me was “before we leave the airport, can I ask you one small favor?” Great, I thought. Welcome to Russia. “What’s the favor?” I asked, readying myself for any request ranging from purchasing vodka to forking over a few thousand rubles. “Could you stand by the door while I go to the parking lot to get the car?” he asked. Whoops. I was wrong. “Sure.”
Leaving the St. Petersburg airport was no small task. While we sat in endless traffic, the first thing I noticed out the window was the large construction cranes and the metronomic drone of heavy machinery. About what I expected for Leningrad, but not quite what I expected for St. Petersburg.
As my driver waxed on about the city’s traffic issues, I busied myself learning to transliterate Cyrillic writing. I felt like a little kid playing with a decoder game; every time I transliterated a cognate I felt the excited rush of “Oh! That’s what it means! I figured it out!” It helped pass the hour’s drive.
The hotel we stayed in was on St. Petersburg’s main drag, Nevsky Prospekt. As we drove down the street, I couldn’t help but compare the gritty facades of its buildings to those in Prague‘s Smichov neighborhood. In both places the beauty of what could be is hidden beneath the reality of years of poor maintenance and neglect. A fresh coat of paint and a face lift would have them looking like they were meant to be, and I wanted so much to see them that way.
Friday morning we strolled down Nevsky Prospekt, admiring the beautiful architecture on our way to Decembrist Square. Although there wasn’t much to see besides grass and dirt, I insisted on visiting the square, having studied its namesake in college. We arrived there after a long march through the frozen streets and spent a minute or two admiring the statue of Peter I beside it. Our faces and feet numb, we quickly made our way to a cafe for lunch and then headed to the Winter Palace to see the Hermitage museum.
The Hermitage is somewhat akin to the Louvre in that there are a gazillion rooms and one is never quite sure how to get from one part of the museum to another. We spent a few hours wandering through the Russian wing, the state apartments (gorgeous!), the Impressionist wing, the sculpture rooms, and the Italian and Flemish rooms. Exhausted and amazed at the collection, we headed back to our hotel in the pouring rain (at least it was warm enough to be raining!).
That evening we headed to the Mariinsky Theater to see the Kirov ballet. I took 15 years of ballet growing up, so I was really excited to see this world-famous company perform. I’m sad to say that the experience wasn’t as good as I had hoped. First we were directed to the wrong seats and spent the first two acts standing up in the second balcony.
When we finally got to our correct seats we were directly behind the most egregious example of noveau riche Russians I’ve ever seen. The man oscillated between falling asleep and looking at the cleavage of his date, and the woman spent the entire time fumbling around in her handbag and whispering loudly. Her cell phone even went off during the performance!
On top of that, the dancing was not up to par. The dancers’ technicality was lacking, and a lot of the pas de deux were stiff and robotic. They made the difficult steps look difficult, and I left feeling a bit disappointed (especially given the outrageous price I had to pay for the tickets).
After the ballet we had dinner at a Georgian restaurant, where my boyfriend was hoping to find some contraband Georgian wine. He was unsuccessful in his pursuit, but our food was great. He had a grilled chicken dish and I had Azerbaijani grilled lamb. Mmmm.
Saturday was a clear, sunny day, which also meant that the weather was cold. We bundled up and headed to the Russian Museum, where we roamed through the cavernous mansion rooms admiring everything from iconography to Socialist Realism. My favorite part was the exhibition entitled “Venus Sovietica”, in which there were some great paintings, sculptures, and posters idealizing women laborers in the Soviet period.
After the museum we walked by the stunning Church of our Savior on Spilled Blood and headed up the Mars Field to go to the Peter and Paul Fortress. As we crossed the bridge over the river, we noticed that the ice had formed in crazy wave-like patterns. It was beautiful to see, but made me cold just looking at it.
At the Fortress we walked through the church where a lot of the Romanovs were buried and once again practiced reading Cyrillic to figure out which tsars were in which tombs. Then we headed to the metro, itself an exercise in transliteration…nothing is in English. Dinner that night was at a restaurant called Terrassa, a trendy, western restaurant on the top floor of an upscale mall. There I had the beef stroganoff, a traditional dish that they had prepared in a very modern style.
Sunday we woke up and walked down Nevsky Prospekt on our way to St. Isaac’s Cathedral. As we walked, we noticed that there were more police out than usual. We continued along and saw increasing numbers of uniformed men, including riot police. There were prison vans, police buses, and general military-like conditions everywhere.
Needless to say, we started to get nervous. We walked as quickly as we could to St. Isaacs, where we pulled out my boyfriend’s blackberry and searched Gooogle news to try to find out what was going on. Turns out there was a big anti-Putin march scheduled for that day. We barely missed it when we were walking down the street.
We walked through the cathedral and then went to lunch as far away from Nevsky Proskekt as we could. There were still police around the restaurant, but not as many. As we ate, we got frequent updates of what was going on outside, including the arrests of dozens of people and the movement of the protest. It was pretty surreal to be sitting in a restaurant knowing that there was a big march going on right outside.
We stretched our lunch out as long as we could in order to avoid going back to Nevsky Prospekt and the site of the protest. We left around 2pm and when we returned to the hotel, everything appeared to be normal again. It was almost as if nothing had happened. It was like we were in Leningrad instead of St. Petersburg.
At 2:45 we left our hotel for the airport and said our good-byes to the city. I was sad to leave, but happy to escape the cold. I would love to go back for White Nights in the summertime, when the weather is warm and the city is more St. Petersburg than Leningrad.