In 1703 czar Peter the Great had a dream: a European city as Russia’s capital. At the time, most cities in Europe couldn’t afford the luxury to be as European as this city founded on the marshes of river Neva. In 1917, comrade Lenin had a dream too: a world ruled by proletarians. At the collision point of their dreams we have nowadays Sankt Petersburg, formerly Leningrad, formerly Petrograd, formerly Sankt Petersburg. Briefly, Sankt Leninsburg.
In principle, Sankt Leninsburg consists of two sides: Sankt Petersburg and Leningrad. The two entities interfere sometimes. Mostly, Leningrad interferes on St. Petersburg’s territory. The opposite may be true, but I haven’t found any evidence. Both sides have something in common: space. If there’s anything in this world Russia has never lacked, that is space.
General Staff Building in the Grand Palace Square. Designed in Empire style by perhaps the most illustrous architect who shaped St. Petersburg – the Italian Carlo Rossi.
Mikhailovsky Castle (Engineers’ Castle). Its major peculiarity is that it looks different as seen from each facade, due to a mix of styles used at its design. A perfect example of Petersburger eclecticism.
St Petersburg should have been the dream of every European architect in Peter the Great’s or Catherine the Great’s times – so much room to do whatever you want to do (architecturally speaking). That’s why the great emperors had no difficulties in bringing here the best architects to build the glorious capital of Mother Russia’s Empire. Magnificent palaces and buildings line up along large boulevards and huge squares, and wide parks add plentifully to the general impression of abundant space. As for Leningrad, it also doesn’t spare space, but lacks imagination in filling it with grace and diversity, since the architects weren’t Italian, German or French, but Soviet – and only those who survived Stalin’s appetite to shoot whomever he didn’t find fully compliant with his political ideas.
The Rossi Street, with Alexandrian (a.k.a. Pushkin) theatre in the background
Leningrad: harbor and communist style blocks of flats
Anyway, I went to St Petersburg, as written on the airplane ticket, with no intention of visiting Leningrad. It’s just that Leningrad is there, alive and kicking, even at the heart of historical St Petersburg, so there’s no way one can avoid it. And there’s no particular reason to avoid it. After all, Leningrad is not a tropical disease ! Leningrad is only a state of mind – their mind – that they don’t promote as vigurously as they promote St. Petersburg. Not yet (although small souvenirs with sickle-and-hammer, red star, CCCP and Lenin sell pretty well to the dumb Western tourists…)
The elegant building of the Naval College, masked by the dull grey silhouette of cruiser Aurora, whose cannons announced the start of the Bolshevik revolution in 1917
Just a few days past May 9, Leninsburg was still dressed for celebration. Communist symbols are still used when celebrating the victory in WWII.
However, Lenin shit on the main facade of Mariinsky Palace has nothing to do with any celebration. It is there for good, and it is permanently maintained in a perfect condition
Mariinsky Palace (City Hall)
Mariinsky Theatre, famous around the world for its essential contribution to the development of ballet. Marius Petipa and Sergei Diaghilev worked here.
Most visitors choose to go to St. Petersburg in June, to enjoy the famous White Nights. But they miss the most beautiful attraction in my opinion: the city by night. I was there in mid May, and we had to stay awake pretty late to enjoy the night lighting, but we could still see it. After a long and exhausting walk through the Hermitage we had to take a solid nap, but we were fresh again at 11 PM – and that’s half an hour before any light in the city would turn on.
Kunstkamera (Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography) – the first Russian museum, founded by Peter the Great
Imperial Academy of Arts
Petropavlovsk Fortress on Zayachy (‘Hare’) island is the origin of St Petersburg city. Its construction began in 1706, based on Domenico Trezzini’s plans.
Equestrian statue of Peter the Great and an administrative building hosting the Presidential Library “Boris Eltsin”
One of the main touristic attractions in St. Petersburg: bridges draw-up at 1.05 AM
The former Winter Palace, today the State Hermitage Museum
Speaking of Hermitage – it is one of Top 3 museums in the world and virtually every tourist going to Leninsburg will put it on his/her to-do list. Which is funny, because I bet most people who crowd like hell in the Hermitage (Louvre, British Museum, Prado, Rijksmuseum, you name it…) can barely tell a Rembrandt from a Boticelli. But they still go there, cause they’re afraid to be mocked by friends and colleagues – ‘Look, this sorry excuse of a tourist went to X-City and didn’t visit the X-City Museum of Arts !’. I simply don’t understand why is it self-implied to visit an art museum instead of, let’s say, going to the concert or to the Opera !
Henri Matisse – ‘Dance’. A perfect example of modern art, as well as of why I am annoyed of art museums
I was lucky to be able to shoot this picture. Normally, a huge crowd stands in front of the glass which covers one of the most stupid pieces of art I’ve ever seen: a pheasant in a tree, ‘masterpiece’ of some never-heard-of idiotic English artist. But it’s big and it’s shiny, so the mobs (the same who would visit any art museum just to look intellectual) must stare at it and take pictures.
Splendid hall, stupid paintings. An entire wall covered with hunting scenes, full of slaughtering, blood and mauvais gout. Flemmish classical art.
Head of a Dacian, in the Classical Antiquities section. A statue of Jupiter in background.
Yeah, me too…
Anyway, I spent five hours in the Hermitage and I got out much more tired than if I had hiked for a full day in the mountains. Fortunately, since I get extremely bored with painting (don’t blame me, I don’t blame those who get bored with Shostakovitch’s ‘Leningrad’ Symphony !), my interest was kept alive by the fabulous interiors of the palace – in fact, the former Winter Palace of the Czars.
Main staircase of the Winter Palace
The Small Italian Skylight room
The Armorial Hall
St George’s Hall – the main throne room of the czars
Did you think Leningrad wouldn’t show up here ? Wrong. As the marble plate next to the clock on the table informs (but only in Russian !), “in this room, in the night of November 7th to 8th, 1917, soldiers and marines of the Red Guards, having taken the Winter Palace by assault, arrested the members of the counter-revolutionary, bourgeois temporary government“. Well then, long live the Revolution !
Back to the streets, you will most likely meet some guys wandering in pairs – a gentleman looking like d’Artagnan and a lady dressed like Madame de Pompadour. They claim to impersonate Peter the Great and his wife, Catherine I. And they charge 200 rubles if you are stupid enough to accept their offer to appear in the same picture with you.
As a matter of fact, I think there’s something magical about this 200 rubles amount (roughly 5 euro) – a beggar asked me the same amount to fill his “tank” with “gas”, if you know what I mean… I didn’t give him a dime, and he didn’t insist, unlike beggars in Bucharest, Paris, Rome, London or any other place where Gipsy begging specialists make a solid buck.
Fragment of the huge building of the Admiralty
Stock Exchange building and one of the two rostral columns guarding its facade. In Leningrad time, the stock exchange ceased to exist and the building has served as Naval Museum ever since.
Leningrad: a statue of Sergey Kirov, Bolshevik leader, secretary of the Communist Party in Leningrad. Assasinated in 1934 at Stalin’s order, who saw in Kirov a potential challenger for power. However, other remaining opponents of Stalin (real or supposed) were eliminated during the Great Purge in 1930’s under the charge of complicity to Kirov’s assasination ! Once murdered, Kirov benefited from Stalin’s splendid and elegant gratitude: the Mariinsky Theatre was renamed after him…
St. Petersburg meets Leningrad: a nice but dilapidated building at the outskirts of central area, next to a desolating industrial landscape
Lenin Square, in front of Finlyandskyi railway station. Comrade Lenin is still greeting the proletarians from around the world.
‘Pravda’ – the official newspaper of the Communist Party of USSR Russia. Alive and kicking. Way to go, comrades !
In St. Petersburg I was approached by beggars, drunkards and freelancers (like Mr. d’Artagnan, or like other artists trying to sell me their artistic outputs). Yet I never felt any aggressiveness from their part – Russians are definitely nice decent people (imagine how nice the regular people are, if I’m saying that about beggars and drunkards !). The only barrier in getting to know better the Russian warmth and friendliness is the language, because, apart from hotel receptionists, museum ticket counters, souvenir merchants and a few other rare exceptions, nobody speaks English in this highly touristic city. That’s why I’m grateful to my Russian teachers in school for the basic words I can still remember from Tchaikovsky’s language.
St Petersburg is often referred to as the “Venice of the North”; don’t be puzzled, same title applies to Amsterdam, Stockholm, Bruges, Copenhague and a few other too. With so many Venices in the North, who the heck cares about the one in the South ?!
A few words about food: Russians are not as good at food as they are at drinking. Russia is not the place for a cuisine lover (not that I am one…) Yet you can eat well and for reasonable prices in St Leninsburg. As for pubs – St Leninsburg is one huge pub: people drink anything, anywhere, anytime. Who needs traditional pubs after all ?!
Empty can of something (possibly gin tonic – and it’s not a joke !) floating on one of Neva’s canals
If there’s one thing that annoyed me in Leninsburg, it’s the bikers. I thought bikers in Bucharest were idiot, noisy and disrespectful to the public order. Well, bikers in St. Leninsburg are twice as noisy and thrice as idiot (riding on a single wheel in city traffic at rush hour). Just like in Bucharest, no one policeman happens to be in the neighbourhood when a bunch of organ donors like these show off their pathological stupidity. I guess all the policemen in the city are busy processing the forms required to any foreigner visiting Russia – you should fill such a form whether you stay in a hotel or at some friend or relative. Our hotel filled the form for us – guess what ? 200 rubles each ! We in Romania quit this old communist habit of controlling foreign visitors some 20 years ago, but then again this is St. Leninsburg. Or maybe should I say St. Putinsburg ?…
Kresty prison. Its construction began in the 1730’s. I mean, the city was barely populated, but the czars had already ennemies there… After the revolution, the Bolsheviks had the members of the Czarist government imprisoned there: “You built it, you stay in it !”
Russian style at its best: residential building designed by the Russian architect Nikolay Basin in 1870’s
Next on Sankt Leninsburg: Peter the Great’s summer palace at Peterhof and St Petersburg’s monumental churches.