St. Petersburg, Russia-Still Great After All These Years

Saint Petersburg doesn’t reveal her beauty to you all at once.  To discover her secrets, you must work at it patiently, like a sculptor who reveals the appeal of a cold slab of stone by chipping away at it gently until the statue beneath is revealed in all its glory.  So to appreciate this city properly, you must be prepared to spend a few weeks (or months)…impossible for a mere tourist, of course…but there you have it.

I say this because, even though I have spent a considerable amount of time and money to see the best attractions here, I’m always left thinking that I hurried too much and left much unseen.  There was that corridor in the Hermitage filled with Grecian urns and Etruscan antiquities that I couldn’t break free from my tour group to see.  There was the crypt with the relics of St. John of Kronstadt that I should have requested to view long in advance.  There was the dingy bar off Neva Street that offers over 100 flavors of vodka, many of which contain the dregs of some unknown herbs or spices, and all of which the bartender can explain to you in exquisite detail and completely incomprehensible English if you ask him.  I know this because on my first trip I only tried a few of them, leaving me wanting more when I finally woke up.  And now, having just left this grand city, once again, I feel like I barely scratched the surface of her charms.

So yes, I saw St. Pete again, and would gladly go back now if I could.  It bristles with golden domes and magnificent palaces, so grand in concept and execution that they leave you breathless.  Witness the baroque extravagance of the Peterhof, with its fantastic grand fountain, or the dramatic mosaics that decorate every square inch of the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood.  It bustles with Russians, people who have the reputation of being cold and remote, but, belying that rather foreboding reputation, some locals once gratuitously befriended me, a lone American and a stranger, while we were all waiting in an endless hydrofoil line.  It has world-class art, so much so that it compares favorably with the Louvre or the Prado, beautiful waterways filled with naval vessels and sailing ships, ornate bridges, grand avenues, and a culture that promotes the arts, music, and literature.  

Peter the Great, who directed the construction of the city and many of its most magnificent palaces, wanted to outdo the Western Europeans at their own game, and to my mind, he succeeded.  Like Washington, DC, St Petersburg was intended to be a nation’s capital, and just like the American city, it was built on top of a swamp, largely using (the equivalent of) slave labor.  Because it’s almost completely surrounded by water, it’s criss-crossed with canals and bridges, causing some to lend it the moniker “Venice of the North”, but I hate such comparisons, partly because they are almost never true (Detroit was once called the “Paris of the Midwest”, believe it or not), but also because it serves to denigrate both cities at once.  Venice is an absolutely unique place deserving of its own special niche in the pantheon of world-class cities-and so is St. Petersburg.

This was my second visit to St Petersburg, and I love it as much now as I did the first time around. In fact, I appreciate it even more, especially since, unlike other European countries, Russia hasn’t opened up its borders to an invading army of Muslims and Africans.   I’m OK if I never see Londonistan or Nigeria-on-the Seine again, but St. Pete is still a recognizably European city filled with beautiful and timeless art and architecture: still worth seeing, and still great after all these years.

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3 Responses to St. Petersburg, Russia-Still Great After All These Years

  1. John Polomny says:

    Yes this is my favorite city in the world. I am fortunate because my wife is Russian and I speak and read some Russian. We rented an apartment for a month off of Nevsky Prospeckt and stayed for over a month. It really does take immersion to fully appreciate everything that the city has to offer.

    It is interesting that you mention the Hermitage. I think we spent several days slowly touring the place. It is where my full appreciation for european culture came to full expression. The art works and history made me sit down and think about how fortunate I am to have been born and raised in a society that stands on the shoulders of others that sacrficed and worked to create what I enjoy today.

    I now understand my obligation to preserve what was handed to me and what must be defended if we are not going to descend into barbarism and paganism.

  2. Pamela Storer says:

    I was happy with your piece until I got to this; “St. Pete is still a recognizably European city”

    Why do you have to do this? Why is a place non-existent unless it has been lined up with, compared to, and assessed alongside so called “Europe”.?

    Have you ever really examined “Europe” – past the perception manipulation of a thousand movies, adverts, catwalks, romantic extravaganzas.

    Do you know what is “Europe”? Born of the name of an old Grecian Goddess, it signified the lands West of Turkey, in fact, the isthmus that joined Turkey, or “The East” to the “West”. It is comprised of 7 core countries, France, Italy, Greece, Spain, Austria, Nederlands, Denmark, Germany. They are Franco-Germanic Caucasians, plus a few Latino / Arabic derivatives.
    They have done little but war with each other, invade just about every country in the world, along side their close cousin, the English of Britain, invent concentration camps, genocide, and have tried to invade Russia 3 times in the last 100 yrs, [something no other nation has suffered], killed millions of her people, spat on her, and degraded her, mocked her and rejected her.
    Now, in it’s twilight, it is a vassal of America, the terrorist nation from over the sea, and is struggling to survive, but invaded by alien peoples and cultures who dont’ want to integrate but conquer, then “Europe of 2 thousand years” is pretty much doomed by its’ own violence”.
    What part of this is Russia, pray tell?
    She has her own rich, wonderful history, people, Slavic Caucasians who have never invaded those Western nations, her own religion, myths and patriotism.
    She did, for a while, copy in order to excel over, in architecture, art, social graces the countries of Europe. But so did the Andean nations over the ocean and no-one says they are “European”.
    There is nothing “European” of Russia. She is Russia, pure and simple – infuriating though this to the average Westerner.
    Get used to it my friends, for it’s the truth. The sun is setting in the West and rising in the East – and no part of the East is “European.”

    • Jonathan says:

      Your screed has some elements of truth without having any of the nuances of perspective.

      Yes Europeans have done many evil things. So has every group of people (including Russians). What of it? The more relevant observation is, what did they accomplish? Great universities, beautiful art, music, and literature, a high standard of living, a network of infrastructure unrivaled anywhere…if you put on your ideological blinders and ignore all that then I think you are missing a lot.

      Having said that, to say that St. Petersburg isn’t European is absurd IMO. Geographically it certainly is. Culturally it was founded precisely to be a great European city. The art and architecture used for its blueprint was essentially copied from the great cities that Peter the Great visited in his travels. How can you say it isn’t European?

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