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Friday, July 20, 2012

Saint Petersburg, Russia

Where it all began, the Fortress and Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul on an island in the Neva River. The towering spire is 375 feet in height, the tallest structure in the city. Designed by the Italian architect, Domenico Trezzini, it seems more steeple than church.
All the tsars are buried there.
Yesterday (below) I wrote about my exciting two-hour stay at the Hermitage Art Museum. Today, let me tell you about our two day stay in the venerable old art palace's place of residence, Saint Petersburg, Russia. After having toured the capitals of all the major northern European countries, Copenhagen (Denmark), Tallin (Estonia), Helsinki (Finland), Amsterdam (Holland), Berlin (Germany) and Stockholm (Sweden), they all tend to run together, melding into a single entity which, in retrospect, I have to ponder at least momentarily to recall as individual cities and cultures.  No so with Saint Petersburg. The Russian culture is so dominant, so historic, so vibrant, exuberant, ostentatious, tragic, and probably a half-dozen other appropriate adjectives as to tower powerfully over all the rest. Moreover, though no longer the capital of Russia, Saint Petersburg perfectly exemplifies all that is and has been unique, historic, extravagantly beautiful, and rotten to the core about Russia.

Church of the Resurrection on the Spilled Blood marks the site of the assassination of Emperor Alexander II in 1881.
As Baltic cities go, Saint Petersburg, as a whole, is big, bodacious, and beautiful. Justly called the "Venice of the North," the city, as compared to most others in Europe, is relatively young,  little more than 300 years old. It was founded by Tsar Peter the Great on May 27, 1703. How many other cities can cite the day, month, and year of their founding? Ten years later, and after a carefully planned, but rapid, imperial building project unmatched by any city since, Saint Petersburg became the capital of Russia, a title it held for all but four years from 1713 to 1918. Today, it's Russia's second largest city with a population of almost five million. The tsars left it one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.  The Communists, in just 72 years, managed to make it one of the ugliest. Not even in Moscow is the visual contrast between the classical Western European culture and Communist Eastern European dominance so stark. (Berlin stands a close second, however). Fortunately, this contrast seems to be fading in the 21 years since the fall of the Soviet Union. Russian tour guides are most happy to point this out.

The Saint Petersburg Stock Exchange,
19th century Russian architecture at its best (now a naval museum).
The history of art is full of pendulum swings--from Renaissance to Baroque, from Classic Revival to the Romantic era, from Academicism to Modern Art. What happened in Russia after the Communists was not a swing but a jarring disconnect. Whether viewing Saint Petersburg's culture, art, architecture, music, literature, you name it, seldom in history has there been such a 180 degree turn from all things bright and beautiful to everything drab, dull, unimaginative, repetitive, and downright ugly. There were extenuating circumstances, of course (there always are)--abject peasant poverty on an unimaginable scale juxtaposed with pretentious tsarist opulence nearly as unimaginable (the Romanov clan deserved what they got), coupled with two devastating world wars, centralized economic controls, poor to horrible leadership, and a host of lesser evils. Despite what the tour guides tell you, Saint Petersburg still bears scars from all of this.

Often such mass Communist era housing scars the cityscape for endless blocks.
This one is typical.
In viewing Saint Pertersburg, Communism was like a bad dream. The old is solid, well-conceived, and still classically beautiful. The new is often strikingly rich, colorful, lively, and for the most part, fairly attractive. What happened in between (and Saint Petersburg grew massively under the Communists) can best and most politely be considered blah (above). Cookie cutter modernism always is. The distinctive beauty of the blending of east and west that made Saint Petersburg so unique gave way during the soviet era to massive quantity over quality in the name of efficiency and a desperately unsuccessful dash to compete or surpass the West. In Saint Petersburg, perhaps the most lasting image of this era is that of crumbling concrete.

Normal Russians being normal, Victory Day, May 9, 2012, Saint Petersburg, Russia
The palaces, the cathedrals, the museums, the fortresses, monuments, myriad waterways, and modern development are far too much to even see, much less absorb in just two days. First impressions are vital but lasting impressions come only months later as the trivial fades and nuanced memories gel. May 9, (our second day in the city) was the day the Russians chose to celebrate their victory in WW II. The holiday atmosphere, ordinary people being ordinary, flags flying (even the Communist party flag) fireworks (shot off at noon, for some idiotic reason), picnics, modern day street vendors, sun worshippers, local tourists, perfect weather, all mesh to form a lasting, vibrant, impression of the vitality and stubborn endurance of the Russian people. Yes, the Russian government is still the most paranoid I've ever encountered (bottom), but hey, despite what recalcitrant old cold warriors here in the U.S. might have us believe, the people, in Saint Petersburg at least, are pretty much just like you and me.
Thou shall not--the Russian twelve commandments. 
I'm still not sure what some of the icons mean.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the kind words and for reading and writing.