Bridging the East and West
A winter stroll through St. Petersburg, Russia
The paint was thick and standing up in ridges on the canvas. The image was a riot of bright, almost unrealistic colors — and the artist was being wonderfully faithful to life. I don’t remember the artist’s name, but I do remember his beret and whitened full beard. We talked about the beauty of St. Petersburg and his excellent English. He was painting the Church of Spilled Blood, known for its unsurpassable mosaics and lavish colors, from an opposite bridge a few blocks down the river. Bridges are the dominant motif in St. Petersburg, also known as the Venice of the North.
Tsar Peter built his new capital with the intention of bridging Western modernity with Eastern sensibilities. The watery city contains 342 bridges, each unique and breathtaking in its breadth across the formidable Neva and her tributaries. The Tsar’s intention created an environment of tension among St. Petersburg residents. Out of this tension and exploration of identity came some of the finest works of architecture, literature, art, music, and dance.
The best way to explore this city (or any city in my opinion) is on foot. Just remember to buy thick waterproof boots, and if you don’t feel quite fashionable enough among the urbanites, do as I did and buy a pair on Liteynyy Prospekt, the address of St. Petersburg’s trendiest boot shops. A brisk walk through the cold cobblestone streets, perhaps in the steps of Raskolnikov (Dosteoyevsky’s famous protagonist in Crime and Punishment), would expose you to a visual buffet of Western architecture. The giant facades, painted gorgeous golds and robin’s egg blue, range from classical Greek to Italian Baroque to the most minimalist Modern. Unforgettable authors hail from St. Petersburg: Pushkin, Gogol, Dosteoyevsky, Brodsky, Akhamatova. Here you can visit their former cramped apartments, now restored museums, and walk the streets immortalized in their poetry and prose. Chagall, Nijinsky, and Tchaikovsky round out the creative gamut; and in St. Petersburg you should buy the reasonably priced box seats to see a ballet at the Marinsky Theater, better known as the Kirov.
St. Petersburg has retained a mystique from the moment of its creation, also serving as a bridge between the spiritual and material worlds. St. Isaac’s, one of the world’s largest cathedrals, was designed in 1818 and is still considered a major engineering masterpiece. Malachite, lapis, and gold cover the 48 enormous columns which supports a weight of 300,000 tons and a gilded dome. With its legendary Orthodox churches (such as the Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan and the Church of Spilled Blood) and historical pride in misery and hardship — the implied expectation is that in St. Petersburg you will discover a new part of yourself, become something more holy than you were before. The Museum of Leningrad Defense is a small host building for a miles-long site. There a monument stands to the Russian people who survived and eventually triumphed over the Nazi siege; there mass graves stretch on, covered in snow. The Russian Children’s Museum also provides much food for thought, as it chronicles the life of Russian youth from the early 20th Century to the present with toys, posters, and current artwork from students.
A modern city with an ancient memory. A city of the biggest and the best. A city of the suffering and divine. St. Petersburg is a city of dualities. The rich and poor, the east and west, the conservative and avant garde, have all clashed and coexisted at different points during the life of this metropolitan gateway. The result is a wonderfully designed, ostentatiously beautiful, and stunningly unique city. Brave the cold and you’ll be amply rewarded.
Side trip to Tsarskoe Selo
Only 25 Km from St. Petersburg, a short bus ride away, is Tsarskoe Selo. Catherine’s Palace and Pushkin’s Lycee are only two points of interest in this most exclusive St. Petersburg suburb. See the world famous Amber Room, the golden Great Hall where modern politicians hold meetings of state, and the breathtaking facades of Rastrelli. If you go during the summer, there are acres of carefully tended grounds surrounding Catherine’s summer palace. The bus fare and group tour will cost you about $30. Book in advance, especially if you’re going in high season (May-Sept.).
Visas are notoriously tricky to obtain. Make sure you’ve applied for yours at least 4 months in advance of your trip. Fill out the papers carefully, and hope that no one finds out about that you worked on your high school newspaper.