Worldwide with Wee-Cheng #58: St Petersburg & the Russian North-West: Imperial Glories, an Ancient Republic and a Foray into the

#57: St Petersburg & the Russian North-West: Imperial Glories, an Ancient Republic and a Foray into the Arctic; Ready for Siberia!

3 September 2002

St Petersburg. The name evokes memories of imperial Russia – not only of its military and regal glories, but also of the period when it was at the forefront of European arts, architecture and literature. This is the city of Pushkin and Dostoevsky, as well as ballet, classical music and theatre.

Founded in 1703 by Peter the Great, Russia’s great reforming Tsar and military genius, on the islands and delta flats of the River Neva after he defeated the Swedes, St Petersburg quickly became one of the most beautiful cities of Europe. Here, the architectural magnificence of Paris meets the romance of Venetian waterways in what used to the wild wastes of the cold, desolate North. Canals and rivers crisscrossed the plazas and palazzos constructed by the architects of Florence and Milan. Gardeners from the Court of Versailles planned elaborate courtyards and parks, while the Russian Orthodox Church planted hints of Mother Russia through the magical onion domes in churches scattered across the city.

I flew into St Pete from Baku, Azerbaijan, in the dying heat of late summer, with a planeload of friendly Azeri holiday makers. I moved into International Holiday Hostel in the north of the city, near Finland Station. This was where Lenin, founder of the Soviet Union, arrived in secret from exile in 1917 from Switzerland (via Germany, Sweden and Finland), and went on to stage the Bolshevik Revolution that has changed world history in the past century. His statue still stood where he once gave the famous speech from an armoured car.

Here, surrounded by billboards of mobile phone and cosmetics adverts, it was hard to believe that the city was still named after the founder of the USSR merely 10 years ago. Leningrad – it was under this name that the city defended itself bravely against the Germans during WWII – known as the Great Patriotic War to the Russians. 900 days of siege and a large proportion of its citizens dead, but the city didn’t fall to the Germans. Supplies came through by boats from Lake Ladoga. A million died anyway, mostly starved to death. It is for this that Leningrad, so named after Lenin’s death in 1924, is also known as the Hero City.

I like St Pete. Beautiful classical sculptures and monumental buildings everywhere. This is a tourist-friendly city too. The local government understands the importance of tourism, and local police hardly harass foreigners the way they do in Moscow. The locals also seem to smile more often. Nevsky Prospect, the thoroughfare of the city, is the definitive people-watching place. I love strolling along this boulevard, as well as the embankments alongside the fast-flowing waters of Neva. If I had wandered in Moscow’s streets as much as I did in St Pete, I would have been stopped by police for passport checks 30 times, extorted for bribes 5 times and thrown into prison for charges of armed robbery, spying, vandalism and assault on police – the last might well be the only true allegation, given by that time that I would have been mad with their repeated and humiliating checks.

St Pete and Moscow were rival cities the moment the former was founded. Peter the Great hated Moscow, for it was the powerbase of his conservative rivals. So he built a new capital that resembled more of Amsterdam, his favourite Western European city, than the godfearing Russia Moscow represents. Here he continued his reforms that changed Russian history forever. Even today, the people of St Pete dismiss Moscow as a large village, and see themselves as more intellectual and sophisticated. Moscow to them, with its high walls and ramparts which reminds one of its bloody past, staked heads and rampaging armies, represents brute power and backwardness. After all, the Hermitage of St Pete is the crowning glory of civilization, of high culture and subtle and sensual pleasures. When Vladimir Putin, who’s originally from St Pete, became president, there was some wild speculation that the capital might well be moved back to St Pete. Of course, this isn’t going to happen. More than seven decades of communist rule had concentrated too much power in Moscow. Moscow is where the real money lies. But St Pete has done well in recent years, with a more liberal and foreigner-friendly government. At least foreigners like me don’t feel threatened here.

It is a bad time to visit St Pete. The city will be celebrating its 300th anniversary next year, and nearly everything tourists are interested in are covered in scaffolding. Perhaps this is an excuse to return some time.

I dropped by the Hermitage, one of the largest and best museums of the world, in the same league as the British Museum and the Louvre, famous for the exclusive Dutch, Italian, German and French paintings in the Tsar’s collection, plus all manner of sculptures and even impressive Egyptian and Greco-Roman archaeological finds. Not exactly a fan of paintings and art in the classical sense, I was more interested in its archaeological collection, especially the finds from the Scythian tombs of the Altai region of Siberia. Here lies the famous corpses of a Scythian prince and his sacrificed servants and horses – a mysterious ancient nomadic people who once roamed on the great Eurasian plains 3000 years ago, mostly well preserved by the permafrost of that remote corner of earth. I gawked at the tattooed arm of one of the occupants of the tomb, as well as the two rugs displayed there. The latter are the oldest complete carpets ever found in the world. Magical reindeer motifs plus horse-riding warriors and sitting chieftains who almost looked comical – all these from three millennia ago!

I visited the Peter and Paul Fortress, the earliest part of St Pete. Under the shadow of the bell-tower of the cathedral, that houses the tombs of Peter the Great as well as Nicholas II and his murdered family and servants (all killed by the Bolsheviks in the Urals during the Civil War following the Revolution), elderly Petersburgers sunbathed on the beach just outside the fortress. An act of endurance in the cold waters… a manifestation of the Russian people’s ability to endure the unendurable?

Apart from visiting St Petersburg’s many palaces, museums and monuments, I went to Novgorod on a day trip. Novgorod, which means “New town”, is the oldest of the Russian city-states. Founded in the 9th century, its geographical location and the trading instincts of its citizens made it wealthy and powerful, such that it was known as “Novgorod Veliky” – Lord Novgorod the Great. Magnificent onion-domed churches, icon art and old Russian culture flourished here, until Ivan the Terrible crushed the city. When Peter the Great built St Pete, its decline was hastened. The Nazis flattened it during WWII, but the Soviets restored it to boost national morale after the war. Today it is a quiet tourist city, where largely domestic tourists stroll along its leafy avenues and climb its beautiful old walls.

I hopped onto a plane to Murmansk in the Russian Arctic. With 400,000 inhabitants in this city situated at 69’C N, this is one of the northernmost parts of Russia and the largest city in the world above the Arctic Circle. It is strange to be walking amidst the glory of full orange foliage, with 5’C temperature, after a stint in 45’C Turkmenistan desert merely a week or so ago. The sun is incredibly close here, or at least it seems like so, air amazingly clear and colours so bright here. Reminds me of Faroes, Iceland and Greenland.

Murmansk has historically been an important port, a lifeline of Russia and its links to the West whenever the Baltic Sea is cut-off. During the Napoleonic Wars, the WWI and WWII, this was a major supply base. Numerous battles were fought here during WWII, when German and Finnish forces attempted to cut off the city but failed, thus earning the city the title of Hero City. Today, this remains an important naval base. The Russian Northern Fleet is based in a small town nearby. There are few travellers here, apart from some wealthy cruiseboat passengers. There isn’t a lot to see, but it’s a laid-back place with the friendliest people I have met in Russia so far. A good place to relax a little, and get ready for the next stage of my journey.

Tomorrow, I will take an early morning flight to Moscow, and then take a 4-night train journey 5000km eastwards into Siberia, to the city of Irkutsk. OK, wish me luck! Trans-Siberia, here I come!

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