While visiting St. Petersburg, I happened to be (attempting to read) reading for the first time Dostoevsky’s imposing novel on human honesty and character, Crime and Punishment. Amidst the glittering canals and thousands of camera toting tourist groups during the end of the city’s famed annual White Nights Festival, I kept imagining St. Petersburg in Dostoevsky’s gritty world. At every street corner Raskolnikov would seem to stroll by and give me his stare of anxiety. For those who have read the novel, that means it’s time to sprint away as fast as possible.
Fortunately, the literary world is the literary world. St. Petersburg is indeed one grand city. When I announced my intention to visit the Federation earlier this year, my friends and colleagues who had been to Russia recently or even back in the old USSR days said there is no reason to visit. Except for St. Petersburg. St. Petersburg is the western most, culturally speaking, city in Russia. If there is a city that seems more progressive in Russia, it has yet to be found, most likely in distant Siberia. When you visit St. Petersburg after spending time in Moscow, you understand what everyone is talking about. It’s a more extreme case of visiting the calm splendor of Florence after the chaos of a Rome or Naples.
St. Petersburg is many cities put together. With its dozens of canals weaving all around the city, St. Petersburg is one part Venice. It is one part Amsterdam too with those canals, a heavy bike culture, and a ring-like street design. Paris certainly comes to mind with the striking architecture, the “Champs Elysée of Russia” (The Nevsky Prospect), and its dramatic riverside setting, where couples stroll along the Neva, much like Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron did along the Seine. Then there are those old Soviet scars here and there, more so away from the Neva River area. Those remind you more of Moscow, as does the hyper-efficient metro system with the stations so deep you could swear you reached the center of the earth (Stalin’s intention was for metro stations to be nuclear bunkers). Despite no longer being the capital of Russia, St. Petersburg would fit right in as a prominent Western European capital city.
Culturally speaking, St. Petersburg is every bit on par with the premier destinations in Europe. You of course have the Hermitage, home of da Vinci’s Madonna Litta, and roughly 150,000 other works on display, including some 24 Rembrandts. Just like the Louvre, The Hermitage is housed in a former palace, here the stunning sky blue painted Winter Palace. The Hermitage can only be discussed in the same sentences as the Louvre and Prado for European equivalents. Stunning bridges abound across the canals and Neva abound. The same with cathedrals, especially the Church of Spilt Blood and Saint Isaac’s. The world’s second most important ballet theatre, the Mariinsky, is in town, where yours truly witnessed a spectacular Stravinsky double bill. Arguably the world’s most impressive summer arts festival, The White Nights Festival, takes place each late June to July here. Along the Gulf of Finland resides the Versailles of Russia, Peterhof, reached by a forty minute hydrofoil boat trip from the Hermitage.
When Peter the Great founded St. Petersburg in 1703, he set out to make Europe’s grandest city. It might not be there quite yet over three centuries later. Still, a stroll along the Neva or through the Summer Garden proves you are in one of the world’s premier cities.
But is St. Petersburg one of the world’s premier cities for dining, like it is for the arts?