I glanced from my mobile’s clock to see ‘G’ nonchalantly descend the Metro steps with my name brandished across the improvised placard held at her chest. A figure out of place amongst the purposeful streetwalkers – as if she’d wandered from an airport reception hall and had just kept going, to finally run out of steam here at my feet. Seasoned guides don’t glance around expectantly, I realised. They don’t know the faces of their charges until the time and place, anyway; so what would be the point? With the repetitive checking of clock and position suddenly forgotten, I fumbled my phone back into my pocket and homed in.
“Are you ill?” she asked after double-checking my identity (apparently the wrong guides and visitors often pair-up to wander the city together, after the contents of initial meetings are lost in translation). “I’m not from here and cannot breathe your air,” I should have said, but instead I acknowledged my pollution mask and mumbled something in Russian about allergies and traffic.
In an alternative scenario she would’ve dragged me around central St.P, expounding on the gems of Russian history, whilst I, doubled up, hacked my lungs out onto the pavement. How “odd” would you find that little vignette? I wondered.
So the walking tour commenced after pleasantries, with ‘G’ on autopilot as she lead me verbally through time whilst we wound a physical path through extant landmarks: Kazan Cathedral, The Nicholas 1st Monument, Pushkin’s Statue, The Winter Palace, Palace Square, The Hermitage, Nevsky Prospekt, The Bronze Horseman, the balcony where Hitler would have addressed this captured city (had his hubris not lead to destruction), and on through the ranks of European facades and faux Classicism that comprise the ageing streets. We glimpsed The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood in the distance and wound down for a break at ‘G’s favoured basement cafe; a small, clean and functional establishment without ostentation (and the prices to match). Perfect.
Am I a philistine for enthusing over the brazen, oversized, grey-waistcoated city crows, whilst the trappings and excesses of Russian history reclined all around, awaiting admiration?
I can’t help it: give me one genuine, living wonder here, instead of architectural imitation borrowed from Europe – especially when the Russian equivalent is so utterly remarkable anyway! It seems that Nicholas 1st shared a similar viewpoint, protesting that “Petersburg is Russian but it is not Russia.” He should know.
The Russian-ness still exists, thankfully, in the onion domes, cathedrals and icons, though the truly authentic wooden constructions have suffered critical decay over the centuries; typically rotting into the ground. Well, those buildings that weren’t pulled (or burnt) down, at least. Mercifully though, some have been preserved and corralled into reservations, plank by plank, or even more impressively – maintained where they stand and are still in use, but this is a story for another occasion.
Peter the Great was certainly not a figure to argue with, and his love for European style ultimately dictated the look of his prize city. He imported Italian and French architects to oversee construction of this massive project, built upon the most dangerously unsuitable marshland.
The construction surpassed the immediate practicalities of defending against the Fins and securing a Baltic port as it exploded into a major architectural spectacle of transposed European design.
The foreign influence didn’t stop at the architecture but became something of a fashion epidemic that the rich and aspirational would literally wear on their sleeves (and other areas) to announce sophistication by imported proxy. Beards were shaved, European style wigs and clothes were worn, even the native Russian language was forsaken by some in favour of second-hand French.
St.Petersburg vies for the title ‘Venice of the North’ with its principle influence: Amsterdam. Schizophrenically it is also referred to as the ‘Paris of the North’ – make your mind up, please! Though to match its remarkable day to night transition, it has a darker title all of it’s own: “The City built on Bones”. As I explored the decaying glamour of the city streets, I also patrolled the sprawling graveyard of an estimated 100,000 or more labouring serfs and enslaved prisoners of war, entombed below centuries-old stone and mortar. Succumbing to accident, disease, cold, hunger and even hostile wildlife, they were routinely ‘used up’ and slung into the unmarked ground – forgotten and forever a part of the city they had been forced to build. Look around when you travel there, for as far as your vision can reach: every cathedral, monument and state edifice is built literally on death. Tread carefully.
“I’ve taken two doughnuts” ‘G’ confessed. Oh, the decadence of it all. I didn’t know her well enough to recoil in mock outrage, so “That’s fine” had to suffice. Buying her coffee (and doughnuts) was, I felt, the least I could do. She’d had to walk the streets with me trailing as a masked bandit after all. Once she’d offered, hopefully: “You can take it off, we’re in a park now”, but an exploratory choke and retch on my part convinced her otherwise. No, sorry dear, you’re stuck with it (and me) for the duration I’m afraid.
Frankly, the unguarded conversation with ‘G’ was the highlight of the morning. With the pre-recorded tape in her head set firmly to “off”, she could reveal more about the Russian psyche than a potted history of selected highlights ever could. She likes doughnuts (we’ve covered that) and hates the Bolsheviks. We spoke of political correctness in the UK and how you can’t say: “that”. “We can” she responded enthusiastically (and I’m sure she does too). What else?:- the rationale and consequences of Brexit, money, travel and politics too (risky ground I know). Here she expressed her disdain for the electoral candidates gazing earnestly from pre-election posters dotted about our route. “These will never change anything” she said of one party “they tolerate everything, they’ll never make a decision”.
A firm hand is required if you desire ‘G’s vote: future Russian politicians take note, -although I definitely detected a firm distrust of political promises, regardless of the party. Perhaps it’s a national epidemic? I’ve heard it before. WayToRussia wrote:-
“Russia is not a dictatorship, it’s one huge live performance produced by the oil and gas corporations, directed by a team of spindoctors… The monopolized information machine usurpated by this team of people is working to enslave the population with promises of the stable future. The best people get so far is… a cheap cosmetic renovation of their surroundings”. Harsh, but strangely familiar.
Moving onto the metaphysical, she explained that St. Petersburg was a “mysterious” city that shared a “leyline” or connection with, where was it? Rome, perhaps? It had been built where no city would normally exist. It’s certainly an interesting issue, prompting her to quiz me on why I seemed so drawn to the “other world” when the immediate reality laying all around was so splendid and rich. I don’t know; who knows why anyone truly likes anything, anyway? Soon it was time to leave her at the Fabergé museum and continue wandering. So that was that; a strangely unfinished encounter.
Should I have embraced goodbye, Russian style, with a kiss on each cheek? It was as if I had been getting to know her, but suddenly: not. Perhaps I’m not Russian enough for that to feel anything other than odd. Perhaps I never will be. Expressing as much warmth as I could muster through a handshake and thanks, I left the respectful quiet of the exhibition space and returned to the bright noise of the city outside, going indifferently about its business. With a movement of air, the ornate wooden door swung decisively shut behind me, severing our brief connection.
[Pushkin + Winter Palace photos by Bernard H.Wood.]