St. Petersburg, Russia

Peter the Great's grand vision for a new Russian city began to take shape along the banks of the Neva 300 years ago.

Church of our Savior on Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg Russia, image

The Church of our Savior on Spilled Blood stands where Alexander II was assassinated.

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On a lovely afternoon in one of the world's most beautiful cities, the three of us have made our way to an unlit stairwell in an old apartment building in a neglected neighborhood. We are on the trail of history's most famous ax murderer—Raskolnikov, the central character in Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. In the novel, set here in St. Petersburg, Raskolnikov climbs these steps, enters a flat, and kills the old woman who lives there.

"Shhhh!" Maria, our Russian companion, whispers to my wife, Pamelia, as we tiptoe past metal-doored apartments in this very unofficial tourist spot. When we reach a steel gate that thwarts our effort to visit the old woman's apartment, Maria looks at our grim surroundings and giggles. "We are crazy!" she says.

So, some may have thought, was Peter the Great when he decided in 1703 that a European-style city should be built on marshland in Russia's northwest corner, where the Neva River flows into an arm of the Baltic Sea. With the help of conscripted peasants and Swedish prisoners of war, Peter quickly built what is known today as the Venice of the North, a canal-crossed, culturally dazzling metropolis of 4.6 million—a city that ought to be on the wish list of any serious traveler.

This is the city where Bolsheviks stormed the czar's Winter Palace in October 1917, bringing Communism to power in Russia. This is the city, then known as Leningrad, that heroically survived the famous 900-day German siege during World War II. This is the city not only of Dostoyevsky but also of Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Pushkin, and Balanchine; not only of Peter the Great but also of Catherine the Great, whose lavish spending in the late 1700s turned St. Petersburg into an architectural confection; not only of 150 museums, including the renowned Hermitage, with its sumptuous rooms and rich collection of European paintings, but also of several hundred bridges, each one as individual as a snowflake. This is a city that in May of this year will celebrate its 300th birthday with a party worthy of the czars. St. Petersburg will take the wraps off its three-year face-lift and invite the world to a festival of art, music, dance, theater, and sports that will run May 24 through June 1, during the stretch of round-the-clock sunlight known as the "white nights." City squares will come alive with plays; Russia's top rock groups will hold a megaconcert; historic ships will sail the Neva. There will be parades and fireworks and enough visiting dignitaries to make St. Petersburg, for those few days, the center of the world.

These festivities are designed to attract foreign investment to a city that, like the rest of the country, has been struggling with the transition to capitalism. About a third of all Russians now live below the poverty level, reckoned to be about $40 a month. One of the women we met in St. Petersburg, a retired English professor living on a pension of $50 a month (down by $200 from what it was in the Communist era), calls the government "heartless" for spending so much money on tercentenary renovations, especially in light of the country's more pressing social needs. "The center of St. Petersburg will look wonderful, but 50 or 100 kilometers out of the city the situation is terrible," she says one morning while walking with Pamelia and me to the Hermitage. "The system isn't working. Older women especially are hurting."

That is evident from the elderly people, mostly women, we see standing near certain street corners trying to sell homegrown vegetables. In the Versailles-like gardens behind the Tsarskoe Selo palace, an old man approaches us and quietly asks if we want to buy any of his wife's homemade "cakes" for 30 cents each. Having just eaten lunch, we say no but feel pangs of guilt as he walks away. We catch up to him, pay him $1.50 each for two warm apple dumplings, and are almost brought to tears by the emotion with which he thanks us.

Such personal encounters made our eight-day visit to St. Petersburg far more than a typical vacation. In planning the trip, we talked to everyone we knew who had been to Russia, in the hope that someone might know a St. Petersburger who could show us around.So it is that when our flight lands, Genya, a 29-year-old artist and the daughter of a friend of a friend of a friend, is at the airport to greet us. "Everywhere is reconstruction," she says apologetically as we negotiate our way through the newly rising terminal wing. Driving us to the Hotel Astoria, Genya—who is not a trained tourist guide—works the rust off her high school English as she points out landmarks and tells us how the mayor is trying to eliminate the city's trolleys to make more room for cars. "There is very many cars here now," she says, a fact confirmed by the clogged roadways and heavy smell of diesel exhaust.

We check into the Astoria, a historic five-star hotel where Hitler planned to hold his victory celebration once Leningrad fell (and where room prices start at $190). Next door is St. Isaac's Cathedral, a 48-columned stone colossus with a deck offering the best views of the city.

Taking in this vista of today's St. Petersburg, it can be difficult to picture the recent past. Few cities have endured more suffering. Almost 650,000 St. Petersburg citizens starved to death during the German siege in World War II, and 16,000 more died from bombing and shelling. Several years earlier, an estimated one-quarter of the population had been sent to prison camps or executed during Stalin's purges. Nature, too, has been harsh: Plaques mark the height of floods that have tormented the city for its entire 300-year history.

Through it all, St. Petersburg never lost its faith in the power of art. During the siege, concerts were held even as the city was being shelled. Treasures from the Hermitage were moved to the Ural Mountains for safekeeping, but locals still flocked to the museum, where guides pointed to empty picture frames and described the works they once contained. The city's palaces and museums—painted, like much of its architecture, in shades of yellow, blue, green, and red that set off white baroque frills and gilded lion's heads—have for centuries seen art treasures shifted back and forth among them because of wars, politics, or the whims of czars. "Here was once a statue of a dying Cleopatra," says Michael, a historian from the Russian Museum, pointing to an empty niche at Mikhailovsky Castle. "Now Cleopatra is dying in the Hermitage."

Michael, another friend of a friend, is giving Pamelia, Genya, and me a private tour of the long-neglected palace. It's now in the process of being renovated for its reopening during the upcoming 300th anniversary jubilee. "Putin is supposed to come for that," says Michael, who talks to us not only about the building's history ("This is the spot where Czar Paul I was murdered in 1801") but also about the routine hardships of residing in St. Petersburg today. "I live in a flat with my two young sons, and for four days we have had no hot water," he says. "Each night, the electricity goes off for one hour." He pauses, then offers some perspective on his nation's political transition. "If I have a choice between hot water and the freedom to read any book I want, I choose to read books. But that would not be the choice of my young sons."

In the post-Soviet era, St. Petersburg has become a city of choices, many of them unexpected. As Genya leads us on walks along the lovely, granite-lined canals and up Nevsky Prospekt, the most famous of the city's wide, straight boulevards, we see casinos, strip clubs, and a profusion of new restaurants, some of them comically kitschy. In the courtyard of the stately Stroganov Palace, for example, is a combination "telephone café" (with phones on every table so diners can dial each other up and flirt) and all-you-can-eat beef Stroganoff joint. We have dinner one night at a KGB-themed restaurant called, by Genya's translation, Traveling Bag for Pregnant Spy, where a Terminator-like figure hangs over the front door, pointing what appears to be a ray gun at anyone who approaches.

At a bookshop we find Russian language editions of Harry Potter and the For Dummies series with their familiar black-and-yellow covers. That gets me to thinking that if I were to write St. Petersburg for Dummies, it would take me several volumes to explain all the oddities a visitor is likely to encounter, like the two-price policy for tickets to virtually everything in town (foreign visitors sometimes pay up to 10 times more than Russians) and the fact that if you stand on the sidewalk hailing a cab, roughly one out of every four private cars going by will pull over and offer you a ride (for a price—this is capitalism).

The problem with all of St. Petersburg's choices, as one Russian told us, is that you have to choose. Pamelia and I take in an opera, a symphony, and as many of the city's churches, palaces, and museums as we can—which amounts to only a fraction of them. The quantity of artwork in the Venice of the North, including all those filigreed bridges and dramatic bronze statues and opulent performing arts centers, can be overwhelming. Someone once calculated that if a museumgoer took a few seconds to contemplate each piece in the Hermitage, a complete tour of the museum would take nine years.

We have only eight days. A typical one begins with a quick look through The St. Petersburg Times to learn about the city's modern variations on crime and punishment. St. Petersburg has been trying to shake its reputation for street thuggery, but according to the paper, police (who earn only $100 a month) have made the problem worse lately by robbing foreign visitors. Aware that tourists are singled out, we dress down, and with Genya or another Russian accompanying us, we never feel threatened.

We feel instead as if we're in a world of our imagination. On a given day's walk, we might see a leashed, muzzled bear posing for photographs with tourists, or a woman peddling watermelons out of a kiosk that looks like half a melon set on end. We hear cell phones ringing with the first notes of Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf and munch on mushroom-flavored potato chips and watch brides and grooms jump out of cars to pose for photos in front of museums and statues.

We know noon has arrived when we hear the daily cannon blast emanating from the Peter and Paul Fortress, unless we happen at that moment to be riding a steep escalator down, down, down for more than two minutes to a metro station where, for 6 rubles (20 cents), we can ride a subway train across the city. We stroll along the Neva and see a group of 60-year-old men in tiny bikinis leaning against the fortress wall, sunning themselves after a dip in the frigid river.

In the evening, we could go to the Mariinsky Theatre (formerly the Kirov), famed for its ballet and opera, to watch Boris Godunov. Or to share vodka and borscht with Genya and her parents.

One day, after a ride over deeply rutted dirt roads on the outskirts of the city, we are privileged to meet the soul of art in St. Petersburg, the 70-year-old painter and sculptor Gela Pisareva, yet another friend of a friend. Gela, a siege survivor, was a state-sponsored artist in Soviet times, then gave up her subsidy and went underground, her desire for free expression exceeding her need for cash. She now is selling her work through a Web site and gallery devoted to St. Petersburg's artists. She will soon have to leave her home, an old, barnlike structure that will be razed to make way for a pricey development. She prefers to talk about an offbeat art festival she and her artist neighbors recently organized. They floated sculptures on rafts on a nearby lake and hung paintings on ropes strung between their houses.

We share tea and meringue-and-wafer torte. It's my birthday, and as we leave, Gela hands me a gift of her art, a carved figure of an old peasant woman. Half a world away, it's on my desk, next to a paperback copy of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment.

Photography by Pamelia Markwood

This article was first published in January 2003. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information

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For information about traveling to St. Petersburg, visit AAA.com/travel or visit any AAA branch.

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