Uniform granite sidewalks along Nevsky Prospekt. Piles of freshly baked bread, meat and cheese, and oranges, tomatoes, and cucumbers in neighborhood markets. Posh boutiques. A trendy W Hotel!! These are not my memories of St. Petersburg, though that is what I’m seeing on this trip in 2011.
When I last visited, in 1985, the communists ruled the country and the city was called Leningrad. I remember drab, peeling-paint buildings, somber people dressed in stodgy black, and residents queuing behind tables on the street in the hope that, when they got to the end of the line, they would find something good to buy—toothbrushes, perhaps, or apples.
Back then, I had to stay at a fortress-like hotel on the outskirts of town. I met a fellow student named Vlad, who wanted to practice his English and learn everything about the West. He wasn’t allowed to step foot in my hotel. And he couldn’t buy Western cigarettes in Russian stores, so he bartered a matryoshka doll and a Ukrainian flag with me in exchange for the carton of cigarettes that I could buy in the foreigner-only store, by virtue of my being American.
Today I wander down fashionable Nevsky Prospekt, where chic, high-heeled women stroll beside their equally smartly dressed companions. I’m stunned by the imposing heritage buildings decked out in the finest of paint jobs: The fairy-tale Stroganov Palace (the birthplace of beef Stroganov), with its magnificent pink-and-white Russian baroque facade; the luxurious Grand Hotel Europe, St. Petersburg’s oldest hotel (1875), beckoning with a marble-and-gilt lobby and chandelier-hung caviar bar (complete with vodka sommelier); and the art nouveau Elisseeff Emporium showcasing a gigantic stained-glass window and allegorical sculptures of Industry, Commerce, Science, and Arts. And then, before me appears the multicolored, multi-domed Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. I rack my brain—for the life of me, I can’t remember seeing this gorgeous church, built on the site where Alexander II was murdered in 1881. And I know I never would have forgotten its colorful, floor-to-ceiling explosion of mosaics on the inside, covering some 69,970 square feet. I check my guidebook. Indeed, back then it did exist—as a plainly painted warehouse.
I stop by the State Museum of Russian Political History, on Kamennoostrovsky north of the Neva River. Now this is an interesting place, created in the early 1990s. I feel as if I’m stepping into the enemy’s lair. The Bolsheviks set up their committee headquarters in this elegant style moderne mansion in 1917. Since linked with an adjoining home, the museum has exhibits on Lenin—including his wooden desk, historic Pravdas, and the tiny balcony from which he orated—as well as the rest of Soviet history. Stalin’s execution lists, Trotsky’s letters, constructivist posters, flags, as well as diary entries and the mundane clothing of everyday proletarians give dispassionate insight into those dark days. I think I’m most surprised, however, to see the exhibit on the Intourist travel agency, which so arduously managed my last visit. Now, with dated brochures and posters, it’s just a historical footnote.
I also visit the splendidly baroque Hermitage along the Neva, which includes the Winter Palace, the main royal residence from 1732 until the 1917 arrival of the Bolsheviks. Here reigns one of the world’s largest and oldest art museums, founded by Catherine the Great in 1764—and we’re talking masterpieces here: Picasso, Matisse, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, da Vinci, etc. etc. etc. I do remember seeing many of these masterpieces back then, in freezing cold rooms with dingy, flaking walls and water leaks in the ceiling that threatened the precious art below. Today, every aspect of the rooms’ ornate trim, frescoed ceilings, and wooden flooring have been meticulously restored to perfection, and I enjoy seeing the magnificent interior design work almost as much as the artwork.
Later I visit the enormous Kazan Cathedral on Nevsky Prospekt, inspired by St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome—yet another imposing structure that I don’t recall from my previous trip. No wonder—according to my guidebook, it used to be the Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism, told from a Marxist point of view. Apparently it’s a place that Soviet visitors were taken to, but not American. Inside the palatial structure, a mix of tourists and worshipers swarm about a forest of columns, burning incense gives off a musky scent, and colorful mosaics twinkle all around. In the middle of the nave a long line of mostly women wearing scarves over their heads shuffle toward the altar. I peer closer and see a priest saying some Russian words near a 17th-century, jewel-encrusted icon of the Madonna and Child. A woman wearing black and white appears, taking a dustcloth and wiping off the icon. The person at the front of the line then steps forward and approaches the icon, praying and kissing it. My guidebook says that this is Russia’s most famous, miracle-working icon, which disappeared after the October 1917 Revolution and was returned here mysteriously in 2002.
To me, of all the changes that I’ve seen since communism’s fall, this scene is the most amazing proof that Russia has indeed emerged from its black hole. Somehow, through all the years of suppression and state control, religion survived. No matter how you feel about kissing glass that thousands before have kissed before, this gesture represents the fact that the Russians now have the freedom of expression. I wonder where Vlad is—and imagine him enjoying this well-deserved right as well.
Barbara A. Noe is a senior editor for National Geographic Books. Read her last post for Intelligent Travel, “The Brighter Side of Naples.”