Eastern elegance

29th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

Saint Petersburg is a city studded with palaces, but much of the city's charm lies away from the grand buildings and main thoroughfares. Locals insist it is safe by day and night and from the perspective of a visitor, the city still deserves to be near the top of European cities.

Three hundred years ago there was no Saint Petersburg, there was only the swampy delta of the Neva River as it entered the Gulf of Finland.

Then there was Peter the Great.

History has been generous towards Peter in the allocation of adjectives.

Cruel and not noticeably fair, in his thirty-year reign Russia enjoyed only one year of peace.

At a personal level he was capable of putting his innocent son to death by the rack, then partying through the evening at court.

The relationship between the moral and aesthetic senses has always been problematical and in assessing Peter's legacy it is probably best to invoke the principle of: 'trust the art and not the artist."

Saint Petersburg stands as a monument to what can be achieved when unbridled powers are harnessed to a sense of design.

Younger than New York, the city, as Dostoevsky observed is not something that sprang from the Russian soil but is an artefact built there.

Dostoevsky's contemporary Nikolai Gogol characterised the Tsarist capital as "a European relation" contrasting it with Moscow: "a long-bearded Russian farmer."

Like virtually every major city in Eastern and Central Europe, Saint Petersburg's greatest glory came a hundred years ago. Like Berlin, Warsaw and many more, the sepia prints and flickery film images of the fin de siecle Saint Petersburg show it at its peak.

"Many of the buildings you see now are just husks," says Sebastian Fitzlyon, one of the small band of Australian businessmen based in Saint Petersburg.

The Australian expat business community probably numbers about six when everyone is in town and Fitzlyon has been part of it for nine years, dealing in real estate as Russia stumbles into its second attempt at private enterprise.

He combines the excitement of working at a new frontier with the professional optimism of the estate agent.

"I love it. The challenge of being able to make a business work here is fascinating. Before 'perestroika' people doing what I do would have been sent to a labour camp.

But his voice drops as he looks out at the neo-classical streetscape stretching along the canal below his window.

"So many fantastic buildings, you step inside and they are basically ruined from being occupied by municipal tenants who carried out no maintenance for 70 or 80 years," he says.

Five minutes down the canal lies Nevsky Prospekt, the city's spine, bustling with life its designer stores bristle with price tags set in American dollars for the winners in the new Russia.

Saint Petersburg's greatness lies largely within a few kilometres of Nevsky Prospekt. Walk away from that island of relative wealth and you soon find evidence of how hard life is for Russians today.

Nevsky Prospekt itself culminates in the building that provides a unique combination of art and history.

The Winter Palace was briefly the home of Russia's Provisional Government following the abdication of the Tsar, but when the Bolsheviks stormed it in October 1917 it became the launching pad for the seven-decade communist experiment.

And while one side of the Winter Palace evokes that history, its' riverside frontage holds the entrance to the Hermitage and its fabled art collection.

Saint Petersburg is studded with palaces built by the Tsars and the merchant princes who grew rich in the port city.

But much of the city's charm lies away from the grand buildings and main thoroughfares.

It is a city for walking or for touring by canal boat, perspectives which reveal how the streets, waterways, parklands and bridges plait together in a blend of styles - neo-classical, baroque and art nouveau.

Locals insist it is safe by day and night.

"It's total fantasy this crime business, " Fitzlyon declares.

"There is a lot of crime between criminals and they sort it out by killing each other.

"But here it's safer than Paris or London."

Language is at times a nearly impassable barrier in Russia.

Dinner taken in a small bar across from our rented apartment, about ten minutes walk from Nevsky Prospekt was a lesson in the linguistic divide.

The menu was in Russian and nobody, customers or staff, spoke any English.

The first night this was solved by pointing at dishes being eaten by other diners.

The second night the other diners had finished. I looked blankly at the Cyrillic script on the menu, I looked at the woman behind the bar and she at me.

Her expression was set just on the welcoming side of indifference.

My one word of Russian 'pivo' had returned a beer, but now we were stuck.

Then her eyes widened, she raised one arm and moved her hand and arm towards me in an undulating motion.

"Perfect," I thought, "but is that fish or eel."

She was ahead of me; reaching under the counter she pulled out a newspaper and in the margin drew the universal Christian symbol.

We smiled triumphantly, I held up two fingers, she held up two fingers. Two fish dinners followed.

For residents life is hard, but for visitors Saint Petersburg still deserves to be near the top of European cities.

It is more exotic and foreign than cities like Prague or Vienna, but not intimidating, as Moscow can often be.

In the words of Zhenia Kondryatyeva, a local working in the growing travel industry: "Moscow is the capital. Saint Petersburg is not so rich, but we are rich in art and architecture."

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