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St Petersburg boasts a wealth of culture and opulence that is unmatched anywhere in the world, a tradition that has continued from the Russian aristocracy, through Soviet times to today. The Mariinsky Theatre has been at the heart of St Petersburg cultural life through this entire period and the opening of her third stage is a pivotal moment in St Petersburg’s cultural history.
After four empires starting with Kievan Rus in the Middle Ages, continuing through the reign of Ivan the Terrible, the long era of the Romanov dynasty and finally the Soviet regime, Russia is now a stand-alone oil and gas powerhouse. Twenty years on from the collapse of the Soviet state, there are many things that have remained the same, and many that have changed.
Most of what you hear about Russia is a statistic or a sound bite: the largest country in the world, the largest lake, the longest rail route, the ostentation. These build a certain picture of this vast country that is often misunderstood.
Peter the Great travelled all over Europe to get inspiration for creating his ‘window on the West’. If you go to the Deptford Maritime Museum in Greenwich, you will see a statue of him commemorating his four-month stay in the docks there in 1698. Many cite Venice as a template for St Petersburg, but in reality many cities, including Amsterdam, provided the inspiration, and you will clearly see this if you visit. After Peter’s death, a succession of empresses and emperors added to the beauty of St Petersburg, each one lending it a new style: Baroque, Rococo, Classical and Russian Revival.
The pace in St Petersburg is completely different from Moscow. Many prefer it, as it is more recognisable as a European city. It’s slower and the atmosphere more melancholy. Maybe this is due to the thousands that died building the city on marshland, or the million that died during the Nazi siege, or the courtyards straight out of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Or just because it’s the largest city located so far north and serves as a metaphor for Russia. With 24 hours of daylight in the summer and very little sun in the winter, its either feast or famine.
There are many museums and palaces that are a must: the Peter and Paul Fortress, signifying the founding of the city and the best place to learn about the Romanov dynasty as you gaze at their tombs, wondering if Anastasia survived; the Hermitage, not only because of the art on the walls, but for the pivotal point that the Winter Palace played in Russian history; the Yusupov Palace, to see how a noble family lived and to learn about Rasputin and his influence over Tsarina Alexandra; Peterhof for its elaborate park with myriad fountains by the Baltic sea; the stunning Catherine Palace, grandiose and over the top, but totally fabulous anyway, or the beautifully restored Chinese Palace - Catherine the Great’s palace is one of the few palaces that did not lose its original lavish interiors during the war.
Peterhof, Pavlovsk and the Catherine Palace, like the entire city itself, all suffered massive damage during WWII. However the Soviets respected their history enough to painstakingly restore the imperial palaces and, as Suzanne Massie author of Pavlovsk: The Life of a Russian Palace writes, it was a ‘restoration not only of buildings, but of their country’s memory and soul, a startling human achievement accomplished against superhuman odds. It is unique.’
Not everything is about the past, however, and in the future the 18th-century 76,000 square metre island of New Holland will be transformed into one of the foremost venues for performance and visual arts in the world. The island is to open in the summer, prior to the start of the regeneration project that will take seven years to complete.
2014 will see the opening of the new St Petersburg airport, in plenty of time for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. However travellers are recommended to visit St Petersburg long before that.