First Impressions of St. Petersburg

At the Russian embassy in Stockholm: Wow, this is easy. And she’s actually nice and helpful. I thought that this was supposed to be so difficult that you threw your hands up in despair and just gave up. Am I missing something? Am I going to show back up to get my visa only to find out that I didn’t do some obscure task and now I can’t have one?

Upon arrival at the St. Petersburg airport: I think that soldier is wearing the same uniform in the same ugly green and the same scratchy material as WWII soldiers wore. In fact, he looks like he could have walked straight out of some film based on a Stephen Ambrose book.

On the drive from the airport to the Grand Nevsky Hotel: Whoa he drives fast. Oh shit, we’re totally going to hit that car. Look at that ginormous statue (Monument to the Historic Defenders of Leningrad ). It’s soooo Soviet. Did you see that church? It was gorgeous. Oh this one’s even better. Damn, traffic is terrible. Holy crap, I think that trolley car could be classified as an artifact. Oh shit, it almost hit that Hummer limo. Oh look, a Zara is about to open in that huge old communist looking building.

On a first walk around the city: This place doesn’t feel very Russian, not that I know exactly what Russian feels like. It feels more like Europe…a bit Scandinavia, a bit Berlin, maybe even a little Amsterdam with all these canals. Brrr, that’s a cold wind blowing off the Neva. I totally need one of those Russian fur hats. Or maybe a bunch of vodka shots. Seriously, this is all still the Hermitage? Where does it end? Woohoo, I can totally read Russian. It’s just like Greek…oh except what the hell is that letter, that’s a new one. So yeah maybe I can sort of kind of read it.

On a visit to Peterhof: This looks like Versailles. The fountains are awesome. The palace, eh, it’s a palace. Aren’t they all the same…opulent and overdone. Gold and gold and oh yeah, more gold. That ticket lady is totally a holdover from the communist days. Is that scowl permanent? I love the way the Russian tourists strike a pose for every photo as if they’re supermodels. And the fact that they are walking around these giant gardens in insane high heels as if it’s no big deal if just freaking insane.

As you can see, I’ve had a wide array of reactions to St. Petersburg in my first 24 hours here, and I have not found an easy way to sum it up. Established by Peter the Great as a window to the west, it still is a strange mix of east and west, Russia and Europe. So far the most prominent impression I have is of St. Petersburg as a city of new money.

Of course, in its earliest history, St. Petersburg had money. This is obvious in the palaces and churches, fortresses and bridges…the centuries-old structures built during the heyday of the Romanovs. But in the past century, St. Petersburg has seen hard times. As Leningrad, it suffered terribly during the German siege of the Second World War, with millions of people starving to death and the ravages of war becoming everyday reality. Later, communism did the city no favors. Construction was utilitarian, depressing, gray. The city’s magnificent churches were gutted and used to store potatoes or converted to swimming pools. Even if you had money, there was little to buy.

Now, it seems to me, that St. Petersburg is trying to shove that recent history from memory. Cranes criss-cross the skyline. Stores and shops and malls are opening everywhere, and everything stays open 24 hours a day. Western franchises are prospering. (We even saw a Carl’s Jr.!) Fancy cars race down the street. And fashion is at the forefront (even if it’s not what I’d call fashionable). St. Petersburg is a city on the rise…again. Yet at the same time it’s a city heavy with history and so long as there’s a bubushka on the street, a minibus pulling up at the corner, and a monolithic Soviet statue in the square, I think it will remain a city torn…between East and West, between Russia and Europe, between history and future. And in my opinion, that’s at least half the reason why it’s such an amazingly interesting place.

(We’re here through Monday, so expect to hear more about St. Petersburg in the following days. And if you have any suggestions for St. Petersburg, let us know!)