For Pete's sake
was supposed to
be the greatest city in the world. So why did Peter the Great build it in a
remote swamp on the edge of St Petersburg ?
By Jeremy Atiyah
It is the work of a madman," says Timofei, flinging a wild arm at his
city. We're standing in the gloom and the cold beside
21 April 2002
Timofei, my guide, just can't help spewing out emotional jokes and erudite references. And pointing darkly at the statue, he now assures me that nobody of taste likes this 18th-century premonition of Stalin. "Your two front hooves," he mutters, "have leaped far off into the darkness..."
He is quoting some poet, as usual. I can't match that, though I do recall Catherine's favourite philosopher, Denis Diderot, calling this "a city of quite a new kind, a great and amazing city". Yes. Peter's city was to be the greatest city in the world. It was to be a city of the future, modern, commercial, multicultural, free from the past, free from darkness – perhaps even free from
For some reason, this strikes Timofei as a hilarious question. Just 10 minutes ago he was skidding me through the Palace Square, all overspread with ugly black tarmac as if for a film shoot; a rerun, say, of the Bolsheviks' assault on the Winter Palace. And then there was the palace itself: enclosing its Karelian-birch furniture, its walls of crimson damask, its colonnades, its onyx columns and agate inlays and rosewood window shutters.
"But can you imagine how it is, living with that in the centre of your city?" Timofei keeps asking, in incredulity. "Requiring your subjection, for ever and ever?" Unshaven, scarf-wrapped and sniffing, he looks more eccentric by the minute. Into the 20th century – he now exclaims – that fabled building remained home to an absolute monarch! A Caesar, a Sun King, claiming divine right to rule
So catastrophe was imminent. Even I can see that, without Timofei labouring the point. In 1918, with cigarette butts and dirty mattresses now littering its
"Maybe, things ... have got a little better since then?" I murmur. Just an hour ago, after all, I was sitting in the restored Astoria Hotel, drinking tea and listening to a piano tinkle. Nicholas I's statue still prances outside the hotel, and
But Timofei does not want to hear this. He wants to talk about the fact that it's been sleeting and snowing ever since I arrived, and that Nevsky Prospekt and Decembrists' Square are full of darkly clad people shuffling through inches of mud and slush. And it's all Peter's fault. Why in God's name couldn't he have foreseen this in 1703, when he built his city on the edge of nowhere, in a swampy fetid corner of
Or perhaps it was just a joke. Peter's kind of joke: to watch gentlemen in brocaded coats, from the court and the diplomatic corps, forced to leave
From the start, then, it was clear that only evil could ever befall this newfangled city on the
Since Pushkin's day, I now declare, central
Timofei is keen for me to understand that it was. And under black skies, we now hurry on foot to the place where it all began 299 years ago: the St Peter and Paul fortress on its own island in the
"Meet the family," Timofei is saying. He means it. Because here they are, the Romanov Tsars, all under one roof, in the candlelight. To describe this lot as dysfunctional would do them no justice at all. Peter killed his son, Catherine her husband, and Alexander I his father. Which prompts me to wonder aloud if St Petersburgers are now glad to have their last tsar back here, rescued from his Communist hell in 1998. But Timofei, unblinking, is staring at these plain slabs of marble. "St Petersburgers are these people," he says. When I remind him that Nicholas II died 80 years ago, he dismisses this. "No, no, it has never stopped for us. We are citizens of
This is an unusual situation. My guide seems to be on the point of losing his mind, as a result of his work. I escort him outside. Is he OK? Does he need to rest? "No, no," he says, standing in puddles, wiping his nose. "But let's get out of here." We hurry over bridges through slush-splattered traffic, in search of something less depressing. And half an hour later we are on the snowy parade ground of the Field of Mars, surrounded by bile-coloured barracks and palaces. Packs of children are warming themselves beside an eternal flame. But here it was, 200 years ago, that Catherine's son Paul tried to regulate Russian chaos by introducing Prussian-style square-bashing. "It was just like Peter shaving off holy Russian beards," scoffs Timofei.
Somehow we are being drawn inexorably to another St Petersburg: the cold city of the 19th-century autocracy, of Nicholas I, the immobile, neoclassical, haughty Nicholas; the city of yellow stucco and white columns, where even the office workers wore uniform, the nightmare city of Gogol and Dostoyevsky, where one button undone could mean degrading to the ranks, a flogging, or exile to Siberia.
Depression begins to weigh me down. But on the subject of alienation and disaffection, Timofei seems to cheer up. A while later, he is leading me to Sennaya Ploshchad, the old hay market, the setting for Crime and Punishment. He starts reminding me of Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov stumbling about this square, a place of "revolting misery" and "insufferable stenches" and "drunken men whom he met continually, although it was a working day". And before I know it, he's on to Gogol, with his "soulless heap of houses tumbled one upon the other, roaring streets, seething mercantilism, that ugly pile of fashions, parades, clerks, wild northern nights, specious glitter and base colourlessness". And it's true: things are just as cheerlessly static here as in any other part of
In the heat of his optimism, in fact, he even suggests taking a bus out of town – which is all very well for the first 20 miles, enclosed behind steamed-up windows, until the unmistakable shadow of another baroque palace falls upon our bus. This is Tsarskoye Selo: good for me, bad for Timofei. As we step into the snow, the façade of the
It was the Empress Elizabeth who first asked Bartolomeo Rastrelli to amend Peter's palaces; Catherine the Great then made further improvements to impress foreigners. "Well I'm a foreigner and I am impressed," I say, hoping to boost my guide's morale. And I mean it. Stepping inside, we find Rastrelli's monumental ballroom, crawling from ceiling to floor with gold leaf, on the mirror frames, the cornices, the candelabra, the lintels. We stroll through rooms that go on for ever, like years. One room is cool and classical, the next a baroque inferno. Each is themed and fabulous, with chinoiserie, cherubs, garlands, silken wallpaper, onyx vases, agate wall panels, Ottoman divans, patterned parquet flooring, monumental tiled stoves, ceramic columns, lapis lazuli tabletops, giant picture portraits.
"Upstarts!" Timofei keeps bursting out in my ear. "Parvenus! Trying to out-Europe
Timofei looks reluctant to enter another palace. But once inside, we notice that it has been decorated on a rather modest scale. It is almost human. Suddenly, we are faced with chintzy English wallpaper, electric light switches, telephones, toys, chests of drawers, snaps of the children in cheap frames crowding the mantelpiece; personal remnants of the last tsar and his family.
"The creeping embourgoisement of the later tsars" is how my snooty guidebook describes these scenes. But the photos are painful. There is the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, uptight, with a pulled-in waist and puffed out shoulders; there is Nicholas beside his identically bearded cousin, the future King George V of
I hear a gutter gurgling. In this dingy room, the long windowpanes seem to be walls of sleet. But Timofei is wrapping and unwrapping his scarf, in an uncharacteristic silence, out-stared by the royal ghosts. It's that family again. And like them, it seems, Peter's great hope for
Only British Airways (0845 77 333 77; www.ba.com) and Aeroflot (020-7355 2233; www.aeroflot.co.uk) fly direct from the
Jeremy Atiyah stayed at the five-star Astoria Hotel, which can booked through The Leading Hotels of the World UK (00800 2888 8882; www.lhw.com). Doubles cost from £258 per night.
He also spent several nights staying in "home-stay" accommodation, booked through The Russia Experience (020-8566 8846; www.trans-siberian.co.ukwww.trans-siberian.co.uk), an excellent option for first-time visitors to
Interchange (020-8681 3612; email: firstname.lastname@example.org), a specialist
All visitors to