Sunday, April 21, 2002

For Pete's sake

For Pete's sake

St Petersburg 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 Finland?

By Jeremy Atiyah

Published: 21 April 2002

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 Russia's most famous statue. My shoes are wet. And here is the culprit: Peter the Great, he of the intercontinental vision, astride a colossal horse, rearing and ready to charge.
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 Russia. Mud would be turned to marble, huts to palaces, beards to brains. And how has it turned out?

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 Russia!
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 Winter Palace, this city rudely ceased to be capital of Russia. Within two years, its population had plummeted by two thirds. In the 1930s a quarter of its surviving population was purged. And within a decade of that, amid mass starvation, the entire city – now known as Leningrad – would stand on the brink of physical annihilation.

"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 Europe's rich seems able once again, in St Petersburg, to enjoy the exclusive opulence of liveried servants, a ballroom and a winter garden.

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 Finland, on Russia's remotest edge? Beneath these palaces and pavements, St Petersburg is half-sea, half-marsh. "Sprung out of the mire of dark and wood," marvelled Pushkin. Right now, with dripping icicles threatening me from every overhang, I admit it seems a wet place for a city.

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 Moscow and set up home in a watery wilderness. Wasn't it hilarious? Timofei looks almost ready to cry as he recalls Peter's cruelties. This was the Tsar who purposely invited more guests to his dinner parties than could find seats. The result was "such scuffling and fighting for chairs that nothing more scandalous can be seen in any country". When the dust had settled, carpenters and shipwrights were in the best seats next to the Tsar, while "senators, ministers, generals, priests, sailors, buffoons of all kinds, sit pell-mell without distinction".

Might St Petersburg have been conceived as one of these jokes? A ghastly experiment in human souls? Timofei just won't stop. He is now almost on a gallop, gesturing at palaces, gabbling out reasons for hating the greatest tsar. Forty thousand labourers per year were to be sent here from the provinces to build, build, build! Tens of thousands died! "And this heretic," he pants, "is the founder of our modern state!"

From the start, then, it was clear that only evil could ever befall this newfangled city on the Gulf of Finland, with its Germanic-sounding name, disastrously founded on blasphemy and impiety. So said old men then, in (illegal) long beards, and so says Timofei now. But while Timofei is pointing out storm-stained, mustard-coloured palaces, with heavy doors, begrimed interiors and colossal renovation costs, my mind is floating back to Pushkin, and thinking of old St Petersburg, with its soft northern light and its bridges and spires, its noblemen on horseback, its sail ships filling the Neva skyline, its phosphorescent summer nights, its women in silk stockings and beauty spots, its gilded carriages and sledges, its whirling couples behind windows, its galloping troikas, its duels at daybreak. I demand a brief pause in the tour.

Since Pushkin's day, I now declare, central St Petersburg – as a monument in stone and stucco – has hardly changed. "It has! It is 200 years worse!" retorts Timofei at once, implacable, leaning by the embankment of the Moika Canal. The white ice on the canal is littered with vodka bottles. On muddy verges, a whole winter's worth of dog excrement is surfacing with the thaw. On street level I see grimy cars, grimy buildings, grimy windows; up above, tangled cables for trams and trolley buses criss-cross the sky. Where is the answer? Was this city really condemned to misery from the day it was built?

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 Neva. Crossing a footbridge over the ice, we enter a cathedral full of marble slabs.

"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 St Petersburg."

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 St Petersburg. The square looks like an 1880s slum. Shifty men in bad suits and caps are standing about amid piles of slush and excrement, while women walk defensively arm in arm. For a moment, dare I say it, Timofei almost looks at home.
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 Catherine Palace seems to go on for ever, shining now gold, now blue, windows rising upon windows, statues upon statues, columns upon columns, in a relentless receding line. "You see," says Timofei, "after Peter's death, the city began to acquire this fake, southern, Italian magnificence."

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 Europe!" I have just been imagining immense retinues of courtiers with diamond buckles and buttons and epaulets. Now I see my guide's pale face. Perhaps a little fresh air for him? And in blinding snow, we step out into the garden, with its lawns, gravel walks, woods and follies. Troops of huddled tourists shuffle about under snow-laden trees. Then, down the road, beyond frozen ponds and rickety bridges, we spy the unkempt and peeling columns of the Alexander Palace.

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 Great Britain. And, suddenly, we are in the age of a 20th-century royal family. Nicholas, slight and neat, sitting in a group shot with his handsome wife and the children. Maria, Olga, Tatiana, Anastasia and little Prince Alexei: all at ease, all shimmering in their privileged innocence; all facing imminent death.

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 Russia – his great city of the future – has already been dead and gone, for many, many years.

The Facts

Getting there
Only British Airways (0845 77 333 77; and Aeroflot (020-7355 2233; fly direct from the UK (London) to St Petersburg. Return flights cost £315 with BA and £210 with Aeroflot.

Jeremy Atiyah stayed at the five-star Astoria Hotel, which can booked through The Leading Hotels of the World UK (00800 2888 8882; Doubles cost from £258 per night.

He also spent several nights staying in "home-stay" accommodation, booked through The Russia Experience (020-8566 8846;, an excellent option for first-time visitors to Russia. Prices vary according to location, starting from around £170 per person, based on two sharing, for a minimum three-night stay, including transfers and half-board accommodation.

Interchange (020-8681 3612; email:, a specialist Russia operator, can put together packages. A three-night break costs £344 per person, based on two sharing, including return direct flights, transfers and b&b in a hotel.

Further information
All visitors to Russia require a visa. If booking a package through an operator leave visa formalities to them, otherwise contact the Russian Consulate, 5 Kensington Palace Gdns, London W8 4QX (020-7229 8027).

Sunday, April 7, 2002

Barcelona loner

Barcelona loner

Fifteen years ago, Jeremy Atiyah came looking for an old-world Spanish experience. His neighbours craved a Spain that was 'super-moderno'. Today he admits, perhaps they had a point

Published: 07 April 2002

Mercedes may not have been my kind of girl, in the same sense that Barcelona may not have been my kind of town. "Super-moderno!" she would shriek, at 5am, at the sight of a chrome Cadillac affixed to a discotheque wall in the name of design. Yes, we were in the 1980s. But I had fled to Spain to live the life of a penniless Bohemian. Had I chosen the wrong city?

There were good reasons for Mercedes' addiction to modernity. The Catalans, after all, were still emerging from a fascist twilightland of sexual, linguistic and cultural repression. But then again, I too was emerging from something that seemed almost as bad – a privileged British education. Weren't we all on the rebound? And yet, while I had taken my typewriter to live in a pension in the Gothic quarter, trapped amid smells of frying chips, with cracked-tiled floors, a creaking bedstead and a front-door key as long as my forearm, Mercedes had got into glamorous hairstyles and designer jackets.

"You like that slum?" she used to ask me, with deep mistrust. I told her that I did. And down the road from the Pension Costa, what was more, at a café called the Casa Jose, where the floors were strewn with tissues and prawn shells, I ate daily lunches of chickpea soup followed by meat or fish a la plancha ("on the plate"). This honest fare, I told Mercedes, in triumph, was washed down with wine drunk from the spout of a carafe. Why pay for chrome Cadillacs in your disco when you could have a set menu with characterful old peasants for £1.50?

We really did not mesh. Mercedes showed me the Pedrera, Gaudi's (and her) idea of what a man's home should look like, rippling round a corner on the Passeig de Gracia like a cliff-faced eroded by centuries of dripping water. Its balcony-rails resembled pieces of burnt-out wreckage, or the dissolved residue of an acid attack.

"You see, we are modern people," Mercedes would exclaim, icily, pointing out half-seen towers swirling from the roof. "We are not peasants, as you English think. Am I right or am I wrong?"
I fear she was right. But I didn't want to be wrong. I wanted patatas bravas, funny old Spaniards, olive trees, ancient inscriptions, idle chat, haphazard service and sunshine; not stylish discotheques or designer bars or the Olympic games or modernism or Miró or Gaudi. Which was why, in 1988, I ran away from Barcelona, vowing never to return. Until now, that is. Because here I am again, essentially the same man, wondering what I left behind.

And all I can say so far, is that the hoopla surrounding the 1992 Olympic games has not yet gone away. Checking in at the new-fangled art hotel, on the restored seafront, I arrive to find thousands of Catalans massing here for a Sunday stroll through the Olympic Village. They are predictably proud of this hotel. It is Spain's tallest building. It has been built within a superstructure of naked girders. Inside, it is full of original art. But when I notice that my room costs £100, I yearn for the Pension Costa.

Meanwhile, the first bit of tourism I need to do, is to visit the Sagrada Familia. Catalans measure their lifetimes by the progress of the works on this place. Stepping out of the metro right now, I confess that I am thunderstruck. Beyond the piles of half-cut masonry, an interior to the nave has emerged, with delicate columns leaning like giant rhubarb stalks to a canopied roof. Now I can see how long I have been away.

I set off strolling, but at an anxious speed, through town. Idly walking is a civic duty here. Mercedes used to assure me that the Spanish derived their late-night energy from doing it with friends before dinner. "It is the best time of the day to socialise. You English go to your pubs after dinner. This is wrong. After dinner is a time for dancing, not for talking."

Yes, I think. Dancing. But now the original Ramblas seems to have lost something. I see foreign fast-food outlets everywhere. What I remember as a peep show is now a bank. The performance artists are still there amid the flower-vendors, but looking rather tired. And when I take a closer look at the Catalans, I see what I have always suspected: that they are old-fashioned at heart. In their eyes I see scant evidence of Miró or Gaudi; but plenty, of new apartments and Habitat furniture.
In the glorious Boqueria market, skinned goats' heads with bulging eyeballs are on sale. The salted bacalao looks as raw as the shores of Newfoundland. I remain as calm as a Spaniard while waiting 10 minutes for service behind a hatted lady who is remonstrating with a fruit-vendor. "Last week the oranges were dry," she is exclaiming, "the week before stupendous, the week before sour! Now I just don't know where I am!"

Even as she speaks, I am noticing that the Boqueria's piles of hand-selected fruit would not disgrace the Harrods' food hall. I see plums from Chile, apples from Japan, kiwi fruit from California. This worries me. What is more, all the housewives are totting up their sums in euros.

Walking down to the waterfront I keep catching views of a city that never used to exist. The Barceloneta district I remember as an isolated grid of alleyways and dodgy fish restaurants on the edge of town; now I see tour groups of schoolchildren, exclaiming over Catalan marvels of the 21st century.

Didn't this bit here used to be part of the sea? This bit where lawns and mature palm trees have been planted? Gaudi too seems to be here, in the dismembered handrails and erupting plazas. I step out onto floating bridges to arrive at a super-moderno shopping and cinema complex called Maremagnum which reminds me of Singapore airport.

It is all wonderful. I'm just annoyed that Mercedes has been proven right. And I promptly duck back into the Gothic quarter, in a desperate bid to find my own neighbourhood. But here, instead of quaint old grocers, I pass shops selling lava lamps, dyed fabrics and ethnic kitsch. Inca and Hindu goddesses have replaced chickpeas and lentils. The grocery stores that survive are now run by Pakistani families.

And where is the Casa Jose? Is this it? I am standing in front of a bar decorated with pretentious Art Deco calligraphy, glinting with bottles and seductive lighting. Credit cards are accepted. The set menu is an astronomical £6.

I am almost in a panic by the time I approach the building where I once spent a year of my life. I pass another furniture shop. Surely that never used to be there? Or might it be that I just didn't notice furniture shops in those days? As for the Pension Costa: I am convinced it no longer exists. Then on street level, right next to the Plaza St Jaime, a mere 100 yards from the Gothic cathedral, I notice a herborist which strikes me as new, until I recognise the smell, a mix of camphor and camomile, mingling with the alleyway aromas of frying oil and cats' piss.

This is it. The medieval doorway is open. It is a place Mercedes would never have gone. I creep up broken brick steps and ring on the bell. A clanking and jangling of keys announces the extremely slow approach of an owner who, when he finally gets the door open, seems not to have seen the light of day in decades.

"How much is a room?" I ask. Seven thousand a week, he tells me. He hasn't worked that out in euros yet. But I make it about £3 a night, a slight decrease, in sterling terms, since the 1980s. I check the room, which hasn't changed in 15 years, and realise, with worry, that neither have I. It still strikes me as a very interesting bargain.

"We just have retired people staying here," the old man mumbles. "The ones who can afford it. You want to book the room now?" I think about years long gone, and tell the man that I will let him know as soon as possible.