St Petersburg at 300 - Vast Beauty, a Turbulent History, and Remarkable Endurance Characterize Russia's Cultural Capital, the City of St. Petersburg

Article excerpt

The Neva is clad in granite

Bridges hang poised over her waters

Her islands are covered with dark green gardens

And before the younger capital, ancient Moscow

Has paled, like a purple clad widow

Before a New Empress.

--Alexander Pushkin

When I made my first visit to St. Petersburg, Russia, over twenty-five years ago, I thought how much the city looked like Paris, with its exquisite architecture and dreamy embankments; or Venice, with its charming canals, arching bridges, and pastel horizons. All these comparisons, I quickly realized, were superficial. No other city in the world is as true to itself.

St. Petersburg sprang from a collision of two very different cultures but soon adapted the tastes of both East and West to the far northern latitudes. The city is illuminated by the opalescent White Nights in summer, then smothered by winter gloom, and its history equally juxtaposes shining artistic achievement and dark political upheaval. This paradoxical place has inspired both revelry and revolutions and combines the personality of three cities into one. It was Petersburg for the czars, Petrograd for a nation at war, and Leningrad for the followers of the Bolshevik Revolution. Today, once again, it is known as St. Petersburg.

Whenever I stroll along its embankments (the city is made up of forty- four islands and 350 bridges), the first thing I notice is the incredible light. Joseph Brodsky, the Nobel Prize--winning poet, best summed up its magical luminescence: "It's the northern light, pale and diffused, one in which memory and eye operate with unusual sharpness. In this light ... a walker's thoughts travel farther than his destination." A stroll down any path is bound to take you through a cross section of three centuries of extraordinary history.

On my first day of exploring, I visit the former residences of Peter the Great, from his first modest wooden cottage on the banks of the Neva River to his stunning summer palace, the Peterhof, modeled on Versailles. In Senate Square stands the magnificent statue known as the Bronze Horseman, commissioned, in 1768, by Catherine the Great to honor Peter I. The French sculptor Falconet took twelve years to create, in his own words, "an alive, vibrant and passionate spirit." He designed the titanic rider on a rearing horse, crushing a serpent underfoot. Today, the statue is considered symbolic of the city's splendor and endurance. Legend has it that as long as the Horseman rides, St. Petersburg shall never perish.

And high above him all undaunted

Deaf to the storm's rebellious roars

With hand outstretched, the Idol mounted

On steed of bronze, majestic soars.

One man's dream

Petersburg sprang into existence due to the iron will of a single man. Peter the Great resolved to build a city along the desolate shores of the Gulf of Finland to let landlocked Russia "stand firmly on the sea." In 1703, when the Russian army won a decisive battle against the Swedes in the Baltic, Peter decided to protect Russia's first seaport with an outpost on the Neva River delta; it was named the Saints Peter and Paul Fortress. On May 16, 1703, a salute was fired to celebrate the founding of St. Petersburg, Russia's first "window on the west."

Because Peter dreamed that his new residence would rival Venice and Amsterdam, he named it Sankt Pieter Burkh, after Christ's first apostle, his patron saint. The city was one of the first in the world built to preconceived plans. They were drawn up by the most famous Russian and European architects, as well as Peter himself, who was determined to bring the majesty of the West to his own doorstep (thereby transforming the medieval country into a modern state). Only nine years after its inception, Peter the Great proclaimed his beloved city the capital of the Russian empire; it remained so for 206 years. …