Magazine article The Spectator

The Great Survivor among Cities

Magazine article The Spectator

The Great Survivor among Cities

Article excerpt

The great survivor among cities

David Caute

PETERSBURG PERSPECTIVES edited by Frank Althaus and Mark Sutcliffe, with photographs by Yury Molodkovets Fontanka, with Booth-Clibborn Editions, L32, pp. 320, ISBN 1861542607

THE COMPANION GUIDE TO ST PETERSBURG by Kyril Zinovieff and Jenny Hughes Boydell & Brewer/Companion Guides, L14.99, pp. 430, ISBN 1900639408

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union St Petersburg has seized the moment to command Western attention: repudiating the entire communist experience by jettisoning the name Leningrad, Petersburg left Moscow floundering during the Yeltsin era, a capital of gangsters, collapsing banks, drunks frozen to death on pavements, angry old ladies in headscarves calling Stalin back from the dead. Petersburg's Maryinsky (aka Kirov) ballet and opera has supplanted Moscow's Bolshoi on Western stages, and now the 300th anniversary of Peter the Great's imperial grand design offers a further opportunity for self-promotion. The two very different books here under review confirm that there is much worth promoting - indeed Russia can virtually boast two capital cities.

Despite Stalin's grandiose architecture, Moscow may be likened to a growth of wild mushrooms and gaudy onions out of the hard soil and soul of ancient Rus; by contrast Petersburg is a model of calculated artificiality, the work of ardent Westernisers determined to hurry Russia into military, industrial and cultural modernity the better to reinforce autocracy and serfdom. Diderot, Voltaire and the Walpole paintings were for the new libraries and museums, not for democracy. The self-conscious classicism of the city, its rigorously oppressive symmetry, seems calculated to foster awe not love; in the alleys and courtyards behind the grand facades squalor and disease lay in wait. Despite its plethora of waterways and the prancing equestrian statues dear to doges and tsars, Petersburg is distinctly less the 'Venice of the North' than Edinburgh is the Athens. Pushkin, author of the celebrated poem 'The Bronze Horseman', wrote to his friend Vulf, 'I long to spit on St Petersburg.'

Kyril Zinovieff's Companion Guide to St Petersburg cannot compete with Yury Molodkovets' lavish feast of colour photography in the large-format Petersburg Perspectives, but while the bigger book whets the appetite and excites the imagination, The Companion Guide will be easier to handle while walking the streets, tackling the vast Hermitage, or heading for the Peterhof Palace and Tsarskoye Selo. This said, the guide is likely to be less user-friendly sur le champ than, say, Lonely Planet's Moscow; the pages and inside margins are too narrow for a text of such length, leading to inevitable stress on the binding and the traveller's temper.

Petersburg Perspectives is clearly in love with its subject, a beguiling meeting of Russian and English sensibilities, a celebration without sentimentality. Illuminating historical and architectural narratives by Alexander Kushner, Yury Arabov and Yury Piryutko are matched by a masterly overview from Orlando Figes, with the added delight of a short story by Charlotte Hobson, 'Pushkin's Letter' - an unexpected gem almost perfectly illuminating the tragedy of a great culture beset by material poverty, mould, swamp mud and disease. …

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