St. Petersburg, Miracle on Marshland
Novakovich, Josip, Newsweek
Byline: Josip Novakovich
Peter the Great patterned the city after Amsterdam, and even though St. Petersburg is newer than New York by almost 100 years, in some places it feels a thousand years old--a few buildings seem to be a cross between Roman ruins and German palaces. The building walls, usually between three and four feet thick, host basement cafes and restaurants where you can't get a cellphone signal. The walls are moist, and smell like rivers, because the city was built on marshland.
In the center of the city, when I lived in St. Petersburg, I often walked through the intricate urban design and strange history. The cathedral on Canal Griboyedova, which looks like a pleated cake, mostly in blue and gold, is named Spas na Krovi, the Savior on Spilled Blood. Here Alexander II, a great reformer who abolished serfdom, was killed by a team of anarchist assassins, a script pretty closely followed later on by Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo.
One day, almost immediately after arriving in the city in 2006, I strolled into the Summer Garden and looked at the low palaces across the Fontanka River. According to a guide who spoke through a megaphone with a crackling sound from a tourist boat, in one of the palaces anybody caught practicing cannibalism during the Great Siege was hanged. A million froze and starved to death, and only about a hundred cases of cannibalism were recorded.
An old woman in the courtyard next to the building where I lived showed me her knotty, arthritic fingers and claimed there had been something wrong with them ever since she, as a child, had to collect snow with her hands from the yard so her family would have drinking water during the siege. I expected her to hate Germans on that account, but instead, she told me a story about a dashing German officer who had been in love with St. Petersburg for years but could never afford to visit. During the war he was stationed in hills outside the city, bombing St. Petersburg, but in his spare time, he admired the steeples: St. Isaac's in gold, Trinity dome in navy blue, another church in crimson, Kazan in dark green copper, and Smolensk in pale blue, almost indistinguishable from dusky skies, except for the white stone beneath the dome glowing even after the sun set. …