St. Petersburg, Part 2: Doing the city right (or wrong, and still enjoying it)

Part 2 of Allison’s guest post on St. Petersburg focuses on the more local experiences and daily life of Russians. Enjoy!!

The Hermitage is indeed magnificent. The vodka, deliciously cheap (if still not exactly delicious). But the first thing I fell in love with about St. Petersburg were the subway stations—or metros, as most everyone besides Americans calls them.

Because Peter the Great decided to build his “Paris of the East” on a river-crossed swamp, the entrances to St. Petersburg’s deeply-dug 60-year-old metros are as elongated and slow as the buildup at the beginning of a roller coaster; so long and slow that the friend I stayed with in the city told me she avoided commuting by subway because the journey into and out of the station was longer than her whole ride. That journey in and out is on an escalator whose bottom you can only squint at from the first step, presided over by a crisply uniformed woman in a glass cubicle at the escalator’s base who booms at commuters—“no running,” “no sitting”—in Russian over a loudspeaker. Little lamps line the handrails; some are numbered. It’s best not to count your way to the end.

Escalator down into the "Palace of the People" - aka metro subway

Escalator down into the “Palace of the People” – aka metro subway

You slide off the last step and are buoyed along by the crowd into a cavern too impossibly gleaming and magnificently rendered to exist only for public transportation. In New York you come to think of subway stations as purgatory before an air-conditioned carriage whisks you off to your glittery destination (and compared to the gum-grimed stations with their perennial smell of candied piss, even a white cubicle seems like a glittery destination). But my friend and I spent the morning of my second day in St. Petersburg just riding from station to station. In one day I saw three zamboni-like sweeping machines at work; in five years I have maybe seen a handful of dirty mops working away at the station floors in New York.

Most St. Petersburg metros have themes fleshed out in mosaics spread throughout the station: Poseidon & co. at Admiralteyskaya (which lies an impressive 86 meters below ground), royal blue bomber jets at Komendantsky Prospekt, a red-and-white-tiled portrait of the Russian Futurist Mayakovsky at his eponymous stop, oranges made sinister at Dostoevskaya. But my favorite was one of our last, and also one of the most famous: Avtovo Station, with its carved white marble ceilings, heavy gothic chandeliers, and series of pillars encased in swirling sheaths of cut-glass, all dedicated to the Leningraders who defended their city against the 900-day Nazi siege during World War II. Running my hand across the stars and wreaths of those glass pillars felt more special than spinning around in the outrageously gilded rooms of the Hermitage Museum. These were objects of beauty dedicated to everyday life—there to prop up tired commuters for a 28-ruble (about 81¢) token fee. During the Soviet era the metros were fittingly dubbed “palaces of the people.”

Metro station at the Komendantsky Prospekt stop

Metro station at the Komendantsky Prospekt stop

Mayakovskaya metro station

Mayakovskaya metro station

A glass pillar the Avtovo metro station

A glass pillar the Avtovo metro station

For all of its stunning art, outside and in—both of which I discussed in last week’s post [LINK]—St. Petersburg is just as much about the experiences as it is about sightseeing. There are the subways, and of course, there’s the vodka, which I first experienced in the form of a $13 half-liter bottle taken down shot by shot at a Soviet-style bar called Kafe Mayak, at 20 Mayakovskaya. From a book my boss had recommended to me, a 1973 sociological portrait of Soviet Russia by a former New York Times Moscow bureau chief called The Russians, I had learned that 1) Russians never leave an opened bottle of vodka unfinished; 2) mixers are not an option; and 3) the hard-core survivors of the war-time famines chased their shots with only a sniff of black bread. We stuck to lemon slices and open-faced sausage sandwiches. Mayak, which means “lighthouse,” closes at 11 p.m., but we had more than our fill by then.

Vodka drinking at Mayak with open-faced sandwiches and lemon slices

Vodka drinking at Mayak with open-faced sandwiches and lemon slices

Russia’s gastro-delights don’t end with vodka. I was surprised to find a number of cafes and restaurants—from Biblioteka on the famed main drag Nevsky Prospekt, to Teplo, a dinner spot hidden inside an apartment courtyard—whose cappuccino foam art and light-wood interiors wouldn’t have felt out-of-place in my Williamsburg neighborhood in New York. I enjoyed their mouth-watering twists on classics like borscht and beef stroganoff just as much as people-watching the young and stylish at the faux-rustic tables. But one of my happiest experiences was at an anti-café—a uniquely Russian invention by Russia’s not-so-unique hipster set. The “anti,” is misleading, for these places have seating similar to most cafes and serve coffee, but instead of paying for your latte you pay for your time and have as many lattes, teas, and store-bought cookies as you want during that time. My friend and I paid 180 rubles, or around $5, at a place called FreeDOM (dom means “home”) for 90 minutes, two drinks each, a bowl of snacks, and the nicest customer service I had in Russia. We also brought our own picnic lunch to its Turkish-inspired room—just one in a labyrinth of themed spaces, from a techno-y video game lair to an old-timey room outfitted with faded wallpaper and an upright piano.

The friend I visited in St. Petersburg enjoying a cappuccino at the anit-cafe FreeDOM

The friend I visited in St. Petersburg enjoying a cappuccino at the anit-cafe FreeDOM

And then there was the botched but still well-worth-it experience of watching the bridges go up. My friend had first spent a year in St. Petersburg with a host family on a study abroad program—this time around, she was teaching English there for a year—and on one of her first nights in the city, her host sister took her down to the bank of the Neva River with a tote bag of beer after midnight. Every night, the many bridges along the Neva are raised up to allow larger vessels passage down the river. The particular bridge we chose was supposed to rise at 1:25 am, and we got down to the waterfront, wearing winter coats and nursing dark beers, a good 10 minutes ahead of time. 1:25 passed. Then 1:30. At 1:35 we peeked out from the stone stairwell in which we’d chosen to wait and saw a lit-up V down the river—a bridge that was supposed to go up after ours was already raised. What was wrong with our bridge? We decided to give it another 10 minutes. And then we saw a big ship pass effortlessly in front of us. “Hold on,” my friend said and scrambled up the stairs. Our bridge had already gone up—such a limited part of the bridge was raised up and it had happened so quietly that we hadn’t even noticed. Some other experiences that week had made me unsurprised that the bridges wouldn’t go up when they were supposed to, but this time, the goof was ours alone. We snapped a photo on my iPhone and ran home, laughing the whole way.

Watching the bridges rise of the Neva

Watching the bridges rise over the Neva

Lastly, in terms of classic Russian experiences, the ballet is justifiably a celebrated one. We saw the communist-era “Legend of Love” at the historic Mariinsky Theatre, a late-18th-century confection of mint and sea-foam greens. Women still wear dresses and heels to the show, and the panoply of coatrooms is in itself a thing to see. But no matter how magnificent the setting, what happens onstage is the highlight—in our case, an oriental-inspired morality tale conducted almost entirely en pointe. I will never forget it.

Mariinsky theater showcasing the Russian ballet

Mariinsky theater showcasing the Russian ballet

Russian ballet being performed in the historic Mariinsky Theater - circa 1873

Russian ballet being performed in the historic Mariinsky Theater – circa 1783

Dressing up to attend the Russian ballet at the historic Mariinsky Theater

Dressing up to attend the Russian ballet at the historic Mariinsky Theater

I will never forget a lot of things about St. Petersburg, but in my short but jam-packed time there, one observation seemed to rise above the rest: that St. Petersburg is essentially a city of opposites, of Germanic efficiency and bureaucratic senselessness, of big and small pleasures, of the over-the-top and the humble—from the Church on Spilled Blood’s rainbow-colored onion domes to a 10¢-bundle of fresh dill. And of the opposition between the tsarist and communist legacies, though one stroll through Petersburg’s streets makes apparent how similarly monumental each side aspired to be.

Check out some of Allison’s published poetry:

https://nomadicnarrator.com/category/favorite-authors/allison-malecha/

http://yareview.net/2011/08/distortions-and-creed-to-deal/

http://highschoolpoetrycontest.com/08-09

http://www.amazon.com/Minds-Eye-Allison-Malecha/dp/1419612549/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1404485444&sr=1-1&keywords=allison+malecha

St. Petersburg – Part 1: Drunk on beauty

Following is a post written by my first guest blogger (and daughter), Allison Malecha, assistant editor at Grove Atlantic Publishers, a published poet and a great travel companion. Allison is a graduate of Columbia University with a degree in Comparative Literature and the Humanities – with a focus on the languages of French and Czech. Allison has traveled the world extensively, with extended studies or internships in Paris, Prague, Amman, Oxford and Florence. She brings to her writing a very old soul with a very young heart. 

St. Petersburg is a city that has had many names—Saint Petersburg at its founding by Tsar Peter the Great in 1703, Petrograd in 1914 after the fall of the tsarist monarchy, Leningrad following Vladimir Lenin’s death in 1924, returned to its original moniker in 1991 after the fall of communism, and nicknamed “Piter” throughout. My phone, set to Czech, still called it Petrohrad.

However you title it, the city is Russia’s second largest, and it is the northernmost big city in the world, with just under five million inhabitants. From 1713 to 1728 and again from 1732 to 1918, the city was the capital of Russia (the governmental seat then moved to Moscow)—and its monumental architecture and wide Parisian boulevards fit that bill. But the fact that the city is basically an assortment of swampy islands bisected by the Neva River, which runs from Lake Ladoga in the northeast to the Gulf of Finland in the west, keeps it from achieving anything like a grid. Partly because of this, and partly because I spent my seven days in the city with a friend who is fluent in Russian acting as my 24-hour guide, I still had trouble navigating the 10-minute walk from my friend’s apartment to Nevsky Prospekt, the famed artery of St. Petersburg, until the very end of my trip.

A map of St. Petersburg showing the highlighted attractions and the many waterways off the Neva River that flows through the city from Ladoga Lake on the east side to the Gulf of Finland on the west side

The first step, though, to seeing St. Petersburg, or any of Russia, is just plain getting there. You need a visa, and to get a visa, you need an invitation, which you can buy for around $30 on this website. It looks fake and feels fake and is fake, but it works. The same site also directs you to the visa application, which you fill out online and then finish processing at a visa issuing office. The total cost for me was around $150, but the price varies depending on time constraints and type of visa.

Once inside the St. Petersburg airport, I wasn’t asked a single question by the customs officer, and with the tap of a button inside her glassy cubicle, I was let loose on the whole beautiful city. I had flown in from Prague, and the colors of St. Petersburg’s buildings looked sober to me in comparison: yellows, beiges, and peaches instead of greens, pinks, blues. But I soon learned that these more stately exteriors hid many vibrant treasures: from the Hermitage’s Golden Drawing Room to the jewel-encrusted eggs cushioned in gleaming display cases at the newly opened Fabergé Museum.

The Gold Drawing-Room at the Hermitage

The Gold Drawing-Room at the Hermitage

My first full day was Thursday, May 1st, and since the Hermitage Museum offers free entry to all visitors on the first Thursday of every month, my friend and I stood for an hour and a half in the cold to avoid paying for tickets. Once inside, every goosebump became well worth it. My mom has mentioned Versailles here, but the rooms of the Hermitage, Russia’s most famous art museum and the former residence of the Russian monarchs, made the Hall of Mirrors look chintzy in comparison. Truth be told, I couldn’t describe a single painting or sculpture I saw, but I can remember feeling awe in a room done entirely in gold leaf, putting my hand around a crystal doorknob the color of a ruby and the size of a tennis ball, and craning my neck in each room to gaze at the wooden ceilings, intricately carved and painted pale blue and white, or cream and gold, or in splashes of color formed into murals.

Me in front of the Hermitage

Me in front of the Hermitage

Ruby red crystal door knob, the size of a tennis ball, on a door at the Hermitage Museum

Ruby red crystal door knob, the size of a tennis ball, on a door at the Hermitage Museum

Ceiling at the Hermitage

Highly ornate ceiling at the Hermitage

The large-scale extravagance of the Hermitage is mirrored in miniature at the Fabergé Museum, just off Nevsky Prospekt along the Fontanka Canal. One of St. Petersburg’s newest treasures, the museum has only been open to the general public since April and still must be experienced through a Russian-language tour. But it is worth finding an interpreter, or screwing comprehension altogether, to ogle the imperial eye candy on display. The French and German-trained jeweler Carl Fabergé began making his priceless ostrich-egg-sized artifcats—often fashioned from mother of pearl and spackled with gems—for Tsar Alexander III in the 1880s and continued it as an Easter tradition for his successor Nicholas II, the last tsar of Russia. The yolks of these eggs are the real treat—pint-sized portraits or gem-covered toys that reveal themselves through impressive feats of mechanization. The museum’s collection doesn’t end with the eggs, though; Fabergé designed everything from cigarette cases to dinner plates to icons, a staple of traditional Russian households. And it’s all housed in the elegantly restored Shuvalov Palace, which once saw some of the finest fêtes in St. Petersburg come through its ballrooms.

The only picture I was able to take of the Faberge' Exhibit at the Shuvalov Palace

The only picture I was able to take of the Faberge’ Exhibit at the Shuvalov Palace

As in any big city, St. Petersburg’s art doesn’t end indoors. For each of the five million living, breathing inhabitants, there seems to be a stony-faced statue. St. Petersburg boasts more statues than any city I’ve ever seen: scientists and tsars, politicians and literary greats, and a Lenin and Pushkin for every neighborhood. Carved into the walls of subway stations and building facades, guarding the many bridges, and standing proudly in every square and half-square of the city. Some of my favorites were the self-effacing Raskolnikov (Dostoevsky’s murderous protagonist in Crime & Punishment) on Stolyarny, and the immense Lenin in front of Finland Station, one hand clutching at his armpit, the other thrust outward at an invisible crowd. The day we visited, we were the revolutionary’s only audience, along with a cluster of snowflakes the clouds had suddenly let loose from the sky. The most renowned statue, though, is the Bronze Horseman, along the bank of the Neva and not far from the Hermitage. Catherine the Great’s 1782 tribute to her idol Peter, the statue is mounted atop the “Thunder Stone,” which the Russians claim to be the largest stone ever moved by man at 1,500 tons.

Lenin statue in Lenin Square in front of Finland Station

Lenin statue in Lenin Square in front of Finland Station

Unlike in most European cities, almost all of these statues are secular in nature. But as anyone who has read Russian literature—and if you haven’t, Crime & Punishment is an excellent place to start—knows, Russian Orthodoxy is integral to the nation’s culture, and remained so even through 60 years of communist state-imposed atheism. The orthodox church’s onion domes strongly flavor the skyline: from the coal-colored domes of Vladimirskiya, which Dostoevsky frequented while writing the Brothers Karamazov, to the Candy Land-esque spires of the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. The name of the latter hints at its origin story: it was built at the end of the 19th century by Tsar Alexander III in honor of his father, on the spot where he was fatally wounded by a bomb-throwing anarchist. I could have walked around the building for hours, analyzing its deep rainbow shades and flourishes of gold. But after waiting in line for a ticket, I walked inside the cathedral. Though every wall is covered floor-to-atrium in mosaics, I felt less that awe-inspired. Not because I’m unreligious, though that’s true, but because my head immediately became filled with the snaps and clacks of cameras capturing every tiled face and lit candle. I couldn’t concentrate, and after one tour, I pushed my way back outside.

Church of the Spilled Blood

Church of the Spilled Blood

Earlier that same day I had resented Fabergé’s no-photography policy—compounded by the fact that its museum store seemed indefinitely closed for business—but my experience at the Church on Spilled Blood (for short) made me think they might have had the right idea. Sometimes, the beauty of a city, especially a city as overflowing in beautiful things as St. Petersburg, is better sipped in silence.