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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.