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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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