mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
The Greatest City You’ve Never Seen

I’m on the way back to the US from two weeks in Europe today. Assuming that the flights all work as advertised and I make a tight connection in Moscow, I’ll be back in New York late this evening after an early start in St. Petersburg. Thanks to all the staff and interns who’ve helped me keep the blogfires burning brightly during the trip. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of keeping up both the quality and the quantity of our posts here, and I appreciate all the readers who stayed with us as we conducted this trans-Atlantic blogging experiment.

I had a week in Germany and a week in Russia; during the Germany week I bounced around from Berlin to Hamburg, Munich, Frankfurt and Nuremberg. In Russia, I’ve been in St. Petersburg the whole time.

It was an eye opening experience. Going back to the Soviet era, I’ve been to Russia many times, and besides time in Moscow I’ve been able to see cities like Vladivostok, Rostov, Yaroslavl and Irkutsk — not to mention lots of small towns and out of the way places in the south and the Far East.

But until this visit I’d never seen St. Petersburg, and I have to say that I’ve fallen in love. Seeing St. Petersburg after you’ve seen a lot of other Russian cities may be the best way to appreciate it. If you don’t know Russia, you may not “get” the way this city so brilliantly and creatively brings Russia and Europe together. The way churches like the Kazan Cathedral “quote” Roman church architecture while blending them with classical Byzantine and Russian themes speaks to more than an architectural vision. This city is a statement and not just a pile of buildings and there are not many cities that make a statement as powerfully as St. Petersburg.

Like many travelers, I’ve gotten sick of the “Venice” trope; any city with more than a couple of bridges tries to call itself the Venice of this or the Venice of that. I’ve even seen the city of Wroclaw in Poland described as the “Venice of Silesia.”

But St. Petersburg really is the Venice of the North. It’s not just that it has lots of rivers and canals; the architects of St. Petersburg deliberately and consciously quoted Venice all over the place. They do more than that; the Italian architects that people like Peter and Catherine dragged up here to build for them used the techniques of classical and renaissance architecture in new ways. The buildings here (often government offices in Czarist times) are massive, and the techniques of classical architecture are used to impose shape and style on a cityscape that in sheer size dwarfs anything in Italy. It looks in places like Venice or Rome, but blown up and enlarged — yet, from the right distance, elegant and serene. As you walk along the Neva, or take boat rides through the city’s canals, you see cityscape after cityscape that evokes Venice — though not aping it.

At this time of year the nights are short; it is light enough to read a newspaper outside at 11:30 PM and at 10 PM the roofs and steeples of the city still gleam in the sun. This is one of the great cities in the world; in a way I am sorry that it took me so long to get here — but I am also glad that after decades of travel all over the world I can still be startled and surprised by a city that is a revelation.

If travel is an important part of your life, this is a city that you need to see. Few cities in the world express ideas with the clarity and force of St. Petersburg; few are so brave or so beautiful as this astonishing anomaly and miracle, this triumph of vision and hope, this stage for political theater in the far reaches of the north.

I very much hope to return.

[Image: Shutterstock]

Features Icon
show comments
  • thibaud

    The Hermitage comprises one of the greatest art collections in the world in the most spectacular setting of any art museum. It includes what is probably the greatest oil painting ever: Rembrandt’s “Return of the Prodigal Son.”

  • Rusky

    WRM, another visit to the ‘burg in January would perhaps round off your opinion. Its been ten years since I’ve been there, but I was amused at the influence of the mafia in that city… they were essentially sentinels of the subway. Also, thank you for keeping up on the content during the trip – I for one truly appreciate it.

  • Walter Sobchak

    I still hope to go to St. Petersburg. Here a couple of movies related to the city that are well worth watching

    “Russian Ark”

    A trip through the Hermitage and Russian History — A bit “tripy” but extremely worthwhile.
    “White Nights (1985)”

    Starring Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gregory Hines in a cold war thriller. Great dance scenes too.

  • Gary L

    I’ve never been, but the missus & I are planning a visit to St. P & Mosocw next year. WRM, are you familiar with Andrei Bely’s 1913 novel Petersburg? Joyce once boasted that if Dublin were to be destroyed, it could be rebuilt simply by consulting Ulysses, and Bely might have made a similar boast about Petersburg on behalf of his novel. Vladimir Nabokov ranked it with Ulysses, Kafka’s Metamorphoses, and Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu as the greatest masterpieces of 20th Century prose – but none of those other works feature a ticking time-bomb at the narrative climax. I just checked Amazon, and the excellent translation by Robert Maguire & John Malmstead is available on Kindle.

  • J R Yankovic

    Thanks for a very warm and moving account of what is – by everything I’ve read and heard – a truly great city. And also for a reminder that goes clean against the grain of today’s fashionable Russophobia (though is it just me, or does every Age have its own fashionable Russophobia? And, most recently, one promising to ensure the most “Westernized” Moscow that money can bribe?). In other words, even those barbarous Russians can do something really excellent every now and then. Though frankly it does often seem to me, on balance, that those rulers most aggressively bent on “Westernizing” and “modernizing” Russia – Peter, Catherine, Lenin, Yeltsin – only succeeded in further barbarizing both elites and masses.

    And of course to every Age its own excellence. Besides which, who’s to say our own contemporary definition isn’t vastly superior to that of every preceding era?

    So no doubt it’s just the irrational imp in me – or the curmudgeonly reactionary – that’s waiting to hear of those human gods, the Germans and the Chinese, producing something as retrograde as a Gogol, or Dostoevsky, or Chekhov. Or Solzhenitsyn.

  • rkka

    What staggers is the contrast with the skies there. Striking. Unforgettable.

  • Yisroel Markov

    As one born and raised in St. Petersburg, I thank you for this tribute. The beauty of that city was one of the few things that made life in the USSR a bit less bleak.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service