Two angels stand guard over St Petersburg in Russia. Both of them tower more than 400 ft above the city skyline, looking outwards from the Peter and Paul fortress on the Neva River and from the Admiralty column on the mainland. As they gently turn with the wind they also seem to reflect the changes that Russia has gone through in the past few decades.
I was in St Petersburg to attend a conference and immersed myself in the city and its history. The city has changed its name more often than most but although it was for a time called Leningrad the character of the city has stayed faithful to the vision of its founder, Peter the Great. Peter (1672-1725 CE) was a man with a burning ambition to put Russia on the world map and he arguably started the process that eventually led to Russia’s superpower status. The city was built according to his specifications in 1703 CE and was designed to be on equal terms with any European city. Indeed its European nature remains the defining feature of St Petersburg.
Friendly rivalry goes on between people from Moscow, the capital, and people from St Petersburg. The latter consider themselves to be more cultured and refined than the inhabitants of Moscow, to the extent that people claim ability to differentiate between Russians born in the two places. Anna, a student of Russian literature, told me that Moscow is the real Russia, where something unpredictable happens every day, whereas St Petersburg is as normal as any place in Europe. Nonetheless, the most famous attractions of the city as well as the vast squares and plazas all bear eloquent testimony to a man who was accustomed to thinking on a very large scale.
When I told people that I was going to St Petersburg, the most common response I received was envy because I would have the chance to visit the famous Hermitage Museum. Built upon the collections of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, the museum boasts an unparalleled collection of art from all over the world. The museum consists of a series of three interlocked buildings and it houses close to three million items including paintings, sculptures, coins and archeological exhibits. I was most interested in seeing the section on French impressionism, thinking that this would be a rare opportunity to actually see a Van Gogh. It turned out that other people had the same idea, and consequently the impressionist rooms were very crowded. It was however quite entertaining watching the guided groups, especially when several tried to coexist in the same small room. I heard art commentary in scores of languages, underlining the interest of the world in this museum. If anybody is planning to visit the Hermitage, I have only one piece of advice: it is impossible for the human mind to take in all the wonderful exhibits in one day.
The Hermitage is a wonderful collection of art but for art in its intended environment, one must visit the Church of the Resurrection of Christ also known as the Church of the Spilled Blood, because it was built as a memorial on the spot where Emperor Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. It is an unmistakeably Orthodox Church, complete with domes and spires and it instantly reminds the visitor of the Kremlin. The entire edifice stands like a gorgeously coloured candy masterpiece, rising majestically and incongruously from the surrounding buildings. The outside is decorated with scenes from the Bible, particularly those with respect to the resurrection of Christ, while the inside is decorated from floor to ceiling with mosaics. I could barely imagine the effort which must have been required to finish such a complex scheme of decoration. It is said that this church contains more mosaics than any other in the world.
I wandered outside the church after a while and started reading the inscriptions on the walls. One inscription was riddled with bullet holes, a reminder of the destruction that St Petersburg endured during World War II. The retreating German army trashed everything in its path so several of the wonderful buildings we see today are complete reconstructions. I went to Petrodvorets on the outskirts of the city, one of the many palaces scattered in and around the city. It has an immense system of hundreds of fountains and waterways powered only by gravity. As I was standing there looking at the impressive display, it was easy to forget that the entire palace, fountains and all, had been reconstructed based on few surviving drawings and blueprints. If anybody had needed further proof of the immense pride.
St Petersburg citizens take in their past, it is found in the devotion and care they take to restore such buildings to their past glory.
The city is built on the river delta and the Neva is an important waterway for ships to reach the Baltic Sea. The seafaring context is obvious from one of the embankments on the Neva which is decorated with huge red ‘Rostral Columns’, decorated with the prows of defeated ships, mainly from the war against Sweden. However the bridges of St Petersburg are too low for ships to pass under, so they open at night. As I headed for the bus stop, I turned to take a last look at the city and I saw not only the patient ships gliding by the bridges standing at attention under the many coloured hues of the setting sun, but also the angels of St Petersburg catching the last rays, golden angels promising good fortune to the residents of Peter’s dream city.
(Published in the Deccan Herald)