Like all the structures Peter the Great built, his new capital city was the triumph of will over nature and reason: Far from the center of the Russian empire, from any crossroads of trade, built on a fever-infested swamp intersected by unbridgeable rivers, with undrinkable water and the foulest climate in Europe, arose one of the world’s most phantasmagorically beautiful cities, a crucible of political might and cultural prodigality. Today, despite the destruction wrought by Hitler’s armies, St. Petersburg is still the best preserved of living cities: far from anywhere, nearly two hundred miles from Helsinki, four hundred from Moscow, on watery gravel which makes modern high-rise building nigh impossible, it cannot be ruined by development.
The best approach to the city—this phenomenon of exuberant Italian architecture in austere Nordic wastes of lakes, pines, and rocks, is by sea, from spring to autumn when the ferries run from Finland. The most comfortable is by rail: Russia’s high-speed trains take you from Moscow or, starting in 2009, Helsinki right into the city center. When you are settled in a room of your own, walk the length of the main thoroughfare, Nevsky Prospekt, and explore the side streets for half a mile either side—this is still a city for pedestrians. You can follow step by step Dostoyevsky’s heroes, walking with Raskolnikov, axe under his coat, as he goes to murder the old pawnbroker, or perambulating with the Idiot as he frantically roams the city. The buildings, distances, even the stairs, are exactly as Dostoyevsky described them 150 years ago.
For more aristocratic contemplation, ride the canals that intersect the main part of the city. Take the smallest boat on offer, since it can negotiate the narrowest canals that weave past the palazzi of the merchants and noblemen whom Peter the Great forced to migrate here. Like Venice’s palaces, Petersburg’s too are decaying, but in the crepuscular northern cold the process seems gentler.
The beauty of St. Petersburg, like the politeness of its middle-aged and elderly inhabitants, is not just the result of cultural pride. Like most striking beauty, it is born of appalling suffering, stoically endured. Within the oldest inhabitants’ memory, Petersburg (as Leningrad) endured Stalin’s Great Purge of the 1930s: many Old Bolsheviks (men, often professionals, usually in their 30s) were arrested, tortured, and shot. Then the Nazi blockade from 1941 to 1944 killed three quarters of a million. The city has been, politically, a ghost town ever since 1918, when the Bolsheviks removed power back to Moscow, and even now, when it attracts investment (it is, after all, a port, a window on Europe), St. Petersburg has the sad dignity of a dowager empress, her power ceded to an uglier, more vulgar rival.
DONALD RAYFIELD, professor of Russian and Georgian at the University of London, is the author of several books, including Stalin and His Hangmen (2004), Anton Chekhov: A Life (1997), and Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and the Wood Demon (2007).
2014 Traveler Photo Contest
See all the winning images from the 2014 Traveler Photo Contest.