St Petersburg

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Commissioned by Tsar Peter the Great (1672-1725) as "a window looking into Europe," St. Petersburg is a planned city whose elegance is reminiscent of Europe's most alluring capitals. Little wonder it's the darling of today's fashion photographers and travel essayists: built on more than a hundred islands in the Neva Delta linked by canals and arched bridges, it was first called the "Venice of the North" by Goethe, and its stately embankments are reminiscent of those in Paris. An Imperial city of golden spires and gilded domes, of pastel palaces and candlelit cathedrals, it's filled with pleasures and tantalizing treasures.

Conceived in the soul of a visionary emperor, St. Petersburg is Russia's adopted child. With its strict geometric lines and perfectly planned architecture, so unlike the Russian cities that came before it, St. Petersburg is almost too European to be Russian. And yet it's too Russian to be European. The city is a powerful combination of both East and West, springing from the will and passion of its founder, Tsar Peter the Great (1672-1725), to guide a resistant Russia into the greater fold of Europe, and consequently into the mainstream of history. That he accomplished, and more.

"The most abstract and intentional city on earth"—to quote Fyodor Dostoyevsky—became the birthplace of Russian literature, the setting for Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment and Pushkin's Eugene Onegin. From here, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, and Rimsky-Korsakov went forth to conquer the world of the senses with unmistakably Russian music. It was in St. Petersburg that Petipa invented—and Pavlova, Nijinsky, and Ulanova perfected—the ballet, the most aristocratic of dance forms. Later, at the start of the 20th century, Diaghilev enthralled the Western world with the performances of his Ballets Russes. Great architects were summoned to the city by 18th-century empresses to build palaces of marble, malachite, and gold. A century later it was here that Fabergé craftsmen created those priceless objects of beauty that have crowned the collections of royalty and billionaires ever since.

The grand, new capital of the budding Russian empire was built in 1703, its face to Europe, its back to reactionary Moscow, which had until this time been the country's capital. It was forcibly constructed, stone by stone, under the might and direction of Peter the Great, for whose patron saint the city is named. Just as the U.S. capital, Washington, D.C., rose from a swamp, so did Peter's city. It was nearly an impossible achievement—so many men, forced into labour, died laying the foundations of this city that it was said to have been built on bones, not log posts. As one of 19th-century France's leading lights, the writer Madame de Staël, put it: "The founding of St. Petersburg is the greatest proof of that ardor of the Russian will that does not know anything is impossible."But if Peter's exacting plans called for his capital to be the equal of Europe's great cities, they always took into account the city's unique attributes. Peter knew that his city's source of life was water, and whether building palace, fortress, or trading post, he never failed to make his creations serve it. Being almost at sea level (there is a constant threat of flooding), the city appears to rise straight up from its embracing waters. Half of the River Neva lies within the city's boundaries. As it flows into the Gulf of Finland, the river subdivides into the Great and Little Neva and the Great and Little Nevka. Together with numerous tributaries, they combine to form an intricate delta. Water weaves its way through the city's streets as well. Incorporating more than 100 islands and crisscrossed by more than 60 rivers and canals, St. Petersburg is often compared, except for its northern appeal, to that other great maritime city, Venice.

St. Petersburg's gleaming Imperial palaces emphasize the city's regal bearing, even more so in the cold light of the Russian winter. The colourful facades of riverside estates glow gently throughout the long days of summer in contrast with the dark blue of the Neva's waters. Between June and July, when the city falls under the spell of the White Nights, or Belye nochy, the fleeting twilight imbues the streets and canals with an even more delicate aura. During this time following the summer solstice (from June to early July), the gloom of night is banished, replaced by a twilight that usually lasts no more than 30 to 40 minutes. To honour this magical phenomenon, music festivals and gala events adorn the city's cultural calendar.

St. Petersburg is not just about its fairy-tale setting, however, for its history is integrally bound up in Russia's dark side, too—a centuries-long procession of wars and revolutions. In the 19th century, the city witnessed the struggle against tsarist oppression. Here the early fires of revolution were kindled, first in 1825 by a small band of starry-eyed aristocratic officers—the so-called Decembrists—and then by organized workers' movements in 1905. The full-scale revolutions of 1917 led to the demise of the Romanov dynasty, the foundation of the Soviet Union, and the end of St. Petersburg's role as the nation's capital as Moscow reclaimed that title. But the worst ordeal by far came during World War II, when the city—then known as Leningrad—withstood a 900-day siege and blockade by Nazi forces. Nearly 1.1 million civilians were killed in air raids, as a result of indiscriminate shelling, or died of starvation and disease.

St. Petersburg has had its name changed three times during its brief history. With the outbreak of World War I, it became the more Russian-sounding Petrograd. After Lenin's death in 1924, it was renamed Leningrad in the Soviet leader's honour. After the demise of the Soviet Union, the city's original name was restored by popular vote. Following the failed coup d'etat of August 1991, which hastened the demise of the Soviet Union and amounted to another Russian revolution, the city reverted to its original name—it was restored by popular vote, the first time the city's residents were given a choice in the matter. There were some who opposed the change, primarily because memories of the siege of Leningrad and World War II had become an indelible part of the city's identity. But for all the controversy surrounding the name, residents have generally referred to the city simply—and affectionately—as Piter.

In honour of the city's 300th anniversary in May 2003, the government spent more than 1 billion dollars restoring St. Petersburg to its prerevolutionary splendor. Some of that hastily applied gloss has begun to fade but with St. Petersburg's most famous son, Vladimir Putin, having shone a light on his hometown, revamping for prestige events continues in fits and starts. More than ever, busloads of tourists come to feast their eyes on pastel palaces, glittering churches, and that great repository of artwork, the Hermitage.