In Russia’s tale of two cities, if Moscow is the business, political and social hub of Russia, St Petersburg lays a strong claim to be its cultural capital.
The city was built in a quite ruthless fashion, and is a mark of the almost god-like powers with which many Russian leaders, from the Tsars to Putin, find themselves invested.
Peter the First, in his bid to Europeanise Russia, decided he needed a capital on the shores of the Baltic. Having settled on the right spot, a pestilential marshland was turned into the “Venice of the Baltic” by a slave-army of 500,000 serfs and prisoners of war. Estimates put the death toll on the city-wide building site between 30,000 and 100,000.
The new city, with its sweeping boulevards and picturesque canals, became Russia’s capital. Over the years, it also been known as Petrograd (St Petersburg was deemed too-Teutonic a name in the midst of the First World War) and Leningrad, after the man who relegated the city to secondary status, moving the capital to Moscow.
Like many European ports, Piter (as the locals affectionately call their city) has a rough and ready nightlife – especially along Dumskaya Ultisa. Police have promised a peaceful World Cup, but St Petersburg is a city in which people take offence quicker and fists fly faster than in the capital.
As the city’s most famous rock group, Leningrad, sing: B Pitere – Pit (In Piter we drink) Those looking for high jinx should try Dumskaya; Rubinstein Street is also awash with excellent watering holes.
City of culture
The city’s grand main thoroughfare, Nevsky Prospekt, is steeped in history and tradition. Literature lovers will love to tour Dostoevsky’s streets from Crime and Punishment and Notes on the Underground, Gogol’s The Nose, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, all of which are, at least in part, set in the city. Dostoevsky’s old house in the city is well worth a tour.
This year’s World Cup coincides with the “White Nights” festival. Due to its latitude, summer days in St Petersburg are remarkably long, and for two weeks the sun does not set at all.
The must-see attraction is the Hermitage – what was once the Tsarist era Winter Palace has been converted into the world’s second largest museum, with the largest collection of paintings on the planet. Entry is remarkably cheap if compared to similar institutions in New York, London or Paris, and merely trying to find ones way through the labyrinthine splendor can take a day in itself.
Piter’s answer to St Basil’s in Moscow is the Church on Spilled Blood, built on the site of where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated by an assassin’s bomb. In this beautiful, yet grisly shadow lies Konyushennaya Square, which will be home to the fan park.
Russians, and especially Pitertsy, love karaoke and the city is full of karaoke bars. Stretch those vocal chords and don’t be shy!
Read before coming:
Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoesvky