A city that stays with you: our literary editor reports from St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG. Which city is more “the center of the world” is one question worth asking as our express train zips along through the wide, flat, green countryside on the four-hour journey once taken in giant horse-drawn sleds by royalty making the trip from Moscow to St. Petersburg.

Our lectures, given mostly by local historians, tended to focus on political and cultural history—one by Pavel Palazhenko, Mikhail Gorbachev’s translator, and another by Zoya Belyakova, biographer of royalty. But the center of our intellectual discussion was always Serge, Times Pulitzer Prize winner and son of Alexander Schmemann, a famous Orthodox archbishop-theologian, and Juliana Ossorguine, a descendant of a Russian Orthodox saint. He has a strong sense of the intimate connection in Russia between present and past, a realization that Russia cannot be properly understood without appreciating the religious history permeating the culture and the corruption that has always eaten away at the political “system,” the face-to-face connections among the ruling bureaucracy, where “bribery” is not in cash but in favoritism.

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We talked about all this as our train rolled through forests interrupted by clusters of dachas, those country homes, some no bigger than a car garage with backyard gardens, where 70 percent of the population, not just the rich, escape the tension of city work-life.

The “Crisis”

Ironically, the first local news story that welcomed us upon arrival was the English-language newspaper The Moscow Times’s “The Fast and the Privileged” (June 2-8), on the “golden youth” generation who, because their families were multimillionaires, saw themselves as playboys above the law.

The son of a top oil executive had led the police on a five-hour chase with six police cars in pursuit, as he rocketed around town returning from a night club, plowing through crosswalks and taking U-turns over an island of grass and into a park. The 20-year-old boy laughed it off: “What will they do to us? Nothing.” They fined him $75. But he had the arrogance to publicize himself on the internet. His father played the old card telling the authorities it was only a “misunderstanding”; but the police chief and the public were outraged and some called for a boycott of the father’s gas stations. As one pollster said, the Russians still foster a deep sense of distrust toward the rich and the “crisis—the behavior of the young plutocracy— isn’t helping.”

A Tale of Two Capitals

The history of Russia is one of overlapping histories and identifies. Peter the Great, who built this city in 1703, determined that it would identify itself with the Western world, that his capital would be known as one of world’s greatest cities, armed with a great navy, with its canals feeding into the Neva River, which wrapped around the city and leads to the Baltic Sea. The traveler grasps this when the boat swings out into the vast open river and rides smoothly under bridges and along the river banks with the long, yellow four-story buildings and golden-domed cathedrals looming above.

Peter’s descendants, the Romanovs, who drove back Napoleon, would rule Russia until the communist revolution of 1916 with the assassination of Tsar Nicolas II and his entire family. Then renamed Leningrad, it endured the Nazis’ 900-day siege and blockade that killed a million people. The capital moved to Moscow, and from there a series of presidents have led the country through the Cold War, all the while struggling for a modern, high-cultured secular identity, with religious freedom restored but apparently not widely practiced.

From our Monday arrival at the Belmond Grand Hotel to our Friday departure, our little group from all over America bonded well as we lunched at different restaurants, like the Tsar, where they play the national anthem every evening at 9 p.m. and the toilets are designed as high-backed royal thrones. We hit a church and a museum a day, milling everywhere with thousands of visitors crammed like riders in New York subway cars at rush hour into beautiful ancient gilded buildings, all apparently modeled on Versailles. In the Hermitage, one of the world’s greatest museums, which welcomes eight million visitors a year, the two most stared at and photographed paintings were Rembrandt’s ''The Return of the Prodigal Son” and Leonardo aa Vinci’s “The Virgin and Child.”

At the Peter and Paul Fortress, opened in 1704, we toured a row of prison cells, about the size of a three-man crowded college dorm room, for political prisoners, each one with one small high-up window, a bunk, a small table and nothing else. On the lawn, a unique statue of Peter the Great sits, overweight and still towering but with a very tiny bald head and long fingers, while visitors, as if visiting a saint, touch his hands for good luck.

A few yards away is the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, built between 1712 and 1933, under not a bulbous dome but a 400-foot-high gilded spire adorned by a golden cross. Here lie buried the whole Romanov family in the earth beneath the floor, under an array of fenced in marble coffins spread through the whole church. It seems that whether or not the Catholics and Orthodox went to Mass the church is tolerated mainly because religious tradition is embedded in the national consciousness.

Two events from Moscow stand out. The first is a visit to the little known underground bomb shelter built during the Cold War in anticipation of a nuclear attack by the United States. The bunker is best described as a series of three parallel, three-story-down subway tubes of concrete and gray steel. It would hold 600 selected people convinced that the United States was willing to kill them all in one mighty blast. We viewed a horrifying documentary on the making of the bomb by both countries with a long series of nuclear explosions sending those mushroom clouds ballooning up into the universe. One can imagine the Russian reaction to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The other was two religious paintings at the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. One, filling the entire end wall of a huge room, is Alexander Ivanov’s (1806-48) “The Appearance of Christ to the People.” John the Baptist dominates the foreground, surrounded by a mixed group of apostles, curious onlookers and some naked men who are drying off as they emerge from their baptisms in the Jordan. One is a slave whose face shows years of suffering. Will this sacred bath save him? On the next hill, as John points him out, stands Jesus, a small, distant figure alone and isolated. The viewer asks then and today, “Will Jesus and these men come together?” Ivanov himself failed to complete the painting and began to doubt that social reform would lead to moral self-improvement.

In a nearby painting, “Golgotha,” Jesus does not face death with calm reserve; his hands clutch his head and his mouth is open as if in a scream. Is Jesus suffering because Russia is drifting away?

Thursday’s Final Visits

The half-hour drive along the highway through the suburb to the west from central St. Petersburg to the Peterhof on the Gulf of Finland gave us a better sense of architectural contrast between the city and surrounding territory. While the city has no skyscrapers, with its buildings usually two to four stories, the surroundings along this highway and trolley line mix vast estates with 20-story apartment complexes. If the homeless of St. Petersburg are invisible, many, I am told, with assistance have found shelter out here. The Peterhof estate itself is so large it defies description.

Around 1720, Peter the Great designed this 34-acre mix of an endless Renaissance mansion plus lawns, gardens, fountains and mini-palaces stretching from the highway to the sea as a summer play place.

My mind raced back to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s home along the Hudson, right next to the St. Andrew on Hudson Jesuit novitiate, where I entered, and then to “Downton Abbey,” the acme of British upper-class dwellings; but both of these distinguished homes were like frontier log cabins compared to this extension of Peter the Great’s power and ego. Again, as the cold rain switched from on to off to on again, our group of seven was not alone; a crowd of what seemed to be 50,000 Chinese tourists swooped through the halls overwhelming our imaginary subway car.

This afternoon we arrived at what was for me the main object of my visit, the simple second-floor six-room apartment where for the last two years of his life Fyodor Dostoyevsky sat at his desk by candlelight and wrote The Brothers Karamazov. Today it seemed to me a place perhaps more sacred than some of our daily cathedrals. Fittingly, one room serving as a gallery of historical photos featured an unusual painting, a realistic side view of the corpse of Jesus stretched out in his tomb. Clearly one of the two greatest writers in history found this a source of inspiration.

Tomorrow the members of our little group leave Russia, but Moscow and Petersburg will never leave us. 

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