In 1989, the Soviet Union and its economy were in shambles. Leningrad’s remarkable architecture — more than 3,000 palaces in the historic center — was deteriorating. People lined up in front of mostly empty shops while bedraggled peddlers lined sidewalks and subway stations. Few hotels, restaurants or cafes existed. Many apartments were shared by two or more families. A currency black market thrived. One pack of Marlboro cigarettes would pay for a lengthy ride in an aging, decrepit, unsafe Russian taxi.
Czar Peter I — at 61
2 feet tall, known as Peter the Great — would have been dismayed to see how his beautiful planned capital had evolved. He founded St. Petersburg in 1703, 90 years before another Peter, Pierre L’Enfant, was hired by George Washington to plan America’s new capital. Although nearly a century separated their creation, the plans of the Russian and American capitals had much in common. Both abutted rivers and were laid out with avenues radiating diagonally from significant civic buildings or monuments.
The czar sought to create a grand Russian capital, as well as a seaport and navy rivaling European navies, especially England’s and Holland’s. Commerce was also a big consideration. Like George Washington contemplating the Potomac River leading seaward and inland, Peter the Great viewed the Neva River and the Baltic Sea through a business lens. Both expected their new capitals to become major national and international trading centers and busy ports.
The two capitals shared other characteristics. Architects from Italy, Germany and France were invited to St. Petersburg to design ornately gilded edifices. Baroque neoclassicism, in vogue in Europe during the 18th century, was what everyone wanted in St. Petersburg. Neoclassicism was likewise the choice for civic buildings and elegant private homes in Washington during the 19th and early 20th century, although American architects and their clients usually opted for more austere, less opulent compositions.
During the 20th century, war catalyzed Washington’s growth but threatened to destroy St. Petersburg. After World War I, Soviet planning and policies led much of Russia into consumer impoverishment, while capitalism strengthened much of America economically, politically and militarily. Metropolitan Washington prospered; St. Petersburg stagnated.
But after the USSR’s 1991 dissolution, many Russians, especially younger ones, enthusiastically embraced capitalism. This began revitalizing St. Petersburg’s economy and culture. Today St. Petersburg is far from stagnant. Tourism is thriving, private businesses are proliferating and employment is increasing. There are now hundreds of hotels and thousands of restaurants serving every cuisine imaginable, including sushi. American fast-food outlets — Subway, KFC, McDonald’s, Burger King, Baskin-Robbins — are everywhere.