By Gary Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 29, 2001
The thought hit me first just after I passed from the oak-paneled chamber where conspirators suffocated Paul I until his body went limp, and into a rare exhibition of glowing portraits of Empress Elizabeth and other Russian rulers. It struck me again when I peered up from a plate of suckling pig at a posh new restaurant to see a performer dolled up as none other than Peter the Great. But only after stopping into the recently restored Church on the Spilled Blood -- centered on a gleaming marble statue of Alexander II -- did it all become perfectly clear.
The czars have returned to St. Petersburg.
During a visit to Russia's former imperial capital last month -- a decade after the Soviet government was replaced by a democratic regime -- I found that doors had opened to long-closed prerevolutionary venues, including the eerie palace where the last ruling Russian monarchs had holed up during the Bolshevik Revolution. The access, in turn, offered glimpses into some of the most intriguing chapters in the country's tumultuous history.
To be sure, the imperial city is cracking open the gates to its czarist past ever so gingerly -- displaying prerevolutionary relics and refurbishing 18th- and 19th-century mansions rather than staging elaborate celebrations. In a place where even acknowledging the existence of the last imperial rulers was taboo just a few years ago, the heightened profile given to fallen monarchs marks a thrilling new epoch.
A newly installed show in Catherine the Great's Summer Palace featuring portraits, gowns, uniforms and household relics of the Romanovs, the clan that ruled Russia from the early 1600s to 1917, is a good example. Here hung life-size paintings of Nicholas II and Alexandra, the czar and czarina toppled in the Revolution, dressed in full regalia. There was the crib where Alexei, their infant son, slept.
"Not so long ago, we were not even allowed to utter the names of the Romanovs," explained Tatyana Jarkova, a museum guide, as she walked me through the exhibition. "Now we're displaying everything about them, right down to the clothes they wore. As well we should. It's an important part of our past."
Then there was the Lomonosov Porcelian factory, founded 2 1/2 centuries ago to manufacture fine china for the imperial family, accessible only by special written permission until a year ago. Douglas Boyce, the Illinois-born director, guided me through the workrooms, explaining along the way how the factory has styled and decorated its famous crockery since 1744, and dishing out anecdotes about how royal tastes in dinnerware changed over the years.
But I didn't have to venture that far to behold the city's imperial force. After an hour's promenade along Nevsky Prospect, the main boulevard, past grandiose baroque and rococo mansions and finely sculpted statutes of poets and philosophers, I felt I was in a wonderland dreamed up by a czar.
And no wonder. Following an extensive trip through Western Europe in the late 1600s, Peter the Great made a blueprint for a Russian capital with French grandeur and Italian flair.
Nearly three centuries later, St. Petersburg is still centered on a network of tree-lined canals as romantic as Venice's, ornate facades as stately as Florence's and vast parks remindful of Paris's Luxembourg Gardens. Spires that rise majestically across the horizon and cathedrals topped with colorful onion-shape domes and other uniquely Slavic features give the city a distinctly Russian character.
Okay, the streets of contemporary St. Petersburg, with its 5 million inhabitants, sometimes strike visitors as more the handiwork of Stalin or Brezhnev than Peter the Great. They are often jammed with cars, rumbling trucks and pedestrians. The smell of tobacco permeates the air. And drab concrete Soviet-style apartment complexes mar some neighborhoods, particularly along the city's outer edges.
But under the leadership of Vladimir Yakovlev, an ambitious politician reelected governor for a second term last spring, the city seems to have stepped up a restoration campaign. In the stormy years following the revolution, many 18th- and 19th-century palaces and gardens constructed by Catherine the Great and other rulers fell into decay or were closed to the public. The much publicized reburial of the remains of Nicholas II and Alexandra here three years ago (they were killed and buried in the Siberian city of Yekaterinburg) apparently accelerated the restoration and reopening of these monuments.
If everything goes according to schedule, the refurbishing will lead to a spectacular celebration in May 2003 for the city's 300th anniversary. Festivities for the occasion, planned by Yakovlev and Washington socialite Esther Coopersmith, will include concerts by Russian and international music stars, fireworks and a gala dinner at Catherine the Great's Summer Palace.
Everywhere I went in St. Petersburg, residents seemed thrilled that the city has lifted the veil off its prerevolutionary past. "We used to be taught that everything the czars did was negative, but suddenly it turns out that some aspects of their rule were golden," Alexy Kim, the 27-year-old executive director of St. Petersburg's American chamber of commerce, told me. "For instance, 1913 -- one of the last years of czarist rule -- was the only time ever that Russia exported grain."
"Maybe we are a bit preoccupied with our past," Gennady Tkachev, the city's burly vice governor, told me during a lunch meeting. "But we have to be able to put the past in perspective before we can move to the future."
So I took a tour through the Alexander Palace, in the picturesque suburb of Tsarskoye Selo, a half-hour by car from the city center. Opened to the public in 1998, the somber, late-18th-century residence is where the Russian monarchs spent five months under house arrest after the revolution. Visitors can see the brass twin beds where Nicholas and Alexandra slept, the white enameled boudoir chairs where they sat, and a closet still holding some of the czar's military uniforms.
My curiosity about prerevolutionary history piqued, I spent the next afternoon at the Yusupov Palace, the stately mansion where Grigory Rasputin, the controversial adviser to Nicholas II, was poisoned in 1916. After I toured the stunning 18th-century residence, including drawing rooms with marble sculptures and bronzes, and a private theater decorated in plush red fabrics, a guide led me to the basement.
There, a wax re-creation of the bearded Rasputin hunched over his last supper, complete with replicas of the poison-soaked cakes he was fed, was at once comical and haunting.
The next day I visited the Engineer's Castle, the baroque mansion where Paul I, Catherine the Great's son, was killed in a palace plot in 1801. Divided among 12 different organizations during the Soviet era, the building is now part of the Russian Museum's art complex. The oak-paneled second-story chamber where the czar fell, at once spooky and elegant, was one big draw of my tour. But an exhibition of portraits of a dozen or so czars, czarinas and their families, on full display for the first time since the beginning of the 1900s, was the biggest highlight.
Later that afternoon, I dropped into the Church on the Spilled Blood, built on the site where revolutionaries threw a bomb at a carriage carrying Alexander II in 1888, mortally wounding him. The Soviets had halted services here in the 1930s and closed off the building to all but a few visitors until 1997. You now can wander for hours here, amid the brilliant mosaics covering the walls and the marble monument to Alexander on the spot where he fell.
On a prerevolutionary roll, I ended the day at the Marble Palace, an 18th-century aristocratic residence recently taken over by the Russian Museum. The bust of Lenin, out of place in a foyer glittering with crystal chandeliers, was the first artifact to go, my guide explained. The Communist Party documents stored in a conference room went next, to make way for a gala concert hall. Finally came the polishing of the marble floors and corridors, and the hanging of works by Russian and foreign masters. After housing the stuffy, little-known Lenin Museum for 55 years, the place had regained its position of imperial grandeur. Catherine the Great, who commissioned the palace for her lover, must have flashed a smile from her grave.
I make the same stops along the way: Kazan Cathedral, a St. Petersburg landmark whose massive antique columns look as if they were plucked from the center of ancient Rome, and then the sweeping plaza of the Winter Palace, the city's oft-photographed vista.
Last month, during my 12th ramble along this route, I found myself halting, as always, to behold in awe the Kazan and other sights along the way. This, I told myself, was a city dreamed up by a czar.
To be sure, changes have fallen a bit short of imperialist standards. The end of Soviet communism has brought a rush of garish banners and advertising paraphernalia ranging from Samsung electronics to Hugo Boss footwear. Sidewalks have buckled. Dust and grime cake buildings. A sweep of casinos lines Nevsky, behind modern glass storefronts you'd expect in a Dallas shopping mall.
Seeing the city for the first time in seven years naturally brought back memories of the 1970s, when I lived here as a student, and the '80s, when I visited as a foreign correspondent. In those days, shortages were commonplace for everything from onions to toilet paper. Locals loitering near tourist attractions hawked caviar, icons, cheap rubles and just about anything else a tourist might crave. Everywhere, queues were so long that just getting a sandwich and coffee was an hours-long ordeal.
One welcome adaptation is the appearance of cafes and restaurants on nearly every block. Another is that stores, once bare of all but essentials, are now stocked with compact discs, Gianni Versace suits, porcelain and more. The result: an odd cross between Champs-Elysee grandeur and Bourbon Street honky tonk.
Evening found me at another St. Petersburg must-see: the Mariinsky Theater. Known for its grand productions of operatic classics, the city's premier stage has flourished under the leadership of upstart director Valery Gergiev. That night's performance, Verdi's "Masquerade Ball," was a complex tale of courtly intrigue told in three long acts. With elaborate costumes, superb singing and skillful orchestration, the show would not have disappointed fans of traditional opera. For this novice, however, it was too long and heavy to be much fun.
What followed, however, was. After the curtain calls, a couple of friends and I headed for a midnight boat ride along the Neva, the river that surges through the city. Pulling out from a dock near the majestic Peter and Paul Fortress, the New Island restaurant ship chugged under bridges and past cathedrals and estates erected along its banks more than two centuries ago.
Over caviar, baba au rhum cake and champagne, I watched the sky turn from a soft gray to the regal blue common after midnight during the White Nights, a perpetual twilight that falls over St. Petersburg in midsummer. A mild rain began to fall, but it didn't matter a bit.
That, I thought as we pulled into the dock, was a night made for a czar.
This was my day at the Russian Museum. Although this museum is usually overlooked in favor of the celebrated Hermitage, I prefer it far more. While the Hermitage, like Paris's Louvre or Washington's National Gallery, is a maze of paintings and sculptures from around the globe, the Russian Museum only showcases works by natives of the motherland and foreign artists based here. And unlike the Hermitage -- a labyrinth of poorly lit rooms -- the Russian Museum, based mainly in the elegant Mikhailovsky Palace, is suberbly preserved and organized.
Still, with only an afternoon to spare, what should a neophyte of Russian art take in?
The icon collection, ranked by many as the world's most impressive, is an appropriate starting point. The poignant "Archangel Gabriel," painted in the 12th century, is the oldest piece in the group. Then there's the "Boris and Gleb" icon, whose deep blue and gold hues send aficionados of Russian religious painting swooning. The "Battle Between Novgorod and Suzdal" and other works in the vaunted red and gold works of the Novgorod collection alsogave me pause.
After the icons, I headed for the portraits of Ilya Repin (his depiction of a barefoot Tolstoy and "Barge Haulers on the Volga" are unforgettable) and works by Karl Briullov, Russia's premier 19th-century painter. Briullov's "The Last Day of Pompeii," considered by specialists to be the greatest masterpiece in the history of Russian art, is a spectacular canvas depicting the inhabitants' reactions just before the destruction. Although I've seen the piece a half-dozen times, I stopped and admired it for a quarter of an hour.
From there, I pushed onward to the futurists -- Filonov, Malevich, Lyubov Popova and others who are regarded as Russia's greatest contribution to 20th-century art. Diminished by the rigid-minded communists, these painters were rarely displayed in the Soviet period. For the past few years, however, the museum has often spotlighted its rich stockpile of futurist works in special exhibitions.
Finally, I searched out works by Timor Novokov, Sergei Africa, Vadim Voronin and Dimitri Shagin, all artists currently living and painting in St. Petersburg. Theirs are a mix of abstract and figurative works that echo the futurists.
"These are the modern classicists," Museum Director Vadim Gusev told me in an interview. "If the works of any contemporary artists endure, it will probably be theirs."
Three hours after entering the museum I was art-weary. But how could I pass up the chance to slip into the Hermitage, housed in the grandiose building that served as the imperial Winter Palace for a century and a half? Locals like to say that if a visitor devoted one minute to every painting and sculpture in this massive repository of art, it would take 11 years to see it all.
But what to do in only an hour? With the help of a floor plan, I made my way past hundreds of bronzes, ceramics, Greek sculptures and paintings until I reached rooms 143 to 146. There was a feast: paintings by French impressionists, including Monet, Degas, Cezanne and Matisse, all captured by the Soviet army from private collections in Germany during World War II.
I stayed until closing time, then wandered back slowly, thinking of the emperors and grand dukes who lurked in these halls as far back as the mid-1700s. Outside, the White Night, with its magical soft blue light, was falling over buildings dreamed up by a czar.
BEFORE YOU GO: All visitors to Russia need tourist visas, available from the Russian Embassy in Washington (2641 Tunlaw Rd. NW) for $70 and up. Check www.russianembassy.org or call 202-939-8907 for details.
WHERE TO STAY: The historic Astoria (39 Bolshaya Morskaya, telephone 011-7-812-313-5757, www.rfhotels.com) is the city's ritziest hotel. The newly remodeled property has spacious rooms, a classy lobby, swank bar, a great health club and a stunning view of St. Isaac's Cathedral. The restaurant, which features caviar, chicken Kiev and other Russian specialties, is also one of the city's finest. For those with deep pockets, the cost of a double starting around $250, including a sumptuous buffet breakfast is well worth it.
The Pribaltiyskaya (14 Korablestroiteley, 011-7-812-356- 3001) is a good mid-range choice. With 2,000 rooms, it can seem overwhelming, but the rooms are decent, particularly if you snag one with a view of the Gulf of Finland. Problem is, the hotel is 20 minutes by taxi or shuttle from the swing of things. Doubles go for about $160.
Budget travelers might consider one of the private apartments rented by various local agencies. I visited a couple owned by the Pulford Agency and found them clean and well maintained. Rates for the units, a good option for families or small groups, average about $90 a night per bedroom. Info: 011-7-812-325-6277, www.pulford.com.
WHERE TO EAT: For an authentic experience, stick to Russian fare. Suggestions include:
Da Vinci restaurant (15 Malaya Marskaya) serves good lunch borscht, chicken Kiev and the like in a nice atmosphere. It's about 10 minutes by foot from the Hermitage. Lunch for two runs about $25.
The conveniently located Stroganoff Yard (17 Nevsky Prospect) offers Russian favorites buffet-style or a la carte in a relaxed setting. Try the beef stroganoff (invented in these parts) with mashed potatoes and a salad. Dinner for two runs about $30.
With its colorful song-and-dance floor show, the St. Petersburg (5 Griboyedev Canal) may be a bit too heavily touristed for some tastes. But the suckling pig, game and similar fare are tasty, and the mood is raucous good fun. Dinner runs about $40 a person.
Cafe Idiot (Moika Canal 82) is a laid-back place where you might find young Russians and expats playing chess and gabbing away. The all-vegetarian fare is cheap and wholesome, and the location is great just a couple of blocks from the Astoria. Dinner of borscht and a salad runs about $12.
WHAT TO SEE: The Russian Museum, packed with icons and other Russian art, should be high on a visitor's itinerary. The main building is about two blocks off Nevsky Prospect. Admission is about $8.
The Hermitage (34 Palace Embankment, www.hermitagemuseum.org), which showcases some of the world's finest impressionists and other great art, is also a must-see. A floor plan, available in the museum shop, will help you navigate the maze. Admission is $8.
A number of czarist-era palaces in and around the city are worth visiting. I recommend the St. Catherine and Alexander palaces, in the suburb of Tsarskoye Selo, about a half-hour ride by taxi ($20-$25) from the city center. For a glimpse of prerevolutionary St. Petersburg aristocracy, try the elegant Yusupov Palace (94 Moika Canal). Entrance to each is about $8.
An evening of ballet or opera at the Mariinsky Theater (1 Teatralnaya Square) is also worthwhile. Tickets start at about $30. Check the schedule and order seats online at www.mariinsky.ru, or contact your hotel concierge upon arrival.
INFORMATION: Check www.cityvision2000.com, an online travel guide, or pick up Lonely Planet's St. Petersburg guidebook. Atlanta-based Tour Designs (800-432-8687), a travel agency that specializes in Russia, can take care of tickets, hotels and visas. The English-language St. Petersburg Times (www.times.spb.ru), a free daily available throughout the city, has some good tips for visitors.
For general info on Russia: Russian National Tourist Office, 877-221-7120, www.russia-travel.com.