How St. Petersburg Came To Be So Gorgeous

“Russia entered Europe like a newly launched ship, to the blows of axes and the thunder of cannon. … And European enlightenment became moored to the banks of the conquered Neva.”—Alexander Pushkin

You can learn a great deal about what a country wants from its visa application. For example, the Brazilians just desire the fee. Thailand encourages “multiple entries”—a double entendre I suspect is intentional. The Chinese want visitors who are free of diseases, specifically HIV, open tuberculosis, and leprosy.

What do the Russians want? Apparently, they want to know everything about you: every country you’ve visited; every school you’ve attended; every charity you’ve donated to; every place you’ve worked; every supervisor you’ve ever had, along with his or her phone number; and whether you have any military experience related to nuclear, biological, or chemical “activities.” It took me days to track down a cell phone number for my former bomb-making supervisor in the Chechen Separatist Movement.

I was a little nervous about traveling to Russia, because the last time I had tried, the trip blew up with Chernobyl. I was in ninth grade—dutifully learning my “spasibos,” “dasvidanyas,” and “Ya Americanskis“—when the news hit, and my parents decided they weren’t down with radiation poisoning.

This time around, the portents were not much more positive. Russia had just invaded plucky Georgia, causing American politicians to sound like they missed the Cold War. And there were warnings that Putin had set his expansionary sights on Ukraine next. What else could possibly go wrong: a Chimera invasion?

Turns out the only threat I faced was from a Finnish businessman on the Helsinki leg of the flight. He spent five hours trying to infect me with less than kind opinions of the Russian people. “They are only good at three things: stealing, killing, and drinking themselves to death,” he said, proving that no one will ever hate you more than your next-door neighbor.

“Well,” I replied, “they are not too shabby at literature, ballet, and chess.”

After landing at St. Petersburg’s surprisingly small airport for a city of more than 5 million, I got into a plain minivan (the city has almost no marked taxis). My driver didn’t speak any English, nor I Russian, which was a shame, because taxi drivers are the lifeblood of travel writers in need of easy copy.

Instead of speaking, the driver and I split our time between watching the road and checking out the portable Sony DVD player that sat on his passenger seat playing music videos. I can say with some authority that my cabbie loved music videos more than life itself, because I had to tap him on the shoulder several times to avoid a head-on collision. In fact, the entire country is crazy for them. Everywhere I went, it was like 1985. After years of wanting their MTV, the Russians finally got it and have yet to realize that the horror of reality TV is next. As the DVD displayed Beyoncé’s sultry dissertation on what life would be life if she were a boy (Beyoncé, if you were a boy, I’d be a pedophile), I wondered what the Russian version of Flavor of Love might be: The Taint of t.A.T.u.?

My initial reaction to St. Petersburg was that it is a grungy version of Paris. The cab driver then turned a corner across a canal, and it looked like a grungy version of Amsterdam. The next moment it was Venice. And just as suddenly … Rome. The effect was almost Vegas-y. St. Petersburg is an architectural amalgamation of all the great cities of Western Europe.

To explain why requires a brief (350 words or fewer, I promise) trip back into Russian history.

The Mongols invented Russia in 1237. The hordes needed a regional capital to collect tribute from far-flung tribes, and they selected Moscow, a landlocked city with no ready access to the sea—a fact that has been a great source of annoyance to the Russians and cause of suffering for their neighbors. Eventually, the Russians realized they were sufficiently strong and the Mongols sufficiently weak that they didn’t need to pay them anymore (1480).

Muscovite culture mixed Asiatic despotism with Byzantine Orthodoxy. The czar’s power was absolute, his subjects serfs, his religion messianic. With the fall of Byzantium in 1453, Russians believed they had inherited the mantle of Rome (czar means caesar) and were meant to lead the world to salvation—an idea later bastardized by the Bolsheviks.

Enter Peter Romanov (1672), who despised Moscow and its society. This might be because, during a palace revolt, 10-year-old Peter had to watch as members of his family were slaughtered. Escaping the intrigues of the Kremlin court, Peter took refuge in the Foreign Quarter, where he developed an interest in Western ideas, technology— particularly sailing and shipbuilding—and, being 6 feet 7 inches tall, basketball. (The Detroit Pistons nearly drafted him to play power forward.)

When Peter the Great became czar at 22, he was ready to drag his country kicking and screaming into the Age of Reason. Attacking the Swedes, who blocked access to the Baltic, he finally gained a seaport in 1703 and established at the mouth of the Neva River his new capital, Sankt Petersburg (named after his patron saint in the Dutch style), which would serve as a conduit for the best in Western culture: meritocratic bureaucracies, secular universities, and naval power. In a sense, Peter split his country in two with Petersburg as Russia’s European head and Moscow its Asian heart. (Or, as Gogol put it: “Russia needs Moscow; Petersburg needs Russia.”)

In another sense, St. Petersburg represents nouveau riche provincialism writ large. Instead of simply building a castle and raiding the antique stores of Europe to fill it, like the Beverly Hillbillies, the Romanov family built themselves a city and raided the best architects of Europe to fill it. And after the weight of 300 years of heavy history, the effect is stunning, almost overwhelming; St. Petersburg is by far the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen.

Nowhere is that more true than on Nevsky Prospect, the city’s main thoroughfare and most famous street. (Gogol again: “What splendors does this street not know!”) Driving down it was like a flashback to Architecture 101’s final exam. Hmm, let’s see: Neoclassical, Style Moderne, Baroque, Neoclassical, Neoclassical, Baroque.

Say this about absolute monarchies: While living under them is awful (tens if not hundreds of thousands died building St. Petersburg, their bodies laid into the foundation), they do leave behind magnificent cities. Democracies, while far more pleasant, leave behind places like Phoenix.