St. Petersburg is a city of layers with each layer corresponding to a different historical era and and each visible in the architecture and various sights around town.
The first is the classical layer which can be seen in the ornate architecture of the city built by Peter the Great. Many visitors assume that it is classical Russian architecture, but our guide reminded us that St. Petersburg was built as a European city, not a Russian one. It is this layer that most attracts visitors.
The second layer is that of the Soviet era, during which the city was named Leningrad. Vestiges of that era can be seen in the giant, nondescript apartment blocks that dominate the outer areas of the city.
Seeing these giant housing blocks was quite disorienting since they looked exactly like the thousands of apartment buildings that are commonplace in Chinese cities. As soon as we got out of the center of town — the old city — I felt like we could have been in Beijing (minus the crowds, mind you). In fact the photo above looks a lot like my old neighborhood in Beijing.
It was quite disorienting!
The Soviet era is also visible in the subway system, with its ornate Stalinist art extolling the virtues of the working class.
The third, and most recent layer of St. Petersburg is that of the post-Communist era, characterized by traffic jams, shopping malls, and gleaming skyscrapers.
During World War II, Hitler ordered his army to capture and destroy the city. Although it was under siege for 900 days, they were never able to take it. It is estimated that more than 1 million of the city’s inhabitants died, either of starvation and disease or during the frequent bombardments.
An excellent book about the siege is The 900 Days: The Siege Of Leningrad, by Harrison Salisbury.
One of my all-time favorite books is The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming, by Henri J. Nouwen. As such, one of the highlights of our visit to St. Petersburg was seeing the Rembrandt painting that inspired the book. It is housed in The State Hermitage Museum.
It was another one of those moments I almost curled up in a corner and cried, so overwhelmed was I to be seeing the painting.
Here’s the description of the painting from the museum website.
Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn. 1606-1669
Return of the Prodigal Son
Holland, Circa 1668
In the Gospel According to Luke (15: 11-32), Christ relates the parable of the prodigal son. A son asks his father for his inheritance and leaves the parental home, only to fritter away all his wealth. Arriving at last at sickness and poverty, he returns to his father’s house. The old man is blinded by tears as he forgives his son, just as God forgives all those who repent. This whole work is dominated by the idea of the victory of love, goodness and charity. The event is treated as the highest act of human wisdom and spiritual nobility, and it takes place in absolute silence and stillness. The drama and depth of feeling are expressed in the figures of both father and son, with all the emotional precision with which Rembrandt was endowed. The broad, sketchy brushstrokes of the artist’s late style accentuate the emotion and intensity of this masterly painting. This parable in Rembrandt’s treatment is addressed to the heart of everyone: “We should be glad: for this son was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.”
Because I have long been a Russian history buff, our 2-day port of call in St. Petersburg, Russia was definitely one of the highlights of the trip for me. My fascination with Russian history began in high school when I read the book Nicholas and Alexandra (Tragic, Compelling Story of the Last Tsar and His Family), the story of the last Czar and his family, who were murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918.
The first stop on our tour of the city was the Peter and Paul Cathedral, inside the Fortress of Peter and Paul.
The Cathedral is where all of the Czars are buried, including Peter the Great and Catherine the Great.
In 1998, the remains of Nicholas and Alexandra and their children were interred in a side chapel of the cathedral.
I’ll be honest and say that I was so moved at the chance to be there and see these graves that I almost curled up in a corner and cried.
In preparation for our visit to St. Petersburg, I read the book St. Petersburg: Madness, Murder, and Art on the Banks of the Neva It helped put into context what we were seeing.
Now I’m reading Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, by Robert K. Massie (author of Nicholas and Alexandra).