20 October 2009
San Fran To New York - Or So It Seems
Just an hour in St. Petersburg and you’re immediately taken aback by the beauty, splendor and calm of this incredible city. Tree-lined avenues intersect with canals and bridges that are reminiscent of Amsterdam or Venice. The architecture is beautiful. The air is fresh. The people are lovely! Toto, we’re not in Moscow anymore.
Moscow is perhaps best described as the New York of Russia. It’s gritty. It’s tough. The only language people speak is the language of cold hard cash. That is, money talks. It gets you into clubs, guarantees a table and can even get you elected to the federal government. In short, it’s full-on all the time.
In stark contrast, St. Petersburg is quaint, warm and charming. People move and groove to their own beat. No one is in a hurray. The metro is rarely crowded. Designer stores are either few and far between or better hidden than in Moscow. At times you wonder what - exactly - people do. It’s very much like San Franscisco (honestly, what do people do in San Francisco expect eat chowder in bread bowls and talk about how liberal they are?). The Tsars moved the capital here eons ago because of the city’s splendor and this became their showpiece.
The Russian Empire was the wealthiest empire/nation/state of all time. In fact, of any time. There was so much wealth, in fact, that they used to give it away like free snacks at Cosco as if to say, “yeah, I’m so rich I can chuck this coin at your face and it’s whatever.” That led to their using 250 pounds of pure gold to cap the dome of the city’s cathedral, covering an entire room of the palace - floor, walls, ceiling and furniture - in gold and building the world’s largest collection of art. The Hermitage hold over THREE MILLION pieces in it’s back pocket. Two words: Who knew? A few more words: No wonder people were pissed and started a revolution. Wouldn’t you want a piece of that?
I honestly had no idea. I read about the Tsars and the Tsarinas, I delved into the classic works by Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, and I had taken countless classes on World War II, The Cold War and Soviet-US Relations but never had it occurred to me that the Empire itself was the grandest of them all.
The beauty of St. Petersburg is that it has managed - through it all - to retain that splendor in a remarkably calming way. Palace Square - the site of numerous revolts, hangings and even the Bolshevik Revolution - now sits quiet, possibly preparing for its next big moment to shine.
Even Peterhof - the Russian Versailles (only bigger and with more gold fountains) - is, as Eddie Izzard says best, “relaxed and groovy.” No doubt St. Petersburg lives up to it’s reputation as Russia’s “window to the west.” I’m just sorry we didn’t look back sooner.