We hear so much about Russia in our history and our news channels. What is it to be Russian? What makes them proud? What can they build? To answer my questions and to put a face onto the unknown other, we traveled to St. Petersburg.
Built along the Neva river on contested land, Peter the Great built his city as a modern, beautiful marvel to rival other contemporary capitals in Europe. Further down the Neva, Peter built his “summer palace” as a direct response to Versailles. Additionally, he then built Peterhof as the “dasha,” or summer home of the Tsar, as a country escape from his official capital. Its beautiful gardens and working fountains were a marvel of technology at the time.
Although, honestly, I’m not sure who would have wanted that escape. The city has been voted the most beautiful in the world several times for good reason. St. Petersburg is, foremost, a town of palaces. Each building a unique testament to wealth and privilege painted in pastel colors and decorated with statues of ancient gods and symbols of plenty. It is clean, smoke free, litter free and proud of its heritage as Peter the Great’s chosen capital.
Unbelievably, the interior of these palaces are even more startling. The talent that went into the inlaid flooring, gilded ceilings and paneled walls is unparalleled. Peter and his descendants drafted architects, designers and artists from Scotland, France and Italy to make their vision a reality.
The churches with their golden cuppolas and glittering mosaics speak to their strong faith which seems to be the foundation of its residents, who thrive on the banks of the Neva River. The buildings and street stalls that surround them comprise the backbone of St. Petersburg main industry: tourism. The maroushkas, porcelains, t-shirts and children’s toys offer you a piece of St. Petersburg’s rich history. I bought two of whatever I could carry.
And so, St. Petersburg is demystified. It is a beautiful westernized European city. The citizens speak English and Russian. They are capitalists with a long memory of different days. They enjoy the same music and really good caviar that we prize in the United States. They are people as we are people. And if you have an opportunity to travel there, I hope you accept the chance to visit this beautiful city.