When I first visited Saint Petersburg (then Leningrad), in 1986 as a postgraduate student of Soviet politics, I fell sick with food poisoning caused by some dodgy salami. Yet I also fell in love with a city that in summer is as voluptuous as Venice but younger than New York.
St Petersburg was the urban love child of Peter the Great, the capital of Imperial Russia, the crucible of the Great October Socialist Revolution of 1917, and the battleground for the most brutal blockade of the second world war – as a history junkie, how could I resist?
Throw in its cultural riches and almost ethereal beauty – particularly striking in June when night nestles, rather than falls – and you have one of the world’s most magical places.
In 1986, during the early rumblings of the Gorbachev era, the monochrome Soviet city could instil fear in foreign visitors. Yet it was peopled by all too human characters who seemed to come from the pages of a Dostoevsky novel.
Recovering from the dreaded salami, an American friend and I walked, groggily, along Moskovsky Prospekt one morning and were surprised to find a group of rough-looking men waiting outside the doors of what passed for a department store. When the store opened, the men poured inside. Intrigued, we followed. They headed straight for the perfume counter where they downed the bottles in one. Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign was clearly having an effect.
Today Saint Petersburg is a colourful riot of capitalist consumption, where alcohol and every other commodity is freely on sale. Rather than intimidating foreigners, the city is playing court to them at the Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum, which I am attending.
I last came to the forum – inevitably dubbed Russia’s Davos – two years ago when the FT interviewed Dmitry Medvedev, the then president. In spite of the widespread speculation that he was just keeping the presidential seat warm for Vladimir Putin, Medvedev seemed surprisingly assertive and engaging, talking enthusiastically about his reform agenda and showing us how he tracked the implementation of his presidential decrees on his iPad. Was this the glimpse of a softer, outward-looking Russia to come? Clearly not. A few months later, Putin engineered a job swap with his protégé and now prime minister Medvedev’s position is looking increasingly shaky. As the Russians say, it is impossible to predict the past in our country, let alone the future.
One apparent victim of these political musical chairs is Sergei Guriev, former head of Moscow’s New Economic School and a one-time fixture of the Saint Petersburg Forum, who fled Russia a few weeks ago fearing prosecution. I met him in London just before coming to Russia. Having been invited by President Medvedev to voice an independent opinion on the presidential commission examining the case of the jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Guriev now believes he is being pursued by Putin’s prosecutors for giving the wrong answer. There can be few more arresting examples of the capriciousness of Russian power.
One of Saint Petersburg’s most moving sites is the Anna Akhmatova museum in her former apartment on the Fontanka embankment. One reason it is so poignant is that there is almost nothing in it, even though the surrounding building has been much spruced up in recent years. Although the legendary Russian poet lived here for almost 30 years, she had few possessions. Having being feted as one of the greatest poets of a particularly brilliant generation, she was damned by Stalin’s henchmen and was unable to publish for years, storing her remarkable poems about the purges in her head. “I was famous, then I was very infamous,” she once told a friend. “I am convinced that essentially it’s one and the same thing.”
It was in this apartment that an extraordinary meeting took place between Akhmatova and Isaiah Berlin, the eminent British philosopher, just after the end of the second world war. Berlin, who was posted to the Soviet Union as a diplomat, paid homage to Akhmatova, whom he described as being “immensely dignified, with unhurried gestures, a noble head, beautiful, somewhat severe features, and an expression of immense sadness”. But their meeting was improbably interrupted by Randolph Churchill, Winston’s son, who was bellowing out Berlin’s name in the courtyard below like a “tipsy undergraduate”. Churchill explained that this trick had worked well enough at Christ Church, Oxford, and was glad that it had evidently worked again. Berlin bundled him out of the courtyard before the secret police arrived and continued his intense discussion with Akhmatova long into the night. She subsequently wrote about him in a poem, describing him as a “guest from the future”.
No trip to Saint Petersburg is complete without a visit to the Mariinsky theatre, home of the celebrated opera and ballet company. But now there are two theatres. Last month a gleaming $700m modernist theatre opened across the canal from the old Tsarist one. I see a fantastically spirited performance of Cinderella, conducted by the Mariinsky’s hyperactive maestro Valery Gergiev. The theatre itself (at least from the inside) is equally magnificent, with its interior walls clad in luminous marble.
Life in Saint Petersburg has its gritty side but sometimes it can touch the heavens.
John Thornhill is the FT’s deputy editor
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