When Napolean advanced on Moscow in the winter of 1812, the Moscovites burned the city to the ground to foil him, so one might say that in so doing they destroyed their history. Stalin’s seven skyscrapers – the Seven Sisters – today dominate the skyline but there are few tangible monuments of a glorious past.
St. Petersburg couldn’t be more different. Formerly the old capital of Tsarist Russia, abandoned by the communists for Moscow after 1917, much of the city was destroyed by the Nazis during the Second World War. After the fall of the régime, the citizens set to work to restore the city and its surroundings to its former splendour. The Tsarist palaces – the Hermitage in the city, the fabulous palaces at Pushkin, Pavlovsk and Pedrovec, all originally built on the European models of the palaces at Versailles, Vienna, Caserta, have been painstakingly rebuilt following the original plans, with their sumptuous halls in marble and crystal decorated with chilos of gold, precious stones and antique paintings.
The Tsars travelled in Europe, fell in love with the fine architecture and lush interiors and came back to emulate their European equals. Pedrovec, on the Baltic, is known as the Versailles of the North for its imperial palace and park with ornamental lakes and fountains. The luxurious palace at Pushkin is the home of the famous Amber Room whose walls are covered by mosaics in various shades of amber and no postcard or photograph can do justice to its beauty.
The Hermitage stands majestically in the centre of the city and like most of the buildings and churches – and the palaces outside the city – it is painted in pale blue and white, thus creating an almost fairy-tale atmosphere.
St. Petersburg is to all effects a European capital similar to Prague, Vienna or Paris, and its inhabitants are proud of their history, so much so that they are strenuously opposing attempts to build a giant skyscraper right in the historical centre. This goes against the trend in Moscow where modern skyscrapers have begun to make their appearance on the skyline and top architects have been called in to construct something similar to Potsdamer Platz in Berlin.
Nor do they deny their communist past. We saw their gigantic statue of Lenin and the guide didn’t miss the opportunity to get in a dig at the Moscovites, who dismantled all their statues of Lenin after the fall of the régime. Even the architecture of the communist years is more human than that of Moscow.
A cruise on the Neva, a navigable river with draw-bridges to allow ships into the port, is something unforgettable, at eleven o’clock at night, still in broad daylight. On one side you see the Hermitage, reflected in the waters of the river, on the other the golden steeple of the cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul and the fortress, just as the light begins to fade. Wherever you go, history is there, alive.