St. Petersburg: Back in the (not so Russian) USSR

Posted by jswt | Posted in Audio, Russia - St Petersburg | Posted on 21-11-2011


After 2 weeks in Moscow, we headed to St. Petersburg, which although still in Russia seemed a world apart. Gone was the bleak grey box architecture, gone were the dodgy roving bands of thug security/police, gone were the threatening scowls, gone was the 90s-trashy-hooker fashion sense… The city was beautiful! People were laughing! People dressed… normally!

The city is right up in the north west of Russia, across the border from Finland and near Estonia. Because of this, it’s always been a gateway to Europe and you could see the influence immediately.

Our first day there we had a bit of an afternoon wander and sushi lunch, and made it to Catherine the Great’s palace, which has been converted to a massive museum called the Hermitage. It was closed on Mondays, so we headed over to a huge beautiful church (editor’s note: they had one here! weird, huh?) to warm up. We then walked the main shopping street back towards the hotel and popped into another building which ended up being another church with a russian orthodox worshipping taking place – lots of subdued singing, candles and insense in a dark gloomy space with no seating. It was quite beautiful in it’s own way, and triggered a lengthy conversation about the substance and viewpoints of organized religion as we popped into a great little cafe for some tea and port. Someone must have been listening, because when we left we were gifted an extrordinary sunset on the way back to the hotel.

We had a cute little loft with fantastic skylights and giant windows overlooking a main square right on the main walking street, and as the weather was sleety and dismal and spent most of the week heads-down in work mode plowing through a project cuddled up on the couch in a blanket and fiending on Mixcloud dj sets.

Chris had Saturday off, so we went back to the Hermitage museum which was easily one of the best museums I’ve ever seen. Most museums keep you at a distance from the artworks and feel like a building set up for viewing art. Here though, you’re wandering Catherine the Great’s winter palace, just strolling along surrounded by an *unbelievable* collection of art. In the Louve you can see the Mona Lisa from about 10 feet away, with guards standing on each side, and protective glass overtop. In the Hermitage, there’s paintings by Da Vinci, Monet, Rembrandt, Michaelangelo just hanging on the walls you can get right up to and lose yourself in the genius of the individual brushstrokes. But it’s not just about paintings – the building is insanely opulent and a work unto itself, that’s just brimming with millions of pieces. We spent the better part of a day strolling around and only saw a portion of one of three floors. Words can’t do the scope and beauty of the place justice, so if you ever end up in St Pete’s, do not miss the opportunity to see close up what’s easily one of the best art collections in the world, and thusfar my favorite museum.

After this we walked over to the touristy (but still delicious) The Idiot restaurant for some eats in the comfy cavernous space that was decorated with a hint of russian grandmotherly kitsch. Free vodka shots to start the meal led to some full bellies and rosy cheeked spirits before we went back to the hotel for a quick nap and cleanup.

St. Petersburg has long been known as a bit of a seedy place, with more european attitudes towards sex and culture, but in the middle of the week we were in town the government had passed a law that would “prevent the propaganda of homosexuality” where children could be exposed – essentially banning anything that could be taken as gay, and making it a crime to bring it up in public or where children are present (ie: gay pride parades, telling your niece you’re gay, etc). The effects of such a law are pretty far reaching, and it’ll be interesting to see how it plays out in Russia’s politics. Of course, the immediate effect of such a prohibitive law meant that all the gay people were immediately cleansed of their illegal wants and desires, and gay was no longer a problem in St Petersburg.

“Ohhhhhhh, those Russians” – Boney M, Rasputin

Of course, we didn’t really understand what was going on at the time, so we went out Saturday night to find Central Station – the main gay bar in St Petersburg (previously Greshniki). We had a bit of trouble finding the place, first wandering into a dodgy lobby of a building where giant bouncers and a large breasted woman told us it was 15k rubles to go upstairs, but we got unlimited drinks, food, shisha and ladies. Not quite the buffet we were after, we ducked around the corner and found the lit up sign for the club we were after. We stayed for a few hours, and it was a fantastic 4 level club with a cabaret, opium den styled chillout room, lounges, and a good dancefloor, but we just had a weird vibe there all night – it was kind of empty aside from the hustlers and regulars, and everyone just seemed on edge and shifty (even more so than regular russian shiftiness). We had a few drinks (and watched absinthe being served in the most amazing way we’ve ever seen -stacked glasses and fireballs, ohmy!), but definately felt some unease when we left the bar around 3am and melted into the crowd as quickly as possible and watched over our shoulders to make sure we weren’t being followed or targeted.

Sunday was our last day, and I worked for a few hours and when the sun popped out I was ready to go for a wander with my camera and ended up strolling thru some interesting industrial neighborhoods full of abandoned buildings and ended up at a monastery that had a great church in the middle of a cemetary.

Stuck around for some of the service, and then wandered back through town and up the main street back to the hotel where I met up with Chris and some people from work so we could hop the metro and head to the Mikhailovsky theatre to catch a ballet. I’m not the biggest fan of ballet, but it was quite decent, and the stunning old theatre made the night. Side note: beware coat check lineups in russia after a show. You’ve never seen little old ladies turn into such vicious, elbow throwing nasties who will crush you for a foot forward. Had we not been in Shanghai shortly before, this might have been traumatic.

So that was about it… Lots of work, a few decent days out, a cozy little hotel room, friendly people. I’d go back in a second to spend more time wandering the Hermitage, but that aside it’s still a city that I’d love to go back to if given the opportunity.