Saint Petersburg, Russia

Trip Start Mar 13, 2007
Trip End Aug 10, 2007

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Flag of Russia  , North-West Russia,
Tuesday, April 17, 2007

At least half the distance of the five hour train ride from Helsinki to Saint Petersburg was in Finland, passing at TGV-like speed through a virtually perfect landscape of sleek litter-free modern towns populated with shiny happy people and set attractively beside lakes or in dark pine forests.  Even though I spent about $400 to get a letter of invitation and Russian business visa through a visa processing agency, I still had a nagging fear that I might get to the border and the Russkies would say "Nyet!" to me.  All went smoothly, though.

From paradise to squalor - what a difference a border makes!  The last two hours to Saint Pete were through a boggy forest of spindly trees where forestry seemed to be the main industry.  The dilapidated towns with small wooden houses with unkempt yards were strewn with rubbish and the freight trains mostly turned to rust.

I arrived at Finlandsky Station (following in Lenin's 1917 footsteps when he returned from Helsinki to start a revolution) and Metro-ed it into town, quite confused by everything written in Cyrillic alphabet.  The Saint Petersburg Metro is supposedly the deepest in the world and the escalator trip down to the platform feeling like journey into a Stalinist-era hell.  The hundreds of people I passed going in the opposite direction were all staring blankly, not unlike urbanite drones the world over heading to another day of life's repetitive monotony.

When I emerged from the Saint Petersburg underworld into the bright sunshine on Nevsky Prospect, it looked exactly like it did in "Doctor Zhivago", except perhaps for all the cars and skateboarders in baggy jeans.  It was everything I always imagined Saint Petersburg to be - classical, grandiose, and monumental in the way only a few capital cities of great modern empires (Paris, Vienna, Washington) are.  Saint Petersburg, of course, has not been the capital since 1918, but was for more than 200 years before that and still has a capital city feel about it.

My hostel for my six nights in Saint Pete before I meet my tour group is actually on Nevsky Prospekt only a block from Palace Square and it looks like I have a room to myself again for only $30 a night with breakfast - wooohooo!  Only this time it's not on "feefth floor" but on "seexth floor" in an old elevatorless building.

I hoofed it around a lot in Saint Petersburg as I do in most cities where the interesting sites are rather thick on the ground and the local transport can be a little confusing.  The central city neighborhoods are almost entirely pre-Soviet with a sort of faded elegance that makes it easy to imagine the era of the Revolution or the 900-day seige on the city during WWII during which at least a half million residents died.  Saint Petersburg resembles Berlin in having experienced some of the most momentous events of the twentieth century but with virtually no modern buildings in the city center the past seems much more real here.  The city's numerous islands and canals also contribute greatly to its beauty.

Based on so many things I've read I somehow expected Russia to be extremely strange, that everywhere I'd be confronted by beggars and hookers, destitute babushkas and drunks, crooked cops and mobsters in a modern day version of "Wild West" lawlessness.  Saint Petersburg, though, feels just like any other large city populated by modern Europeans, and the seemy side of things is not much more evident than elsewhere in Europe.  The city, though, has always been Russia's so-called "Window on the West" and may be very atypical for Russia.  We'll see in the weeks ahead.

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