Updated: Sep 24
In the autumn of 2018, I made a deliberate choice to visit Saint Petersburg, Russia. The city's rich cultural heritage and breathtaking sights had always captivated me. Interestingly, as I was preparing for this journey, the Salisbury chemical attack unfolded in March, right in the very place where I used to work. However, I refused to let these circumstances deter me and remained determined to proceed with my plans.
The trip was meticulously planned in advance with the invaluable assistance of an Estonian friend, who managed to secure a comfortable hotel for me in the heart of the city. However, the most challenging aspect of the entire process was obtaining the Russian travel visa. It proved to be a labyrinth of complex procedures, starting with an extensive questionnaire about my personal information and reasons for visiting Russia. Every detail had to be thoroughly scrutinised by a visa agent in London before I could proceed to the Russian Consulate for fingerprinting, further scrutiny, and ultimately, to receive the visa.
Why did I have the desire to visit Saint Petersburg?
Often referred to as the "Venice of the North," this city is immersed in a rich tapestry of history and cultural significance. From its very beginnings to the present day, Saint Petersburg has witnessed remarkable advancements in politics, culture, arts, and military affairs. In this blog post, we will explore the captivating history of Saint Petersburg, delving into its politics, culture, arts, military, and architecture.
Founded in 1703 by Peter the Great, Saint Petersburg was envisioned as a window to the West. The city quickly became the capital of the Russian Empire and played a pivotal role in shaping Russia's political landscape. Its strategic location on the Baltic Sea allowed for closer ties with Europe, facilitating trade and diplomatic relations.
Throughout its history, Saint Petersburg has been home to influential political figures who have left an indelible mark on the city and the nation. From Peter the Great to Catherine the Great, these rulers implemented bold reforms and modernisation efforts, transforming Russia into a European powerhouse. Let not forget other noticable historical figures like Ivan the Terrible, Tsar Nicholas II, Lenin and Stalin too.
In the modern era, Saint Petersburg continues to be a political hub. It has witnessed significant political changes and played a crucial role in shaping Russia's contemporary political landscape. Vladimir Putin, a native of Saint Petersburg, has put forth his vision for Russia, emphasising stability, economic growth, and a strong global presence.
Saint Petersburg has long been regarded as the cultural capital of Russia. Its vibrant arts scene, literary heritage, and intellectual pursuits have made it a beacon of creativity and inspiration. The city's cultural significance extends beyond its borders, influencing Russian culture as a whole.
Saint Petersburg has been a breeding ground for artistic and intellectual brilliance. Renowned writers like Fyodor Dostoevsky and Alexander Pushkin found inspiration in the city, producing timeless literary works. Artists such as Wassily Kandinsky and Kazimir Malevich pushed the boundaries of art movements, leaving a lasting impact on the international art scene.
The city's cultural institutions, including the Mariinsky Theatre and the Hermitage Museum, have become icons of Russian culture. They showcase the city's rich artistic heritage and attract visitors from around the world. Saint Petersburg's cultural influence can be felt in various fields, including music, ballet, literature, and theatre.
Saint Petersburg has witnessed the birth and evolution of various artistic movements and styles. From the Russian Avant-Garde to the Leningrad School of Painting, the city has been a hotbed of artistic experimentation and innovation. Artists from different eras have left their mark on the city's artistic landscape, creating a diverse and captivating art scene.
The city boasts numerous art institutions and museums that house priceless collections of art. The State Russian Museum, the Russian Museum of Ethnography, and the Fabergé Museum are just a few examples of the city's cultural treasures. These institutions preserve and showcase artworks that represent the city's artistic legacy.
Saint Petersburg's geopolitical position has made it a crucial stronghold throughout history. The city has witnessed significant military events, including the Siege of Leningrad during World War II, where its resilience and bravery were put to the test. The military history of Saint Petersburg serves as a reminder of the sacrifices made to protect the city and the nation.
Saint Petersburg is renowned for its architectural beauty and grandeur. The city showcases a blend of architectural styles, including Baroque, Neoclassical, and Art Nouveau. From the awe-inspiring Winter Palace to the intricate Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, the architectural landmarks of Saint Petersburg are breathtaking examples of human craftsmanship.
Every era and ruler has left an indelible mark on the city's architecture. Peter the Great's vision for a European-style metropolis laid the groundwork for the magnificent structures that followed. The reigns of Catherine the Great and Alexander I brought a neoclassical influence, while the Soviet era introduced a distinct blend of modernist and socialist architectural styles.
Arriving at St. Petersburg Airport was an experience in itself, where I felt like the solitary Englishman amidst a sea of unfamiliar faces. Confusion momentarily set in as I searched for the correct passport control gates, but eventually, I found my way. A stern-faced Russian officer greeted me, meticulously examining my passport before stamping it. Stepping foot into Russia, a sense of solitude washed over me.
As my first order of business, I needed to use the restroom before continuing my journey. To my surprise, I encountered a beautifully adorned Poodle dog patiently waiting outside the ladies' room, prompting me to capture the moment with a photograph. It was evident that dogs held a special place in the hearts of Russians, as they were even permitted to travel on planes free of charge.
Afterward, a wave of relief washed over me as I had pre-arranged a taxi service to transport me directly to the hotel. The driver spoke impeccable English and even offered recommendations on local attractions. The drive itself was enchanting, with magnificent buildings and dazzling lights passing by as we traveled for miles along a mostly straight path. Upon arriving at the hotel, the taxi driver dropped me off, and I eagerly proceeded to check-in, brimming with excitement for the adventures that awaited me.
Once settled into my hotel room, I eagerly turned on the TV to see what was airing, only to find myself transported to a parallel universe of news coverage. Dominating the airwaves was extensive reporting on the Russian military's success in Syria, their commendable efforts in supporting humanitarian needs, and a notable feature on Putin's satisfaction with Russia's Kinzhal hypersonic missile. Alongside these discussions, there were also mentions of perceived aggression from NATO countries. Flipping through other channels, I found myself entranced by gripping detective murder dramas and heartwarming folk singing performances by the proud families of the Russian Army.
Anticipation filled me as I eagerly awaited the next day to explore the city and immerse myself in its rich culture and history. St. Petersburg, renowned as the cultural capital of Russia, unveiled its stunning architecture, grand palaces, and world-renowned museums. This blog post aims to take you on a captivating journey through my visit to St. Petersburg, highlighting the most memorable aspects and experiences that made it an unforgettable trip. Prepare to be enthralled by the unique and immersive travel encounters that await in this remarkable city.
One of the most unforgettable moments was exploring the magnificent Hermitage Museum. Although some parts were decaying and in need of repairs, stepping foot into this architectural marvel immediately captivated me with its grandeur. The opulent halls, adorned with intricate details and exquisite ceilings, showcased the rich history and artistic brilliance of the city. Walking through the museum, I couldn't help but be filled with awe at the masterpieces gracing its walls. From renowned paintings to ancient artifacts, the Hermitage Museum is a true treasure trove of art and culture. One particular moment stands out in my memory: stumbling upon a lesser-known painting that spoke directly to my soul, reminding me of the profound ability of art to evoke emotions and transcend time. However, what struck me the most was the significant presence of Chinese tourists throughout the museum and the city as a whole. It became apparent to me that Russia has developed a thriving tourist industry with China, fostering a special and close relationship between the two countries.
St. Petersburg is renowned not just for its historical landmarks, but also for its vibrant shopping scene. The city is home to charming boutiques and stylish malls, offering a delightful blend of local brands and international luxury labels. As I wandered through the streets, I couldn't help but notice the contrast between the affluent residents, elegantly dressed tourists, stunning women, and young men in military uniforms juxtaposed with less fortunate individuals living on the outskirts.
During my visit, I had the opportunity to explore a Cold War-era Russian submarine, which proved to be a truly captivating experience. Built at St. Petersburg's Baltic Factory and launched in 1954, the C-189 was a 613-class diesel-electric submarine that served in the Soviet fleet for 35 years. Although it was decommissioned in 1990 and later sank in the harbour at Kronshtadt, the submarine was fortunately rescued by a local businessman and former submariner who had the brilliant idea to transform it into a museum.
Stepping into the submarine, guided by two seasoned submariners, I was immediately struck by the cramped quarters and intricate network of pipes. It became apparent that the living conditions were far more uncomfortable compared to British submarines. Despite not understanding the language, one of the guides recounted stories to the local tourists in Russian, his body language and tone of voice exuding a sense of pride as he shared how the submariners skilfully evaded NATO warships. This visit deepened my appreciation for the sacrifices made by those who served on these submarines on both sides, as they navigated through treacherous waters.
St. Petersburg, known as a haven for art enthusiasts, captivates with its multitude of galleries showcasing a diverse range of artistic styles. From classical masterpieces to contemporary creations, these galleries house captivating works that leave an indelible impression. I was particularly drawn to thought-provoking pieces that challenged societal norms and ignited conversations. Each visit to these galleries became a journey of self-reflection and inspiration, reminding me of the profound ability of art to evoke emotions and provoke contemplation.
Nevsky Prospect, the bustling main avenue of the city, pulsates with energy and serves as a vibrant reflection of St. Petersburg's spirit. Adorned with an array of shops, cafés, and historical buildings, this iconic street is a must-visit for those seeking to immerse themselves in the local culture. As I strolled along Nevsky Prospect, I couldn't help but succumb to the lively atmosphere and the myriad attractions lining the avenue. From street performers showcasing their talents to locals going about their daily lives, this street offers an authentic glimpse into the vivacity of St. Petersburg.
The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood stands as a poignant testament to history, boasting a rich past and breathtaking architecture. Stepping into the church, I was immediately captivated by the intricate mosaic work adorning its walls and ceilings. Each mosaic conveyed a story, depicting religious tales and historical events. The church's exterior, with its vibrant colors and ornate details, was equally mesmerizing. It was a solemn experience that left me contemplating the beauty of faith and the resilience of the human spirit.
St. Petersburg charms visitors with its intricate network of bridges and canals. The city's waterways provide a picturesque backdrop to its stunning architecture and offer a unique perspective for exploration. Whether by boat tour or a leisurely stroll along the canal banks, every moment spent admiring the bridges and waterways was a visual delight. The serene beauty of the reflections in the water and the graceful arches of the bridges created a sense of tranquility amidst the bustle of the city.
While exploring St. Petersburg, the presence of the Russian military was impossible to overlook. The city's history is intertwined with its military heritage, evident through various monuments and memorials. One unforgettable moment was witnessing the changing of the guard ceremony at one of the military installations. The precision and discipline displayed by the soldiers served as a testament to their pride and honour in serving their country.
In conclusion, the beauty and history of St. Petersburg are truly awe-inspiring. From the magnificent architecture of the Hermitage Museum to the poignant history of the Church of the Spilled Blood, every moment spent in this city is a captivating journey of wonder and discovery. It is deeply regrettable that the ongoing Ukraine war prevents one from experiencing St. Petersburg firsthand and immersing oneself in its culturally rich heritage
During my time there, I felt like a character straight out of a classic Cold War spy movie, exploring hidden alleys and stumbling upon secret courtyards that seemed to hold centuries of secrets within their walls. The city's atmosphere is electric, with a sense of mystery lingering in the air. Beyond its architectural wonders and military history, St. Petersburg is a hub of artistic expression and a vibrant cultural haven that captivates the younger generation of Russians.
On my last day, I took a leisurely stroll to the bus station located outside the city center, allowing myself to fully immerse in the captivating urban landscape of Russia. Along the way, I encountered a slight detour and found myself in need of assistance. Despite the language barrier and limited means of communication - my basic understanding of Russian and her lack of English proficiency - I approached a local woman who surprisingly understood my request. Unfortunately, her response was hostile, and she was unwilling to offer any help.
Feeling uneasy in an unfamiliar environment, I decided to stick to the well-traveled main streets. I was getting anxious about getting the bus on time, a sense of relief washed over me when I finally reached the bus station. Comparing the Russian countryside with Estonia highlighted the stark differences in living conditions. Departing from Russia at the Estonian border proved to be a challenging process, reminiscent of Checkpoint Charlie.
As my journey drew to a close, I found myself pondering the places I had overlooked. A profound yearning to revisit the city gripped me. Next time, I contemplated a trip to Moscow, followed by a train voyage for an extended sojourn in St. Petersburg. However, several years later, Covid and the Ukrainian conflict shattered my plans. Personally, I find it difficult to envision a return to Russia, even after the war's resolution. If I were to venture again, it would be to Kiev first, once the situation has stabilised. Undoubtedly, the current state of affairs is undeniably tragic.