“So what, let’s build a city!” – said the Russian emperor Peter I at the time. And so in 1703 he founded St. Petersburg. He envisioned it as a mighty European capital, not just a northern port on the Baltic Sea. The capital of an empire!
At the end of November, St. Petersburg is golden-magical and slightly lonely in the amber embrace of autumn. This is how the Bulgarian traveler Svetlin Ivanov-Lauber sees it through his lens.
“St. Petersburg existed long before Putin. More precisely – 250 years before the birth of the statesman, whose icy gaze irradiates us with his determination day after day from newspapers, television, the Internet” – this is how Svetlin begins his exciting story. And he continues: “For 200 years of its history, St. Petersburg has been a capital – majestic and legendary, extravagant and sparkling. Founded as an imperial center in 1703 by another statesman – Peter the Great. Almost two meters tall, a giant in thought and scope. The Russian Louis XIV – the northern Sun King”.
Today this dazzling city
bears the unofficial title of “capital of culture”,
and with its beautiful palaces in the Western style, with its drawbridges and wide streets, it stands out strongly against the background of other cities in Russia.
“In the last days of November, I walk around the Peterhof palace complex, only 29 kilometers away from the city,” recalls the tape Svetlin. “The documents prove that the architectural plans were largely the handiwork of Peter the Great himself. His ambition was to surpass Versailles with this palace, with its parks and fountains. Today, even the harshest critics admit that Peterhof surpasses Versailles in its magnificence. But other senior critics are busy trying to silence him.”
It’s the end of November.
“And the gilded figures of the fountains dullly reflect the late rays of that northern sun. Waterspouts dance, leaping up to kiss the cobalt blue sky. White nights are on the other side of the year. Soon the snow will come, its smell is already felt in the breeze of the Gulf of Finland. In the gazebos and pavilions, silence silently recalls lightness and laughter. Somewhere nearby, the last slow-turning autumn leaf is falling. I have all the poems of Lermontov, Yesenin, Akhmatova in me,” Svetlin paints the picture in front of his eyes with words. And adds more touches from the landscape.
“St. Petersburg with its palaces and canals. They call it the Venice of the North. But Amsterdam and Bruges are also called that. And he, the city of the North, is breathtakingly beautiful, not so much with its architecture. It is, of course, remarkable and impresses you with its imposingness.” Here Svetlin immediately adds:
“the atmosphere of this city surpasses everything!”.
And he continues his story like this: “Yes, everything seems to be made of music, of nostalgia, of filigree silver elegy and poetry. Tchaikovsky and Pushkin. Odette and Tatiana. Yes, in the halls of palaces by the canals, the shadow of an Onegin still seeks the pale palm of a rejected love. And the rising bridge dissolves over the full-water Neva and catches the crimson setting sun between its arcs. It will be cold in a moment. And Petersburg knows the cold. He survived the monstrous winters of the most brutal siege known to us in the history of mankind. In a conversation with an elderly resident, I learn how in the deprivation, in the horror and cold of the Leningrad siege, when in desperate hunger even the last street rat had long been eaten,
the theaters put on performances every night.
And their ice halls were full. With people in the seats who hadn’t eaten in weeks. With actors, ballerinas and singers on stage who couldn’t remember the last time they had eaten. The most normal thing in those theaters was to have to carry a starving spectator out of the hall, the most common thing that happened on the stage, in the agony of exhaustion, was for a dancer or actor to collapse dead. And the next evening, the theaters opened their salons again, the halls were full again. And the next night. And the next one!
I suddenly realize, listening to the story, that tears are streaming down my face. This city knows what it means in a terrible war not to let your soul get ugly! Why can’t we?
No. I am not a Russophile. But my senses fly with everything wonderful in St. Petersburg. With the harmonies of Tchaikovsky, with the breath of Tsvetaeva, with the flame of Yesenin and with Onegin, who dies loving. In St. Petersburg. “Out of the war” – Svetlin concludes another detail from his story.
The Hermitage – impressive and a little creepy
The first catalog of the Hermitage was published in French in 1774, when its collection of canvases exceeded the impressive number of 2000. Among its unique items is the largest collection of paintings by the great Rembrandt – they call it “a museum within a museum”. Catherine the Great was so far-sighted that, in addition to masterpieces of fine art, she managed to buy the personal libraries of Voltaire and Diderot. Here you can also see the residence of the Russian emperors. And so the Hermitage is the custodian of one of the richest art collections in the world.
But not only.
In Svetlin’s focus: “The Hermitage is the largest museum in the world. Another unspoken fact. I spend a whole day in it without even getting to explore one of all its wings. His wealth is amazing. Incomparable to anything.
“Hermitage” means “place of solitude” (from French). Catherine the Great named it so because she liked to wander for hours among the statues and picturesque lanes. It’s lonely for me too. Reflection. In a world where we increasingly populistly want to be “either-or”, to be black and white in views and expectations. To be increasingly easy to control and crush. In a world where the beauty of the human spirit is unimportant to the interests of those who make wars”, says the artistic Bulgarian.
With a taste of the Orient: Sphinxes arrived from Egypt in 1832
Did you know that in St. Petersburg you can see real Egyptian sphinxes? They are over three thousand years old, and their volume is amazing – over 5 meters long and 4.5 meters high. Each of them weighs over 23 tons. But what are they doing in this beautiful city?
During a mission in Egypt, a Russian officer named Andrei Muravyov wrote a letter to the Russian ambassador asking him to discuss with the emperor the possibility of purchasing sphinxes for Russia. Of course, Nicholas I did not approve of the idea since And while the Russians were thinking about it, France got ahead of them and bought the sphinxes from the auction to decorate Paris with them. But the French failed to transport the sphinxes from Alexandria to the French capital. Their plans were thwarted by the revolution of 1830, so they agreed to sell them to the Russians. And so, in the spring of 1832, the sphinxes began to arrive one after another in St. Petersburg. They were transported by the Greek ship “Good Hope”.
Today, there are almost thirty sphinxes in St. Petersburg. The oldest of them “inhabit” the University Beach opposite the Academy of Arts. These are genuine Egyptian pink granite sculptures created in the 14th century BC to decorate the funerary temple of Amenhotep III.
Sculptures and bas-reliefs adorn the most chic residence
In 1714, on the southern shore of the Gulf of Finland, Peter I began to build an out-of-town residence. He called it “Peterhof”, or “Peter’s yard”.
“Imagine a palace built on a natural terrace, which may be as high as a mountain, situated on the edge of boundless plains, so level that when you climb the hill the horizon stretches almost to infinity.” At the foot of this impressive terrace begins a beautiful park, reaching the very sea, where warships are arranged in a row, which are lit up in the evening during holidays” – this is how the Marquis Adolphe de Cutin described the palace, visiting it in 1839 at the invitation of Nicholas I.
At first, the castle looked more modest, but in the middle of the 18th century, it was rebuilt in the modern Baroque style. The Italian architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli helped in this work (the Winter Palace and the Palace in Tsarsko delo were built according to his design). In the 19th century, they again slightly changed the appearance of the palace, upgrading it and adding new halls. Today it is distinguished by an abundance of decorative elements – sculptures and bas-reliefs, and its interior abounds in gilding.
Oranienbaum – a Chinese fairy tale without an end
The East for Russia has always been synonymous with romance and secrets. But at the beginning of the 18th century, the passion for the Orient peaked. It captivated the Russians so much that only 40 kilometers from colorful St. Petersburg, in Oranienbaum (today Lomonosov), even a Chinese palace appeared.
Called the Oranienbaum, this elegant structure was commissioned by Catherine II in 1762-1768 by the Italian architect. Antonio Rinaldi. Externally, the Chinese palace follows the modern Western Rococo style. Eastern motifs, however, are easily recognizable in its interior – from the walls of the glass cabinet, decorated with 12 panels, to the wooden panels that represent scenes from the life of the Celestial Empire. The windowsills are guarded by dragons.