Immersing in St Petersburg

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Grand stone churches, name changes, warm people and white nights; Demola Ojo writes on Tsar Peter the Great’s Window to the West, renowned as Russia’s most cultural city…

The ongoing FIFA World Cup in Russia has been an opportunity for those who wouldn’t ordinarily visit Russia to do so. For many – this writer inclusive – this has been a pleasant and eye-opening experience. 

Stereotypes of Russia are usually of a cold place. But the warmth at this summer World Cup has not been limited to the temperature which was in the mid-twenties mostly, but the people also. I have encountered so many Russians who go out of their way to be of help. 

Some cynics say it’s a PR campaign by Russian authorities mandating the populace to be of best behaviour. I counter that you can teach people not to be mean to others, but you can’t make them genuinely nice and helpful when they don’t need to. Or maybe you can, which is awesome.

Easy Access

Church of Split Blood from afar

A major innovation which has made this World Cup successful in opening up Russia to the rest of the world is the Fan ID, which has eased access to one of the world’s superpowers, at least for the period of the World Cup.

One of the major impediments to travel, especially for a Nigerian, is the need for a travel pass to visit other countries. Getting a visa to many countries is an arduous and time-consuming task, enough to dissuade one bitten by the travel bug from exploring new places. It means some countries are somewhat out of bounds in the reckoning of many potential travellers.

Enter the Fan ID, a document that serves as a visa to the Russian Federation, upon procuring a match ticket for any of the games at the World Cup. To put it in context, it means if you develop a sudden itch to see any of the semi-final or final matches of the World Cup this week, you still can once you buy a match ticket.

First Impressions

Founded by Tsar Peter the Great in 1703 on swampy land seized from Sweden, St Petersburg became capital of the Russian Federation for more than 200 years until it ceased to be after the 1917 Russian revolution. Now Europe’s third largest city after Moscow and London, St Petersburg is an open air museum, and an expression of the last 300 years of Russian history. 

Tsar Peter’s intention when he started construction was a city to rival Paris and Rome for architectural glory. It’s a city of a hundred islands split by scores of rivers and canals.

Its beauty and history has earned it UNESCO World Heritage Cultural Site status and it has 180 museums, 50 theatres, numerous concert venues and parks.

It doesn’t take long to notice that things are done big in St Petersburg; the roads, the buildings, the roundabouts with multiple exits and the subway. 

The hotel I stayed in – the Park Inn by Radisson Pulkovskaya – has more than 800 rooms over seven floors, taking up a lot of horizontal space rather than vertical. 

It’s on No 1 Pobedy Square, also known as Victory Square. Pobedy Square is often referred to as a gateway into St Petersburg. Here the highways leading from Kiev (in Ukraine) and Moscow to St Petersburg converge.

Until the mid-20th century, Pobedy Square was well beyond St Petersburg’s city limits. In 1971, the squares grand monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad was constructed. 

The monument faces Pulkovo Heights, the series of hills to the south of the city where the German forces were halted in 1941 and remained until the Siege of Leningrad was broken in 1944, one of the precursors to the end of World War II. The monument has bronze sculptures depicting the different types of citizens who contributed to the defence of the city.

Apart from its scale, unique Russian alphabets seen everywhere give St Petersburg a distinct feel from any other modern European city. 

Thankfully, there are English translations written next to Russian words in many instances, from directions at the airport and stadium to menus at high-end restaurants or the neighbourhood Shawarma joint.

Not many people speak English though, but with Google translate – and its new conversation feature – one can get by with a little bit of patience. This coupled with Google Maps means navigating St Petersburg as a foreigner is a walk in the park.

Storied History

Statue of Pushkin

St Petersburg was built under the supervision of European engineers, many of them German and Dutch, whom Peter had invited to Russia. Peter restricted the construction of stone buildings in all of Russia outside St Petersburg so that all stonemasons would come to help build the new city.

 Tsar Peter also hired a large number of architects, shipbuilders, scientists and businessmen from across Europe. Substantial immigration of educated professionals eventually turned St Petersburg into a much more cosmopolitan city than Moscow and the rest of Russia.

The city later prospered under the rule of two of the most powerful women in Russian history. Peter’s daughter, Empress Elizabeth, reigned from 1740 to 1762, without a single execution in 22 years. She cut taxes, downsized government, and was known for masquerades and festivities, amassing a wardrobe of about twelve thousand dresses, most of them now preserved as museum art pieces.

 She completed both the Winter Palace and the Summer Palace, which then became residences of Empress Catherine the Great, who reigned for 34 years, from 1762 to 1796. Under her rule, more palaces were built in St Petersburg than in any other capital in the world.

The city’s wealth and rapid growth had always attracted prominent intellectuals, scientists, writers and artists and St Petersburg eventually gained international recognition as a gateway for trade and business, as well as a cosmopolitan cultural hub. 

The works of Aleksandr Pushkin, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and numerous others brought Russian literature to the world. Music, theatre and ballet became firmly established and gained international stature.

Petrograd and Leningrad

At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, St Petersburg was renamed Petrograd, a Slavic translation to avoid the German sound of the original name.

 (‘Burg’ is a German term for city hence, Hamburg, Wolfsburg, Duisburg, Nuremburg, while ‘Grad’ is Slavic for city – Kaliningrad, Volgograd, Stalingrad…)

Petrograd was later renamed Leningrad in 1924 three days after the death of communist leader Vladimir Lenin. Lenin it was who had earlier moved the capital of Russia from St Petersburg to Moscow. The move was disguised as temporary, but Moscow has remained the capital ever since.

In 1991, after the fall of the Soviet Union, 54 per cent of voters in a referendum voted to revert to the city’s original name of St Petersburg. Original names were also returned to 39 streets, six bridges, three metro stations and six parks. 

Nevksy Prospekt 

Nevsky Prospekt is St Petersburg’s main avenue and one of the best-known streets in Russia. Cutting through the historical centre of the city, it was the beginning of the road to the ancient city of Novgorod and Moscow but quickly became adorned with beautiful buildings, squares and bridges.

The Nevsky today functions as the main thoroughfare in St Petersburg and majority of the city’s shopping and nightlife are located on or right off the Nevsky.

Nevsky gradually widens as you travel along its length towards the river and is lined with some of St Petersburg’s most impressive stone buildings with the Kazan Cathedral and the picturesque Russian-style Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood.

The FIFA Fan Fest for St Petersburg is also at Nevsky Prospekt, which adds to the colour and sound; loud speaker blaring music in the distance serving as a background to street performers strumming guitars.

The world famous State Hermitage Museum is walking distance from Nevsky and is a tour worth embarking on if you have a day to spare. The huge edifice is the second-largest museum in the world. It was founded in 1764 by Empress Catherine the Great. Its collections, of which only a small part is on permanent display, comprise over three million items, including the largest collection of paintings in the world.

World’s Most Expensive Stadium 

The most expensive stadium in the world changes colour

Kretovsky Stadium is located on Kretovsky Island, one of the city’s smartest suburbs, with an ever-increasing number of elite housing developments alongside ample parkland. The island attracts hordes of visitors at weekends coming to take advantage of the numerous sporting facilities available.

In the 19th century, the island became popular with the regular citizens of St Petersburg, and amusements such as boating, swings, and several open-air restaurants were provided for them.

Modern Krestovsky Island, with its lack of historical sites, is probably of more appeal to locals than to visitors, but it is one of the best places in the city to take children, because of an amusement park and the Dolphinarium, and it has the extra advantage of being easily accessed by metro. 

The Kretovsky Stadium is officially known as the Saint Petersburg Stadium for the World Cup, but is also called the Zenit Arena (after the local football club), even though it was initially referred to as the Gazprom Arena after its initial developers.

 It is a retractable roof stadium opened barely a year ago in time for the FIFA Confederations Cup held in Russia last year.

It has hosted four first round fixtures including the match between Nigeria and Argentina, as well as a second round fixture. It will also host a semi final match and the third place playoff. 

The stadium has made headlines in the past for the long delays in its completion—the deadline was pushed back from the original March 2009 date, to the end of 2011, then 2013 until it finally hosted its first match in 2017.

The stadium was supposed to cost $248 million but changes to the original design, failure by Gazprom to finance the project, and the death of the architect, were some of the factors which caused repeated delays of the project. 

By the time it was completed, the construction costs of the facility were rumoured to exceed $1.5 billion—surpassing the cost of the Wembley Stadium in London, which cost $1.47 billion, and earning it the title of most expensive stadium in the world.

The stadium is an architectural masterpiece though. It’s shaped like a spaceship and changes colour at night. It’s somewhat soundproof too. Right before entering, you barely hear sounds but the moment you step in, you hear the roar of the crowd above everything else.

White Nights

St Petersburg Stadium at night

“We call them White Nights,” my new friend Alexandra told me after I commented on the fact that its 11pm but still daylight. Alexandra was one of the many helpful people I met on my solo trip, and one of the few who spoke good English. 

She recounted not sleeping the day before an exam because it never got dark as she showed me a few places under similar lighting; pointing out a statue of the famous Pushkin before we set out for Italian Street, where we had some wine at a bustling, cosmopolitan restaurant.   

The White Nights are a curious phenomenon caused by St Petersburg’s very northerly geographical location – at 59 degrees 57’ North (roughly on the same latitude as Oslo, Norway and Seward, Alaska).

 St Petersburg is the world’s most northern city with a population over one million, and it stands at such a high latitude that the sun does not descend below the horizon enough for the sky to grow dark in summer.

Although the phenomenon known as the White Nights is not unique to St Petersburg, in no other city have they received such acclaim.  From late May to early July, the nights are bright, with the brightest period, the White Nights, normally lasting from mid-June to early July. 

At most, there are two hours in twenty four when it is not bright as day, even though it’s not completely dark. Little wonder the city administration organises a two-month festival in summer known as the White Nights Festival.