St. Petersburg: The Grand Dame Has a Facelift

St. Petersburg is a wedding cake of a town. Everywhere you look, there are ornate palaces, richly painted mansions and whimsical architectural details. Unlike Washington, where rows of historic townhouses were torn down to make room for giant federal buildings, St. Petersburg's city center is architecturally intact.

So, one of the great pleasures of walking around here is the sensation that you're stepping back in time. In 2005, that sensation has slightly faded -- but only slightly. St. Petersburg has retained its 19th-century feel, though the effect is now muted by a glut of new storefront signs and advertising.

The sun lights up St. Petersburg's Palace Square.(David Hillegas)

There was also always a mystical air to this city, a deliciously weird undercurrent of aristocratic debauchery. People often referred to Petersburg, with her crumbling facades and slightly run-down mansions, as an aging, eccentric grand dame. But for the 300-year anniversary of the city in 2003, the grand dame underwent a facelift.

After intensive renovation work, the area around Nevsky Prospect, the city's main avenue, is cleaner and brighter than it's been in years. Yet it's beautiful in the same way a supermodel is beautiful: perfect and slightly surreal, without the odd, endearing flaws that give character. The gleaming windows of a new Nike store on Nevsky Prospect may signal a welcome upturn in the city's economic fortunes, but I'm not sure anyone would argue that it improves the street.

Anyway, I sound like a grump. The fact is, Petersburg is still one of the most fascinating, alluring cities I've ever been in. And despite whatever cosmetic changes have taken place, it's still got that unique, indefinable aura that has drawn people here for centuries.

So, what else has changed here since 1995? A few random observations:

After years of restoration, the interior of the Church on Spilled Blood has opened as a museum.(David Hillegas)

Sushi bars. These are everywhere, and I don't remember a single one being here in 1995. We did see some sushi bars in other Russian cities, but nothing like the flood of "Vasabi," "Tokyo" and "Evroasia" eateries here.

Church on Spilled Blood
. Built on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was mortally wounded by an assassin's bomb, this onion-domed church was closed for decades, partly because the interior was damaged by a shell in World War II. After years of renovation, it has reopened as a museum -- and it's astonishingly beautiful. The entire interior is covered with fantastically ornate mosaics depicting Bible scenes, gorgeously restored.

Sennaya Ploshchad. A seedy marketplace immortalized in Dostoevsky's novels, Sennaya Ploshchad used to be a riot of colors, sights and smells, not all of them pleasant. It's been totally cleaned up, with "official" stores taking the place of the ramshackle stalls and tables that used to blanket the square.

Retro. The USSR is hot again. Petersburg's bar scene is packed with clubs like "Propaganda" and "CCCP," and at least one place offers waitresses dressed as Young Pioneers, red scarves and all.

Nikolai II. In the most retro move of all, the remains of Nikolai II, Russia's last Tsar, were interred in the Peter and Paul fortress after years of limbo.

Tomorrow: Catching up with Larisa Fedotova, the former lieutenant in the chewing gum wars.

By Lisa Dickey |  November 15, 2005; 10:15 AM ET
Previous: Wild dogs and Cappuccino Culture | Next: St. Petersburg: From Gum Warrior to Entrepreneur


Please email us to report offensive comments.

If you have time, maybe you could give us a little more information about the burial of the Romanovs in the Fortress of Peter and Paul. The enormously popular book, "Nicholas and Alexandra", probably whetted many Americans' appetites to know more about the last Imperial family to inhabit St. Petersburg, which after all was built as a showcase for Imperial Russia.

Posted by: Scott | November 15, 2005 03:27 PM

I studied in St. Petersburg for 6 weeks in 1985. It was when Gorbachev had just come to power. (His nickname was Lemonade Joe, because he took away their vodka. No wonder he's not popular!) I have great memories walking, walking, walking all over this brilliantly beautiful city. I walked along the Neva, took pictures at the Admiralty, visited the Hermitage, St. Isaac's Cathedral, walked through Letnij Sad (Summer Garden). What do I remember the most? The people. They were so warm and friendly. Next, I remember being hungry. I lost something like 30 lbs. And, I remember the feeling of Communism, of being watched. And, oh yes, I remember snow on May 30.

This article makes me want to go back.

Posted by: Dan | November 15, 2005 06:03 PM

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