If it wasn’t for me, the terrace of the bar would be deserted. The leaves on the plane trees are just beginning to take on their autumn colors, a breeze off the River Neva is blowing in through the massive gateway to the Peter and Paul Fortress and directly in front of me rises the almost sheer golden spire of the castle’s cathedral, where the last Czar and his family were only reinterred in July 1998.
I am joined by five young men wearing drainpipe trousers and checkered sports jackets that have long since ceased to be fashionable. They pick up their instruments and without even so much as a tune up, break into a passable rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” It can only be me they are serenading. The ersatz music is well-intentioned, but I have not come to St. Petersburg — the Czars’ former capital and described recently by President Boris Yeltsin as the cultural capital of Russia (which most of the city’s residents have known all along) — to hear Dixieland jazz. I take another long swig of Botchkarov beer and try to filter out the rhythm.
But this is St. Petersburg today: a city divided between those who want to shake off the legacy of decades of authoritarian Soviet rule and ape Western ways, and those who are proud of their city’s legacy, its cultural, artistic and historic importance, and could never contemplate living anywhere else. If it were a choice I had to make, I would side with the latter.
The band is just about to strike up another tune, so I nod my thanks and leave a couple of rubles on the table.
The fortress around me is undergoing much-needed renovation work, although the needle-thin cathedral spire was among the first to receive a make-over and is now a beacon visible from just about anywhere in the city when the sun catches its gold cladding. Beneath its shadow, the interior is a magnificent study in baroque. The last resting place of all but two of Imperial Russia’s last Czar’s family is a work of art in powder blue and gold, and local people come to lay flowers on the grave of Nicholas II, murdered by Communist revolutionaries in 1918.
A later addition to the fortress was the Nevsky Gate, which leads out of the south wall onto a pier and the river. A stall-holder cajoles me into buying an ice hockey shirt in the colors of the Russian national team before I catch one of the river taxis across the broad expanse of the Neva. St. Petersburg was built on a vast marsh in the early 1700s and dozens of narrow canals lead off the main river, hence the adopted name “The Venice of the North.” So the busy taxis take their charges to within a few hundred yards of most destinations in the city.
My request, however, is very straightforward. The Hermitage, on the opposite bank, is arguably the most famous museum in the world, and behind the massive green-and-white facade of what was originally the Winter Palace, from which Russia’s Czars ruled for 150 years, is an A to Z of Western art — from Rembrandt to Picasso and post-impressionism to Monet, Degas and Matisse. Be warned: Choose what to see, as it has been calculated that anyone who wanted to spend just one minute looking at each item in the collection would need to set aside more than 11 years to do so.
If the Hermitage impresses with its sheer scale, so too does the vast square directly to the south. Dvortsovaya Ploschchad is dominated by the Alexander Column, a 47-meter-high memorial to Imperial Russia’s victory over Napoleon, named after Alexander I. Today, skateboarders are practicing their moves around its base, apparently indifferent to the importance this square holds in Russian history.
In 1917, peasants, sailors and soldiers, fueled by revolutionary sentiment, charged across the square to storm the Winter Palace and end the Czar’s rule. The events of some 70 years ago were, admittedly, “spiced up” by Sergei Eisenstein for “The Battleship Potyomkin,” his famous depiction of the revolution. However no one begrudges him a degree of artistic license now that Russia’s particular brand of Communism has been comprehensively discredited.
Beneath a broad arch topped by a chariot of victory (another monument to the Napoleonic wars) the square gives onto Nevsky Prospekt, the 4-km-long avenue that is the heart of St. Petersburg. Clogged with trams, trucks and hordes of people — from confidence tricksters to beggars and far-right protesters — the thoroughfare is a microcosm of life in Russia today.
Like much of the rest of the city, Nevsky Prospekt is being spruced up by the local authorities. Their latest scheme is to pedestrianize streets off the main road, a move which has led to a mushrooming of sidewalk cafes never before seen in this city. Whole blocks now resemble Paris or Barcelona instead of a metropolis so far north that the sun never really sets in late June.
And there, perhaps, is the problem in setting up outdoor cafes in St. Petersburg: It gets mighty cold in winter. January temperatures average minus 8 C, while minus 15 C is a regular occurrence — and the wind chill makes it feel a good deal colder. Not surprisingly, the Neva freezes over. But the cafe entrepreneurs seem to have thought of that, and along with the shiny new tables and chairs they have imported powerful overhead heaters. It seems clear that they intend to stretch the autumn out as long as possible and usher in next spring at the earliest opportunity.
“This summer, St. Petersburg turned into Yalta because so many people are sitting at outside bars,” said Polina Lisovskaya, a recent graduate from the city’s university. “There are a lot of bars along the Neva River this year for the first time. It has been a really hot summer and there has been an explosion in the number of outdoor bars. I go at least once or twice a week.” Cafe culture, it seems, is the latest revolution to sweep through the streets of St. Petersburg.
Polina is also one of those who could not contemplate moving away from her beloved home to live anywhere else in the world. “I can imagine working abroad, or say in Moscow for a few years,” she told me over dinner at 1913, a typically Russian restaurant, “but I would always have to come back here.”