Fantastical journey in St. Petersburg

It is 260 steps up from the entrance of the massive St. Isaac’s Cathedral in the heart of St. Petersburg to the colonnade that encircles the base of the dome. I climbed slowly and counted. It was winter, and the stone staircase was slick with ice, ending at a high snow-coated corner of the great Russian Orthodox church.

There, horrified, I realized that to reach the colonnade, I had to cross a metal gangplank, about 40 feet long, slung over the cathedral’s sloping roof from where I stood to the dome. I steeled myself and started walking. Halfway up, I felt a blast of cold wind pluck at the gangplank like pizzicato on a violin string. When I reached the narrow walkway behind the colonnade, I clutched the slender handrail and tried to get calm. Finally, I looked out and claimed the prize for having come to St. Petersburg in January: a 360-degree view of the city--300 years old this year and, in winter, never looking better--its bridges, parks, golden spires and fuming smokestacks in the suburbs writing in white on a baby blue sky.

Fulfilling fantasies is a big part of why I travel and, in this famous Russian city, not just an object but an obsession. There, in the snow, I see myself riding in a sleigh along a canal. My jet black hair is pinned in a diamond tiara and my pale, flawless shoulders draped in white fur. I have waltzed with princes, eaten caviar from crystal, lived in palaces of malachite and alabaster. My name is Anna or Lara or Irina. Doubtless I read too many Russian novels at too tender an age and never stopped seeing them through rose-tinted glass because I still sometimes imagine myself in Anna Karenina’s tiara and Dr. Zhivago’s sleigh. Though my passport picture shows a middle-aged woman, my dreams reflect a beautiful Russian girl in the perfect world of a snow globe.

I could cite a score of other reasons I came to St. Petersburg last January, beginning with the celebration of the city’s 300th anniversary, marked by fireworks, concerts, visits from world leaders and the much-needed restoration of such vaunted sights as the Alexander Column on Palace Square. I could mention the winter season at the ballet and symphony, when there is almost as much to keep a dance and music lover happy as in New York, but with more manageable crowds. I could invoke the Hermitage, surely one of the greatest art museums in the world, or say I wanted to see winter freeze shut Peter the Great’s “Window on the West,” a shantytown on the marshy delta of the Neva River when the czar founded it in 1703, later one of the most elegant and cosmopolitan capitals in the world.

Or I could tell the truth, that I came to St. Petersburg to realize a dream that any fool could have predicted was bound to melt like a snowflake in my hand.

boris pasternak’s “doctor zhivago” is set in Moscow, not St. Petersburg, as are major parts of Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina.” Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” yearned for Moscow, Moscow, Moscow, which replaced Peter’s imperial city to the north as the Russian capital after the abdication of the last czar and the Bolshevik rise to power in 1917. Throughout the 20th century, under the Communists, St. Petersburg went into a long, slow decline. Its opulent Italian Baroque palaces moldered; the art of the czars was sold off, stashed in damp basements, or moved to Moscow; money and power fled. During World War II, an estimated 1 million civilians died in the horrific 900-day German siege. As perhaps the ultimate humiliation, the city once known as the “Venice of the North” was in quotidian fashion renamed Leningrad.

If anything, the fall of the Soviet Union made matters worse, though in 1991 the Russian Parliament reinstated the name Peter the Great gave the city. Economic hardship brought continued deterioration and crime, including Mafia-style shootings of politicians and the robbery of a Finnish diplomat by men in police uniforms in 2001. You couldn’t drink the tap water or walk along the sidewalks of the Nevsky Prospect, the city’s principal street, without falling into a crack. Though St. Petersburg often appeared on travel magazine lists of places people most wanted to visit, tourism all but evaporated. Those who came here were largely on shore excursions from Baltic Sea cruise ships, viewing the city from hermetically sealed tour buses.

That’s how I first visited it about five years ago, when I found St. Petersburg depressing for its faded look, empty streets and hucksters of Soviet-era war medals. But dreams die hard--Peter’s, mine and, it would seem, those of Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, who was born and raised in St. Petersburg.

Putin clearly has a soft spot for the tenuous, miraculous city in Russia’s frozen north. So, as the tercentenary approached, he earmarked $1.5 billion for refurbishments and celebrations and invited the leaders of the European Union, along with President Bush, to see the results. St. Petersburg’s 300th birthday party crested at the end of May, when the world’s elite turned up. French President Jacques Chirac marveled at the beauty of czarist palaces in the suburbs, restored in time for his visit, while Bush and Putin put a friendly face on their disagreements over the invasion of Iraq. A million and a half people crowded up to the Neva River to see the fireworks, although for many, gunfire in Baghdad drowned out the bang.

I’m glad I came here in January, before the Iraq war and the birthday festivities, never mind that all the city’s most vaunted sights were under scaffolding. And never mind that it was winter, when only adolescent dreamers would visit St. Petersburg, a city of 4.8 million that is nearly the same latitude as Anchorage, Alaska. Winter here is a time of short, dull days, frigid temperatures, blizzards and falling icicles that kill several people every year. In Russia, they call it “Gen. Winter” for the way it stopped invasions by Napoleon and Hitler. But if you dress warmly and embrace the cold like a cranky old friend, you will see St. Petersburg at its best: cracks in the Neva River, like calligraphy on white paper; parks, gardens, bridges, heroic statues beautifully blanketed in snow; canals locked in ice; people emerging from office buildings in stylish full-length fur coats. (Ask St. Petersburgers about animal rights and they roll their eyes.)

Winter--real, white Russian winter--is a singular thing, deadly and cozy at the same time. At the end of Pasternak’s novel, Dr. Zhivago’s posthumous poetry is found, including “Winter Night,” which starts: It snowed and snowed, the whole world over; snow swept the world from end to end. A candle burned on the table; a candle burned.

St. Petersburg is the candle. If cities have seasons--Paris spring, New York fall--then winter best becomes St. Petersburg. Visiting Russia is never a lark, no matter the season. Visas and invitation letters are required for foreigners, signs are in Cyrillic, the tap water is still too suspect to drink. (Despite drinking only bottled water, I came home with two nasty stomach bugs that took a 10-day course of antibiotics to treat.) The U.S. State Department says street crime continues to be a danger, and hotel rates are high even in winter. Independent travel--apart from a tour or without a driver and guide--is daunting.

Exeter International, a Florida company that specializes in travel to Eastern Europe and the Russian Federation, arranged my four-day stay in St. Petersburg, with a Russian guide for three days and a car and driver for two of those. Though I generally prefer to be left to my own devices, this seemed wise, because I was traveling alone and don’t speak Russian. For once, I didn’t feel guilty about choosing an expensive place to stay and a pricey itinerary; the dream I was chasing would never be found in cheap seats or budget hotels.

Constantine Lutoshkin, my young guide, met me at the airport. He opened doors for me, made dinner reservations, carried my camera at times and was ready with dates, statistics, facts in the Hermitage Museum and the Church of the Spilled Blood. One day in the car, we passed a stand selling red caviar blinis. Idly, I said they looked good. So Constantine made sure I got to try one before I left. (They were delicious. Salty, piping hot, perhaps the world’s best street food.)

But as accommodating as Constantine was, I never really got to know him. There were off-moments when he revealed that he was about to get married, preferred Feodor Dostoevski to Tolstoy and kept a pet snake. When I introduced political topics, such as the war on terrorism or the invasion of Iraq, he was unwilling to say anything that might offend. Only when I mentioned that I admired Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader who introduced glasnost and perestroika just before the collapse of the former Soviet Union, did Constantine’s feelings seem to surge. Westerners like Gorbachev, he said; Russians love Putin.

we spent our first day together driving from site to site, beginning, as is appropriate, with the St. Peter and Paul Fortress on the north bank of the Neva, where Peter the Great’s city took shape, first in rough wood, then in stone designed in large part by Italian architect Domenico Trezzini. Within the fortress walls are museums, a prison, military parade grounds and a richly gilded cathedral where the floor is lined with the tombs of Romanovs, the family that ruled Russia from 1613 to 1917. Most poignant to a romantic--especially one, like me, who shed a teen-ager’s tears all the way through Robert K. Massie’s “Nicholas and Alexandra"--are those of the last czar and his czarina, imprisoned and executed in 1918 by the Bolsheviks near the Ural Mountain city of Yekaterinburg. Their remains were moved to the cathedral just five years ago in a gesture that seems to bespeak the way Russians have begun to cautiously re-embrace their imperial past.

On the riverbank, just east of the fortress, we stopped briefly at Peter the Great’s simple log cabin, where the czar lived while workers wrested St. Petersburg out of the Neva swamp. It’s hard to imagine, but at the beginning, the city was as mean and muddy as a Western mining camp, peopled by serfs, prisoners of war and members of Peter’s court who were forced, under protest, to move from Moscow. In 1715, a woman was devoured by wolves in the vicinity of the Menshikov Palace on nearby Vasilevsky Island. There were no bridges over the Neva, which suited Peter, a maritime enthusiast who required St. Petersburgers to cross the many-channeled river exclusively by sailboat; only when several people died doing so did he rescind the order.

Peter, one of history’s most fabled rulers, is hard to fathom, even if you spend your days touring the city he created out of nothing and reading Massie’s biography of him at night, as I did. Though his education was spotty, the czar was a man of countless enthusiasms, including science, engineering and war. As a princeling in Moscow, he played soldier with Russian troops and live ammunition, and later toured Western Europe incognito, more captivated by Dutch shipyards than the court of the French king. Throughout his life, he also routinely drank himself into stupors and was subject to embarrassing seizures, which only the Lithuanian peasant girl who became his second wife, Catherine I, seemed able to quell.

Ultimately, Peter’s city grew up on the south bank of the Neva, around a shipyard now occupied by the magnificent Admiralty building. Its yellow Neoclassical facade, stretching 1,335 feet along the river, bordered by parks and topped by a 218-foot gold spire, dominates the city center. Nearby are all of St. Petersburg’s grandest architectural ensembles and main tourist attractions--with such notable exceptions as Peterhof and Tsarskoe Selo, imperial palaces in the suburbs.

But my time was limited, and winter weather discouraged wandering. So--with and without my guide--I concentrated on the walkable Admiralty, where streets that recall the film version of “Dr. Zhivago” are lined by facades painted in pastels to break up winter’s white monotony. There the arts, culture, society and wealth of the czars came to full flower at the turn of the last century.

Most likely the black-haired woman in my Russian fantasy was coming home from a ball at the Winter Palace. Just east of the Admiralty, the palace is the historic heart of the Hermitage Museum, commissioned in the mid-18th century by Empress Elizabeth, Peter the Great’s giddy daughter. The designer was Italian architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli, who, together with other artists and architects imported from Italy by the czars, put his mark all over the city. What stories those lettuce-green walls could tell of lavish balls, assignations, plots, murder, revolution. Russian director Alexander Sokurov tried to tell it all in “Russian Ark,” a movie released last year that looks back at the age of the czars with more than a little nostalgia. It was filmed in one continuous take inside the Hermitage, with 850 actors and costumes galore. In the last memorable scene, a throng of party-goers--men in 18th century military uniforms with epaulets and sabers, women in ball gowns, jewels, fur and feathers--crowd down the gorgeous Jordan Staircase.

Since my visit, the original Hermitage entrance on Palace Square has been reopened. On my second day in St. Petersburg, Constantine and I went in near the Jordan Staircase. All white stone, red carpet, gold gilding and Baroque sculpture, this once was an ambassadors’ route, then became the path the czar took for a religious ceremony commemorating Christ’s baptism in the river Jordan, for which it earned a new moniker. I spent five hours in the museum, blissfully uncrowded in winter, but it seemed no more than a minute in relation to how much there was to see. Besides historic rooms such as the 19th century Field Marshals Hall and St. George Throne Room with its Carrara marble, the Hermitage has 3 million artworks, 5% of which are on display. Constantine made sure I hit the highlights: Leonardo da Vinci’s tender “Benois Madonna” and Michelangelo’s “Crouching Boy,” sculpted for the Medici mausoleum in Florence; more than a dozen Rembrandts, including the heart-wrenching “Return of the Prodigal Son” from about 1670; “The Dance” and “The Red Room,” by Henri Matisse; and, to me, most astonishing of all, a special collection of paintings confiscated from Germany at the end of World War II, then stored away in the Soviet era, all but forgotten: one unfamiliar masterpiece after another by such early modern painters as Renoir, Van Gogh, Cezanne and Gauguin.

In each room we passed through, there were guards, all older women in heavy sweaters and sensible shoes, thoroughly unapproachable. One sat in a rickety chair, staring out a massive dirty window overlooking Palace Square, a picture that impressed me as deeply as the Rembrandts and Van Goghs. Outside, it was snowing again, and the city seemed unreal. Only when Constantine showed me the portico of the 19th century New Hermitage building, with a roof supported by 10 giant atlantes, did my head start to clear. St. Petersburgers rub the feet of these giant male statues for good luck, even when their cold gray-granite toes are crusted with ice.

On our third day together, Constantine and I visited the Yusopov Palace, with a columned portico overlooking the Moika River and a diamond of a private theater; Smolny Convent, another Baroque architectural confection by Rastrelli, where the generals and administrators who helped save St. Petersburg during the German siege had their headquarters; the Russian Revival Church of the Spilled Blood, marking the place where Alexander II, who emancipated the serfs, was assassinated in 1881; and the Russian Museum on Art Square, with its touching statue of Alexander Pushkin, Russia’s Shakespeare, who died in 1837, dueling with his beautiful vapid wife’s would-be lover.

I spent one day without Constantine, picking my way along Nevsky Prospect during a flash thaw that turned St. Petersburg’s busy main artery into a river of slush. As the damp seeped into my boots and socks, I shopped in Gostiny Dvor, the city’s still-bustling 18th century bazaar; had Russian champagne and smoked salmon on toast points at the Grand Hotel Europe; toured the Theater Museum near the Alexandrinsky Theater, where Chekhov’s “The Seagull” premiered; and saw everything else my eyes could take in, from the colonnade of the Kazan Cathedral, recalling the one by Bernini outside St. Peter’s in Rome, to the sad, shabby, touristy Literary Cafe, where Pushkin had his last demitasse.

It’s taxing work seeing St. Petersburg in the winter. Routinely, at the end of the day, I retired to the gracious Art Nouveau Hotel Astoria, on St. Isaac’s Square. Sometimes I had tea in the lobby, served in exquisite blue and gold cups from the Lomonosov porcelain factory, chief china makers to the czars, or a Russian Standard vodka, the best the country has to offer, according to the Astoria bartender. Then I retreated to my chamber, which felt to me more like an apartment than a hotel room, decorated in a tasteful, restrained way, with a window that perfectly framed St. Isaac’s Cathedral. There I rested and prepared for dinner and a concert or the theater.

Glorious, never-to-be-forgotten St. Petersburg nights ensued, the first spent at the Great Hall of the Philharmonia on Arts Square. The building, where nobles once gathered to listen to the czar, is noted for its acoustics. It also played an important role during the German siege of St. Petersburg (then Leningrad), when vodka distilleries went into the business of manufacturing Molotov cocktails, circus animals were butchered for meat and the Bronze Horseman statue of Peter the Great on Decembrists’ Square was covered in sandbags to protect it from military attack. At the Philharmonia in August 1942, the starving city’s spirits were raised by the debut performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, also known as the “Leningrad” Symphony.

The concert hall’s red velvet chairs were stained, and the coat-check lines were long. The audience had dressed for the occasion, and I had a seat close enough to the stage that I could see the first violinist’s black patent leather shoes. I drank Russian champagne in the lobby at intermission. And then, of course, there was the all-Tchaikovsky program, climaxing in the Russian composer’s soulful 35th concerto for violin with orchestra. The soloist, Ukrainian-born Graf Murzha, played his violin as if quarreling with a lover.

To my mind, though, the central ingredient of a perfect winter night in St. Petersburg is attending the ballet at the 19th century Maryinsky Theater (known as the Kirov during the Soviet era). I caught a cab there from the Hotel Astoria and paused as I took my orchestra seat to see the czar’s box behind me. Then the curtain opened and revealed a scene right out of French classical landscapes by Lorrain and Poussin that I had seen in the Hermitage. The ballet was “Giselle,” with a score by Adolphe Adam and classic choreography by Marius Petipa, the ballet master of the Maryinsky from 1862 to 1903, who helped establish the company’s lasting reputation for precision and elegance. Svetlana Zakharova danced the role of Giselle with awesome technical proficiency and feeling; Farukh Ruzimatov was her dramatic Count Albert. There were bouquets and countless curtain calls at the end, then the couple were called back for 15 more minutes of adulation.

When I emerged from the theater, it was snowing, delicate flakes that seemed like a stage effect. From there, it was a five-minute walk to the Noble Nest, a restaurant in the teahouse of the Yusopov Palace with white Empire- style plasterwork, portraits of the Russian nobility and glittering chandeliers. The staff wore uniforms like those of the dashing gentlemen in “Russian Ark.” I ordered a kir royale, du Barry cream soup and Dover sole in a sauce of Pernod and trout caviar, accompanied by a split of extraordinary French chablis, Grand Crus Les Clos, 1993. A string quartet played on the balcony. I ate slowly, savoring every delicious bite, trying to draw out the evening as long as I could.

Now, if I close my eyes, I can imagine myself there again, climbing into the taxi that returned me to my hotel, hearing the music of “Giselle” in my head, glowing with warmth and wine, feeling the feathery kiss of snow on my face. This was real, I tell myself. For one white winter night in St. Petersburg, I very nearly was the girl in the snow globe.