|Mecca for artists|
St Petersburg has more than 221 museums, 80 theatres, 100 concert halls, 45 galleries, 62 cinema halls, and at least, a 100 other cultural institutions. It is a major European cultural centre
There is something inexpressibly touching in nature round Petersburg, when at the approach of spring she puts forth all her might, all powers bestowed on her by Heaven, when she breaks into leaf, decks herself out and spangles herself with flowers….
— Dostoevsky, White Nights (1848)
The Church of Resurrection was built at the site where the ‘Tsar Liberator’, Emperor Alexander II, was assassinated on March 1, 1881. Photo by the writer
White Nights, a singular experience of St Petersburg, or the night of endless night which falls on the summer solstice i.e. June 21, is a major aspect of the city. It is an experience which can only be felt and even the best of literary writers cannot describe the nuances of light and the changing shades of light, which fall through the city through the day. It forms the romantic setting of Anna Karenina, the first Hollywood film that immortalises Petersburg after Perestroika 1991 (many more have been shot since then) starring Sophie Marceau and Sean Bean.
Whether it was the magnificent Baroque architecture of the tsars’ palaces, the breathtaking churches, and the hauntingly beautiful River Neva on the banks of which the city nestles.
On one side of the Palace square was the Winter Palace more popularly known as the Hermitage and on the other end was the Triumphal Arch, and right in the centre was the Alexander column built by Montferrand, symbolising the defeat of Napoleon by the Russians.
A city with a chequered past, which has witnessed bloodshed, fire and revolutions, St Petersburg has had its share of highs and lows. The city has even changed its name several times but now perhaps it has found its own voice and identity. In 1918 it was changed to Petrograd, in 1924 it was named Leningrad and in 1991 it was re-named St Petersburg. It takes its present name after its founder Tsar Peter the Great who laid the foundations of the city on May 27, 1703. Tsar Peter appointed Jean Baptiste Alexander Le Bond as the chief architect of the city. Located at the Gulf of Finland on the Baltic Sea, over a period of time it imbibed the optimum European spirit in Russia.
An internal view of the grand entrance to the . The white and gold ornamentation lends it an air of grandeur
The collection at the Hermitage includes more than three million works of art and artefacts of world culture. These include painting, graphic works, sculpture, work of art and craft, intricate tapestries, numismatics
Additions to the city were made under the leadership of Lenin, who deputed Alexander Menshikev to oversee the construction of the city. The additions of constructivist architecture were done by conscripted peasants from Russia and Swedish prisoners. Tens of thousands of serfs died while adding to the magnificent city. In spite of its tumultuous past, architecturally the city retains its grand Baroque spirit, which reached its apogee with Victorian Baroque.
It is a difficult place to negotiate, if there is no local connection. The group had tied up with the Steiglitz Academy, one of the oldest arts, crafts and decorative arts institute in a magnificent period building. From Ceramics to fashion, from restoration to painting, the academy had its own gallery and a museum. An incredible storehouse of knowledge and learning and most of Russia’s top fashion designers were graduates of Steiglitz.
Dotted with buildings and monuments , one of the favourites, is the Peter and Paul fortress styled in the genre of ‘Petrine’ Baroque developed by Domenico Trezzini di Astano and other architects of the genre. The original citadel of the city its Cathedral is the burial vault of the Russian Emperors. The last emperor, Tsar Nicholas II and his wife Queen Alexandria are also buried here. It was Tsar Nicholas who abdicated the throne for himself and his son Tsarevich Alexei.
The Russian Emperor Peter III was killed and it was his wife Catherine the Great, who is the longest-ruling female leader of Russia, reigning 1762-1796, in relative peace and imperial grandeur, while her successor Alexander fell victim to the ‘Narodnayavolya’ group and was murdered. So visiting "the Church on the Spilled Blood" is a must.
Hermitage, the view of the principal staircase
Erection of churches and chapels in honour of memorable events is a long standing tradition of early Russian architecture. Thus the "The Church of the Resurrection of Christ on the Site of the Mortal Wounding of Emperor Alexander II" was built at the site where the ‘Tsar Liberator’ was assassinated on March 1, 1881, His son Alexander III, wanted the church to be built in the purely Russian style of the 17th century and he selected the designs of the two architects Alfred Parland and Archimandrite Ignatius. The external façade of the church is riveting and has unusual colours of terracotta, grey blue, with heavily decorated onion shaped domes with a lavish use of gold gilding. Looks more like a medieval castle the inside of the church is as lavish as the exteriors. Absolutely seductive are the finest mosaics, which show full-sized images of the divine and the divine rulers from the portrait of Alexander III to the exquisite altar. In a city which has over 221 museums, 80 theatres, 100 concert halls, 45 galleries, 62 cinema halls, and at least a hundred other cultural institutions, there is a ticket to enter every site of beauty.
The Hermitage is literally a ‘Mecca ‘for artists. The collection here includes more than three million works of art and artefacts of world culture. These include painting, graphic works, sculpture, work of art and craft, intricate tapestries, numismatics, there is even an arsenal gallery: huge collections of the Byzantine art, Russian icons, the impressionists and post-impressionists, and some significant European masters like Rubens and Pieter Bruegel are part of the Hermitage. Russian porcelain is special. It dates back to two and a half centuries which was founded on the bank of River Neva in 1744.
A panoramic view of St Petersburg
Russian literature has a committed niche readership and all of us are familiar with the writers mentioned above. Much of it is of epic proportions and chronicles the life of the Russian people. In fact, Russia has five Nobel Prize winners, and in the 1830s it had an astounding golden age in literature, prose and poetry. The thought of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Vladimir Nabokov, Nikolai Gogol, Joseph Brodsky is bound to the creative minds and all these writers and thinkers have kept alive the creative and aesthetic spirit of St Petersburg alive and kicking. Interestingly, the American writer of Indian origin Jhumpa Lahiri’s protagonist in her novel The Namesake derives the name of its male protagonist from the Russian novelist Gogol.
The famed Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich named the Sventh symphony of his, the Leningrad Symphony, and Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov delighted the world with the mastery over ballet and dance.
St Petersburg is a must for all those who love architecture, painting, sculpture, music, dance, and theatre. It is also a haven for aesthetes and pleasure seekers. White Nights is an unforgettable time, when light in all its colours penetrates the soul — from blinding white to sublime blue. And St Petersburg comes alive in a very different way. The clubs and bars are busy with tourists. The Nevsky Prospekt, the main backbone of the city centre is bursting with people, and the spirit of the grandeur of the Tsars rears its astounding head.
Alka Pande/ The Sunday Tribune