World of interiors
The bittersweet melancholy of winter perfectly suits St Petersburg
ON a late spring day in 1703, Peter the Great rode across the fetid marshes where the Neva River disgorges into the Baltic Sea. Inspired by his journeys through western Europe, and rather carried away by recent victories over the Swedes, the Russian tsar dismounted from his horse, cut two slices of turf with his bayonet and laid them in the form of a cross. ‘ ‘ Here there shall be a city,’’ he declared with biblical cadence.
No one gave the scheme much chance, way out there on the edge of empire. But the ability of a Russian tyrant to marshal resources is always impressive.
A quarter of a million serfs, soldiers and prisoners of war were set to work day and night on Peter’s new capital. Millions of logs were floated down the Neva to the building site, and stone work was forbidden elsewhere in Russia so that the entire nation’s supplies could be diverted here.
The nobility, too, was pressganged into the new project. A thousand of Russia’s best families were ordered to construct houses and palaces in the new city. Peter wanted a court to rival Versailles and a capital to outdo Paris. Before long the city was inspiring its own mythology. In muddy fields and clapboard towns across Russia’s sprawling distances, peasants listened to tales of how Peter was creating his city in the heavens before lowering it to earth.
Barely 50 years later, St Petersburg was one of the great cities of Europe, teetering uneasily between the wayward exuberance of Russian baroque and a more austere 18th-century neo-classicism. Adorned with palaces, academies, theatres and cathedrals, government ministries and state institutions, its elegant avenues radiated out from the golden spire of the admiralty across symmetries of stone and water, past pastel-coloured facades reflected in curving canals.
Sophisticated and opulent, Peter’s new capital turned its back on its shabby Asian empire and gazed westwards, where express trains were arriving from Paris with the latest fashions in liberalism and hats.
An elegant if slightly threadbare aristocrat, St Petersburg has always been the kind of city with which romantics fall in love. It’s beautiful, melancholic, refined and soulful. After two centuries as the capital, the Bolsheviks moved politics and power back to Moscow, leaving St Petersburg to get on with what it always did best — art, literature, long dinners beneath dusty chandeliers, trysts along the dark canals and evening promenades along the Nevsky Prospekt, which remains one of the grandest avenues in Europe.
Winter is its natural season. The city is beautiful when mantled with snow and its inhabitants look wonderful in furs. Less than 800km from the Arctic Circle, the a seemingly endless sequence of rooms — their walls lined with agate, j asper, malachite, lapis lazuli, porphyry and alabaster — compete with one another for extravagance. The Great Hall is where Elizabeth hosted her famous transvestite parties, appearing herself either as a Dutch sailor or a Chevalier Guard.
In the grounds stands the more modest Alexander Palace. Its most famous inhabitant was the last tsar, Nicholas II. With his wife and family, he was kept under house arrest here after his abdication in March 1917. They thought they were waiting for passage to England. Instead they were taken by sealed train to Siberia, where they were murdered by Bolsheviks the following July. Many of the family’s personal possessions, children’s toys among them, still fill
the rooms. It is as if they have stepped out for a stroll in the gardens.
But a winter visit to St Petersburg can’t j ust be about cosy interiors. Seva, a Russian friend advises I visit a bathhouse. Russian banyas are the Baltic equivalent of ginseng in that they supposedly cure everything from liver complaints, skin conditions and fatigue to sexual dysfunction, broken hearts and spiritual unease.
Wetake a taxi to the outskirts of the city and pull up by a frozen lake. A rickety hut is perched precariously on the shore, with two tin chimneys belching wood smoke at rakish angles. We hurry in; disrobing in a side room, we follow an attendant through to the hot room. Clouds of steam part to reveal lobster-pink Russians stacked on tiered benches; Seva and I hunker down among the fleshy bodies. The heat is punishing; my eyebrows seem to be melting. Someone throws a bucket of water on the hot stones in the corner and I gulp for air. Despite the sweltering conditions, however, everyone is in a jolly mood and a woolly hat (extreme heat is meant to be bad for exposed hair).
Their tea-cosy caps are a bit of a refuge, actually. With naked strangers there is always the tricky question of where to look. When I tire of looking at my feet, I gaze with huge interest at their hats.
After 20 minutes of sweating like a self-basting turkey, I follow Seva outside. Wearing nothing but small towels, we scamper along a frozen path to the end of the dock on the lake. A set of steps leads down through a hole cut in the thick ice. Arope has been thoughtfully laid so that you have something to hang on to as you lose consciousness.
Seva goes first, ducking for a moment beneath the dark water. Then it’s my turn. The steps are covered with ice. The shock, as I descend, is numbing. For a moment the water seems as hot as I am, then suddenly ice seems to be forming between my toes. I shoot back up the steps like a cork out of a champagne bottle.
Back in the furnace, things are looking up as the happy Russian bathers have taken to whipping one another with wet switches of birch twigs known as veniki. Now in full masochistic mode, I queue eagerly for a thorough thrashing administered by a big blonde with a tractor driver’s forearms.
I manage another couple of trips to the frozen lake before admitting defeat. Though it seems like torture at the time, the result is exhilarating. Dressed and sitting in the adjoining teashop over dumplings and tea, I feel euphoric.
‘‘The icy water is a stimulant for the body,’’ Seva explains. ‘‘It is like a drug. The physiological shock releases adrenalin and endorphins, which cause feelings of elation.’’
We sit smiling stupidly at one another. I am not sure it is adrenalin and endorphins, though. I think I feel elated j ust to have come through alive.
The Winter Palace, above, and a marble figure in the grounds of Catherine Palace
A Russian banya and ice hole