World of in­te­ri­ors

The bit­ter­sweet melan­choly of win­ter per­fectly suits St Peters­burg

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page - STAN­LEY STE­WART

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

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