In The Foot­steps Of The Tsars

Hindustan Times ST (Mumbai) - Brunch - - TRAVEL - Text by Mi­hika Pai pho­tos by Aswin Pai

St Peters­burg’s imperial past lives on in its ar­chi­tec­ture, the large squares and ma­jes­tic palaces

WE DON’T con­sider our­selves Asian or Euro­pean. We are large enough to have an iden­tity of our own,” my English­s­peak­ing taxi driver, Elena, says as she drives my hus­band and I into the city from the airport. This was ob­vi­ously a de­bate she’d had many times be­fore.

As we speed through the streets of St Peters­burg, the con­trast­ing shades of its his­tory are strik­ing. Be­tween rows of neo­clas­si­cal build­ings and quaintly tucked away cathe­drals, I spot typ­i­cally grey and sparse Soviet-era con­crete apart­ment blocks, telling signs of its tu­mul­tuous past. My first brush with St Peters­burg, or Len­ingrad as it was known back then, was through old black-and-white pho­tos of my grand­fa­ther’s visit here in the early 1960s. I’m told ‘burg’ was too Ger­manic sound­ing for the Soviet lead­ers, who changed the name mul­ti­ple times be­fore com­ing full cir­cle in 1991. But the St Peters­burg I had set out to dis­cover was that of the Ro­manovs.

TRAIL­ING THE RO­MANOVS

To un­der­stand the city, a short his­tory les­son was in or­der. On our first evening here, our tour guide told us that in 1703, Tsar Peter I (pop­u­larly known as Peter the Great) de­cided he wanted to build a mod­ern, more Euro­pean cap­i­tal for Rus­sia. The re­sult was a jewel of a city that was an amal­ga­ma­tion of all the great western Euro­pean cities and then some. Sit­u­ated at the head of the Gulf of Fin­land and di­vided by the Neva and count­less other smaller rivers and canals, Peter I named his city after his pa­tron saint, Peter.

Next morn­ing, we cross the Neva to visit Zay­achy Is­land. Here sits the ma­jes­tic Peter and Paul Fortress, the first struc­ture to be built in Peter I’s new city. The cathe­dral of Saints Peter and Paul,

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