Where were you born?
Where did you go to school?
Where do you live now?
And where would you like to live?
St Petersburg, Petrograd, Leningrad and now, again, St Petersburg - as this tongue-in-cheek Russian catechism suggests, the city's succession of names mirrors Russia's turbulent history. Founded in 1703 as a "window on the West" by Peter the Great, St Petersburg was for two centuries the capital of the Tsarist Empire, synonymous with hubris, excess and magnificence. During World War I the city renounced its Germanic-sounding name and became Petrograd, and as such was the cradle of the revolutions that overthrew Tsarism and brought the Bolsheviks to power in 1917. Later, as Leningrad, it epitomized the Soviet Union's heroic sacrifices in the war against Fascism, withstanding almost nine hundred days of Nazi siege. Finally, in 1991 - the year that Communism and the USSR collapsed - the change of name, back to St Petersburg, proved deeply symbolic, infuriating the wartime generation and die-hard Communists, but overjoying those who pined for a pre-revolutionary golden age; a dream kept alive throughout the years of Stalinist terror, when the poet Osip Mandelstam (who died in a labour camp) wrote: "We shall meet again in Petersburg . . ."
St Petersburg's sense of its own identity owes much to its origins and to the interweaving of myth and reality throughout its history. Created by the will of an autocrat, on a barren river delta on the same latitude as the southern tip of Greenland, the Imperial capital embodied both Peter the Great's rejection of Old Russia - represented by the former capital, "Asiatic" Moscow - and his embrace of Europe. The city's architecture, administration and social life were all copied or imported, the splendid buildings appearing alien to the indigenous forms and out of place in the surrounding countryside. Artificiality and self-consciousness were present from the beginning and this showpiece city of palaces and canals soon decreed itself the arbiter of Russia's sensibility and imagination. Petersburgers still tend to look down on the earthier Muscovites, who regard them in turn as snobbish. As the last tsar, Nicholas II, once remarked, "Remember, St Petersburg is Russian - but it is not Russia."
For all that, the city is associated with a host of renowned figures from Russian culture and history. It was here that Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky and Shostakovich composed; Pushkin, Dostoyevsky and Gogol wrote their masterpieces; Mendeleyev and Pavlov made their contributions to science; and Rasputin, Lenin and Trotsky made history. So, too, are various buildings and sites inseparable from their former occupants or visitors: the amazing Imperial palaces outside St Petersburg, where Peter and Catherine the Great led the field in exuberant living; the Yusupov Palace, where Rasputin was murdered; Finland Station, where Lenin returned from seventeen years in exile; and the Winter Palace, the storming of which was heralded by the guns of the cruiser Aurora, now moored along the embankment from the Peter and Paul Fortress - itself a Tsarist prison to generations of revolutionaries.
Today, St Petersburg is coming to terms with the seismic changes that occurred in Russia in the early 1990s, when hyperinflation impoverished millions and the Mafia was so rampant that people likened the city to Chicago in the 1920s. Now there's a feeling that the worst is past and life is becoming more normal, as the consumer goods and services enjoyed by other nations become commonplace, and politics is a matter of balancing budgets rather than averting mayhem. Even so, visitors are confused by the city's paradoxes: beautiful yet filthy, both progressive and stagnant, sophisticated and cerebral, industrial and maritime. Echoes of an anachronistic character are everywhere, from the sailors who look like they've just walked off the battleship Potemkin, to the promenading and champagne-quaffing that accompanies performances at the Mariinskiy (formerly the Kirov Ballet). Grandiose facades conceal warrens of communal apartments where disparate lifestyles flourish behind triple-locked doors, and courtyards where babushki gossip and drunkards philosophize, just as in stories by Dostoyevsky and Gogol.
Although the city is impossible to understand without some knowledge of its history, it is easy for visitors to enjoy - not least for its magnificent architecture. Planned on a grandiose scale, the city centre is awash with palaces and cathedrals calculated to impress, their colonnaded facades painted in bold Mediterranean colours and reflected in the dark waters of St Petersburg's canals and rivers. Its cultural life is equally abundant, embracing the staggering riches of the Hermitage art collection and the Russian Museum, the Mariinskiy, all kinds of music and drama, offbeat pursuits and wild nightlife. The people and the seasons provide the rest of the city's entertainment, as visitors are sucked in by the intensity of life - at its most intoxicating during the midsummer "White Nights", when the city barely sleeps and darkness never falls. It's easy to make friends in St Petersburg and anyone staying for more than just a few days is sure to be initiated into such Russian pleasures as going to the bathhouse or spending an evening talking round the kitchen table over a plateful of snacks washed down with vodka....Continua