Nevsky Prospekt! St Petersburg’s high street, the gold-spired Admiralty building at one end, the long journey to Moscow at the other. The prospekt never sleeps, said Gogol in his short story of the same name,* and it’s as true now as it was 180 years ago. By day the eight lanes growl with ceaseless traffic and the pavements are thronged with shoppers; at night, a million coloured lights illuminate the grand facades and the swarms of happy drunks. Colossal buildings of varied architecture and great beauty, mostly unchanged since Tsarist times, line the prospekt: the glorious art nouveau Singer building;** the imposing
St-Peter’s-Basilica-of-the-North Kazan Cathedral; the Great Gostiny Dvor, an 18th-century shopping centre whose cream-and-yellow arcade seems to go on for miles and miles.
We started by the statue of Chizhik-Pyzhik, a little bronze siskin on a plinth jutting out of a canal wall; locals drop coins on the statue for good luck, hoping that one will stay on the little platform. Nearby, the Summer Gardens, a lovely formal maze of trellises and fountains, is scattered with weirdly bad imitation-classical sculptures; various lissom Ladies of Legend with bulging eyes and inconsistent detail pose on plinths, having their marble nipples bitten by doves and asps. As it turns out, the statues are recent replicas, with the originals (Venetian, from the 1710s) moved indoors.
Via the Field of Mars (once the Place of the Victims of Revolution, once the Tsarina’s Meadow, once the Amusement Field; these places have as many names as Romanian border towns) and Millionnaya Street, lined with unusually ornate buildings even for St Petersburg, we crossed the vast Palace Square, passed through the triumphal arches built into the General Staff building, and turned onto Nevsky Prospekt itself in time for lunch.
Declining a “traditional English pub” (with your-face-here boards starring Queen Liz and a Beefeater), we had blinis from a blini hut in on a side street, and were accosted by a pack of quite fearless sparrows. Exploring a bit, we found that most curious of things in Russia, a shopping centre with 1920s-style architecture.*** Further on, construction hoardings hid most of the once-glorious imperial stables, across a full of tourist buses opposite Jamie’s Italian.
The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood (henceforth Not-St-Basil’s) is a magical thing, clearly taking some design cues from a certain giant red cathedral in Moscow, but both more muted in its colours and even more insanely ornate in its detailing. Not-St-Basil’s is recent; when Tsar Alexander II was grenaded by an anarchist in 18whenever, it was considered only proper to reroute three roads and a canal in order to build a gigantic billion-rouble pimp-cathedral on the spot, which has stood ever since. The centrepiece is a shrine over the original cobbles where Alex II was fatally wounded. The communists, with their usual utilitarian churlishness, used it to store potatoes.
Inside, it is (like everything Orthodox), fabulously ornate; the structural design is quite simple, with flat walls and wide arches, but every surface is covered with mosaics of staggering beauty. The central screen is a medley of gorgeous precious and semi-precious stones, with information boards in several languages explaining where all the different fancy rocks came from. The canal beside it is lined with market stalls selling Soviet tat, painters flogging canal views, buskers playing violins and musical saws, a woman trying to get people to ride the pony she was leading around.
Wandering through the dvori (courtyards/mews at the centre of residential blocks), with their graffiti, hidden churches and statues of Pushkin, we stumbled on the Russian Museum by happy accident. Despite the name, it’s a thoroughbred art gallery, its collection incredibly varied and deeply Russian: paintings and statues of centuries of ugly nobles, wooden altarpieces of blank-faced saints being hideously tortured, paintings depicting the ever-smiling Suvorov urging his men over the Alps, or fleets of stripy 18th-century warships like seventy-four-gun humbugs. It’s all fairly recent, Russian Russian rather than Novgorod or Kievan, the only real pre-Peter stuff being the green-skinned, fish-eyed Mary and Jesus altarpieces from a time before anatomy.
As well as the tsars and tsarinas, it celebrates Russian creators: we found a jovial, flaky-looking bronze of Repin, a smooth, blank-eyed marble of a shirtless Gogol. The taste for openly sexualised depictions of underage boys was a bit odd, but I suppose that’s the 18th century for you. On a plinth, under a glass dome, is a plaster cast of Peter the Great’s surprisingly tiny head. The prestige piece actually took me by surprise: the Reply of the Zaphorozian Cossacks, which [for my money] is the joint best painting (alongside Ivan the Terrible) by Ilya Repin, who [for my money] is the joint best painter to come out of Russia (alongside Vasily Vereshchagin). Do click the link – the story behind the painting is hilarious, and the painting itself – even in digital format – is an incredible mix of expressive characters.
Oddly for such a prestigious collection, most of the paintings are very poorly lit and displayed; many (including the Cossacks) hang opposite windows, meaning you get terrible glare off the shiny oilpaint and aren’t able to appreciate the whole painting at once. I’m used to the National Gallery, which was purpose-built to house art and has its lighting overhead, while the Russian Museum is a converted palace and so can’t help its window placement.
It had rained while we were in the gallery, and a rainbow shone over the prospekt; the Singer building and Kazan Cathedral both looked striking in the golden post-storm light. Footsore and arted-out, we headed on home, dreaming of black tea with honey and bowls of candied cranberries (Russia has found a way to make cranberries edible: coat them in so much sugar they resemble mint imperials. It’s genius.) Behind us, Nevsky Prospekt bustled with ceaseless life.
* Which is hilarious, and definitely the most Russian love story I’ve ever read. The short story is worth tracking down, but if you can’t be bothered, the Wikipedia summary is almost as funny.
** As in, the sewing machine company. I only know about them because my mum had one.
*** Odd, because the exterior looks very 1920s-30s, a period when Russia’s new management were not the type to build shopping centres – they didn’t even acknowledge the necessity of money for a while. I did some research, and it turned out to be pre-Revolution; the almost-Art-Deco architecture was simply ahead of its time.
Border crossing, monuments by night – Downtown Petersburg, St Isaac’s Cathedral, Peter’s Aquatoria – Peter & Paul Fortress, Artillery Museum – Nevsky Prospekt, Saviour on Spilled Blood, The Russian Museum – Central Naval Museum, Icebreaker Krasin – Neva bridges – The Hermitage – Krasnaya Gorka, Kronstadt