I love cities at night, and St Petersburg is as magical as any of them – the vast palaces and government buildings floodlit under the moody clouds, Petropavlovsk’s walls picked out with an illuminated strip, the golden spires above the Admiralty and Cathedral of Peter & Paul shining bright as daytime. St Isaac’s muted and half in shadow, the streets around it filled with young women on horses offering rides to tourists and boy racers in black Jaguars weaving through traffic like they’re in a Bond movie and accelerating like they’re in a MiG-25. Nevsky Prospekt shines with ten thousand points of night. On a Friday night in summer, warm and slightly muggy, the streets are full of nightclub spillover: drunks tripping over fences and flirting loudly in several languages, pouty young people swaggering as if they’re the most beautiful things ever made. Passing the roadside bars, holding anyone’s gaze feels uncomfortable; the girls look at you like they’re about to name a price and the boys look at you like they’re about to shout “davai, cyka” and shank you. Club music and flavoured spirits pollute the air.
The many bridges of the Neva, low and flat like those of the Thames or the Seine, have a secret which is not obvious to the casual observer: they lift up, Tower Bridge-style (but without any of the magnificent yet structurally superfluous Victorian bling.) Not as and when boats arrive – as if they’d disrupt traffic to let any old tramp freighter mess up the view of the Winter Palace – but all together, in a nightly sequence which is apparently worth celebrating all on its own, when all the freighters stacked up outside are allowed to come through and head up towards Lake Ladoga.
The waterfront by the Hermitage at 0130 hours is a more local, more authentic-feeling scene than the clubs, which could be literally anywhere in Europe: numbers of the more sober(ly dressed) tourists, trios of Russian men pouring vodka into three cups and chatting seriously, the entire riverbank flashing yellow with the hazard lights of people pretending they’re not parked illegally. The mighty bascules of Trinity Bridge lift up, red lights shining at their tips, and a vast fleet of riverboats streams through, gunwales crowded with partying Russians, filling the Neva with running lights and diesel smoke. Someone lets off some fireworks, Chinese lanterns drift into the air, and the boats actually big enough to need the bridge lifted, a string of hefty Baltic coasters straight out of Tintin, grumble from bridge to bridge in line astern.
We wandered there for a while, just enjoying the activity: a group of Russians having a sing-along, street-sellers flogging candy-floss and boiled corn, couples dancing energetically by the roadside, a band of boys in wifebeaters with electric guitars rocking out under the sightless eyes of the statues on the Winter Palace.
(Click on the images for full-sized versions. I’m trying something new with a gallery for the Krasin pics, too…)
The Central Naval Museum in St Petersburg is, in the Russian style, the largest naval museum in the world. It plays the same cheeky shit regarding “Tickets: 400 ru! билеты 150p” and then not having any signs in English; but thanks to Misha the first wasn’t an issue, and thanks to Dr Boff, there is nothing which floats and kills whose function and history I can’t at least make a decent guess at.
The galleries were mainly ruled by model ships, some as big as minibuses, crowded around the fringes by one-in-the-world historical artefacts: massive two-headed eagles, a showcase full of undersea telegraph gauges, stout brass Gatling guns, kayak-sized midget submarines. They had an actual spar torpedo, a model of a ship designed to use them, and a painting of one in use – I had a lot of fun explaining the utter insanity of spar torpedoes to Misha and Olga.* Rather than the comely lasses with big bare knockers Britain favoured, Russian figureheads seem mainly to be large hairy men with holy books and phallic weapons. Draw your own conclusions.
All I know about Russian naval history is the endless violent tragedies and disasters, and the museum was brilliant for filling in the rest – especially Russia’s Baltic struggle with the Swedes. But there were plenty of disasters too; the Russo-Japanese War display was particularly good, one room for the ships that got bottled up and wasted at Port Arthur and Vladivostok (with sad poignant paintings of dozens of masts and funnels poking up from the bottom of a bay) and another room for the ships they sent to rescue them, which got slaughtered at Tsushima, with lurid propaganda posters of exploding pre-dreadnoughts.** There was a spiral staircase off the battleship Potemkin (namedrop!) with some shell holes, and an entire gallery of Aurora memorabilia.
We had some borscht and sandwiches in the cafe, then drove west down Vasilievsky Island’s southern embankment. This part of St Petersburg has a genuinely nautical character rather than just happening to be a city on the sea; the cruise ships like to moor here, the western horizon is crowded with immense forests of dockyard cranes, and on the far shore, immense flo-flo mobile dockyards and dismembered sections of submarines sit gently rusting. With limited time, we had to pick how to round off our navy day: the submarine S-189 or the icebreaker Krasin.
The Krasin has been everywhere and done everything. Her original hull was built in Newcastle, as the Svyatogor; her most expensive refit was in the USA during WW2, and most of her superstructure and modern fittings are East German postwar reparations, but most of her life has been in Russian service crushing Russian ice. She was jacked by the Royal Navy to fight the Bolsheviks during the Revolution, scuttled to blockade Arkhangelsk, then raised again and, on His Majesty’s service, used to crush submarine barriers around Scapa Flow. Handed back to the Russians in a deal negotiated by one Leonid Krasin, the Svyatogor was renamed after him in the twenties. In one of the true adventure-novel moments of the twentieth century, she rescued a lost Italian polar expedition when their airship crashed, and at another point rescued another icebreaker which wasn’t icebreaky enough. She’s been about as close to both poles as it’s possible for a surface ship to be; during the war she took a trip across the entire US for refit and gave the Panama Canal a rare sight of an icebreaker, on her way to armed convoy duty in the Arctic circle. In declining years, as the new generations of nuclear icebreakers replaced her and changes in the world meant ice just didn’t need as much breaking, reducing her at one point to hauling used cars; she was only saved from the breaker’s yard by Russian historic nostalgia. But she’s been refitted magnificently, all polished brass and lovely wooden panelling, and is apparently now back to working order. Not a fitting end; a fitting continuation.
* It’s seriously just a massive bomb on the end of a stick. Many larger, more heavily armoured ships of the period were designed to simply ram instead – no guns, just armour and engine. Mid-late 19th century naval tech was weird.
** Fun fact! A significant proportion the ships on both sides of the Russo-Japanese War were built in Britain. You really can’t trust perfidious Albion.
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 Transylvanian 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.
We started the day with a brief visit to Mikhailovsky Castle, the personal project of Tsar Paul I, one of the more sad and useless Tsars of the 18th century (his father, Peter III, being another of the “sad and useless” category; his mother, Catherine the Great, reigned between them and was extremely effective.) Mikhailovsky is architecturally very cool, with a huge octagonal courtyard at its heart and an exterior designed to display a different architectural style depending on which direction it’s viewed from. It was built mainly as a result of Paul’s paranoia about being assassinated in the Winter Palace. It didn’t work: he was assassinated at Mikhailovsky six weeks after moving in. His son and successor Alexander was actually in the building at the time, and immediately after doing Paul in the assassins came over to Alexander and told him “you’re it, boyo. Don’t disappoint.”
Right at the heart of St Petersburg, on its own island, is Petropavlovskaya Krepost – the Fortress of Peter and Paul. It sits across the Neva from the Admiralty and the Winter Palace, a big old trace-italienne fortress (literally, as Italian designers were brought in to lay it out): squat, angular, and still pretty formidable-looking after three hundred years. We walked along the sandy beaches around its sheer wall; artists were putting the finishing touches on entrants of a sand art competition and smart-looking Russian crows were playing and squabbling on the fortress’s walls and among the bits of driftwood the Neva brings down from Lake Ladoga.
Within the walls are a number of nice old buildings, mostly in the classical Russian white-and-pastel style which always reminds me of cakes. Among several buildings with attractive rococo domes is a very yellow church (a cathedral, technically) with a very tall, very gold spire; across the cobbles from it is a bizarre “anatomically correct” seated bronze of Peter the Great, a barrel-chested homunculus in a many-buttoned uniform with a tiny shrunken head and terrifying long spidery fingers worn bright and shiny by tourists inexplicably holding his hands. Brr.
We got some kvass from a street seller. It’s a sort of beery drink made of fermented bread, so low in alcohol that it counts as a soft drink under Russian law. I actually really liked it – the taste was oddly honeyed, although there’s no honey in there. Most of the museums inhabiting the walls and buildings looked both a bit pricey and a bit small-time, so we didn’t go into any of them, but the Mint shop buried in one of the walls had an intriguing selection of shiny, pretty coins.
The crownwork north of Peter & Paul is inhabited by the biggest and best collection of giant weapons I have ever seen in my life. It takes a lot – and I mean a lot – for me to go “cor, what’s this? Never seen one of those before…” at a military museum, and I was doing it roughly every five minutes of the hours we spent in the Artillery Museum. As the exhibition winds through the building’s huge wings, you work through a history of Slavic heavy weapons in chronological order – ancient handgonne-looking things, early muskets and cannon with angular Cyrillic letters cast on their bronze barrels, various weird and wonderful devices of the 17th and 18th century (a repeating grenade launcher with forty-eight little mortar cups mounted on top of a cartwheel), the heavily blinged semi-modern kit of the Napoleonic wars, guns and cannon from the World Wars and at last a huge indoor gallery full of truck-mounted rocket launchers. Highlights included a room containing every member of the Kalashnikov family, a giant statue of Pyotr Bagration down a side corridor for some reason, and the silliest artillery-themed ceremonial carriage ever: a sort of mad Cinderella fairytale thing slathered in gold leaf, its prow a two-headed eagle sitting on a nest full of cannon.
That was the interior, of course; all the guns too big to fit inside or weatherproof enough to be left to it are outside in a courtyard, and could collectively waste a city in one salvo. Off to one side I found the Decembrist memorial, a grey granite obelisk; next to it is a row of very old, very beautiful bronze cannon, no two the same, cast with the symbols of failed empires and forgotten kings.
We were in the area, and the Museum of Political History a short walk away (through a park where, of all things, some Native American buskers were doing their thing), so we headed there next. Outwardly a gorgeous art nouveau mansion,* inside it’s a very nice, modern, well-maintained if oddly laid out museum. The successor to the communist-era “Museum of the Revolution”, it’s been rebuilt with great care and attention and solid English translations; I wouldn’t want to be the one explaining the impossibly tangled clusterfuck of the Russian Civil War in my own language, let alone someone else’s (and, to my great joy and approval, they got the right rifles for all the various forces – Red, White, Green, Black, British, American, Japanese, Canadian, Czechoslovak Legion etc etc) and had some good artifacts (look, Richard Sorge’s greatcoat!) For my tastes, it was still just a bit weaselly with certain bits of history (particularly a description of the partition of Poland which described the Nazi side as an actual invasion, and then hedged with “the Red Army commenced military operations in eastern Poland that week”) but generally quite bloodless and even-handed, and very sensibly avoided dealing in detail with anything that’s happened since the 1990s. Parts of it were closed, but the Revolution and Civil War bits, which I was most interested in, were open and wonderful – but it it took until I got into actual Lenin’s actual office that I realised that this was the room the Revolution was planned in, with the balcony Lenin’s speaking from in all those paintings. That was quite something, really.
* The Bolsheviks used it as their HQ for much of the Revolution, having taken it from the famous ballerina Mathilde Kshesinskaya, a lover of the Tsar. She didn’t do badly, though; she ran away to Paris, married a prince, founded a ballet school and died aged 99.
(Click the images for full-size versions, rather than hideous artifacted thumbnails.)
St Petersburg is a planned city, only three hundred years old; unlike the older great cities of Europe, the core is not a medieval labyrinth that all accept as being basically stupid to drive in. Unlike, say, London or Moscow, it also doesn’t have a “central business district”, just business areas scattered around the city; these areas are, according to Misha, not very well served by its Metro (which is much less extensive than Moscow’s or, while we’re on the theme, London’s). It does, however, appear at a glance to have great road infrastructure, with the main prospekts that radiate out from the Admiralty building all being huge eight- or ten-lane monstrosities for most of their length.
Thus, everyone tries to drive to work. This alone would be mental in any dense city of five million souls, but Gogol’s line about Russian roads is still relevant 150 years on. So even hours after rush hour, the immense prospekts are a clotted, potholed struggle of grumpy car-bound Russians, exacerbated by failed signage, random roadworks or some plonker taking up a lane by lurking with hazards on, looking for a parking spot. Oh, and the actual traffic accidents; they drive a lot less violently than Muscovites here, but we saw a few of those as we attempted to drive to St Isaac’s and, even worse, attempted to find parking.
“Why is this place so fucked up?”
“You mean the junction here, or Russia in general?”
“That as well.”
There’s a  on St Isaac’s claim to be the fourth biggest cathedral in the world, but it is certainly not small, and the views from its high tower (its foundation ten thousand tree trunks driven into the ground) were glorious, even in the intermittent rain. It’s an unusual building, Orthodox by way of Russian neoclassical, resembling a foreshortened St Paul’s with a much cooler colour scheme – patchwork marble cladding, chocolate-coloured granite colonnades, acres of green-black bronzes and the obligatory vast golden dome. One side bears scars from Nazi shelling, but it was mostly unscathed; Misha told me the fascists left it up as a landmark to navigate by, and the internet told me the Russians used it to help triangulate on German artillery positions. Nearby is the Bronze Horseman, on the “Thunder Stone”, which is meant to be the heaviest monolith ever moved (but is surprisingly small), and the gleaming golden tower of the Admiralty building, which all roads lead to.
One of the striking things about central St Petersburg – the old pre-Communist part – is the level of detail and decor lavished on the buildings. The most mundane structures are palatial in their trimmings as well as their size – here an apartment block has a mural of horsemen chasing each other, and Doric colonnades on the balconies; there a building with an apothecary in the ground floor sports the sculpted faces of Hippocrates and all his friends, with a rod of Asclepius standing proud on the highest level of its turret-like corner. And it’s everything, every building – no boring cubes, nothing which doesn’t look like a lot of time and money was spent on blinging it out. An endless series of decadently decorated baroque, neoclassical and Empire style palaces, in pastel shades of yellow and orange and pink and green, all trimmed in white to look like expensive cakes. Above the streets, there’s a huge, constant tangle of wires – tram and trolleybus power cables lower down, then cables suspending strings of streetlights, and finally the endless cobweb of telephone cables.
As a result of all this finery, buildings which anywhere else would be hellishly impressive – the Admiralty building, an 18th-century fortified naval arsenal filled in with new administrative buildings sporting giant anchors and the heads of the Argonauts; the Winter Palace, a spearmint fantasia of white, green and gold; and the General Staff building, a pair of immense yellow blocks fused together by triumphal arches – are only slightly more fancy than the old residential districts we walked through to get to them. Due to the architectural difficulties of Petrograd being basically built on a marsh, they’re mostly not even any taller; only the golden spire of the Admiralty building, topped with a shipshape weathervane, rises above the rest.
Crossing Palace Bridge for a better view, we saw the squat bastions of the Peter & Paul Fortress over the choppy steel-blue Neva. Hydrofoils from Peterhof decelerated and settled back into the water, with names like МЕТЕОР on their streamlined hulls. Huge, weirdly low cargo ships were sliding under Trinity Bridge on their way to the Baltic; all the Neva bridges are capable of lifting up, but you wouldn’t know to look at them, or at the boats. Across the bridge on Vasilyevesky Island is the old Bourse, Peter the Great’s stock exchange – a decayed classical temple of money, turned over by the Communists to the worship of military history instead but sadly closed for refurbishment. Either side of it are two rostral columns, huge hideous red things with stylised bronze galley prows sticking out of them. (Googling what a rostral column is makes the horrendous, gigantic, universally loathed Peter the Great statue in Moscow make very slightly more sense.)
We surveyed the Hermitage and General Staff building in the pissing rain, then retired to “a place I know, it’s kind of hipstery” for tea and dinner – I had beef stroganoff, in sauce that tasted like that creamy IKEA stuff, Misha had a fragrant, many-spiced curry which recalled the taste of genuine Indian but with none of the fire. Then, seeking something sheltered to kill the evening, we found that “Peter’s Aquatoria” was nearby and didn’t close til 10pm. It is one of those places which words don’t do much justice to: a big exhibition room with 1/87 models of large areas of 18th-century St Petersburg and surrounds, arrayed around a central pond (geographically counterfactual, but whatever). The Admiralty building, still fortified and full of half-built ships, ice-cutters and sleds frolicking on the frozen Neva nearby; the Twelve Ministries and what’s now the Kunstkamera, back when half of that was fields; Kronstadt; Peterhof Palace, with 2cm-high figures dancing in the gardens; the now-gone “Peterstadt” that Peter III (the weedy, useless one who lasted six months) built for no reason, all realised in unbelievably complete detail, with ships and carts moved around by subsurface magnets, smoke issuing from chimneys, windows and lanterns lighting up as the day-night cycle rotated – a set of wonderful miniature aerial views of Petrograd as-was, which you could normally only get with a time-travelling helicopter. We spent hours taking in the detail. At the end of the exhibition they showed us a rack of fridge magnets, which had been printed with photos of ourselves taken without permission; this struck me as staggeringly creepy, but Misha bought me one and I accepted it as a generous gift from a good bro.
The bus journey from Estonia to Russia was cheap, comfortable, came with wifi, and included my first proper land border crossing! I’ve travelled a lot, but always either via airports or among Schengen countries without internal border controls (for now, ha.) So an actual border crossing, at an actual physical border, was a new and slightly intimidating experience.
It was a two-stage process. On the Estonian side of the border (and the river Narva) stands an old Sword Brethren fort called Narva Castle: quite a vertical affair, with its main tower whitewashed and red-roofed. On the Russian side, its counterpart, the fortress of Ivangorod, is low, square, grey and far more intimidating. In Narva, two hard-looking blonde Eestis boarded the bus, took everyone’s passports – mine the only wine-red British one in a big pile of brick-red Russian ones – went off for a while and then brought them back. This was expected; leaving Estonia is the easy boring part, it’s getting into Russia that gets tasty.
We drove across the river, and stopped to dismount at a border post which resembled nothing so much as the grimmest, tackiest service station you’ve ever seen, with armed Russian soldiers instead of petrol pumps, and queued up for what Misha described as “some old school Papers Please”. I handed my passport over, with its new, expensive Russian visa sticker in; the passport control lady took ages scrutinising it, and then said “not in order”, handed me another form and a pencil, and sent me back to fill it in. I did, sweating slightly, and pushed to the front of the queue for a second go. She took the passport; the door next to her booth opened, and three large young Russian soldiers came out. She looked at me, looked at them, nodded to them. I just about wet myself.
And then… they just walked past. “Welcome to Mother Russia,” said Misha.
We had a long drive through green but mostly purposeless-looking land, which gave me the same odd feeling as I got in the Ukrainian countryside, and some parts of Australia – everything feels spread out and uncared for, with great big fields nobody’s doing anything with. I’m sure my perspective is affected strongly by growing up in the south of England, where everything is small, ownership is carefully delineated, and just about everything is being used in some way – but the grand open spaces and ragged field-forest boundaries of the Russian countryside give me an impression of having so much space they don’t really know what to do with it.
We arrived at St Petersburg at dusk, although dusk is about a third of the day here. I thought I was ready for it, but the scale still took me by surprise. Everything is mind-bogglingly enormous, and mine is not a mind that boggles easily. Misha and Olga’s flat is in a sixteen-storey block, a mid-sized component of a residential complex which dwarfs any I’ve ever seen. This complex is just one segment of an estate you could drop the entire Barbican into ten times over and never notice. And a glance at a map shows dozens of these estates, in neat but gigantic rectangular plots, with building sites raising still more. After a meal of stuffed peppers and tea with honey, we went for a spin down Moskovsky Prospekt, which makes Unter den Linden look like a country lane.
The House of Soviets, silhouetted against the flawless dark blue of one of those weird Baltic nights, was immensely imposing. It was originally designed and built to house local government (although it never did, thanks to the war, and now it’s just private offices), and it stands, a gigantic Stalinist-neoclassical pile set back from the prospekt by a square full of fountains, across from a pair of equally cyclopean buildings meant to house government ministries. I felt a definite sense of awe, not only at the staggering scale of the buildings, but at the ensemble they’re in, the immense amount of space and effort devoted to framing them and giving them a proper sense of grandeur and glory; the pride, the ambition, the optimism the designers and builders felt still shines through, past all the decades of by-turns disappointing, banal, gloomy and hideous reality.
At the southern end of Moskovsky Prospekt is a monument to the Siege of Leningrad, unusually gloomy and un-triumphant as these things go this side of the Iron Curtain. Most of the grand Soviet monuments I’ve seen have their heroes lantern-jawed and muscular. But eight hundred thousand people starved to death here, and so their bronze avatars are tall and ragged, bony and hollow-cheeked. Leningrad was a victory of endurance as much as arms. Inside a huge broken bronze circle, “900 nights” is written in gold letters, lit by memorial flames which burn whether or not anyone is there to watch them.
I commented to Misha that British war memorials only ever depict soldiers. This is because we have, as a rule, been lucky enough to fight wars where only our soldiers die, but also because our conception of wartime heroism is pretty much limited to the battlefield. But the USSR’s self-image needed general participation, needed to represent the factory workers and the peasants as well as the frontoviki – not to mention the fact that, as the front ebbed and flowed across half of Europe, all these people were often on the front line. So Soviet military iconography includes a very broad cross-section of society; and here, while the soldiers and sailors stand heroically with bayoneted 91/30s outthrust, and the pilots look grimly at maps and horizons, the nurses have submachine guns on their shoulders as well as stretchers, male and female factory workers haul girders and cast metal; the elders and children heft guns or carry kit or simply lean on each other for support. And beneath the huge obelisk at the centre of the memorial, the man with the hammer stands a proud equal to the man with the PPSh-41.
A BRIEF INTERLUDE ON THE HISTORY OF TALLINN from which, at a glance, the most impressive thing about the place is that it’s independent at all. The Estonian state in its modern incarnation has existed for less than 45 years, in two non-consecutive periods, and already has two independence days, both celebrating getting away from Russia (the first in February, celebrating the 1918 independence; the second, in August, celebrating the 1991 independence, in a “for real this time” sort of way.)
Tallinn has been around for a long time, as raiders’ outpost, Hanseatic trading port, fortified naval base, and eventually capital of its own country. But it is mainly a history of being batted about, invaded and occupied by the dominant regional power of the time, and there have been a lot of those in the Baltic. The extensive and wonderful medieval city walls surrounding the Old Town, the enormous trace italienne fortifications surrounding them, the monstrous coastal ex-fortress (“Patarei” means “battery”) and the fancy seaplane hangars are all parts of the Baltic power game.
Estonians are related ethnically and linguistically to Finns (and thus, going a very long way back, to Hungarians) – the ancient Estonians existed as one of the many seafaring, sometimes-trading sometimes-piratical groups operating in the Baltic through the Dark Ages, which we English inelegantly give the catch-all name “Vikings”. They were one of the last pagan groups in the Baltic, principally because neither the Catholics on one side nor the Orthodox on the other wanted to set off a holy war with the other, and fought variously with Danes, Swedes and the Republic of Novgorod (the northern proto-Russian state which was later subsumed into the Grand Duchy of Moscow) as well as ignoring and, er, possibly eating various luckless Catholic missionaries from the German states. They built hill forts and stone castles, including the basis for the later Toompea Castle on the Tallinn citadel. In the 13th century the Christianised Danes, sick of Estonian raiders, allied with the Teutonic Order to launch a Northern Crusade into the area, slaughtering the loosely confederated pagan tribes, wrecking their hill forts and eventually (in the face of some violent revolts) establishing a state called Livonia, run by a Christian knightly order called the Livonian Order, or Sword Brethren.
A variety of horrible wars – Sweden, Denmark, Muscovy and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth being the main players – swept over Livonia for the next three centuries, but Tallinn itself mostly did fine. Known as Reval at the time, it had become part of the Hanseatic League, an immensely influential semi-formal association of merchant towns, which ran most trade in northern Europe from the thirteenth to the eighteenth century. Serving as a natural point for trade between Muscovy and everywhere else, Reval was coining it, and this period was when the town hall and the main late-medieval fortifications, including Fat Margaret and the Kiek in de Kök, were built – both protecting the city’s wealth, and displaying how rich they were to be able to afford this sort of martial bling. Fancy walls and Hansa status weren’t an invincible defence, however, and with the rest of Estonia Tallinn mostly-voluntarily came under the power of Sweden in 1561. The Swedes, then an up-and-coming power who cemented their Baltic pre-eminence in the apocalyptic Thirty Years War of 1618-1648, considered Reval an excellent base to bottle up the Russians, and invested a staggering amount of money into defensive upgrades – the enormous bastions, redoubts and ravelins that surround the medieval walls to this day.
Sweden’s Baltic dominance and ownership of Tallinn lasted until the Great Northern War (1700-1721), when Peter the Great of Russia kicked the shit out of the Swedes and took all of Estonia as war booty. (True to form, Britain involved itself on the weaker side for postwar concessions, switched sides halfway through and generally enjoyed watching everyone get wrecked.) The improved fortifications were never tested – the horrific plague outbreak that ravaged the Baltic during that war reached Tallinn in 1710, just before a Russian army did, and after losing two thirds of their population to the plague the survivors collectively went “sod this, not worth it” and opened the door to Ivan.
Tallinn was part of the Russian Empire for the next two centuries, and went through the same general developmental upheaval as the rest of Europe, but retained its prosperous trade, its medieval old town and its German mercantile-urban elite, the last only leaving in the 1890s. British and French ships blockaded it during the Crimean War, but didn’t attack. In the run-up to the Great War, it was a key component of the enormous Russian effort to block off St Petersburg from the sea with coastal fortresses in Estonia and Finland, and Royal Navy submarine squadrons used the port for raids on iron ore convoys from Sweden to Germany; and, during the utter chaos of the Russian civil war, the Eestis took advantage of everything falling apart to declare an independent state, with its own democratic government and adorable little excuse for a military.
Russia invaded again in the 40s, twice: the first time, in the aftermath of Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, they annexed the Baltic states, abducted the existing governments, military, police etc and deported them to Siberia in cattle cars to die, set up puppet governments claiming to be “popular fronts” and legitimised them through rigged elections, shot anyone who resisted, and generally made such a horror of themselves that when the Nazis attacked in ’41 they were welcomed as liberators. The Nazis, of course, did their usual thing with Jews (not that there were many in Estonia by that point) then, as the Eastern Front moved so decisively westward in 1944, the Soviets returned, kicked the Nazis out and killed or deported everyone who had cooperated with them and anyone else they found slightly threatening. They again installed a puppet government as the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic, then carried on doing their general repression thing until the mid 50s, breaking resistance through mass deportations, conscripting the young men for forced labour, sending dissenters and people with money to the gulag etc – all of which was partially reversed with the Khrushchev thaw. Then, when the USSR collapsed, Eesti got independence again in 1991, and threw in with the EU and NATO as quickly and enthusiastically as it could; you spend Euros in the shops now, and there are semi-permanent NATO deployments there. I didn’t get any impression of tension while there – Tallinn has a huge Russian-speaking minority, most tourists there are Russian, and if anything we got treated better having a Russian friend than we did just speaking English – but the country is clearly on Putin’s shopping list, and sabres are being rattled on both sides of the border.