The Hidden Petersburg, Up Close and Personal
By Galina Stolyarova
Staff Writer, The St Petersburg Times
St. Petersburg, striving to live up to its self-proclaimed
title of Russia's cultural capital, is abundant with guides wanting
to sell you on the city.
Make your way to the center and they are everywhere,
but when you actually start listening, their stories and routes
tend toward the traditional tourist fare: the State Hermitage Museum,
the State Russian Museum, Nevsky Prospekt. More adventurous tourists
- or curious locals - have an alternative to standard tours, however,
in Peter's Walking Tours, which was officially established last
month. What the company's five guides offer is not quite an excursion,
but more of an experience.
The driving force behind the project is Peter Kozyrev,
a traveler whose globe-trotting backpacking experiences have taken
him to Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, China, Vietnam, Central
Asia and most of Europe, to name a few of his destinations. The
other guides have comparable experience under their belts.
Kozyrev believes that, with standard tours, travelers
don't get a full psychological portrait of the city, which is more
complex than a stroll through the center of town might suggest.
"It is amazing how few tourists actually manage
to step away from Nevsky Prospect. It's as if St. Petersburg is
a village where nothing but the main street is interesting,"
"We see ourselves as conductors between cultures,
and we speak the same language as travelers - not just English,
but 'backpackers' language," he added.
Kozyrev, 29, spent several years giving informal
tours of the city. He prides himself that he was the only guide
to run a rooftop tour route. His activities were somewhat secret,
however, because he didn't have a license to be a guide. Even applying
for the license would have been pointless, because walking on roofs
is considered hooliganism by the city authorities, and certainly
not an activity to be officially encouraged with guided tours.
Then, following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks
in the United States, city officials boarded up most of the attics
and lofts, and most roofs are no longer accessible. Residents carefully
watch those that are.
"If they see us [on the roof], they yell and
get angry, and sometimes call the police," Kozyrev said.
So, instead of what he calls "urban rooftop
mountaineering," Kozyrev and his colleagues developed several
original walking routes. Then they registered the business so all
profits and taxes are above-board. The tours, which are priced from
320 rubles (about $10) per person, focus on popular themes like
the Bolshevik Revolution, the Blockade of Leningrad, Dostoevsky's
novels and Rasputin.
"'Lover of the Russian queen' and 'Russia's
greatest love machine' is how Grigory Rasputin is most frequently
perceived [outside of Russia]," Kozyrev said. "Lots of
people have heard that [disco band] Boney M song, yet very few have
a reasonable idea who it is about - not to mention the fact that
Russia never had a queen."
Kozyrev blends history, gossip, rumors and myth
to draw a more detailed portrait of the mysterious and powerful
monk who gained enough influence to manipulate the last Russian
tsar, Nicholas II.
The Rasputin tour takes walkers to "Father
Grigory's" last apartment on Gorokhovaya Ulitsa, Rasputin's
murder site and many other sites related to the monk's life.
"I saw one of the apartment's current inhabitants
once, but I resisted the temptation to talk to her," Kozyrev
said. "I thought she'd probably already been asked too many
The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution was one of the most
popular tour themes of the official Soviet tourist agency, Intourist.
Guides proudly talked about Leningrad as the "cradle of three
revolutions." Kozyrev's Revolution tour also plunges walkers
into the world of the revolution, but on a more critical, ironic
note than the Intourist tours of old.
Sights include revolutionary symbols like the battleship
Avrora, from which a shot supposedly rang out to start the revolution,
the Winter Palace, the Smolny Institute, which served as the Bolsheviks'
headquarters, and the armored train at the Finland Station, where
Lenin first pronounced his April Thesis upon his return from exile
Communist rule ended over a decade ago, but elements
of the past can still be found in the city's architecture and observed
in its citizens' mentality, so the group runs a Communist Legacy
tour. The tour visits the metro, the world's deepest, where many
of the oldest stations are decorated with Soviet symbols and mosaics
depicting communist heroes or labor.
Dozens of statues of Lenin and other communist
leaders have been removed, but many others still stand on St. Petersburg's
streets, as well as inside many factories and public institutions.
Tour guides point out hammers and sickles on the walls of buildings,
Soviet-themed restaurants and former "palaces of culture"
now turned into casinos. Though not a formal part of the tour, most
Communist Legacy walks are enlivened by the Soviet-style attitudes
and manners of shopkeepers and passersby along the way.
"I can tell from the questions from people
on the tours that they are shocked by the level of Soviet mentality
in Russian people, something they didn't expect to see, something
they thought had long been dead and buried," Kozyrev said.
Those less interested in the city's political history
and more interested in snacks can opt for Peter's Food Tour, which
visits local markets and eateries. The cost of the food is not included
in the price of the tour, but most dishes are inexpensive. For example,
at most cafes where the tour stops, a portion of bliny costs in
the neighborhood of 30 rubles, a bowl of soup 40 rubles and a shot
of vodka 20 rubles.
In addition to traditional Russian fare, the tour
can be an opportunity to discover Siberian pelmeni, Ukrainian borshch,
Georgian sulguni cheese, Armenian lavash and other dishes from around
the Soviet Union that have become beloved staples in post-Soviet
Russian cuisine. Kozyrev deliberately changes the cafes and restaurants
he visits on each tour to make it clear that he isn't involved in
any kick-back schemes with the owners.
Kozyrev said the most popular tour is the Original
Walking Tour, or the "hey-guide-show-us-something." Tourists
show up and help develop the route on the spot right before the
From years of walking tours - both taking them
and leading them - Kozyrev has learned that the excursion is not
so much about what is shown but how it is shown.
"I quite agree with what they say at [British
company] London Walks: It all comes down to the guiding," Kozyrev
One of the Dostoevsky-related tours, the Dostoevsky
Murder Route Pub Crawl, starts at the doorstep of Raskolnikov's
house and ends at the doorway of pawnbroker Alyona Ivanovna's home.
On the way, as the group hits six or seven pubs, they plunge deeper
and deeper into the spirit of "Crime and Punishment."
"Nothing has changed: You can touch the sticky
tables, bump the clumsy drunkards trying to reach for another glass,
step into stairways that reek of urine," Kozyrev said. "Perhaps
it would have been better for Raskolnikov to make his way to the
old lady through all the pubs," Kozyrev said. "If he didn't
go directly to her, maybe the bars would have stopped him short
of the murder."
Eventually, Kozyrev is planning to expand the pub
crawl selection by adding Revolution and Lenin crawls, which may
appear in late spring or early summer.
"I am a backpacker myself, and I know what
backpackers want: They want good value for the little money they
pay," Kozyrev said. "What we are doing is what I would
want for myself when I am abroad."
Tours do not need to be booked in advance. Just
check out the schedule at www.peterswalk.com
and then show up at the meeting point a few minutes before the walk
is scheduled to start.