Bear Essentials. Three hundred years on, St. Petersburg is as compelling as it’s ever been

The temperature edges up a notch and the drainpipes start to thaw, sending ice cascading to the pavement like a jackpot in one of the city’s many casinos. That’s when I come across a bear. A forlorn thing, it’s chained to a post on Nevsky Prospect, St. Petersburg’s main shopping street. It’s sniffing a hotdog that someone’s thrown and I assume the guy standing nearby is begging or money.

Moments before, I walked through an underpass past two old women belting out gutsy renditions of Russian folk songs. A moment later, a man steps out of a gun shop in front of me and, with a film star flourish, points a starting pistol at a parked van. It’s all very unsettling.

Earlier that day a group of young Russian journalists asked me for my impressions of St. Petersburg. I told them it made think of Nairobi. They fell about laughing. Yeah, yeah, very funny. I knew it was a ridiculous thought, but it was one that kept coming back in my first couple of days there.

Why? Well it’s not the temperature (in November between zero and –12C) nor the people (scarcely a black face to be seen) nor the architecture (a blend of communist uniformity and imperial opulence, and all larger than life). No, it’s the culture shock. I kept thinking of Nairobi because only in Africa have I felt so out of place.

And fascinatingly so. The tourist guide cliché is always to say places are steeped in history, but in the former Leningrad, former Petrograd, you really do feel it. You notice it in the shops, now ostensibly capitalist – no food queues, no shortages – but all overstaffed in a uniquely communist way. Every counter has a woman in charge, a younger assistant and an older man, possibly security, looking bored. They can’t give you a receipt without tearing it first, just to be sure you won’t come back and claim your goods twice over. Their indifference to the customer is the direct antithesis of the American ‘have a nice day’.

And the fall of communism has left the people with a form of post-traumatic shock. They’re a forward looking lot, eager to take on the challenges of a new system, but always under the surface is the sense that something profound has changed. Every conversation eventually comes back to it. Something has gone and they’re a little bit lost.

But even deeper than that is the influence of the pre-communist city, a place of architectural ostentation and cultural riches. One look at the spectacular Hermitage explains why the idea of a revolution caught on so quickly. It’s obscenely decadent. Set against such flamboyance is the city of Dostoyevsky, Pushkin, Nabokov, Nijinsky, Balanchine, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovch. From the Mariinsky Theatre to the awesome Russian Museum, St. Petersburg has a proud cultural heritage which it will be celebrating to the full in this, the 300th anniversary year of its founding.

The speediest and most enjoyable way to immerse yourself in the city’s cultural life is turning up for one of Peter’s Walking Tours. They’re run by Peter Kozyrev, a man whose English is so good I initially mistook him for an old Etonian abroad, and his knowledge of the city is even better. The walks head off pretty much the direction you want and the choice is between a five-hour standard tour (about £5.50 each) or a private tour (about £7.60 an hour per group). Either is highly recommended.

© The List, Edinburgh and Glasgow, UK, 30.01.2003, by Mark Fisher