Once Was Leningrad

What better way to see St Petersburg than from the seat of a bicycle?

“We were taught a lot of bullshit at school,” said Nikolai Gruzdev. The St Petersburg tour guide was gazing up at a statue, in front of a particularly ugly building, of a former head of the Soviet security agency, the KGB. This, said Nikolai with disdain, was no hero: he died a cocaine addict.

Thirtysomething Nikolai is part of a Russian generation contemptuous of the official Soviet history. So he was an ideal guide for a bicycle tour of the city, situated at the mouth of the Neva River on the shores of the Baltic Sea.

The tour runs only on Sundays; the traffic is too terrifying the rest of the week. We arrived at the appointed hour of 10:30 am in front of a bike shop in a potholed lane. It looked derelict. Two bleary-eyed young men emerged, and held up their fingers to demonstrate 11. Russians go to bed very late and sleep in late; time is flexible.

I wanted to wriggle out of the arrangement. As an occasional cyclist who is nervous in Auckland traffic, I was worried about how thoroughly disorganised it looked. But Nikolai, looking extremely fit, even with a fag dangling from his lips, turned out to be entertainment on wheels.

A doctor in psychology, he prefers working as a guide (he also plays in several bands in the local club scene), and although he scorns the Soviet era, he offers a walking tour of sights from the October Revolution of 1917; he claims to know the workers’ canteen where Lenin had his last meal before the revolution.

In the moderately scary traffic, I pedalled along sedately while Nikolai, a slick biker, whooped in front of our group, up and down steps and gutters.

Built in the 18th century by Tsar Peter the Great, on marshland seized from the Swedes, St Petersburg is a winding maze of canals and bridges. We followed Nikolai past the magnificent Church of the Spilled Blood, whose multicoloured mosaic domes made it look like a giant wedding cake, and the more demure, ice-blue Smolny Cathedral, a baroque church with the onion domes typical of most Russian monasteries.

As we passed through nine interlinked courtyards, Nikolai showed us some magnificent 19th century apartment buildings; until recently, he said, some were used as love pads for smug KGB officials.

On a small bridge across a leaf-fringed river, I nearly rode over a bundle of rags and cardboard, which turned out to be the home of a squatter. he peeked out and cursed me eloquently; Nikolai cursed him back.

His commentary was a mixture of history, gossip and rumour. We stopped in front of the statue of Sergei Kirov, the Bolshevik leader in the 1930s who, my history told me, had been assassinated by a political opponent, probably a jealous Stalin. “No, no,” said Nikolai. “He was murdered by his mistress’ angry husband while he was on his way to the toilet.”

Ugly Communist-era, coal-fired power stations still produce the hot water for the whole city. In June, the hot water is switched off for the system to be overhauled. It’s cold showers for the whole month. “Everyone here gets bad-tempered,” said Nikolai. “We can’t wait for June to end.”

The city’s heritage is important to its residents. Protests have been mounted against a 67-floor tower proposed for the headquarters of Gasprom, the state-controlled gas monopoly.

Many locals fear it will endanger St Petersburg’s World Heritage status.

“St Petersburg is not a high-rise city,” Nikolai said. “It’s not like Moscow where most of the old houses and buildings have been demolished.”

The city has a beguiling, lazy charm. The owner of a third-floor classical-music shop put speakers outside his window and every day wonderful stirring music drifted along the street. It reminded me of a touching story about the Nazi siege of Leningrad (the city’s name for most of the last century), between 1941 and 1944. The few remaining members of the Leningrad Radio Orchestra rigged up loudspeakers on the city walls and defiantly struck up a Shostakovich symphony that blared out at the Nazi troops outside the city..

We spent two days at the vast State Hermitage Museum until our heads and eyes were spinning with the gargantuan feast of Old Masters and Impressionists. Hidden Treasures Revealed is a huge collection of paintings – Degas, Matisse, Renoir, Picasso – captured from the Germans. The Russians have steadfastly refused to give these magnificent works back and finally put them on display in 1995.

The Hermitage is five giant baroque/rococo palaces, including the Winter Palace from where the last tsars rules Russia for one and a half centuries. one day as I glumly stared at a portrait of the spoilt family of the last tsar (some of whom looked surprisingly like certain members of the current British royal family), I could fully understand why peasants revolted. No one needs 117 staircases or that much gold foil.

During our stay, St Petersburg was blessed with clear autumnal skies. We sat at sidewalk cafes, watching tall, thin and fastidiously made-up young women strolling by in impossibly high-heeled boots. Contrary to reputation, the food was great and many restaurants had Russian-chic English names like Face Cafe, Ego, or Noname.

President Vladimir Putin spent most of his early life in St Petersburg, where he began his career as a KGB officer. He was probably based in the boring building we cycled past. As Nikolai said, “You are never far away from history in St Petersburg.”

© The Listener, New Zealand, April 19, 2008, by Pauline Ray