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Fantastical journey in St. Petersburg

In the frozen winter, a romantic trip to St. Petersburg, complete with palaces, concerts and ballet.

October 12, 2003|By Susan Spano

It is 260 steps up from the entrance of the massive St. Isaac's Cathedral in the heart of St. Petersburg to the colonnade that encircles the base of the dome. I climbed slowly and counted. It was winter, and the stone staircase was slick with ice, ending at a high snow-coated corner of the great Russian Orthodox church.

There, horrified, I realized that to reach the colonnade, I had to cross a metal gangplank, about 40 feet long, slung over the cathedral's sloping roof from where I stood to the dome. I steeled myself and started walking. Halfway up, I felt a blast of cold wind pluck at the gangplank like pizzicato on a violin string. When I reached the narrow walkway behind the colonnade, I clutched the slender handrail and tried to get calm. Finally, I looked out and claimed the prize for having come to St. Petersburg in January: a 360-degree view of the city--300 years old this year and, in winter, never looking better--its bridges, parks, golden spires and fuming smokestacks in the suburbs writing in white on a baby blue sky.

Fulfilling fantasies is a big part of why I travel and, in this famous Russian city, not just an object but an obsession. There, in the snow, I see myself riding in a sleigh along a canal. My jet black hair is pinned in a diamond tiara and my pale, flawless shoulders draped in white fur. I have waltzed with princes, eaten caviar from crystal, lived in palaces of malachite and alabaster. My name is Anna or Lara or Irina. Doubtless I read too many Russian novels at too tender an age and never stopped seeing them through rose-tinted glass because I still sometimes imagine myself in Anna Karenina's tiara and Dr. Zhivago's sleigh. Though my passport picture shows a middle-aged woman, my dreams reflect a beautiful Russian girl in the perfect world of a snow globe.

I could cite a score of other reasons I came to St. Petersburg last January, beginning with the celebration of the city's 300th anniversary, marked by fireworks, concerts, visits from world leaders and the much-needed restoration of such vaunted sights as the Alexander Column on Palace Square. I could mention the winter season at the ballet and symphony, when there is almost as much to keep a dance and music lover happy as in New York, but with more manageable crowds. I could invoke the Hermitage, surely one of the greatest art museums in the world, or say I wanted to see winter freeze shut Peter the Great's "Window on the West," a shantytown on the marshy delta of the Neva River when the czar founded it in 1703, later one of the most elegant and cosmopolitan capitals in the world.

Or I could tell the truth, that I came to St. Petersburg to realize a dream that any fool could have predicted was bound to melt like a snowflake in my hand.

boris pasternak's "doctor zhivago" is set in Moscow, not St. Petersburg, as are major parts of Leo Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina." Anton Chekhov's "Three Sisters" yearned for Moscow, Moscow, Moscow, which replaced Peter's imperial city to the north as the Russian capital after the abdication of the last czar and the Bolshevik rise to power in 1917. Throughout the 20th century, under the Communists, St. Petersburg went into a long, slow decline. Its opulent Italian Baroque palaces moldered; the art of the czars was sold off, stashed in damp basements, or moved to Moscow; money and power fled. During World War II, an estimated 1 million civilians died in the horrific 900-day German siege. As perhaps the ultimate humiliation, the city once known as the "Venice of the North" was in quotidian fashion renamed Leningrad.

If anything, the fall of the Soviet Union made matters worse, though in 1991 the Russian Parliament reinstated the name Peter the Great gave the city. Economic hardship brought continued deterioration and crime, including Mafia-style shootings of politicians and the robbery of a Finnish diplomat by men in police uniforms in 2001. You couldn't drink the tap water or walk along the sidewalks of the Nevsky Prospect, the city's principal street, without falling into a crack. Though St. Petersburg often appeared on travel magazine lists of places people most wanted to visit, tourism all but evaporated. Those who came here were largely on shore excursions from Baltic Sea cruise ships, viewing the city from hermetically sealed tour buses.

That's how I first visited it about five years ago, when I found St. Petersburg depressing for its faded look, empty streets and hucksters of Soviet-era war medals. But dreams die hard--Peter's, mine and, it would seem, those of Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, who was born and raised in St. Petersburg.

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