From the counter, where a woman is pouring buckets of tea into an urn, the queue snakes as far as the front door and out into the street: students, businessmen, women in Prada – and one very elderly, bent lady clutching a paper bag and munching doughnuts. Welcome to the Pyshki cafe, purveyor of greasy Soviet-era doughnuts, treacly tea and service most definitely without a smile since 1953.
How the place has survived is anybody’s guess. Pyshki is on Bolshaya Konyushennaya street, one of the most fashionable in St Petersburg, home to Dior, Louis Vuitton and Prada. Virtually next door is DLT, once the First State Department Store, now the city’s answer to Harvey Nichols, stuffed with designer labels. “Milan prices,” boasts the sign on the door, hinting at the effect of international sanctions imposed since the start of Russia’s conflict with Ukraine.
I’ve come to St Petersburg curious to see what Russians themselves think of the revolution that started in this great city a century ago next year. Do they think of it at all – or is it just something best forgotten?
We have a guide (not compulsory to have one, but helpful, as many sites cater poorly for English speakers). Elena has brought us to Pyshki for a short break from sightseeing. She reddens with embarrassment as the woman at the counter sloshes tea cheerlessly into our polystyrene cups, and tells us her mother adores the place because it reminds her of her childhood. For many older people, Elena elaborates, the Soviet days seem a simpler time – if choice and opportunity were limited, at least people didn’t worry so much about money. They knew where they stood. For people like Elena’s mother, these doughnuts – still warm from the fryer – are so much more than pastries.
Unlike Elena’s mother, young Russians see the anniversary as largely irrelevant, to be remembered only with a kind of kitsch nostalgia, if at all. At the Museum of Soviet Arcade Games, clunky vintage slot machines, using real Soviet kopeks, are played by Russian teens for whom even the fall of the Berlin Wall is ancient history. I look at them and reflect that even their parents were young when my hotel, the historic Angleterre, was pulled down in 1987 (and later rebuilt), leading to the first mass demonstration in the Soviet era to go unpunished.
The tourist trail in St Petersburg is all about the tsars – the palaces of Peter and Catherine the Greats, the French architecture, Renaissance masterpieces, Fabergé eggs, the gold, the jewels. Less visited is a tiny wooden cabin on the banks of the Neva built for Peter in just three days in 1703. Here he lived for six years, on mosquito-infested marshland, while presiding over the building of the city from nothing – a coastal city that would give Russia vital access to Europe. The hut was not much loved by the tsarina, who also had to live in it, but it is one of the most memorable city sites. It’s tiny – just three rooms – and breathtakingly modest. Lacking access to stone, Peter had his workers paint the wooden exterior to look like brick, with horizontal rows of white separated by thin strips of red paint. In 1723, he had it encased in a red brick pavilion, and ordered that it be preserved for posterity, with many of his possessions, including an armchair he carved himself.
Nearby, at the Peter and Paul Fortress, the bones of the last tsar, Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra and their children were solemnly reburied in 1998 – in a service attended by members of the wider Romanov family. Our guide Elena is solemn when she points out the tombs – covered daily in fresh flowers – and describes their final bleak days in Ekaterinburg, where the family were killed by a Bolshevik firing squad. No one mentions that the Peter and Paul Fortress was where Leon Trotsky was incarcerated in 1905 – as was Lenin’s brother in 1887, after the attempted assassination of Alexander III.
At the tsars’ former Winter Palace, the vast eau-de-nil wedding cake on the banks of the Neva better-known as the Hermitage Museum, we skip from one gold and crystal room to another, gasping at the magnificent vulgarity. The splendour, the 18th-century bling, is almost overwhelming. (The BBC’s recent adaptation of War and Peace on the BBC gave some idea – and triggered a marked increase in British tourists.) In one room, everybody crowds round to gawp at a stunning golden Peacock Clock – fashioned by English jeweller James Cox and acquired for Catherine in 1781. Amid all this ornament there are incredible works: two Leonardos (both Madonnas) as good as any at the Louvre, and numerous Rembrandts, displayed in galleries where the alarms go off every few seconds, as one tourist after another gets too close.
We ask to see the rooms in the palace that were used by the provisional government – the mainstream politicians who held power from February to October 1917, after Nicholas II’s abdication. Elena whips us through chamber after almost deserted chamber of French classical paintings – to a small dining room. This is where the provisional government held its last meeting: on the mantelpiece, the clock is stopped at 2.10am – the moment the Winter Palace was taken by the Bolsheviks. The cruiser Aurora – docked nearby on the Neva – had fired a blank shot to signal the storming of the palace. The government quickly surrendered.
The next day, we visit the Aurora, where an expert explains animatedly how the events unfolded. There are pictures of sailors with red armbands raised high, gleaming shells and other weaponry from a century ago. The cruiser has recently been refitted, but as we are leaving, our guide says there was debate about whether to bother with any of the displays relating to the revolution. More interesting to most Russians are the Aurora’s exploits during the second world war.
As this suggests, the Soviet era is not suppressed in St Petersburg, but you could easily miss it. Here and there we see little hints: the odd plaque on a side street, commemorating where Lenin held some meeting or other. But what happens if you go looking for more? I do that at the Political Museum – once the home of Mathilde Kschessinska, a prima ballerina with the Imperial Ballet. Unquestionably talented, Kschessinska nevertheless owed much of her renown and wealth to her affairs with no fewer than three grand dukes of the Romanov family, including the future Nicholas II. This made her something of a target for the Bolsheviks: she lost her palace to Lenin and friends in April 1917, soon after Lenin returned to Russia.
Lenin’s desk has been preserved in the room that served as the office of the Communist party newspaper, Pravda. And he often made speeches from the nearby balcony, overlooking Kronverkskiy Prospekt. There’s much else here to absorb a keen historian – quantities of material relating to later leaders, notably Stalin – but this is one of several museums that seem not to expect visitors who aren’t Russian, or can’t read or speak the language.
The no-frills Russian Museum is likewise in a vast palace, but reeks of Soviet-era austerity. The grand façade is no less imposing than the British Museum’s in London: there are giant gates bearing imperial eagles. But to get in, visitors creep through a furtive, subterranean side-entrance. The interior is spartan.
This museum attracts far fewer overseas visitors than the Hermitage, which is a terrible shame, because it’s packed with art treasures depicting Russia from before the revolution, through the second world war and beyond the end of the Soviet era.
Works by Ilya Repin (1844-1930) – master social documentarist – hint at the shifts to come. In one room there’s his giant painting of the state council, finished in 1903 – the uniformed establishment soon to be overthrown. His Barge Haulers on the Volga brutally presents the miserable serfs, exhaustedly dragging a boat upstream. Further on, there’s a noticeable shift in 1917 and through the 1920s and beyond, as painters turned their attention from aristocracy to farmers and bus conductors.
Stepping outside the Russian Museum, I find early autumn sunshine sparkling on the city’s brightly painted buildings and busy waterways. It’s easy, for a moment, to think I’m in another European city with canals: Amsterdam or Venice. And St Petersburg is, of all Russian cities, the most European. For most of the time since it was founded, it was Russia’s capital, and even after the government was moved to Moscow in 1918, St Petersburg remained important. Like any former or current capital, it holds much that is beautiful, and much that is darker. Often there are both qualities in the same place.
Take the General Staff Building, a wing of the Hermitage, which rivals Tate Modern in London in its minimalist splendour. It has a breathtaking collection of impressionist and post-impressionist works: Cézannes, Van Goghs, Monets, Picassos, Toulouse-Lautrecs and Matisses. Many were collected by businessman Sergei Shchukin, to fill his Russian home. In one room he kept 16 of Gauguin’s Tahiti paintings. But the Soviets seized it all – Lenin himself signed the decree to expropriate the works – and Shchukin fled to France. Others, as we know, were not so lucky.
Or consider the Astoria hotel, by St Isaac’s Cathedral. The hotel was built in 1910 and, during the first world war, aristocrats threw extravagant parties in its ballroom. Rasputin came here to visit his married lovers. But in 1917, hand-to-hand fighting between Tsarists and Bolsheviks saw blood shed on the pavement outside and, within a couple of years, the hotel had become a popular bolthole for the revolutionaries – with Lenin taking advantage of its royal suite balconies to deliver yet more of his oratory. Renamed Leningrad in 1924, the city fell under siege in the second world war and the Astoria served as a hospital. But Hitler got word of the hotel’s former splendour and made plans to hold his victory party here – even going so far as to make up his invitations.
Hotel guests enjoying the finest luxury today might have no idea of this backstory. Does that matter? Some might laugh, finding kitsch where others see only horror. For me, it’s been a thrill to discover a beautiful city of great cultural significance, and to have to work hard for my lessons in revolutionary history. Others might be satisfied with less. In which case, I recommend a quick study of the brass plaques on the wall beside the Astoria’s elegant elevators. Without comment, these show the names of its many notable visitors. Among them: Elton John, Margaret Thatcher, Lenin and Rasputin.
• The trip was provided by Russia specialist Regent Holidays (020-3131 5562) which has a three-night stay at the Angleterre Hotel from £630pp or at the Hotel Dostoevsky from £480pp, based on two people sharing and including breakfast and flights from the UK. For 2017, Regent Holidays will be offering a seven-day guided tour combining the revolutionary highlights of St Petersburg and Moscow
Icons of Modern Art: The Shchukin Collection
This collection’s arrival at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris is the first time these extraordinary paintings have been seen outside Russia. The exhibition comprises 130 major pieces – seized by Lenin in 1918 after Sergei Shchukin fled the country – with particular emphasis on Monet, Cézanne, Gauguin, Rousseau, Derain, Matisse and Picasso.
• 22 October to 20 February 2017
Revolution – New Art for a New World
This fascinating new documentary by Margy Kinmonth remembers the avant-garde art movement that thrived in the early years of the revolution. It tells the stories of artists like Chagall, Kandinsky and Malevich who flourished in the years after 1917, only to be silenced in 1932 by Stalin’s brutal crackdown. The film features paintings banned during the Soviet era and masterpieces that rarely leave Russia.
• In UK cinemas on 10 November
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