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St. Petersburg: Visiting the Red Planet


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It is a 100 years this October since Vladimir Lenin's Bolshevik Party stormed the Winter Palace of Saint Petersburg and overthrew the Russian Monarchy, an event which later became known as the Russian Revolution.

Believing the violent change of government would bring about a more prosperous, equal country where the workers called the shots, few anticipated that 1917 was not the end of an old nightmare but the beginning of a new, more terrifying one. Lenin and his fellow revolutionaries were in many ways worse than the despots they usurped. The imperious leader of the Bolsheviks refused to give anyone else a hearing in his ugly new utopia, although even he was a small fish compared to his successor Joseph Stalin, the second greatest monster in human history (Hitler always gets the top spot).

Saint Petersburg is inextricably associated with the events of that Red October. At one end is the railway station at which Lenin returned from exile to begin the revolution, while further west is the building in which he evicted the monarchy, just across the Neva river from where the deposed royals, later to be executed, were laid to rest in the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul. The Winter Palace itself is now no longer a seat of government but one of the most incredible museums I have ever seen, housing works by Rembrandt, Michelangelo and others in its many elaborately decorated rooms.

When Lenin died in 1924, the city saw another of its many name changes. It had been called Saint Petersburg after the Czar Peter the Great, but the name was changed to Petrograd during the First World War in order to sound less German. Soon after, it lost its status as the capital city to Moscow, but remained an important city - a key target for the Nazis during the 20th Century's second great conflict.

It was during the legendary Siege of Leningrad that the city was cut off from the rest of the country, leading to horrendous food shortages, with Peterburgers reduced to eating animals and clothes (and allegedly each other) while Hitler selected the restaurant in which he wished to dine when the city inevitably fell into his hands. Arrogance was one of his many shortcomings.

The Führer's rival for history's most odious man, Joseph Stalin, was in many ways the gravedigger of the Soviet Union. Many wannabe despots followed him after he bit the dust in 1953, but none were nearly as maniacal, and the regime began to crumble. Watching its death at the end of the 1980s was a young KGB officer posted at the East German border, Vladimir Putin, who stared morosely at his country's decline and promised himself, just as Hitler had done in 1918, that never again would the Motherland be humiliated in such a way.

Putin's rise has ensured a new democratic Russia would not be allowed to flourish in the 21st Century, and that the bad old days of entrenched corruption and the silencing of critics would continue unabated.

Vladimir Putin's wolfish face adorns many mugs and t-shirts sold in tourist stands around the city, along with the equally ugly visages of his predecessors Lenin and Stalin. I was almost tempted to buy one, as something of a sick joke, after visiting what was Saint Petersburg's most impressive building, a cathedral with the stirring name of Church of the Saviour on Blood. Built on the banks of the Griboedov Canal, it is, with its legendary onion dome roof, a building you could only find in Russia. Inside is even more impressive, with every surface papered with religious paintings in which the haunted faces of many a biblical figure stare down at the tourists from the roof.

One of my friends on the trip mistakenly thought all buildings in Russia looked like the church, but in fact most of them are short and dingy, hanging together along vast roads such as the Nevinsky Prospect, along which I walked for hours but never reached the end. Travelling long distances is best achieved by metro, with its legendary deep and beautifully decorated stations. Not all of the city's treasures are kept above the surface.

I too had many misconceptions about Russia. I thought it would be very intimidating, that there would be thuggish police officers on every street and that shops and buildings would be dark, depressing and frightening. Although many of the backstreets and suburbs are quite run down, and the locals and shop staff are very sullen, the country is too vibrant ever to be unsettling. The most immediately frightening aspect of Saint Petersburg was the way in which clumps of April snow fell of the many Soviet Era buildings, hitting in pavement in front of you like exploding watermelons.

It seems that rather than living in fear most people here live in tedium, harbouring great frustration at the mediocrity of their living standards, but too dispirited and cynical to do anything about it: it's hard to picture another revolution kicking out the latest Czar a hundred years after the first.

I have been lucky enough to see both New York City and Saint Petersburg, the two alternative capitals of the most powerful countries on earth, within the space of 12 months. Though this place is magnificent, I know without hesitation which city I prefer. The former Russian capital has the benefits of selling alcohol at an unbelievably cheap price (50p for beers, £5 for bottles of vodka), which you can buy off staff who will never bother to check your ID. I resent when this happens at home, believing it is wrong to be made to feel like a criminal when buying drinks for the weekend. Yet Russia has its own ways of making you feel intimidated.

Our group arrived in the city on a ferry from Finland, and had to be funnelled through a passport control area immediately after disembarking the ship. Inside this humid waiting hall, men in frighteningly large hats marched around under signs warning of the penalties for those 'who do not comply with the authorities of the Russian Federation' - one of the most chilling phrases I have ever read. Even though we behaved well going through the checks, a few of us were held back on account of something they couldn't change: the colour of their skin. One girl from Ethiopia and one guy from France were detained in a security office for so long that they missed the first part of the tour. The rest of us had to carry on regardless, as complaining at the sheer blatancy of the racism would no doubt be a provocation of the authorities of the Russian Federation.

Still, getting into Russia was easier than usual in one respect, in that I didn't need to apply for a visa. Our entry was organised by our tour guides at Scanbalt, who run tours throughout Scandinavia and the Baltic region for very decent prices. The visit to Saint Petersburg was the centrepiece of this particular tour, but was bookended by ferry stops at Helsinki and Tallinn, respectively. We had little time to visit either because of the gruelling ferry schedule, but they were both incredibly impressive.

I would recommend visiting Saint Petersburg to anyone, providing you can live with the humiliating border patrols, as well as shit water and poor restaurant service. The hostel in which I stayed was just across a square from Moscow Station, where you can catch a train and travel deeper into a country so vast that it has borders with both Norway and China and (according to Sarah Palin) can be seen from the United States.

A hundred years on from its most ominous hour, Russia remains a mysterious and charismatic country, and should be top of a to-see list for anyone for whom those qualities matter. People who, in other words, are looking for a bit of grit and piss along with their postcards and ice cream.

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