Travelogue: St. Petersburg

I recently visited St. Petersburg and thought I would share some reflections on it.  Despite the title, I intend this less as “What Vicente Did on His Winter Vacation” and more as notes towards alienation and edification.

In 1945, Nazi Germany fell. In 1992, the Soviet Union fell. A lot is concealed by the use of the same verb here. Seventeen years after Hitler’s death, one would not have seen residual swastikas on U-Bahn cars in Berlin. My time in St. Petersburg, however, coincided with the seventeenth anniversaries of the signing of the Alma-Ata Protocol that confirmed the dissolution of the USSR and the resignation of Mikhail Gorbachev as president of the USSR, thereby abolishing that office, and most of the subway cars I saw had the hammer and sickle engraved on them.

The parallel I am attempting to draw between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union is crude, but the point I am trying to make is that the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic  did not disintegrate, like Nazi Germany did before the rebirth several years later of West and East Germany. Instead it mutated directly into the Russian Federation, but there was and is no political will to rip out the Soviet relics that remain, both literally and figuratively.


A first example is museum design. I visited several museums in St. Petersburg, including the Museum of Railway Transport. There was no doubt that it dated from the Soviet era. There were exhibits on the construction of Russia’s railway system and the role of railroads in the Siege of Leningrad, but next to and around all of that was recorded the names of the many bureaucrats who had played roles in the history of Russian railroads. There came in the forms of busts, paintings, plaques, displays, and even at times long lists. None of this, needless to say, was at all interesting. The only remotely important subject of a painting in the whole building was Lenin, who is pictured heroically posed on a train speeding towards revolutionary Petrograd while a boy shovels coal into the engine underneath him.

Another museum I visited was the Museum of the Defense and Siege of Leningrad(1). In true Soviet style, this museum was actually conceived of  during the horrific siege (which lasted from September 1941 to January 1944) and opened only a few months after it ended, only to be closed down by Stalin five years later for political reasons. It was reopened in September 1989 after a campaign by survivors, journalists, and others.  I did not learn any of that at the museum itself. In fact, I learned very little at the museum itself, because I arrived only half an hour before it closed and the babushkas who run the place immediately started trying to kick me out, apparently on the grounds that it was closing soon and they wanted to go home. I managed to fend them off for fifteen minutes or so, long enough to observe that the displays never once used the Russian word for “German.” Instead it was always “Nazi,” “fascist,” or what would have to be translated as something like “Hitlerian” or “Hitlerite.” This avoidance of the term “German” is not shared by modern Russian historiography, or at least not by the Russian Wikipedia page on the siege.

The incident with the babushkas reminded me of something I once read about how Americans tend to think of themselves more as consumers, while Europeans tend to think of themselves more as producers or workers. In both Europe and America, of course, most people play both roles, but it can’t be denied that the public reaction to, for example, a strike is very different. American travelers may shake their heads at the frequency of strikes in France, but the French have more tolerance because they envision themselves in the place of the workers rather than the would-be passengers. It’s just an idea, of course, and a very simplistic one, but it may have some grain of truth, and to the extent that it does I think it applies at least as much in Russia as in Europe.

Commerce and politics

St. Petersburg is an aggressively consumerist city. To start off with, the density of commercial establishments is extremely high on all of the central islands(2), and in many areas it seems like every block has multiple permanent street food stands. These street food stands, incidentally, sell bliny and are a good source of cheap food in the world’s 18th most expensive city (beating out Vienna, Beijing, and every city in America). The non-food stores seem to be heavily weighted towards clothing, shoes, books, and jewelry, but it is possible that I got this impression because the name of every store in St. Petersburg includes the the item it sells, and often nothing else. For example, одежда (o-DYEZH-da) is the Russian word for “clothes.” Most clothing stores in St. Petersburg are called either одежда or одежда and one or two other words. Some will mix it up and have both одежда and обувь (footwear). I would speculate that this naming system is a holdover from Soviet times, but even that doesn’t fully explain it.

I did see a few signs of the corrupt, authoritarian, nonfunctional state I had half expected.  For one thing, I was told that Russian cops are not there to help you. If you would like their help, for example, chasing down a criminal, you are expected to tip them, with the amount depending on the difficulty of the task. As for the political climate, I didn’t personally see any evidence of censorship or repression (although neither did I see any criticism of Putin or Medvedev in print the entire week and a half I was there), but cases like Anna Politkovskaya‘s are well known.

Americans need a visa to even set foot in Russia, unlike the E.U. This visa must be requested at one of five consulates in the U.S. a couple of weeks before your visit and it costs over $100. However, I think these relatively harsh rules are because of a Russian reciprocity law; it’s a hassle for us to visit them because it’s a hassle for them to visit us. Once you arrive in Russia, you are required to register with the police within three business days in order to leave the country. I did not find out about this until I had been there for over a week. I was informed variously that I would be unable to leave the country, that I would be subject to a large fine, that I would be detained for questioning at the airport and miss my plane, and that I would be fine and should stop worrying about it. This last prediction turned out to be true, although I continued worrying until the customs agent at the airport, seeing I spoke little Russian and did not have the required form, took pity on me and let me pass.

Transportation and place names

St. Petersburg’s Metro is smaller and less famous than Moscow’s, but it is a tourist attraction in its own right.  According to its Wikipedia page, it is the deepest Metro system in the world and the eleventh busiest. Many, although not all, of the stations on line 1 were built during the Stalinist era and are consequently decorated like palaces. If a train stopped inside the palace of Versailles every one to three minutes, this is what it would be like. There are chandeliers, statues, ornate columns, and gold everywhere. Perhaps I will upload a picture once I can get it off my camera. The Khrushchev era brought a batch of extremely utilitarian and even ugly stations, but at some point after his removal from power this policy was reversed to some extent. The newer stations are more art deco than palatial, but some of them are quite impressive. Sportivnaya in particular, located on Petrogradsky Island, is really beautiful in a functional and efficient way that doesn’t come across in any of the photographs I’ve seen of it.

Sportivnaya is notable for another reason. Although only one line runs through it, the station, which opened in 1997, has two levels with two tracks each; in other words, enough for two lines to run through it. At the moment northbound trains run on one of the upper tracks and southbound on one of the lower tracks, with the other two closed off, but when a future line intersects Sportivnaya it can get a platform of its own without any further construction.

This kind of foresight would be nearly impossible in modern America, because any expansion of public transit infrastructure is so difficult to get approved and follow through on. In America we build our subways over the course of decades,  piece by piece, without coordination or long-term planning. According to Wikipedia (which, honestly, is far more reliable than my attempting to translate the St. Petersburg Metro site, which appears to be down at the moment, of course), St. Petersburg plans to double its system in length by 2050, and add 41 new stations in the eighteen years between 2008 and 2020. Both this scale of public investment and the long-range planning and coordination that accompany it may be Soviet relics, but that doesn’t make them a bad thing.

Speaking of Soviet relics, I will return to my initial topic by noting the many Communist characters still featured in St. Petersburg’s geography.  It should be noted that St. Petersburg itself, which was called Leningrad during Soviet times, returned to its older name after a citywide referendum in the ’90s. But there are still Metro stops (and therefore streets) named for Lenin (lots of those! He seems to be about as controversial as George Washington), the proletariat, the Bolsheviks, Mikhail Frunze, as well the less polemical Nikolai Chernyshevsky, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Aleksandr Nevsky, and even Fyodor Dostoevsky (a conservative very hostile to socialism). There is also a square called Ploshchad Proletarnoi Diktatury (Dictatorship of the Proletariat Square). But how much all this shows I’m not sure. The eastern half of Berlin still has streets with names like Karl-Marx-Allee and Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz.


Although it is supposedly Russia’s most European city and famously its “window to Europe,” St. Petersburg felt to me like a surprisingly alien place. There are fewer foreigners, it seemed, than in the capitals of Western Europe, and although there was English and Roman letters everywhere, people did not seem to speak much English at all. If I was addressed in Russian and clearly could not understand, perhaps my interlocutor would do me the favor of repeating the Russian more slowly. Obviously I am not positing any right to be spoken to in English all over the world, I am just noting that, although in Western Europe it seems you can get by with English, I would not advise going to Russia without some knowledge of Russian. But also with some knowledge of English, because the few translations there are (menus, etc.) can be hilarious.

(1) Not only is this museum called by various names, there is also at least one other museum on the same subject in St. Petersburg. I leave it as an exercise to the reader to figure out which one I went to.

(2) St. Petersburg is technically built on a lot of islands, and it claims it has the nickname “the Venice of the North,” but in fact most of these islands are separated from each other or the mainland by extremely slim rivers or canals. There are a few legitimate islands, though, which are separated from each other by the Neva and its tributaries, all of which are called variations on Neva (Little Neva, Big Neva, Little Nevka, Big Nevka, etc.)


One Response to “Travelogue: St. Petersburg”

  1. I wonder if the difference between communism and Nazism–e.g,, the persistence of hammers and sickles vs. the disappearance of swastikas–has something to do with the fact that Nazism ended as a result of defeat in war, whereas communism was overthrown from within. Maybe the suppression of Nazism by an external force (the Allies), combined with the Germans’ own shame in defeat, resulted in a faster eradication of Nazi symbols and heroes. (Of course, you could argue that the opposite should be true–that Germans, in the spirit of resistance, might have clung all the more tightly to remnants of their glorious past.)

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