Three weeks have passed since I said goodbye to St Petersburg, my home and haven for this last year. It was a fairly sad experience to wish farewell to the streets that I have walked in the pitch black with snow up to my knees in January and in bright sunlight at 02.00 more in June. Though as goodbyes often go, the feelings you have as you are leaving are often overpowered by more pressing thoughts regarding luggage weight, liquid allowance and routes home. I think, thus, it is perhaps better that I have had some time since my departure to consider my feelings towards the city I have grown so fond of, so that my farewell letter may do it justice.
I cannot say that the last three weeks have been spent in a zen state of contemplation as I consider exactly how to pen my views, rather the opposite. Shortly after my arrival at home I was off again with some friends to the rather breathtaking Bulgarian hills to relax after a year of “hard work” in Russia. Though relaxing and zen the trip was, productive, I was not. My thoughts were rather more focussed on the delightfully high temperatures and the cinematic surroundings. Less than a day after I returned to England from this trip I was whisked off to the somewhat less exciting, though equally beautiful shores of Cornwall for a week’s holiday with my family. While for some this experience may well be one of relaxing contemplation, for me with four siblings with respective wives and boyfriends, three nieces and three rather large dogs it was rather more chaotic. Days were spent ensuring that all animals and humans remained uninjured and within yelling distance of a “responsible” adult. Thus the time to write has had to be postponed until now.
For those of you who are not committed readers of my rather long-winded blog (shame on you), I left you all considering the remarkable heat and lack of hot water in St Petersburg. Luckily the heat remained and the hot water returned (eventually), though sadly only two or three days before my return to the UK, but if nothing else, it ensured that I left St Petersburg with a fully rose-tinted version of the city seared into my memory. My final weeks were spent rushing around the various sights I had missed and ensuring that I had had my fill of the food and drink that I would miss. Some of the things I saw were somewhat more worthwhile than others, but I was scraping the bottom of the barrel to some extent as I have spent most of the last year trying to fit in as much sightseeing as possible.
The palace of Pavlovsk in the suburb of the same name, reached by elektrichka or suburban train, was remarkable. Built by Empress Catherine II for her son Pavel who, like many sons, did not want to live with his mother, it is a gorgeous example of classical architecture. The palace, though fairly young (built in the 18th century) has a fairly remarkable history. After its construction, Pavel rejected it as he deemed it too small and rustic. And it lay without use until his ascension to the Tsardom of Russia, at which point he poured money into enlarging it, adding sweeping wings to each side and ensuring it was filled with luxurious items. Pavel I was a fairly paranoid man, convinced that he would be assassinated, so much so that he built a fortified castle in St Petersburg deeming the Winter Palace (the previous official residence of the Tsars of Russia) to be too unsafe. His fears were clearly founded as merely 80 days after he moved into his newly designed castle, he was assassinated there.
The palace was then made into a memorial for him by his wife and subsequently handed down through her family. After the revolution, it was looked after by a few old ladies until the Second World War. During the Second World War, it was made into a military base by the USSR army. The more precious and lighter artefacts were sent by train to various safer locations such as Moscow as the Nazi army started to close in on Leningrad. Those that were too heavy or large to move were buried three metres underground in the grounds of the palace as the Nazi army tended to only dig about one metre down to find “buried treasures”. Others were placed in the basement which was subsequently bricked up. The Palace was then occupied for two years by Naxi forces during which time they made the ballroom into a garage and made statues into telegraph poles, among a number of other grievous offences. When the Nazi forces were finally driven out of Leningrad and the palace reclaimed, it had been on fire for three days. Much of the floor work and original architecture was lost, though all that had been sent away, hidden or buried remained safe. Since its return it has undergone an extraordinary restoration to not just the palace itself, but also to the extensive grounds, much of which was destroyed by shelling and deforesting. Though it is not the grandest of the St Petersburg palaces, its history lends it an awe-inspiring air, not to mention the fact that the grounds hold some of the most beautiful nature I have had the pleasure of seeing in Russia.
As beautiful as Pavlovsk was, and the other palaces, museums and galleries I had the honour of visiting in my time in St Petersburg, it is, without doubt, the city itself that has caused me such sadness to leave. The streets that I walked down every day that changed so much with the weather hold my heart. The Dvors that inevitably appear through each odd doorway and up every slightly crumbling staircase, filled with the eccentric and vibrant youth of the city refuse to leave my mind. The people who, of course, made my year in this beautiful city all the more beautiful cause me to smile whenever I think of my time with them. Whether in beautiful palaces, strange warehouses or on frozen oceans every facet of St Petersburg thrums with a unique energy that I cannot and do not wish to recreate. It is an energy impossible to put into words, but one that will hopefully forever fill my mind when I think of the last year spent in St Petersburg.