Russia's Treasure-House

Searching for the past on the eve of St. Petersburg's 300th anniversary, a former foreign correspondent finds the future

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Nevsky prospekt, St. Petersburg’s main thoroughfare, radiates out from a landmark of neoclassical architecture that once housed the headquarters of the Russian Navy. It was here at the Admiralty, where the swift, gray waters of the NevaRiver rush toward the Baltic Sea, that Peter the Great fulfilled the primary purpose of the city he founded in 1703: building the fleet that made Russia a fearsome maritime power. He crowned his shipyard with a soaring spire, like the needle of a compass.

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As a foreign correspondent based in Moscow from 1982 to 1985, I traveled often to St. Petersburg. (It was called Leningrad from 1924 until 1991.) Each time I have returned over the past 20 years, I have gone first to the Admiralty’s spire, walking a mile or two along Nevsky Prospekt to get my bearings. I traced that route again recently as the city prepared for its 300th anniversary celebration this month.


Along the boulevards of many cities, the new is immediately obvious: glass-and-steel skyscrapers impose themselves on the horizon. But on Nevsky Prospekt the low profile has remained much the same for centuries. The tallest buildings rise only five and six stories, mainly because the marshy ground beneath the city will not support high-rises, but also because the State Inspectorate for the Preservation of Monuments prohibits them.


About a half mile down the 2.8-mile avenue, Kazan Cathedral, completed in 1811, still boasts 364 feet of curving neoclassical colonnade; ornate 19th-century bridges arch over canals flowing under the thoroughfare. Gostinny Dvor (Merchants’ Lodging), the yard where caravan traders hawked their wares in the 18th century, remains the city’s shopping hub. Of course some things have changed since my trench coat days. During the Communist era, the Kazan Cathedral housed a museum of atheism, and shops in Gostinny Dvor scorned Western goods as icons of decadence. Today the Kazan Cathedral once again is the site of Orthodox services, and the stores stock American jeans and French perfumes.


Elsewhere during my visit, much of the city was shrouded in scaffolding as workers painted and plastered, preparing for the concerts, parades, regattas and outdoor theater that will mark commencement of the city’s tercentennial. (In various American cities, too, including Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Maryland, and New York City, international consortiums have mounted exhibitions that celebrate St. Petersburg’s anniversary.) Laborers were even replacing worn cobblestones in Palace Square, where the Bolsheviks stormed to power in October 1917.



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