Today’s St. Petersburg is neither the city those revolutionaries seized nor the one they left in decay in 1990. On lower Nevskiy Prospekt, a coffeehouse outlet, the Ideal Cup, aspires to become Russia’s equivalent of Starbucks. New restaurants, too, have blossomed: at Propaganda, colorful posters urging the proletariat to work harder lampoon Soviet-era exhortations. Nearby, a vegetarian café, the Green Cross, seems impossibly exotic in a country where, not so very long ago, a major indicator of prosperity was the right to buy meat without a ration coupon.
The city remains a monument to Peter the Great. On May 27, 1703, soldiers of the czar spaded up the first clod of soil on an island in the Neva, a place Peter would ordain the capital of all Russia, named after his patron saint. The site was a bog—frozen nearly half the year—when he wrested it from Sweden. He decreed that thousands of peasants be pressed into forced labor; they built St. Petersburg by hand, driving 16-foot-long oaken piles into marshes, dragging stones, digging canals. Disease was rampant. Thousands of workers died—estimates range up to 100,000. It was, they said, “a city built on bones.”
Peter envisioned a great urban showcase, a Russian window on the West. By 1715 or so, European architects and painters, dancers, musicians and craftsmen had converged here to create an urban center neither wholly Western nor traditionally Russian. They left monuments: palace after palace, including the grandest of them all, the 18th-century Baroque masterpiece known as the Winter Palace, destined to house the Hermitage Museum; churches that range from massive domed landmarks to fanciful confections festooned in candy-cane stripes; temples of culture, like the pistachio-green Mariinsky Theater, home of the Kirov Ballet. In those splendid buildings, St. Petersburg’s artists created literature and music that endured long after Peter’s dynasty fell to revolution in 1917: the poetry of Pushkin; the novels of Dostoyevsky and Gogol; the music of Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky.
At the hermitage, director Mikhail Piotrovsky, 59, a fifth-generation St. Petersburger, presides over one of the world’s great repositories of art. His late father, Boris, was also director there, from 1964 to 1990. During World War II, as a young man, Boris helped protect the museum from Nazi bombardment. The German Army laid siege to Leningrad from September 1941 until January 1944. Hundreds of thousands of inhabitants starved to death. Yet the city did not surrender. “My father,” says Piotrovsky, “served in those years as the Hermitage’s deputy fire director. During the freezing nights, he stood guard on the building’s roof, ready to extinguish fires caused by the bombing.” (Miraculously, the museum survived, despite hits from 32 artillery shells and two bombs.)
Today, Piotrovsky confronts a less desperate, but nevertheless urgent, imperative: fund-raising. Under his leadership, the museum brings in roughly half its annual budget from private sources (the other half comes from the state). Urbane and gray-haired, he works at a desk beneath a portrait of Catherine the Great, who, between 1762 and 1796, developed the museum’s collection. (She stored her purchases in a more intimate auxiliary palace next door, which she called her hermitage, or retreat. The name now embraces the entire complex.)