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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“We have 300 pupils in the performing department,” Yulia Telepina, a 26-year-old staffer, tells me. “They enter when they are 9 or 10.” Medical examinations determine whether a child can endure the school’s regimen: six hours of dance classes and practice each day, six days a week, for eight years. Telepina estimates that for every successful applicant, nine are turned away. About 60 students are admitted each year. Eight years later, fewer than half graduate.


In a large rehearsal hall, 11 members of the senior girls’ ballet class begin their warm-up exercises at a bar extending along three walls. The teacher, Lyudmila Safronova, who herself began studies at the academy in 1938, enters dressed in a severe black ensemble. “Don’t move the arms so much,” she commands Alina Somova, a dark-haired 17-year-old in white tights, red leotard and running shorts. “It’s enough to move the hands.”


After class, Somova—like many artists I spoke to in St. Petersburg—acknowledges that she can’t make a living here. Upon graduation, she says, “I want to try my skills abroad.”


one afternoon, outside the Rimsky-Korsakov music conservatory, pianist Petr Laul picked me up in a battered white Mercedes that, at 21, was only three years younger than he. He skirted a narrow canal before turning onto a side street. “See the building on the corner?” he said, pointing to dingy brick apartments. “Dostoyevsky lived there when he wrote Crime and Punishment.”


We entered his apartment building via a dark, dank passage that seemed as if it had not been painted since Dostoyevsky’s time—a typical condition of most Russian apartment buildings. Laul, dressed in jeans and a beret, indicated a doorway opposite a courtyard: “Some people say that the garret Dostoyevsky had in mind for the character of Raskolnikov was at the top of the stairs beyond that door.”


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