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An Insider's View of St. Petersburg

by Walter and Cherie Glaser

As our cruise ship pulled into the St. Petersburg wharf, we looked down from our deck and saw half a dozen battered old Ladas, the outdated Fiats produced as the Russian version of Germany's Volkswagen, parked in a jumble on the wharf. From one, a musician was just unpacking his large drum. He joined the others, who had their brass instruments ready, and they soon started up a medley of American and international band music.

"This group meets every ship," one of the ship's officers standing behind me commented. "They are demobilized Russian Army Bandsmen and make more money than the average University professor here by playing for foreigners. If you were looking for an example of the free-enterprise system at work in Russia, you couldn't get a better one than this. But look over at the wharves, and count the number of cranes that are actually working. That will really show you what's happening to the Russian economy."

We followed his advice and looked across at what, before the breakup of the Soviet Union, had been one of the busiest ports in the USSR. Now, only four of the 150-plus cranes in this vast port complex were actually engaged in loading and unloading. The others looked sad and abandoned, with not a movement or person in sight around them.

Beyond the Bandsmen's cars, an equally decrepit group of Lada and Volga taxis were standing in a semi-circle while all the drivers chattered in a huddle in front of their cars. "These and the drivers of the taxis outside the city's top hotels all speak excellent English. It's impossible for them to get to the wharf without paying off the guys at the gate. Everybody has their hand in the till here in one way or another. These guys only cater to foreigners, and charge prices that are outrageous by Russian standards. They make so much money by comparison to other St. Petersburg taxis that they can afford good apartments and a University education for their children."

Half an hour later we had left the ship. One of the taxi drivers of the group we had seen from the deck introduced himself as Yuri, offering his services as driver-guide. Once the price was arranged, we hired him for two days' sightseeing, in hindsight a great move, as he showed us an insider's view of St. Petersburg which we would never have got otherwise. "Show us the city and the parts that you like best," we requested, "and then show us the things that we would not normally see on a guided tour." It turned out to be one of the best things we could have done.

As the ship's officer had predicted, Yuri's excellent English, together with his intimate knowledge of the city made him an outstanding guide. I have always been somewhat of a car-buff so, before getting into his taxi I walked around it. The tires were bald, and the odometer, I was afterwards told, had been three times around the clock.

The car reminded me of the joke about the guy that told his friend that he had recently bought a Rolls Canardly. His friend wondered whether he got it wrong and meant a Rolls Corniche. "No," said the first guy. "Its a Rolls Canardly. It rolls down one side of the hill and canardly get up the other."

What had once been less-than-superb upholstery was now threadbare. The paintwork was equally thin, with small patches of undercoat showing where the paint had given up trying to hold on. We sat back in our seats and Yuri started the engine. To our surprise, it ran -- noisily, but seemingly far from dead, like an old plough-horse that had lost the zing of youth, but was still quite reliable.

As we drove along, carefully maneuvering to avoid potholes the size of small pits, I asked Yuri about his taxi. "In the old days I was a salaried taxi-driver and the State owned the car. I was then told that I would no longer have to hand in the day's takings, but would not be paid by the government any more either. I now operate the car privately." I asked whether the car belonged to him or to the State. "It's a gray area," he replied. "They told us the cars were now ours, but have never put that in writing. The authorities here often change policy by 180 degrees overnight, so we're asking no questions and just go on using the cars." It seemed logical to me that the government wouldn't want to accept responsibility for repairing these old rattletraps.

Now we were approaching the city and I could not help gasping when I saw the grandeur of some of the buildings that were coming into view.

But for everyone who makes a good living in St. Petersburg today there are dozens of the elderly, the unemployed, and those on low pay in Russian factories who live close to the starvation line. Russia currently only seems to have two major classes, those who are rich (or on the way) and those who are unable to find a place in Russia's drive for privatization. It seemed to us that, rather than the living standard being universally raised, a small number of rich were getting richer, while the bulk of the population was getting poorer.

We mentioned this to Yuri and he agreed. "I'm one of the lucky ones," he said. "Most of the army hasn't been paid for months. Desertions are high and rising even higher, and many soldiers make enough money to buy their weekly groceries by selling army equipment, from rifles to the spare parts of trucks and scrap aluminum, to whoever will buy them. He said that the newspapers were full of stories of workers in mines and large State and private enterprises complaining that they had not been paid for many months.

Naturally, we were curious to hear whether, in his opinion, this would lead to another change in government or even revolution. "No," Yuri replied. "There is something about the Russian Psyche that makes our people strong in adversity. Even those who suffer badly under these conditions are prepared to put up with them for the good of future generations. That's perhaps one of the reasons why our city spends so much on restorations of our finest buildings. A very high proportion of these were destroyed during WWII but were re-built or restored as quickly as possible after the war. In the last twenty years, they again fell into disrepair, but everybody knows that they are our greatest treasures and tourist drawcards. We don't manufacture much in St. Petersburg these days. But if we don't maintain the upkeep on our buildings, there will soon be no reason for anyone to come here.

For now, St. Petersburg is finished as an industrial city. In the old days we were the main trading port that dealt with Finland, Poland, the rest of Scandinavia and also traded with the Western world. Now Finland, our biggest trading partner in the old days, is unable to sell us anything because we don't have enough foreign currency for any major volume of international trade.

You've seen the wharves that were once crowded with freighters of all sizes and shapes. Now the wharves are at a virtual standstill. It's tourism that is making this city survive. Without it, we would have 60-80% unemployment." We asked him to tell us about some of the history of St. Petersburg and we found him to be surprisingly knowledgeable on this also.

St. Petersburg was built by Peter the Great on a series of swampy islands at the mouth of the Neva river, he explained. Starting in the early 1700's, the Royals of Russia hired the finest architects from Italy, Germany, France and elsewhere in Europe and gave them unlimited budgets and serf labor to construct a capital to match Western Europe's greatest cities. The buildings were regal in scale and style -- a palace for this uncle, another for that aunt and ones for the generals, aristocrats, and the top echelons of Russian society.

Our first stop, set in some of these ex-palaces, was The Hermitage, this city's biggest tourist drawcard. This is one of the finest -- perhaps THE finest -- museum in Europe, and is far beyond anything we had imagined in size. It is comprised of four buildings on the south bank of the Neva (almost everything in this city has the river quoted as a reference point) and is a vast treasure-house of every imaginable objet d'art.

At the entrance stood a man with a baby brown bear on a chain. He charged tourists a dollar each to have their photo taken with the bear, and did a brisk business. "He makes over a thousand dollars a week" Yuri said with a mixture of envy and contempt. And then he was off, having arranged to pick us up two and a half hours later. We passed the statue of Atlas holding up the lintel of the museum entrance. Someone had painted the huge bronze toenails red. Then we were inside, joining a group with an English speaking guide.

The vastness of The Hermitage's collection is almost beyond comprehension. There are 350 rooms, each under the charge of its own fiery babushka who threatened us with instant death if we dared pull out a camera with a flash. Yet some priceless Old Masters hung in direct sunlight, others in rooms needing climate control so badly that condensation was running down the walls. To get through it all on time and make room for the throng of following tourists hard on our heels, we were kept moving almost at a run. We were told that over four million visitors annually come to view The Hermitage collection, which has over 2.7 million items.

We saw French Impressionists, Italian and Dutch masters, pre historic art and post-impressionist works. There were treasures from the Royal Russian period and archaeological collections from the former Soviet empire. We were shown examples rather than complete displays and were relentlessly moved on to make room for the next group. Rembrandts, Goyas, Matisses and Buffets all became a blur and then the tour was over and we were back out on the street.

Now it was time to look at the churches. If you have admired the onion- domes of the Kremlin, you may agree that they pale when compared to the newly restored Church of the Resurrection and some others in St. Petersburg. The amount of time and effort that went into restoring this city after the destruction caused in WWII is awesome. In The Hermitage were some pictures that showed what it and other buildings in that city suffered after 900 days of shelling, bombing, and rocket bombardment.

Yet as fast as the city's restoration took place, other factors undermined many of the advances. Acid rain started to damage many of the newly restored facades. And as some roads were repaired yet others broke up into cavernous potholes and huge cracks. There was never enough money to do the job efficiently and "make good" permanently.

Most citizens looked surprisingly well-dressed in clothes that would not look strange in Berlin, London or New York. But there were exceptions. We saw some elderly down-and-outers, dressed in old, worn clothes, shuffling along Nevsky Prospekt, pale of skin and gaunt of face. They had a look of death and despair in their eyes. If they received no help from their families their fate was to slowly starve till they died of some infection or other -- perhaps from flu or the dysentery that, in the form of a nasty little microbe Giardia Lamdia, is carried in St. Petersburg's polluted water. Yuri told us that to avoid it we should only drink reliable brands of sparkling bottled water.

He explained that in the Soviet Era concrete box apartments which made up the city's dormitory suburbs, one toilet was shared by three families. The average living space for each of St. Petersburg's 5,000,000 inhabitants was 6 square meters per person. "Pace out two meters by three meters on your floor," said Yuri, "and you'll see what that means".

So everyone hustled to make enough to survive. The prostitute smiling to catch our attention in the bar of our hotel may have been an enthusiastic amateur, and have worked in an office during the day. There, her monthly pay would have bought four kilograms of average grade meat in the well stocked but unavailable to the poor Nevsky Prospekt shops. The hotel barman who was happy to sell us a take away bottle of after hours vodka for US$38 was charging us the equivalent of almost a month's pay of a research professor at the St. Petersburg Academy of Science. No wonder the city offered so many contrasts.

"Let's stop at the cruiser 'Aurora' Yuri suggested, "and you'll see how the more flexible St. Petersburg citizens improvise to make a living".

The Aurora, now tied up permanently at the embankment of the river Neva opposite the St. Petersburg Hotel, was the first ship to mutiny against the Tzar and so became an icon of the Russian Revolution. As such it is a "must" on the city's tourist circuit.

On to Part Two | Resources for St. Petersburg


Walter & Cherie Glaser are an international travel-writing team based down under in Melbourne, Australia.


Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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