Against a bleak backdrop of a dismantled democracy, abuses to gay rights and continued support for Syria’s President Assad, I found a modern metropolises and surprising Russian hospitality.
The timing of my trip to European Russia was unfortunate. Many months in the planning, my trip coincided with heightened and justified condemnation of Russia on three fronts. Years studying Soviet history, coupled with the bemusement of friends and family, informed our perception of Russia as a peculiar, old fashioned and distinctly foreign country. What we found was not a Soviet relic but an edgy, forward-looking and endearing city which felt culturally closer to Europe than we ever imagined.
Touristically the preserve of visa-free cruisers, St Petersburg can easily regard itself as one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. This makes Russia’s Imperial capital aesthetically hard to fault; baroque and neo-classical architecture dominates the city’s main artery Nevsky Prospekt (Nevsky Avenue). At its head sits the world-renowned Hermitage, a mammoth museum of art with collections spanning six thousand years. Although the art is the main attraction, the building is an exhibition in itself and the quantity of gold leaf is desensitising. Unless religiously committed, choose a small section to explore to avoid being totally overwhelmed.
Breaking a personal principle to avoid looking like a tourist, I took a boat trip along the river and around the canals to have a break from walking. Just as my trusty Lonely Planet promised, it was a great way to see the city described as the Venice of the North. My antithesis was discovering the subculture that exists within St Petersburg. Loft Project ETAGI uses a former industrial bakery to create an art space, bar and roof terrace to rival any hipster-filled, whitewashed gallery you’ve seen in East London. Initially only popping by for a look, I sat on the large roof terrace for seven hours, from late afternoon right through the evening and experienced a waitress more disdainful than you could ever imagine. The degree to which she was willing to make her contempt for her customers known was hilarious and set the gold standard for the kind of service we occasionally came across.
On the whole though, Russians were outstandingly friendly and helpful. We were frequently offered help by passers by catching a snippet of English – always interested in our trip and never satisfied to merely tell us directions, they would go out of their way to get us in the right place. Embarrassed by our non-existent grasp of the Cyrillic alphabet, we were amazed and delighted by Russians’ efforts when they spoke no English at all. We unanimously agreed such help would unlikely be reciprocated in Britain.
As for St Petersburg’s gay scene, discreteness was compensated for with energy and intensity. The centrally located ul Lomonosova is lined with metal-clad shop fronts which, upon demand, reveal small but lively clubs. Although the male only (and presumably gay only) door policy did not surprise us, it did serve to remind us of the progress made in the integration of the LGBTQ scene. Equally, we noted the rigour with which bars on the strip were checking ID and turning potential customers away; a practise scant-seen in Continental Europe. These bars, we came to discern, were quite understandably seeking to ensure there was no legitimate reason for their closure.
As a relaxing prelude to our overnight train journey to Moscow, we sought out the local banya (Russian bathhouse) and had the hostel book us a cabin. Initially stumbling upon the women’s changing rooms, with my presence causing an angry altercation between the attendant and a full-frontally naked customer, we were whisked away to what in Britain might pass as a luxury apartment. Containing a living room, plunge pool, sauna, shower and toilet, our ‘small’ cabin served us excellently at around £4 per person per hour. There was also a bedroom – more boudoir – with an intriguing faux leather mattress and dimmed lighting, facilities surplus to our requirements. What we did use, however, were the traditional bundles of Birch for bringing blood to the skin and improving circulation after a big night out.
In contrast to all our other experiences, the night train to Moscow reminded us that our preconceptions of Russia were not entirely untrue. While boarding we were shouted at in Russian, not for the first time, by the carriage attendant. The train was dark, and we were shouted at again by a Russian woman who turned out to be sleeping opposite us. By this stage though, we took being shouted at affectionately, as a little-too-vigorous means of being conveyed information. Our fellow traveller turned out to be very friendly and helpful, not only telling my friend how to make her bed, but actually doing it, 2 metres off the ground, with her in it. Similarly, another friend was shaken awake by the legs in the morning to ensure we didn’t overstay our arrival, which we ended up doing anyway. More shouting ensued, naturally.
Despite all the good reasons that Russia deserves my condemnation rather than my tourism, I remain enthralled and excited by Russia’s second largest city. It might be the breeze off the Gulf of Finland, but St Petersburg’s freshness and cosmopolitan feel make it seriously endearing, much in the same way as Glasgow.