Pride and paradox

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St. Petersburg – one of St. Petersburg’s most infamous citizens, Grigori Rasputin was a hard-drinking, charismatic, womanizing Siberian peasant with mystical talents. He made his way into the tsar’s most intimate confidences by mysteriously healing his hemophiliac son, and in 1916 he was the target of assassination by other royal family members. Poisoned, shot and bludgeoned, Rasputin was ultimately dumped in an icy river, where he finally died by drowning.

On the second day of a three-day tour that explores both the arrogance and creativity of this historic city, we stand in the Yusupov Palace cellar where the intrigue took place. Local history is an inextricable mix of artistic achievements, political turmoil and notorious personalities.

“Peter the Great founded the city in 1703,” explains Ada, our local guide and a walking encyclopedia of Petersburg lore. “A proud leader who wanted to make his mark, Peter decided to build a northern port for Russia, so he stubbornly constructed his capital on a swamp at the mouth of the Neva River.”

We’re whisked from site to site, taking careful note of the architectural dichotomy around us. The city boasts ornate palaces, impressive statues and graceful bridges spanning an extensive network of canals. Many buildings that were heavily damaged during the 900-day Nazi siege have been restored under the auspices of native son and president Vladimir Putin in time for the city’s tricentennial. And yet crumbling communist-era concrete apartment blocks abound, sober reminders of how most Russians still live.

Ordinary Petersburgers have always lived humbly, in sharp contrast to the lavish lifestyles of Russia’s elite. Each leader went on a building frenzy, aiming to compete with Western European accomplishments.

Arguably the most impressive example is the Hermitage. Housed in a complex of palaces, this state museum has its origins in the insatiable collecting habits of Catherine the Great.

After sampling a fraction of the massive collection, we exit to Palace Square, site of the 1917 revolution.

“Here Lenin and the Bolsheviks attacked the Winter Palace, which eventually led to the tsar’s downfall,” Ada reminds us as we scan the vast plaza.

That night, we enjoy one of the city’s cultural riches, a performance of Swan Lake. The graceful dancers’ pirouettes demonstrate their nation’s pre-eminence in the art of ballet.

Our final day dawns cold and rainy. We drive to Pushkin to tour the imperial country residence, which includes the magnificently restored mosaic Amber Room. Afterwards we wander the extensive grounds with umbrellas in hand.

Chilled through and interested in warming up with the café’s vodka, we return to the building, as Ada suggested. But the two surly sentries shake their heads to refuse us entry, for no apparent reason. We step away disappointed, but Ada spots us and ushers us past the guards with a decisive flourish of her hand.

As soon as we sit down to our shots, the sky clears and warm sunshine streams through the window. The arrogant guards are nowhere to be seen, and tourists flow freely through the now unguarded door to delight in the baroque palace – another example of strong personalities in an extravagant setting, and more evidence of St. Petersburg’s paradoxical nature.

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