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The Aura of St. Petersburg

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“I stuck around St. Petersburg
When I saw it was a time for a change
Killed the Czar and his ministers
Anastasia screamed in vain
I rode a tank
Held a generals rank
When the blitzkrieg raged
And the bodies stank”

– ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ by The Rolling Stones

It’s very difficult to comprehend how much of a culturally and historically significant city St. Petersburg is until one sees and experiences it for oneself.

Nevertheless I will in what I hope will not be a futile attempt try and convey the feeling one gets when walking through this city, and along with this conveyance try and illustrate the unique and classical character the city has.

Walking its streets it is hard to believe that Petersburg was built up from swamp and marshland some 300 years ago. Formerly Petrograd and Leningrad respectively, St. Petersburg is clearly modelled after the classical European cities of the day. Saint Isaac’s Cathedral for example, which reminded me of the Notre Dame in Paris, was designed by a French-born architect appointed by Tsar Alexander I.

The hotel my party and I were staying in (my fellow travellers were my older brother Dez, his girlfriend Kristina, Kristina’s mother Elona, and her partner Markku) was on the Nevsky Prospekt which is a short walk from the famous and splendid Winter Palace.

From the get-go we were warned by the hotel staff about pickpockets operating around said popular tourist destination. However we never had such trouble. I heard talk about Putin’s ‘iron fist’ against crime. This brought to mind the tough measures Putin took in the early 1990s when he was appointed head of the Committee of External Relations of the Saint Petersburg Mayor’s Office, where his duty was to ensure law and order did not collapse amidst the widespread chaos and confusion that followed in Russia in the immediate aftermath of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. About criminals Putin stated the below – which clearly illustrates the hardline stance he planned to have enforced:

If criminals have attacked authority there must be an appropriate punishment, it’s a policeman’s duty to be severe and cruel if necessary. It’s the only way to reduce criminality, the only way. We hope to eliminate 10 criminals for each [police] officer killed…within the law of course.

The port areas of St. Petersburg in particular have been the sites of a large and ongoing turf war between Putin’s supporters and the Russian Mafia.

When talking and thinking about the city of Petersburg (and Russia in general) it’s hard not to think about war, oppression, and revolution. A lot of the latter is symbolically encased in the Russian cruiser Aurora. This ship fired the first shots of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and is still moored in St. Petersburg as a relic of the revolutionary days as well as a very salient reminder of the communist days of yore.

Looking at the Aurora it can be difficult to comprehend how significant and symbolic this one early-20th-century warship is. In 1975 for example the officers of the Soviet naval frigate Storozhevoy planned to mutiny and start a revolution. They saw Leonid Brezhnev and his elites decaying from senility and as a result were clearly more interested in their own affluence and hold on power than on upholding the true values of the people’s revolution. It is fitting that to start what was in all regards a reformation of the Soviet system (rather than a revolution) the captain of the Storozhevoy planned to park his frigate beside the Aurora’s permanent mooring site in St. Petersburg where he’d then attempt to address the people to start such a reformation. Although his ship was boarded by commandos before he could complete this plan it is interesting, and very telling in retrospect of how symbolic the Aurora was to communism and the Red October revolution.

About Paul Iddon