Stalin era, while the seriously rich commission new Scandinavian-style houses in the outskirts.
Yet the churches are open again, cleared of the junk of the Bolsheviks’ childishly spiteful Museums of Atheism. Again, under the captured banners of Napoleon’s regiments in the Kazan Cathedral, the faithful queue to kiss the silver-gilt frame of the Kazanskaya Madonna’s icon. Again, on a Sunday morning in St Nicholas’ Cathedral, the rumbling baritone of the bishop singing in the sanctuary is answered by an invisible choir, tucked away on a hidden balcony, creating what sounds like an endless musical conversation between earth and heaven. And profane refreshment is back, too, in the shape of bars and restaurants a million miles removed from the dismal anti-hedonism of Soviet dining. These are strangely scattered, due to the weird
social geography of the city, which has as yet no comfortable Knightsbridge, no bohemian Soho, no stylish Clerkenwell, just a jumble of people happening to live where they happen to live. The typical experience of an evening out in St Petersburg is of walking down a dusty Italianate street in the dusk towards the one brightly lit doorway on the block. Behind it will be smoked fish and caviar, trout in a sauce of berries, and steamed bowls of pelmeni, misdescribed as ‘Siberian ravioli’ but actually more like Chinese dumplings in the clean complexity of their taste. Where the decor is concerned, most restaurants do an elegant version of St Petersburg monochrome, but there is also a slightly surprising appetite for Communist kitsch, especially among young people. In Propaganda, on the bank of the River Fontanka, you can drink cocktails in what looks like a loving recreation of a nuclear submarine. The hip vegetarian restaurant Cafe Idiot has filled its basement rooms with a collection of the kind of chairs and sofas that Daddy used to sit on when he came home from his shift at Number Three Tractor Plant in 1955. While I was there, they were playing a tape loop of an extremely camp German singing along to modern club anthems. Da-da-doo dwee dwee: idiotic indeed.
The great exception to this scattering of lone bright lights is the Nevskiy prospekt, where the shops and the restaurants are clustered because they have always been clustered – think of a cross between Oxford Street and the Champs Elysees. It’s a mile-long boulevard strung with a rat’s nest of overhead cables for the trams and trolleybuses. Here you can buy a pair of
gumboots or a Versace dress, an evening of opera at the Alexandriinskiy Theatre or a lap dance at the Gollywood night club. (Russian has no ‘h’ sound. They were invaded in 1941 by a German dictator called Gitler.) Or you can do what St