THE CHURCHES ARE OPEN AND PROFANE REFRESHMENT IS BACK, TOO, IN THE SHAPE OF BARS AND RESTAURANTS A MILLION MILES FROM THE DISMAL ANTI-HEDONISM OF SOVIET DINING
PETER THE GREAT WANTED A NEW CAPITAL CITY LIKE THE PLACES HE HAD ADMIRED AS A YOUTH ON HIS GRAND TOUR OF WESTERN EUROPE, WHERE MEN IN WIGS DISCUSSED ART AND SCIENCE
Petersburgers have been doing since 1900, come rain come shine, come Communism come capitalism, and buy something indulgent for tea at Yeliseyev’s delicatessen, the St Petersburg equivalent of Fortnum & Mason. Mr Yeliseyev commissioned a baby Art Nouveau palace for his emporium, and it is all still there. The green-glazed walls still rise to stained-glass windows and ceilings picked out with golden sunflowers; the lights are still giant sprays of wrought iron breaking out into little lily-shaped bulbs; the woodwork still curves and curls as sinuously as it did when Tsarist officers came in to buy their jar of sevruga, or their mysterious bottle of Riga Black Balsam.
In fact, Yeliseyev’s is just the tip of an Art Nouveau iceberg. As the city reshapes itself, it is haunted by the moment at the beginning of the 20th century when it last boomed, when it last looked as if it were converging confidently towards the other great cities of the wealthy West. In 1910, this too was a place where speculators in black top hats were making a killing on the Bourse. It was a let-me-fill-your-slippers-with-Champagne-my-dear kind of town, fermenting with experiment and discovery as Diaghilev revolutionised ballet and Professor Kondratiev worked out the dynamics of the business cycle. You can see the boom everywhere. Beyond the 18th-century core of the city, and the 19th-century ring that surrounds it, are entire districts of apartment buildings where strait-laced classicism breaks out into writhing organic gaiety, and mosaic, and over-the-top decoration. The caryatids lose the weight on their shoulders: they become Alphonse Mucha ladies, leaning and peering out of facades in all directions, so that the buildings appear to be bubbling with nymphs. There are obvious high points, such as the
Above left, Pushkin and, right, the writer’s desk, both in the Pushkin Museum. Opposite, the colossal feet of an atlantid outside the New Hermitage elegant Astoria Hotel, now restored by Rocco Forte Hotels to bring out the cool Baltic inflection the style sometimes had, or Mathilda Kshessinskaya’s palace, home to Nicholas II’s ballerina mistress, now the Museum of Political History but still lit by gilded sconces in the shape of swans. If you like this kind of thing, you could spend a whole visit to St Petersburg just surveying the hundreds of other buildings that elsewhere would be lovingly conserved and sought after and categorised -for this one’s interesting affinity to Charles Rennie Mackintosh, or that one’s proto-Gaudf use of colour – but which here are just standing around.