As I stood on the Troitskiy Bridge, with the Canaletto shores to either side, and the needle-thin golden spires on the Admiralty building and the Fortress greedily claiming the tsar’s dominion over the sky as well, where mare’s tail clouds were drifting upriver from the sea, modern St Petersburgers flowed past me, in a torrent of Ladas, Volgas and wheezing Zhigulis, and on foot, too. This city has a certain reputation in the rest of Russia. Muscovites are go-getters, deal-makers, movers and shakers; compared to them, the people of St Petersburg, which, of course, has not been the capital since the revolution in 1917, are provincials, but provincials of a special variety, prone to a calm belief that they outclass everyone else. They’re known for being proud, clever, pessimistic, formal, and perhaps a little lazy.
People who move here from elsewhere in the Russian Republic find it takes them a while to adjust to the bleached-out, sometimes almost monochrome, colours of the city, which extend most definitely to what St Petersburgers think it is seemly to wear. This is a place where putting on a bright red sweater would make you look ridiculous. Some of the people walking past me were wearing standard Western dress, and some of the younger ones were in clubgoers’ sportswear, cunningly manufactured here, because hardly any of them could afford real, imported Tommy Hilfiger; but a good half of the crowd
crossing Troitskiy Bridge was wearing black. And it wasn’t business-suit black, and certainly not unstructured Yohji Yamamoto black. It was local Russian black. It was black black. The young men had black jackets on over T-shirts, or knee-length black leather coats, with straight black trousers and shiny slip-on shoes (also black.) Their female counterparts all wore black straight skirts, black high heels, and white or black blouses, some demure, some startlingly vampish in their use of unexpected black-lace panels. (˜If you go to the forest for mushrooms with a girl like that’, said my guide, ˜she’ll still wear heels. It’s a matter of pride.’) Older women could coax the black towards soigne sophistication by adding a well-chosen necklace, while older men could put together a complete suit-shirt-tie office ensemble in contrasting black shades. Now and again a member of this last group came by escorted by a posse of musclemen in tight black singlets. It’s impossible not to label these big shots as mafiosi, even if, as they say, legitimate business is now making inroads into St Petersburg’s early-1990s reputation as Chicago on the Neva. All of them were setting about being krotoy (cool) by being sombre; all of them were adhering to what looked like fatalism’s own dress code.
But the city is waking up after its enforced slumber under Communism. Some of the pleasures of visiting St Petersburg are the same as they have always been: the glamour of a night at the Kirov, the splendour of the ring of summer residences the tsars built in the parkland beyond the city, the jaw-dropping astonishment you feel in the galleries of the Hermitage as you discover Rembrandt after Rembrandt, Van Gogh after Van Gogh that you’ve never even heard of. But now the private life of the city is stealing out into the open from the secretive interiors where it hibernated for decades, among circles of tightly-knit friends holding rambling midnight conversations over kitchen tables, the kettle hissing, the vodka bottle open, the world of official bullshit safely locked out.
Perversely, the first effect of this is that the city is looking tattier than it ever did when it was Leningrad. In the Soviet time, investment in public things – such as palaces and the city’s palatial metro stations – came first, with funding for the things that individuals craved coming last, or nowhere at all. Now the situation is exactly reversed, and as a result St Petersburg’s facades are peeling, its streets have some potholes, and its pastel plasterwork tends towards the grubby. All the energy is going into the activities that serve individual needs. The great classical edifices along the rivers and the canals are too much for any one renovator to take on, so they are having to wait till the city gets its wealth back. Prosperous citizens prefer to live in the solidly built flats of the
Troitskiy Bridge Gallery Photos