In St Petersburg with Dostoevsky

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“On an exceptionally hot evening early in July a young man came out of the garret in which he lodged in S. Place and walked slowly, as if in hesitation, towards K. Bridge.” Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment

The restless Dostoevsky moved about St Petersburg, coming and going, moving apartment, never staying anywhere more than three years, after he was sent there, against his will, at 16, to the military engineering school in the Mikhailovsky Palace (the Engineer’s Castle), now an art gallery and minor stop on the tourist trail.

He managed an unhappy year as a military engineer with one of the few steady incomes of his life, then gave it up to write and, along the way, got involved in radical politics, which in turn got him thrown into the political prison in the St Peter and Paul Fortress which dominates the right bank of the Neva. It was a sort of Oxford and Cambridge of Tsarist Russia; alumni included Leon Trotsky, Josip Tito, Maxim Gorky, Mikhail Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin. The old prison is open to the public, now, a dank and oppressive curiosity among the gilded spires and domes and crenelated walls of the fortress.

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From there, Dostoevsky was marched to what is now Pionerskeya Place and put in front of a firing squad, but it was an early example of what we would now call a mock execution; his real sentence was eight years – commuted to four – in Siberia.

He drifted back to St Petersburg, moving from apartment to apartment, pursued by angry creditors. Mostly he lived in the claustrophobic streets around Sennaya Ploshchad (Hay Square), where he set Crime and Punishment. It was the cheapest and grimmest corner of St Petersburg, then: half a dozen blocks west but a world away from the splendour of Nevsky Prospekt:

“The heat in the street was terrible: and the airlessness, the bustle and the plaster, scaffolding, bricks…. The insufferable stench from the pot-houses, which are particularly numerous in that part of the town….

Owing to the proximity of the Hay Market, the number of establishments of bad character, the preponderance of the trading and working class population crowded in these streets and alleys in the heart of Petersburg, types so various were to be seen in the streets that no figure, however queer, would have caused surprise.”

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The Hay Market is long gone and the neighbourhood has been regenerated several times; but many of the old buildings remain, and the old atmosphere clings to them like soot from steam locomotives. It is still a lot shabbier than the avenues and squares of the main tourist trail with its murky courtyards, flaking paint, rusted railings and crumpled Ladas.

You emerge from the Metro on Sennaya Ploshchad among grimy kiosks where daytime drinkers sprawl on benches worked into the shape of carriage wheels in allusion to the vanished market. Across the road is the porticoed guardhouse in which Dostoevsky was locked up for two days in 1874 for breaching censorship laws.

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There are still dive bars on Brinko Lane, where Raskolnikov – the main protagonist of Crime and Punishment – met the drunken civil servant, Marmeladov, and each of them looks like the sort of place in which a Marmeladov or a Raskolnikov might drink.

Brinko Lane tips out on Sadovaya Street and the first right takes you over the Kukushkin Bridge and onto Stoliarny Lane, reversing Raskolnikov’s route in the novel’s opening lines:

“…a young mancame out of the garret in which he lodged in S[toliarny] Place and walked slowly, as if in hesitation, towards K[ukushikin] Bridge.”

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There is a bronze relief of Dostoevsky – looking his usual cheerful self – on the corner of No 5, where Raskolnikov rented his:

“tiny cupboard of a room about six paces in length…with its dusty yellow paper peeling off the walls, and… so low-pitched that a man of more than average height was ill at ease in it and felt every moment that he would knock his head against the ceiling.”

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Carry on down Stoliarny Lane to the next cross street, ul. Kaznachieskaja, turn left and at number 7 is the building in which Dostoevsky was living when he wrote Crime and Punishment; he had lived before at numbers 1 and 9.

Raskolnikov “walked along quietly and sedately, without hurry, to avoid awakening suspicion” on a roundabout way to the home of the old pawnbroker he planned to murder and rob. You can follow him to the end of Stoliarny Street, over the Kukushkin Bridge, onto Sadovaya Street, past the Yusopov Gardens and along Rimskogo-Korsakova until you get to Griboyedov Canal. “And by now he was near; here was the house, here was the gate.” The pawnbroker lived at Griboyedov Embankment, 104:

“a huge house which on one side looked on to the canal, and on the other into the street…let out in tiny tenements and…inhabited by working people of all kinds- tailors, locksmiths, cooks, Germans of sorts, girls picking up a living as best they could, petty clerks, &c.”

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On your way, you pass another of Dostoevsky’s twenty addresses in St Petersburg, Rimskogo-Korsakova, 3 – between the Ambassador Hotel and Azaliya restaurant, a few doors from a whimsical monument to The Nose from Gogol’s short story.

It is quicker and pleasanter to walk back along Griboyedov Canal. Near the top of Voznesensky Avenue, the last street before Stoliarny Lane, is another of the apartment blocks – at No 29 – in which Dostoevsky lived. Over the bridge, at the next corner is Griboyedov Embankment, 73, then an “old green house of three storeys,” now a yellow house of four storeys, where Marmeladov’s daughter, Sonia, had her apartment:

“…a large but exceedingly low-pitched room… a very irregular quadrangle and this gave it a grotesque appearance. A wall with three windows looking out on to the canal ran aslant so that one corner formed a very acute angle, and it was difficult to see in it without very strong light. The other corner was disproportionately obtuse….”

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Over to the west, the powder blue, star-dotted dome of the Trinity Cathedral rises above the rooftops. Dostoevsky – then a 45-year-old widower – was married there in 1867 to his 19-year-old stenographer, Anna Grigoryevna.

His clumsy proposal started with an ‘idea for a novel’ in which a painter married his much younger assistant and moved on to the hypothetical  question,“Imagine I am the painter, I confessed to you and asked you to be my wife. What would you answer?” Her answer – also couched as hypothetical – was “I love you and I will love you forever”.

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It is a good job she did. It is usually drink with writers, but with Dostoevsky it was gambling. Despite the royalties from Crime and Punishment, which was published the year before, Anna had to sell some of her things to help pay his gambling debts, and the couple eventually had to leave Russia in a hurry and spend the next four years travelling around Western Europe, where Dostoevsky continued to lose much of what he earned, often more.

They went back to St Petersburg in 1871, at first to the same neighbourhood near the Hay Market, then a series of apartments south of the Fontanka River, and finally further east to Kuznechny Lane, 5, where Dostoevsky wrote The Brothers Karamazov.

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He died in 1881, at the age of 59, and was buried with Mussorgsky, Borodin, Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov in the Tikhvinskoe Cemetery two stops on the Metro to the east. Anna, though still only 35, never remarried.

The house in which he spent his last three years is now the Dostoevsky Museum; his apartment has been carefully recreated. The first cross street to the east and the nearby Metro station have been named in his honour. And, just a few blocks to the west is the square in which, as a young man tentatively starting to make his name as a writer, he stood before a firing squad.

© Richard Senior 2016

VDNKh: Stalin’s Theme Park

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The All-Union Agricultural Exhibition was intended to showcase the success of the collective farms.

There was an immediate problem in that the collective farms were a disaster: output collapsed, there was a terrible famine and millions died. But they were Stalin’s idea and Stalin – Orwell’s model for Comrade Napoleon – was always right and his policies never failed, they were just sabotaged by “kulaks,” “Trotsky-fascists,” “imperialist lackeys” or whatever label he decided to pin on the scapegoats.

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Construction of the All-Union Exhibition went ahead, originally on 330 acres of wasteland in the northern suburbs of Moscow. It opened in August 1939, a few months after the New York World’s Fair with which it was sometimes compared.

There were pavilions to represent each of the Soviet Republics, territories and regions, all built to impress on a scale to match the General Secretary’s ego. Statues, stained-glass, mosaics and bas-reliefs spoke of plentiful harvests, well-fattened animals and happy peasants, interleaved with the corporate logos of Soviet communism, the hammers and sickles, the stars and the CCCP’s. Inside were exhibits of agricultural techniques and machinery.

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While the New York World’s Fair was quickly dismantled and slowly forgotten, the All-Union Exhibition expanded in scope and area to become the Exhibition of National Economic Achievements, abbreviated in Russian to VDNKh. It gained more pavilions, magnificent fountains and a stop of its own on the Metro.

Cosmonauts Alley leads up from the station. It is more allée than alley: a broad, straight avenue cut through parkland, lined with trees.

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There are statues along its margins of iconic figures from the Soviet space programme: the likes of Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Terashkova (first man and first woman in space), Alexey Leonov (first spacewalk), and less happily Vladimir Komarov (first man to die on a space mission).

At intervals up the centre line, there are granite plinths cut into the shape of the Soviet star, planed to an angle and topped with bronze plates, also star-shaped, detailing events from the earlier years of the Space Race (before NASA caught up and went into the lead). They are interspersed with vibrant flower beds.

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An oversize statue of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky – the original rocket scientist – stands at the end of the avenue and, beyond it, the grandly-named Monument to the Conquerors of Space, a 400-foot-high swoosh of titanium representing a rocket aloft with its exhaust plume beneath it.

The park and exhibition centre at the other side of the monument now sprawl over 2.3 sq km, roughly equivalent to Monaco and the Vatican City combined.

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In the Yeltsin years, VDNKh was parcelled up and leased out to private companies, which gutted the pavilions, threw away the exhibits and turned the empty spaces into warehouses and retail outlets.

The historic pavilions, soon half-hidden behind illegal extensions and advertising hoardings, fell into disrepair. Hundreds of jerry-built temporary structures were thrown up between them. The complex seemed unlikely to survive. There were proposals to demolish the lot to make room for a shopping centre.

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When I went in the summer of 2015, I expected to find the decaying remains of what had once been described as “the Soviet Versailles”. But, unknown to me, the authorities had recently demolished a few hundred illegal buildings and extensions, torn down the ugly hoardings, cleared out 10,000 tons of garbage, remade the roads and paths, added benches and bins, replanted the flowerbeds and restored the eighty-year-old pavilions.

It was surreal to walk among buildings evocative of the international expos that captured so many imaginations between the Thirties and the Sixties and which are still studded with Soviet iconography. They have been cleaned up and repainted, but the stonework, the stained-glass, the mosaics are original, so there is none of the sense that there often is after major restorations that you are effectively looking at a modern replica.

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The parkland around them is pleasant to walk in and full of surprises with gushing fountains and monumental gardens, a boating lake, a photo exhibition in a rose garden, a tiny Orthodox church, a Vostok rocket and Buran spacecraft, a theatre, an aquarium, an SU-27 fighter jet and YAK-42 airliner.

The BBC journalist, Martin Sixsmith, called it “Russia’s answer to Disney World, but without the rides,” but the comparison is unfair, both to VDNKh and to Disney World.

© Richard Senior 2016

Subterranean Sightseeing: the Moscow Metro

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On the surface, the tourists troop round the Kremlin; they snap selfies in front of St Basil’s, explore GUM and the State History Museum, stroll through Alexander Gardens and stop to watch the changing of the guard; they tick off the Bolshoi and Maly theatres, the Tretyakov and New Tretyakov Galleries, Gorky Park and the Seven Sisters.

And two hundred feet below ground, there is a parallel Moscow with its own set of tourists, making their way between subterranean sights. Little groups of them huddle around guides, then disperse to kneel with SLR’s or stand smiling with smartphones at the end of poles, and bustle onto trains to get to the next big sight. Solo travellers make their own way round with Metro maps stuffed into guidebooks to mark the page.

The older stations, built under Stalin from the mid-thirties, were designed to impress with an extravagant blend of brass and bronze, marble and mosaics, stucco and chandeliers, as if the architects interpreted a little too literally the old Soviet promise to build ‘palaces for the people’. There are artistic flourishes in the smallest details, like a ventilation duct shaped around a bronze wheatsheaf with the openings seeming to be part of the sculpture, instead of the rectangular aperture topped with a grille you would see more or less anywhere else.

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When Stalin died, Khrushchev ordered a stop to his vanity projects and, by the late fifties, the Soviets started to build functional Metro stations to a standard design, like everybody else in the world. But most of the stations which a visitor is likely to pass through, and all of them on the Circle Line, could qualify as Must See sights.

Komsomolskaya has an opulent Baroque look with rows of limestone pillars, chandeliers and a stuccoed ceiling with mosaics of Russian heroes. It looks like it might have been designed for the Romanovs but was actually meant to celebrate the Komsomol, communist youth league.

There is an Art Nouveau look to Novoslobodskaya, which was built around a series of 32 stained-glass panels, rimmed with brass, slotted into Ural marble and illuminated from behind.

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Belorusskaya has floral motifs worked into the stucco of the ceiling, interspersed with mosaics of peasants and artisans in Belarussian costume. The walls are faced with pink and black marble with niches lit by bronze uplighters.

Chandeliers hang from the ceiling at Kievskaya. The arches cutting through to the platforms are edged with gold-coloured braiding. Between them are large mosaics of scenes from Ukrainian history.  

At Park Pobedy, by contrast, the side walls and ceiling are free of ornamentation. The visual impact comes from pleasing curves and highly-polished grey and red marble, reflecting in the chequerboard floor and directing attention to the paintings on the end walls of the defeat of Napoleon.

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Life-size bronze statues crouch either side of the arches which lead to the platforms at Ploshchad Revolyutsii. They represent soldiers, workers, peasants, sportsmen, hunters, parents and a border guard with an Alsatian dog who is supposed to bring luck if you stroke his nose (the dog’s, not the guard’s).

Elektrozavodskaya is named, as only a communist regime would think to do, after a lightbulb factory. Its ceiling is clustered with 318 inset lamps which – designedly – look like oversize household bulbs; its walls have gilded grilles and bas-reliefs.

Mayakovskaya is gloriously Art Deco. It won the Grand Prize at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. The long central hall is lined with arches faced with stainless steel and pink rhodonite. Niches are scooped out of the vaulted ceiling, ringed with filament lights and filled with mosaics themed around ‘24-hours in the Soviet sky’.

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But the Moscow Metro is only incidentally a tourist attraction. It carries 9 million people across town every day, more than the New York Subway and London Underground together; more than any system outside Asia.

The trains average 25 mph, against 17 in New York, and come at around one minute intervals. Regular minutes, that is, not the infamous ‘Northern Line minutes’ with 240 seconds each.

It is free, it seems, of all of the Northern Line’s legendary inefficiencies*: the trains which somehow end up further away the closer they get, or which are announced but never arrive, or have one destination on the front but go to another, or just disappear into a tunnel and break down.

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What is more, a single journey costs the equivalent of 45p, or 63¢, instead of $3.00 (£2.10) in New York or the hilarious £4.90 ($6.95) in London, yet the system still turns a profit.

© Richard Senior 2016

*The Northern Line is a standing joke in London. I lived on it for years. I was usually standing but rarely joking.

Modern Moscow: Red Stars and Three-Pointed Stars

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Moscow, in the popular imagination, is much as Tolstoy described it in 1881:

Stench, stones, luxury, poverty. Dissipation. A collection of robbers who have plundered the people and conscripted soldiers and judges to guard their orgies while they feast.”

In this imaginary Moscow, Red Square, the Kremlin and St Basil’s are adrift in a sea of sodden tower blocks; vodka-sozzled men are slumped in every doorway and ferret-faced youths skulk in the shadows with flick-knives, and hookers work the bars where Armani-suited ‘businessmen’ drink Champagne by the gallon while their chauffeurs keep the limos running outside.

I ought to have travelled enough, now, to know that the world is rarely as we imagine it to be. Yet Moscow still surprised.

I expected crumbling stucco, peeling paint, broken pavements and potholed roads, but that was still the Moscow of the imagination. The real Moscow was clean, well-maintained and freshly-painted. Not just in Red Square and the streets around it, as you might expect, but out to the Garden Ring and beyond.

The skyline was not the monotony of brutal concrete we are often invited to picture, but an exuberant mix of styles and periods, from the ice cream cones of St Basil’s, the towers, the spires and the domes of the Kremlin, through Tsarist-era mansions, theatres and department stores, through Stalin’s landmark Seven Sisters, modelled in part on and resembling New York’s early skyscrapers, to the smooth curves and sharp angles of corporate towers in the commercial district, like a pastiche of Hong Kong Central.

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There is no truth in the idea that the handful of big sights are all that is left of the heritage. There are cathedrals and palaces and shops and apartment blocks built under the Tsars in Neoclassical, Art Nouveau, Eclectic and Russian Revival styles, and redbrick factories built when factories were built to make a statement, and the monumental buildings which Stalin commissioned to feed his vanity. There are unexpectedly few modern buildings and no real carbuncles, at least not until you get out to the peripheries with the scrapyards and big hammer industries.

I thought that all trace of the communist era would, by now, have been carefully erased, much in the Stalinist tradition. But modern Moscow has worked round its Soviet heritage, creating juxtapositions like a frieze of Lenin on the wall of the Valentino store and an advertising hoarding for Porsche under a Socialist-Realist mosaic. Stars and wheatsheaves and hammers and sickles are everywhere, worked into railings around public parks, embossed on doors and carved into the stonework of public buildings. There are still Romanov eagles, as well.

The Yeltsin era stereotypes are outdated now. Sure, I heard Ferraris snarling through the streets, but not as often as in Zurich; and I saw homeless guys sitting by ATM’s, but no more than in London. Moscow is no longer, to the extent it ever was, just the super-rich and the desperately poor with nothing much in between.

Modern Moscow seems overwhelmingly middle-class: a city of mid-range BMW’s and Mercedes, of diffusion-line Armani and entry-level Tag Heuers, of picnics in Gorky Park with a nice bottle of wine from the food hall in GUM, of weekends browsing the New Tretyakov Gallery and contemporary art in the old Red October chocolate factory.

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Moscow, without doubt, is a cultured city; it is chock-full of galleries and theatres. Everyone has heard of the Bolshoi and the Maly – the Big and the Small – but there is also the Moscow Art, Lenkova, Mayakovska, Satire, Pushkin, Mossovet, Satiricon, Variety, Russian Army, Kolobov Novaya, Taganka, Romeni, Sovremennik and Yermolova. There were half a dozen theatres within a block of the rooms I stayed in near the Garden Ring.

Despite all the hysterical pieces I have read about violent crime, Moscow felt as safe to me as any European city, much safer than big cities in the US.

This, of course, is a visitor’s perspective. It is in no way meant to downplay the very real problems in this autocratic state. But still, after the first day there, I began to doubt whether the people back home who talk loudly and confidently about Moscow have actually been within five hundred miles of it.

© Richard Senior 2015

Rīga, You’re Lovely, but Please Let Me Sleep!

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A breeze blew off the Daugova River and tempered the munificent sun. Trams howled and clanked along the boulevards which frame Old Rīga. Cobbled lanes converged in squares with verdigrised spires, turrets and towers, gargoyles, grotesques and columns.

The sun brought out the Beautiful People. They strolled in the squares, ducked into shops and draped themselves over chairs at tables under awnings, accessorising with cigarettes and espressos; they sprawled and frolicked in Batejkalna Park across the boulevard at the edge of the old town.

It is a pleasant park on a sunny day with its sloping lawns and meandering paths and cast iron standard lamps. The Pilsētas Kanāls divides the park into two and hands out half each to the Old Rīga and Centrs neighbourhoods. A pretty wooden launch from 1907 chugs tourists along the canal. It chugs under bridges, past a fountain, through a tunnel, alongside the Central Market, then chugs out onto the river under the railway bridge and the road bridge and back through the marina, past moored yachts, and round again to the canal.

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The market was the biggest in Europe, once. Its buildings were made from old Zeppelin hangers. The stalls spill out into the surrounding streets and occupy several blocks. You can buy a whole salmon, a big sack of cat litter and a Soviet air force uniform, if they all happen to be on your shopping list.

Centrs is quieter than Old Rīga but just as beguiling. It has more Art Nouveau facades than you will see in one place anywhere else in the world, and they are as exuberant as anything but Gaudí’s Modernista buildings. Mikhail Eisenstein, father of Sergei, the Battleship Potemkin director, designed some of the more arresting, with eagles, sphinxes, lion’s heads, keyhole-shaped windows, and human faces with gaping mouths and expressions which suggest they have just seen the architect’s bill.

I had a room in the top of a townhouse right in the middle of Old Rīga. It was just a mattress on the floor of a room little bigger, but I was happy enough with that. Or at least I was until I tried to sleep and found out how good the sound system was on the late bar round the corner. Earplugs just muted the higher frequencies and seemed to trap the bass in my skull.

I got up and got dressed and went out in the end. It was a warm night and I walked round Old Rīga, then sat a table at a bar in the square and saw off a couple of beers. The music had stopped by the time I got back and I slept then, finally, for a few hours until the other guests began to get up. Whenever the heavy front door slammed shut, as it always did, it shook the whole fabric of the building; two people walking down the corridor was like a surprise attack by a battalion.

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The next night was the same, except that people moved into the room next door a couple of hours after the music stopped and the walls were so thin that their conversation was as clear as if they had been sitting on the edge of the bed.

I logged, fuzzy-headed, onto a booking site and paid a lot more than I normally would for a nice hotel overlooking Batejkalna Park. It was a lovely room and, on a normal Saturday, it would doubtless have been as peaceful as I had hoped; but that Saturday was the Rīga Festival and right across the street there was a 24-hour basketball marathon with booming commentary and amped-up EDM.

Fine, then, I thought, perhaps I will sleep when I get to Estonia.

© Richard Senior 2015

On Nevsky Prospekt

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“There is nothing finer than Nevsky Prospekt, at least not in Petersburg; for there it is everything. And, indeed, is there anything more gay, more brilliant, more resplendent than this beautiful street of our capital?” Nikolai Gogol, Nevsky Prospekt

There were once wooden blocks set into the cobbles to muffle the sound of carriages. Nevsky Prospekt, they reckoned, was the quietest high street in Europe. Not now. Ducatis howl, Porsches snarl, and a pair of rally cars crackle and pop as they tailchase towards the Neva. Smoky old Ladas keep up as well as they can.

The crowds spill out of the five Metro stations along its length and stroll across the series of bridges which span the canals while skaters and bladers weave between them and leafleters step out, proffering flyers for bars and restaurants and ‘gentlemen’s clubs’.

There are hot dog carts and ice cream carts every few hundred yards along the pavement. Tour reps stand ready with maps and tickets and credit card readers, and sightseeing boats chug along the canals which bisect the street; the commentary echoes under bridges.

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It is a four-and-a-half kilometre slice out of Russian history. Mussorgsky lived at No 13. He met at Balakirev’s apartment at No 84 with Tchaikovsky, Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov. Shostakovich gave his first public performance at No 52; Anton Rubinstein gave his at No 30. Tolstoy lived at 147. Pushkin dropped into the cafe at No 18 on his way to the last duel of his life. Dostoevsky edited The Citizen magazine at No 77. Nadya Krupskaya lived at 97; her fiancé, the barrister’s assistant, Vladimir Ulyanov lived at 83. He got involved in radical politics in his spare time and, like Dostoevsky, was arrested for it and sent to Siberia. He returned, under the assumed name of Lenin.

Neither the Soviets, who renamed the city Leningrad, nor the Nazis, who laid siege to it for over two years, changed much about Nevsky Prospekt. Some buildings were wrecked in the War, but rebuilt – if not as they were, then at least sympathetically with the rest of the street. ‘School No 210’ was built in 1939 and is as austere as its name suggests, but it is the only Soviet building on the main strip. There remains a painted sign on the wall from the days of the siege, which reads:

“Citizens! This side of the street is more dangerous during artillery bombardment.”

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The facades of Nevsky Prospekt are still, by and large, what they were when Lenin returned in triumph to Finlyandsky Station. Some date from the time of Catherine the Great, most from before Nicholas II.

The morning air is no longer “filled with the smell of hot, freshly baked bread” as it was in Gogol’s time. Chronic shortages at the bread shops on Nevsky Prospekt sparked the riots which set off the revolution which swept away the Tsar. The bread shops would disappear, as well; and the silversmiths, the perfumiers, the French confectioners and English merchants and the civil servants who parade through the pages of Dostoevsky and Gogol.

But, when communism fell, the banks, the insurers, the luxury shops and the five-star hotels came back to this Russian Champs-Élysées. Макдоналдс, Бургер Кинг and Старбакc кофе came with them: two burger joints and a coffee shop, whose world-famous logos help decipher the Cyrillic script. Sberbank remains; so does Intourist, once the state travel agency, staffed by KGB agents, now in joint venture with Thomas Cook.

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The Art Nouveau landmark, Dom Knigi, offices of the Singer Company in Tsarist times, is still the city’s largest bookstore, as it has been since Lenin’s first years of power. Tourists flock in and go upstairs to sit in Café Singer. They cross the road to see Kazan Cathedral, modelled on St Peter’s Basilica; and stroll round the corner, along the canal, to the onion-domed exuberance of the Church on the Spilled Blood – built on the spot where a Tsar was shot dead.

Back on Nevsky, they walk a block to the west to the pink-painted excess of the Stroganoff Palace, where beef stroganoff was supposedly invented, and on, then, to the top of the street with the gleaming spire of the Admiralty building directly ahead and, to the right, the most opulent of St Petersburg’s opulent buildings, the Tsar’s Winter Palace.

They might cross the Neva to Vasilyevsky Island or head north to Mars Field and the Summer Gardens or south to St Isaac’s Cathedral, but they will, without doubt, end up back on Nevsky Prospekt.

© Richard Senior 2015

The Breakaway Republic of Užupis

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Užupis was the bohemian quarter of Vilnius, until 1997 when it declared itself an independent republic.

It was a peaceful secession, unlike Lithuania’s from the Soviet Union. No tanks rolled over the bridges across the Vilnia River. Lithuanian troops never engaged the 12-man Užupian army. The authorities did not tear down the Užupian flag (a hand with a hole in it against a background whose colour changes with the seasons). They stood by as the self-declared president appointed a council of ministers, and the new government erected signs either side of what it claimed as the international border.

But neither Lithuania nor anyone else recognised the breakaway state.

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Užupis still has the broken-brick, rotten-wood, flaking-paint post-Soviet shabbiness which has mostly been gentrified out of the Baltic states, now; but there is a cheerful, arty atmosphere amid the dilapidation. The hipsters who drink at the fashionable bars coexist happily with the marginal types who squat in the crumbling apartments. Artist and Drunkard are popular occupations.

There are no multinationals here; not even Subway, KFC, Costa and Tesco, which all must have outlets on the moon. The businesses there are, a convenience store, a dentist, a café, and several bars, restaurants and galleries, are local concerns. Most have Užupis, or some derivation, in their company name; many fly the national flag.

On one wall on a side road just off the main street, there are stainless steel boards engraved with the constitution in 23 languages. It is unlike any other constitution.

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The world would surely be a nicer place if all governments acknowledged that “Everyone has the right to love,” “Everyone has the right to be happy” and “Everyone has the right not to be afraid”. The idea would, of course, enrage the icy-hearted misanthropes who write for the tabloids. That is reason alone to promote it.

All constitutions should recognise that “Everyone has the right to love and take care of a cat” and, correspondingly, that “A cat is not obliged to love its master, but it must help him in difficult times”. Likewise that “Everyone has the right to look after a dog till one or the other dies” and that “A dog has the right to be a dog”.

Yet it is not all so enlightened. “Everyone shall remember his name” could lead to grave injustice, particularly on a Saturday night.

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For 364 days of the year, the borders with Lithuania are as open as any in Europe, outside countries like Bosnia, Belarus and Britain. But once a year, the authorities post guards on the bridges to check and stamp passports.

It is done symbolically to mark Independence Day, which falls on the 1st of April: a clear indication – if any were needed – that the founding fathers were not so much fired by patriotic zeal as kind of taking the piss.

© Richard Senior 2015