Snapshots of Russia: St Petersburg
Between 1989 and 2012, I worked in the international pharmaceutical industry (yes, the sometimes murky world in which my thrillers are set). During that time, I travelled tall over the world, but gradually more and more of my time was spent in Russia and the Former Soviet Union countries. I met wonderful people, visited incredible places and built a fantastic collection of memories. This monthly series is designed to share some of those memories. Last month, we visited Moscow. This month we are heading for St Petersburg.
I had been working in Russia for a number of years before I first visited St Petersburg. I was used to serious people, gloomy if magnificent architecture, and a feeling that I needed someone to look after me, keep me safe, wherever I went. St Petersburg was completely different. It probably helped that I first went there in June, time of high temperatures, and the white nights of summer when it never went completely dark. During that first visit, I took part in the City Day celebrations, watched military bands parade through the streets, then strolled along crowded pavements to the square outside the Winter Palace to hear The 1812 Overture played to the accompaniment of fireworks, which worked surprisingly well against a brilliant blue mid-afternoon sky. I was alone, but felt completely safe.
It probably also helped that I made friends in the city and returned many times, not just for work, but for holidays with family and friends. I attended a memorable wedding day, consisting of a visit to the Wedding Palace where the registrar reminded us of the lilac fairy from Sleeping Beauty with her long flowing dress and ceremonial wand; a tour of the main tourist sites for photographs; a boat trip on the Neva River; a blessing in church; and a wonderful party where the vodka flowed late into the night. Oksana and Igor, we will never forget sharing your special day!
St Petersburg, the second largest city in Russia, with around five million inhabitants, has had a chequered history. Founded by Peter the Great in 1703, it was renamed Petrograd in 1914, then Leningrad in 1924, before returning to its original name in 1991. For most of its first two centuries, it was the capital of imperial Russia until the government moved to Moscow in 1918. Between 1941 and 1944, around 1.5m of its inhabitants died and the same number were evacuated during the Siege of Leningrad, one of the longest and most destructive sieges in history.
Many of the buildings remind me of Wedgwood china, especially the aforementioned Winter Palace, now the Hermitage Museum, in the centre of the city. It is complemented by the Summer Palace, located in the village of Tsarskoe Selo, 30km away, which bears a strong resemblance to Versailles. This is one city where the outsides of the building are often as spectacular as the insides.
St Petersburg is a major cultural centre, home of the Mariinsky Theatre which over the years has hosted the talents of such greats as Nijinsky, Pavlova, Nureyev, and Baryshnikov. I have enjoyed many wonderful performances there.
But strangely, it is the dead, rather than the living, that inhabit my strongest memories of St Petersburg. In 1998, the bodies of Tsar Nicholas II and his family were interred in state in the Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral, having been recovered from the Koptyaki forest where they were dumped in 1918. Having visited both the original burial site and the new one, it is striking how this family, murdered for political reasons, have become the subject of religious fervour and are treated today as modern-day saints.
My favourite place to visit in St Petersburg is the cemetery of the Alexander Nevsky Monastery. Here you can find the tombs of such musical greats as Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov. I love to think about the jamming sessions those guys have around midnight when the rest of the city is asleep. Unless it’s June and the white nights, of course.
Russia is the location for my current work in progress, Corruption! which will be published in 2018. But it is also the setting for my prize-winning novel Gorgito’s Ice Rink. A tale of love, loss and broken promises, it tells the story of one man through the eyes of the people whose lives he touched. You can download your copy now by clicking here.