A Window to the West

Peter the Great's phrase for St. Petersburg rings true as the once capital city transforms itself into one of Russia's best-kept secrets.
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Dvortsovaya Square
MONUMENTAL HEART: Dvortsovaya Square in central St. Petersburg  (Digital Visions)

The raven-haired goddess in the elaborate red headdress and strategically cut outfit danced and gyrated surprisingly well on her five-inch gold pumps. Two children in angel outfits riding a confetti-covered camel provided a nice contrast, but I had no idea why a giant bunny rabbit was waving to the crowd from the back of a bicycle taxi.

It was a pleasingly warm day in May and as I looked down at the miles-long parade from my second-floor apartment rental, I swore I had stumbled onto Carnival. But this wasn't Bourbon Street. It was Nevsky Prospekt, St. Petersburg's version of New York's Fifth Avenue.

I turned to my friend Olga Zavyalova, an English teacher who grew up in Siberia under communism and now lives in St. Petersburg under capitalism. I told her I didn't think Catholicism was that big in Russia. Turns out, this annual parade has nothing to do with Carnival, the Catholics' pre-Lent, let-your-hair-down ho-down.

"It's just to have fun," she told me. "It's nothing special."

I had returned to St. Petersburg to peel back another layer of culture from a country that seems to develop a new identity faster than a snake grows a new skin. It has been 16 years since the USSR stopped being a four-letter word and rampant free enterprise leaped from the grave of communism.

Since then, St. Petersburg has become one of the new guiding lights of European travel. I first visited the city two years ago after a trip to Moscow and the differences between the two metropolises made a journey to Russia seem like visiting two countries. And today that impression still stands—Moscow has lit its many bridges and its famed GUM department store now sells Cartier instead of stale bread. But the capital remains dark, foreboding. The Kremlin still towers over the city, a stark reminder of how gray Russian life once was.

St. Petersburg, sprawled along a delta on the Gulf of Finland, is lit up like a birthday cake, symbolic of a population that always seems to be celebrating something. The lights from the churches and museums dance off the water that surrounds the city. On Nevsky, well-heeled, beautifully dressed beauties pass by on the bustling sidewalk cafes and in rollicking nightclubs. Beautiful meals await in restaurants, cuisines that range from French to Mexican to Russian kitsch, where a waitress served me wearing a traditional 19th-century Russian blouse—and a mini-skirt.

No, folks, this is not your mother's Russia. This is not your father's Leningrad.

Published: 31 Oct 2007 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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