Carla Carlisle on St Petersburg

It’s the size of a prayer book and I bought it for my husband many Christmases ago. Called St Petersburg, it’s a collection of writings on the city stories, essays and poems praising its beauty and its mystery, its revolutionary glamour and its tragedy. Inside, I inscribed a poem by Anna Akhmatova, one of Russia’s great poets: Three things enchanted him: white peacocks, evensong, and faded maps of America. He couldn’t stand bawling brats or raspberry jam with his tea, or womanish hysteria. …And he was tied to me.

The things that enchant my husband are English partridges and old maps of Wyken, and he soothes bawling brats with magical ease. However, although he’s tied to me, poetry doesn’t play a part in his life. Still, we shared a longing to go to St Petersburg. Back in June 1991, when 54% of the city’s citizens voted to erase the name Leningrad, we drank ice-cold vodka and renewed our vow to get there. My husband longed to put an architectural face to the history.

I longed to walk the streets of the poets I love: Pushkin, Pasternak, Mandlestam, Akhmatova and Joseph Brodsky. Despite the fact that it took us another 17 years to make the trip, St Petersburg is an easy city to visit. Over the years, friends have reported on long weekends at the magnificently restored Astoria, combining long hours at the Hermitage with seeking out furriers who still create hats that look straight out of Dr Zhivago.

My husband took a more serious approach: a week in St Petersburg, escorted by an art historian. I’ve never gone anywhere in a group, and it took me a while to overcome the image of myself as tourist. In fact, Russia is a very foreign place, and our lecturer, Andrew Spira, knew the city and herded his flock through churches and palaces, Metro stations and restaurants with humour and ease. He conveyed the history of the icon and its influence on 800 years of art with such fluency that it was as if a light was turned on inside my head. What no guidebook prepares you for is the sheer beauty of the city. With its canals and waterways, it’s like Venice without the spookiness, a classical beauty only surpassed by Rome, and the River Neva defines the city the way the Seine does Paris.

Money is being invested Rocco Forte’s hotel will soon be joined by a grand Four Seasons. Like a vast production of Sleeping Beauty, the city is waking up to its beauty, and it is Prince Tourism who bestows the kiss. All the same, St Petersburg in July is disorienting. All one’s images of the city are of snow and ice, tall boots and fur coats. Only when you leave the grand boulevards, do you find some of the wintry melancholy that has fertilised your imagination through thousands of pages of Russian literature.

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One such place is the town house where Vladimir Nabokov was born, now a modest museum with a meagre collection of manuscripts. Its main attraction is a black-and-white video of the writer’s interview for the BBC half a century after Nabokov’s family fled St Petersburg in 1919. He came to England, graduating from Trinity College, Cambridge in 1923. I was the only visitor to the museum on Bolshaya Morskaya street. Sitting in the unfurnished rooms, I relished the emptiness and echoes of history that the lavish palaces don’t provide.

Nabokov told his interviewer that he would never return to Russia while it was a police state, adding that ‘my loathings are simple: stupidity, oppression, crime, cruelty, soft music’. And he cut through his innate cheerfulness with perfect Russian melancholy: ‘Common sense tells us that our existence is but a crack between two eternities of darkness.’ On that note, I’d say: Go to St Petersburg during its crack of light. Go as soon as you can.