by Paolo Sorbello
St. Petersburg and Tallinn – Getting into Russia can be a pain, mainly due to the onerous visa process. Even obtaining a tourist visa can be a bureaucratic nightmare and deters many from visiting the beautiful sights of the Eurasian lands. One way around it, unless you’re Argentinian and enjoy a visa free tourist entry for 90 days, is to take a cruise. Sailing across the Baltic Sea overnight to get to St. Petersburg is an interesting experience, although one has to cope with clueless hordes of tourists, tasteless food, and flashy rooms for entertainment, casino-style. “Of course we have our famous Bingo tonight at 8!“ is the sort of announcement that welcome you on board of the ferry. When the ship docks at Morskoy Vokzal, after a long summer night with infinite pink and violet horizons, a long and endless line awaits the impatient tourist. The broad hats and the unwelcoming, straight faces of the Russian border police somehow kill the festive mood that one might acquire just by setting foot in one of the most beautiful places in the world.
Cleared by the stamp-enthusiastic officers, and out of the Mordor-shaped terminal, a joyful music band welcomes you to the city of Peter the Great, Dostoyevsky and the Bolshevik Revolution. Discerning a licensed taxi from an improvised one is not easy, but one could also take a bus from the Vasilyevskii Island to the Nevskii Prospekt. Once the newcomer’s feet start treading the grounds of the city, the magic of Petersburg begins. It helps to have an itinerary (or a local) to guide your trip, but one could just stroll on the main streets and stop by the plaques that are scattered around on the buildings and tell you, in Russian, who lived or died there. Be it Raskol’nikov or Lenin or Tchaikovsky, the ‘Venice of the North’ has hosted them all. In the very center, hipster culture is mixed with old babushkas going to the market while corporate conglomerates stand next to family-run stores, in the shade of statues of Gogol’ and Pushkin.
Stunning buildings and boulevards are well-kept and host scores of street artists, who are not constrained by copyright laws and perform whatever the public requests. Thematic routes can easily turn into walks along the timeline of Tsarist and Soviet Russia. St. Petersburg and Leningrad are, after all, the same place. The majestic baroque and neoclassical architecture has luckily not been frustrated by ugly Soviet monsters or ultra-modern and soulless skyscrapers, thanks to the inflexible rule on the maximum height of buildings.
An excessively patriotic symbolism reminds of the frequency of stars & stripes in the United States: bus stops host headshots of politicians, poets, and businessmen, dubbed as “honorable citizens of St. Petersburg”. Among them, of course, Vladimir “the ubiquitous” Putin and the late Anatolii Sobchak. The honor was established in 1993 by the city adminstration, precisely while Sobchak served as mayor. The recognition is given through a vote in the city council, after the mayor, the governor and other branches of the executive file the nomination. Putin is said to be a “benevolent mistake” by a cadre in the popular/populist Yedinaya Rossiya party, who filed the nomination without prior consultations, out of his esteem for the President. Later, in 2008, the award went to Dick Advocaat, for his successes with the local football team, Zenit, to mark the first non-Russian to receive the prize (which consists of a small pension and free public transportation among other benefits). Next to these pride-laden portraits, the disappointing advertising mania, Western-style: English catchphrases are transliterated into Cyrillic characters to get the attention of the upper-middle class population that can afford fashion and gadgets.
Going into a cafe to enjoy all of the sweets in display or in a stalovaya to grab an old-fashioned meal can be a good cure against the new glittery-yet-homophobic St. Petersburg. Not that a sugar high is enough to clear your mind from the conservative politics of 21st century Russia, but you might as well try.
The tour of Piter, however, cannot last more than 72 hours if one chooses the visa-free deal offered by the cruising company. Certainly too short a period to leave a place with which it is hard not to fall in love. Upon sailing westward, the ship passes by Kronstadt, the island-fortress that the Russian Navy used to confront both the Tsarist and the Bolshevik troops before deciding which side to take during the revolutions that changed the course of world history a little under one hundred years ago.
Paolo Sorbello is a gruaduate student and freelance journalist, now based in Tallinn. He holds a MA in International Relations from the University of Bologna, but he is undertaking another double-degree MA from the Universities of Glasgow and KIMEP (Kazakhstan). He writes two weekly columns on the Italian newspaper L’Indro, one on the Baltic region and one on the Caucasus and Central Asia. His interests include, but are not limited to, the energy and foreign policies of the countries in this area. Additionally, he has published a book with the title The Role of Energy in Russian Foreign Policy towards Kazakhstan (Lambert Academic Publishing, Saarbruecken, 2011).