24th Dec 2017

Literal translation, the city of Lenin. The city where the fire of the Russian revolution was lit in 1917. The city where the concept of a worker's paradise was born. The city from which, the Tsars ruled for 300 years. The city where Rasputin whispered into the ears of the Tsarina and influenced the Tsar. The city that was once the capital of Russia. Where the Tsars were overthrown. Where the Bolshevik government rose to power. Where countless perished in Stalin's Great Purg e and more devastation was caused because of a siege by Hitler's Wehrmacht.

Today, the city stands strong. A centre of Russian culture. Full of theatres and museums. Soviet-era architecture juxtaposes Tsarist era grandeur. Imperial opulence and communist frugalism. Russia as a nation is accepting it's Orthodox Christian roots after decades of godlessness. St Petersburg's is dotted with the onion domes characteristic to the Russian skyline. The city is no longer the seat of Russia's might.

The power of St Petersburg started to wane when it was renamed to Leningrad. After forcing the Tsar to abdicate, the Bolsheviks moved the government to The Kremlin, in Moscow. The Kremlin is from where the current Tsar (if we can call him that) of the Russian Federation resides and executes his statesmanship.

The winter palace along the Neva embankments in St Petersburg was abandoned. The large square in front of it became a place for demonstrations. Instead of the official residence of the Romanovs, it became a part of the Hermitage public museums. For the first time, the common people were allowed inside the private rooms of the Imperial family.

The Hermitage Museum has endured the various regimes, and today is one of the world's most famous and largest museums, second only to the Louvre in Paris. To see the museum took us an entire day. To truly appreciate art it contains in its entirety may not be possible even in a week.

The large square today holds various public concerts and events. As it was late December, we could see a Christmas event going on a drawing a large crowd. People dressed up as Santa Claus were mingling among the revellers enjoying the spirit of Christmas. This definitely wasn't something the godless Uncle Joe would approve of.

Public Christmas celebrations are still a novelty in Russia. Under the communist regime, when the Russian Federation was still the United States of Soviet Russia, all religious celebrations were outlawed. Consequently, New Year's Eve celebration was the largest public celebration. The USSR followed a policy of 'State Atheism'. Though they never outlawed formal religions, religious artifacts were confiscated, religion was ridiculed and atheism was preached in schools. A large portion of the Russian citizens is believers, as they were during the revolution of 1917. Most of them, however, are Orthodox Christians. The calendar they follow is a bit different than the Gregorian calendar followed by the world today. Accordingly, they celebrate Christmas on 7th January instead of 25th December. What is Christmas Day for the world, is treated as just another working day in Russia. Since the past few years, the state has been declaring 7th January as a public holiday.

In December St Petersburg comes alive in the form of various street Christmas markets. There's a lot of food, books and gifts to buy. The long and wide Nevsky Prospekt is strung with decorative lights. This street is the heart of Russia's cultural capital. It is lined on both sides with hotels, restaurants, bars and stores. Here one can find a wide range of traditional matryoshka dolls along with other collectibles. People throng the pavements till late into the night. We landed in the city around midnight on a Friday night and as we reached our hotel on Nevsky Prospekt, I was surprised by the sheer number of people.

There were so many people enjoying the nightlife offered by the city that was once called Leningrad. This vibrant street shoots away from the Neva at the monument to Alexander Nevsky to greet the river again to terminate at Palace Square near the State Hermitage Museum. Arguably the most famous icon of this city, the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, is located on an offshoot from this avenue. It's colourful onion domes clearly visible from Nevsky Avenue.

This city has undergone name changes twice. It was founded by the Tsar, Peter the Great in 1703. After the First World War, because St Petersburg was deemed to be too German sounding, it was renamed to Petrograd, which still meant the city of Peter. The Bolsheviks, in their attempt to wipe out the centuries of Imperial history, started calling it Leningrad, in honour of their leader. And Leningrad it was, till the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The metro railway system of St Petersburg is fabulous. Constructed in the Soviet era, its stations are grand and spacious, with high ceilings and chandeliers, and manages to keep up with the Soviet aspirations. A vast network covering all corners of the city, the travel fare is surprisingly cheap. One journey costs 35 rubles (1 ruble is approximately 1 rupee) and you can travel from any corner of the city to anywhere else. For short distances, though this might turn out to be expensive.

The modern city St Petersburg is thus steeped in history. It has seen turmoil and stability. Violence and peace. Much of the city was destroyed in the Siege of Leningrad by Hitler. This siege is said to be one of the most destructive sieges faced by any major city in modern history. Acknowledging its survival, Stalin awarded it the title of 'Hero City' at the end of the war. The people of St Petersburg, are very helpful. They will even go out of their way to help tourists. Language though is a huge problem. But a combination of broken English and gestures pulls you through. History lives on in this city. Moscow will offer you wide boulevards and government buildings, but St Petersburg offers a glimpse into Russian culture. If Moscow is the brain of Russia, St Petersburg is its heart!