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TSARS V SOVIETS

One hundred years after the Russian Revolution, seek out the best ways to experience the two sides of St Petersburg: those forged by both imperial and communist Russia

Strolling past the Mikhailovsky Palace is a fake tsarina. Dressed in a corseted gown and tricorn hat, she is a glimpse of a lost world – a vestige of the centuries during which St Petersburg was the city of the tsars, the royal rulers of a vast Russian Empire. The scale of the tsars’ imperial might is reflected in another architectural landmark, the jade-green Winter Palace, but their legacy is apparent everywhere in St Petersburg.

Nearby stands the lavish Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, built on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. Clustered beneath its technicolour domes today are stalls of souvenirs of the new Russia – T-shirts showing president Vladimir Putin topless, riding a bear or firing a gun, and nesting dolls depicting well-known rulers: Lenin, Stalin, Brezhnev and Gorbachev.

Gold glints inside the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 brought an end to tsarist rule, creating the world’s first communist state. The leaders of the newly formed Soviet Union were keen to distance themselves from imperial Russia, and planned a new centre for St Petersburg – renamed Leningrad after Lenin’s death in 1924 – in the Moskovsky District. At its heart was the House of Soviets. Built as the city’s administrative offices and decorated with friezes of muscular workers and a Soviet crest, this was Stalin’s rival to the Winter Palace. This hulking Neoclassical building faces Moscow Square where, in the summer months, people paddle in fountains and eat ice creams from carts, and students play poker under a giant statue of Lenin, hand raised in salute.

Further up Moskovsky Avenue is the Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad, a memorial intended to remind these carefree citizens that their freedom was hard-won. The mood here is sombre. Figurative bronzes show the anguish of those caught in the Nazis’ 900-day Siege of Leningrad, during which 800,000 people starved to death. The emaciated statues stand in sharp contrast to today’s only visitors, a strapping young couple who stand hand-in-hand as they read the inscriptions.

WWII memories at the Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad

WATCH BALLET AT THE CITY’S BEST THEATRE

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Find the complete article and many more in this issue of Lonely Planet - June 2017
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