Peter's bedazzling burg

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia

They say this city is built on bones. It was erected on swampland during Peter the Great's reign and by succeeding Romanovs, who seemed to care nothing for the expense or the human toll exacted. Even the city's magnificent gold gilt domes are a paean to death. The old technique of gilding combined gold with liquid mercury, which when heated was extremely toxic. Workers died without knowing the cause. • But if you think modern Russia is a morose place of Tolstoy's unhappy families, think again. St. Petersburg, with its stunning 18th and 19th century veneer, has a skip in its step. Its bling-encrusted buildings have been polished, shined and are ready for their close-up. Moscow too has a skyline dotted with construction cranes. Gleaming glass office towers are starting to obscure what remains of the sad Khrushchev-era architecture. Only 19 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia's two premier cities are optimistic, booming centers of consumerism and commerce.

Local guide Peter Kozyrev led me and my tourist group through St. Petersburg while describing the stark difference between life in Soviet times and now.

Soviet collective planners allotted every person 5 square meters of living space or about 54 square feet, Kozyrev explained. Large apartments in extravagantly appointed buildings were chopped up into multifamily units with a shared bathroom and kitchen. If your family grew you had to apply for more space and then wait, sometimes as long as 15 years.

The tight quarters led to absurd results. Outside these apartments would be a single doorbell with a long explanation underneath. It would say: ring once for the Smith family, twice for the Jones family, etc., and when a visitor came to the door, residents would sit and count the rings.

When the Soviet Union fell in 1991 and market reforms began, new laws allowed each person to keep what they had. Kozyrev described how the new government transferred apartments all around St. Petersburg into private hands, giving Russian citizens their first taste of wealth. While multiple families would generally have to agree to an apartment's disposition, the dwellings soon commanded such huge sums that they provided a nice nest egg for all their former owners. And those who held on to the properties essentially live for free.

All this disposable income is more than obvious in the explosion of retail shops, restaurants and cafes. It's the same story in Moscow where Red Square is surrounded by high-end stores, including Max Mara and Hugo Boss. Here is the epitome of capitalist conspicuous consumption in the shadow of communist power. And just to put an exclamation point on it, Lenin lies in a mausoleum not more than a football field or two from Moscow's most exclusive mall.

Walking by the perfectly preserved body of Lenin with his waxy face and clenched fist, it's apparent that this little man is just a historical footnote. His revolution lost out not to some great opposing army but to clothes by Christian Dior and handbags by Louis Vuitton.

Young people are adjusting well to this new reality. Older Russians aren't. Endemic alcoholism, smoking and other factors have put life expectancy for Russian males at about 60 years; and last year casinos were outlawed across most of the country. Gambling is a problem, too. Kozyrev says life is now full of stress and competition, and older Russians feel cheated of the security once promised them.

But the country's social ills are little in evidence in St. Petersburg. Turn one corner and a dozen agile, young men practice break-dancing to boombox music. Turn another and a party boat full of dancing 20-somethings is plying one of the city's many canals — Peter thought he was building the new Venice.

St. Petersburg is beautiful and rich with a prosperity that, unlike the time of the Romanovs, is widely shared. Despite repressive national politics and mob violence this is a new, hopeful Russia. The bones are buried. At least, that's how it seems.

Editor's note: The electronic version of this column has been updated.

Correction

Due to mishearing what St. Petersburg, Russia, guide Peter Kozyrev said, I wrote that Soviet planners allotted each person 65 square meters of living space. The correct number is 5 square meters, or nearly 54 square feet. The column also inaccurately said that 65 square meters is about 200 square feet. It is nearly 700 square feet. Thank you to all the metric-literate readers who pointed this out.

Peter's bedazzling burg 09/04/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 7, 2010 3:45pm]

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