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This article is taken from PN Review 153, Volume 30 Number 1, September - October 2003.

Letter from St Petersburg Christopher Levenson

Façades - the Winter Palace, the Russian Museum, Peterhof, the Marinsky Theatre - these are what the average summer tourist sees first in St Petersburg and will probably remember longest. And with good reason: after all, the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were famous for their neo-classical, baroque and rococo façades and St Petersburg (a.k.a. Petrograd and Leningrad) was from its founding in 1703 planned to be magnificent, an imperial city after the fashion of Paris, Vienna, Rome, New Delhi or Washington, full of immense squares and broad avenues designed for the pompous thump of thousands of marching feet. Now with the Tercentenary celebrations about to begin, it is less the foundations than the façades that have been renovated, repainted and redecorated, so that many of the churches and palaces are still enveloped, Christo-like, in green plastic mesh. Maybe the same holds true for the soul of this most deliberately European of Russian cities.

We - my wife Oonagh and I - saw something different. I had been invited by the State University of St Petersburg to be Visiting Professor in Canadian Literature for the Fall 2002 semester and all summer we had been cautioning each other about not socialising too much and making sure not to over-indulge in the round of faculty parties that doubtless awaited us.

We need not have worried: even through our jet lag, we realised at Pulkovo airport, while all the baggage we had brought for three and a half ...


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