Stories of revolution in Russia's St. Petersburg
Today, the churches and Orthodox religious practices have made a comeback. It's particularly meaningful to see the beautifully renovated cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul. Glittering with Orthodox imagery, it's filled to the brim with dead czars and czarinas, including the last Romanovs: Nicholas II and his wife and children. Things have changed so much that they're now considered martyrs, and were canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church.
Ironically, St. Petersburg's museums owe some of their wealth of western European art to the revolution. The urbane aristocrats of turn-of-the-century Russia patronized French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists, buying paintings in Paris (especially from newcomers like Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso) and sending them home to St. Petersburg.
After the October Revolution, the state confiscated those private collections and designated them to state museums. The owners, meanwhile, fled abroad. Today the very paintings that once hung in St. Petersburg's palatial townhouses are viewable in the galleries of the Hermitage and the Russian Museum.
Perhaps the most storied "reclaimed" artworks in St. Petersburg are the Easter eggs crafted by the illustrious House of Faberge, made on commission for czars Alexander III and Nicholas II. Fourteen Easter eggs -- nine of them imperial -- are on view in the Faberge Museum, itself housed in the beautifully restored Shuvalov Palace.
The final imperial egg (on view in the museum) was given by Nicholas to his mother in 1916. When she fled Russia three years later, it was this egg -- with miniature portraits of her murdered son and grandson -- that the dowager empress carried out. The Bolsheviks kept the rest, and over time, the Soviets sold the eggs to fund their government. The Faberge Museum (with the help of a deep-pocketed oligarch) had to buy the eggs back on the open market.
A century after the revolution, most tourists come to St. Petersburg for its resurrected aristocratic opulence. But its 20th-century upheavals were every bit as transformative as the age of the Romanovs -- and are just as enmeshed in the city's cultural fabric.
IF YOU VISIT...
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EATING: Pelmeniya is a great place to sample dumplings (and variations from around the world). The modern interior overlooks the Fontanka River (Fontanka 25, tel. 7-571-8082). Cococo serves up traditional dishes with a modern twist in a laid-back, mellow cellar (Nekrasova 8, tel. 7-579-0016).
SLEEPING: Alexander House is a boutique hotel in a historic building, with 20 homey rooms in a quiet neighborhood near the Mariinsky Theater (splurge, www.a-house. ru). The basic M Hotel has 61 central rooms tucked away in a utilitarian courtyard near the city's main avenue, Nevsky Prospekt (moderate, www.mhotelspb.ru).
GETTING AROUND: Most sights (and the dense urban core) are on the south bank of the Neva River. Use the cheap, easy Metro system. Buses and trolley buses help bridge the (sometimes long) gaps between sights and Metro stops and can save tons of time. The useful online English-language journey planner covers Metro and surface transport www.spb.rusavtobus.ru/en.
TOURIST INFORMATION: www.visit-petersburg.ru.