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St. Petersburg: Monuments to Egotism

Page through Alan Bullock’s biography of Adolf Hitler or or Li Zhishui’s reminiscences of Mao Zedong and you will need no further evidence of the truth of Lord Acton’s dictum that absolute power corrupts absolutely.

St. Petersburg, however, more than any city in the world bears monumental evidence of what autocracy looks like.

Massive palaces, furnished with the costliest items available in Europe—plus more than a few rooms’ worth of extravagant chinoiserie. Giant churches dedicated to saints whose claim to fame was that Russian royalty shared their names or that their feast days coincided with birthdays of tsars or tsarinas. The fourth largest church in the world, our guides told us, is St. Isaac’s, and you have never otherwise heard of this person (no, it is not the Biblical patriarch) but Peter the Great happened to be born on his day. It follows, therefore, that the biggest church would not-so-implicitly glorify the biggest Russian.

St. Petersburg is often referred to as the “Venice of the North” (although, since Peter did his anonymous reconnaissance primarily of England and Holland, it could be called the “Amsterdam of the North” just as well). But the Venetian palaces on the Grand Canal are sweet little pieds-à-terres compared to the gargantuan structures that loom over the major waterways of St. Petersburg. Dozens of rooms, these palaces—even hundreds, in the largest. All for the tsar, the tsar’s family, the tsar’s favourites, and the tsar’s major rivals and associates, the grand dukes.

This isn’t a city of the “one per cent.” This is the city of the “0.00001 per cent.”

One might retort that similar excesses are evident throughout the royal cities of Europe. Indeed, Versailles is more extravagant than Peterhof or Puskhin, St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s are larger than St. Isaac’s, and Buckingham Palace and the Doge’s Palace have more than a few ornate rooms themselves.

What one is not seeing there, however, is such a tiny proportion of a population being supported by such a vast number enslaved in misery. Nor do you see how the will of a single individual can create a city and then shape it, as Peter establishes it, Catherine the Great puts her stamp upon it, the Alexanders and Nicholases do what they do best (indulge and memorialize themselves), while everyone else serves at each successive despot’s pleasure, or confronts the dismal prospects of Siberia, poisoning, or suicide.

You have to go to the Forbidden Palace in Beijing, I suppose, to encounter a similar proportion of the very, very few being supported in splendour by a multitude of the dirt-poor, and all dependent entirely on the agenda of a single person, whose moods might be as changeable as St. Petersburg’s weather itself. And even then, outside that historical relic, modern Beijing looks like…modern Beijing. St. Petersburg’s downtown still is dominated by these eighteenth- and nineteenth-century patterns of tsarist absolutism.

Even a cursory reading of Russian history and especially of the ruthless concentration of wealth on behalf of just two causes, the armed forces and the noble elite, gives one more than a touch of sympathy for the Decembrists of the nineteenth century and the revolutionaries of the twentieth. When the plutocrats dither and delay over the slightest prospect of ameliorating the plight of the desperately poor, decade after decade, and call out the guns at the slightest provocation (as on Bloody Sunday, when a group led by a priest, singing a song of loyalty to the tsar, marches toward the palace with a petition for aid and suffers dozens of deaths from troopers’ rifles)…well, standing in these grand halls, staring at the priceless objets d’art, and being watched by gigantic portraits of the adamantine rulers of this deeply suffering land, one does feel queasy, as if out of the cracks and joins of all the gilt and porcelain and parquet and marble exuded a miasma of spoiled food, dirty water, untreated infection, rotten teeth, and open sewage.

The city isn’t built on piles. It is built on dead men’s bones: Up to 100,000 died in its construction. And no amount of plaster and paint, bronze and silver, porphyry and lapis lazuli, or tile and metal can keep one from remembering with a shudder the moral swamp on which this city is built.

St. Petersburg is well worth a visit. And the past is not the present, as many, many people enjoy a standard of living far higher than, frankly, even the tsars had in their drafty palaces equipped with their silver-plated commodes. Here’s hoping, sincerely, that shalom will blossom in this hard-pressed land.

But I confess that I’m glad to be writing this today in Helsinki, and heading back to Vancouver in a few days, clutching my Canadian passport….


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