the old Russian Imperial capital
They call it the Venice of the North. Dostoyevsky said the Russian Imperial capital was “abstract and intentional.” I think it’s the most beautiful city in the world. It was built by Peter the Great, a pop-eyed giant of an obsessive, on a swamp on the estuary of the River Neva. The point was to remind the Swedes, to Russia’s north, that he had beaten them. It was no sort of place for a city. There were killer floods, fierce winters, and cruel winds. Peter didn’t care. By sheer force of will, he turned this inhospitable terrain into one of the most glorious urban spaces of Europe, packed with pastel-coloured palaces designed by Italians, and bullied his elite into moving there. It’s been battered by nature and by tyrants ever since. I still love it: the grand and glamorous bits, and there are plenty of them, but also the shabby byways, the little girls going to Saturday afternoon concerts, the scruffy museums, the sailors in flapping greatcoats, the iffy bars in the port area, and the holes in the roads. Russians often say it isn’t really a Russian city, just Russia’s window on the West. But to me it’s the concentrated essence of all the over-the-top, wonderful excess I’ve ever found anywhere in Russia.