Since Capitalism took hold less than 20 years ago, St Petersburg has been transformed, but ELISE RANA takes a walk through those suburbs that hark back to the era of Communism.
St Petersburg: Russia’s grand imperial city, a Tsarist showpiece of burnished domes and colourful onion turrets, wide waterways and stately streets, cultural riches from the Mariinsky ballet to the artistic treasures of the Hermitage. We, however, are marching through a building site in the city’s southern suburbs on a mission to discover another place and another time: Communist Leningrad, the tourist attraction.
It may not have bequeathed the aesthetic glamour of Peter or Catherine the Great’s time, but Russia’s more recent history is, if anything, an even greater subject of fascination for today’s visitors. St Petersburg’s incarnation as Leningrad may be in the past, but alongside the rosy-cheeked matryoshka dolls in the souvenir market off Nevsky Prospekt, military caps, KGB mugs and propaganda posters are snapped up with equal enthusiasm. The Beatles are still big here – the Back In The USSR-era moptops, that is. Communist kitsch-themed bars are the latest cool hangouts. Perhaps not quite as voyeuristic as a visit to Rio’s favelas or New York’s ghettos, a walking tour of the Soviet suburbs nonetheless offers a gritty insight into the make-up of the city beyond the tourist honeypots.
If our guide, Julia Bochkova, finds it a little strange to be giving two Westerners a tour of these unremarkable-seeming streets, she doesn’t show it. As we ascend from the cavernous depths of the metro at Narvskaya to start the tour, she begins to point out the red walls, stars, hammers and sickles, and Lenin likenesses, subtle signs that we’ll be noticing a lot from here on. How does she feel being surrounded by these symbols of the past? I don’t mind it,” smiles Julia, a twentysomething teacher originally from the Urals. “It’s part of my childhood, part of our history and culture.”
For us, the traces of the Soviet past are hard to spot. Who would have known that this grubby, billboard-plated box once housed the free hobby clubs of the Palace of Culture? Or noticed the identical red-brick houses or that streets echo the design of farm machinery? Across the road from ‘Tractor Street’, Julia walks us around the perimeter of a derelict-looking yellow building that turns out to be a still-functioning school – constructed in the shape of a hammer and sickle.
“The symbolism was very intentional. People treated the symbols with a lot of respect,” says Julia, recalling her own school days. “Inside, every school would have its own ‘Lenin room’, just as every business would have its ‘red corner’.” From her pocket she pulls a handful of old badges from the after-school clubs that were part of every young Russian’s life. A Pioneer at age nine, at 16 a Komsomolist – it sounds unnervingly militaristic, but Julia’s recollections are nothing but fond.
We did have fun – we didn’t really think about anything seriously political,” she insists. “The good thing about that time is that people were helping each other. It wasn’t such a bad idea, really. Today there are no activities for young people – nothing unites them. Nowadays people are more individualistic, but it’s gone too far the other way.”
Talking to Julia is a chance to go beyond the history-book version of the Cold War, to find out what everyday life was like under Communism – and how today’s Russia measures up. In a country ruled by capitalism at its most merciless, the sentimental longing that former East Germans would call ‘Ostalgia’ is common.
“Medical care, education – all that was guaranteed,” Julia tells us. “You always knew what was going to happen the next day – which was boring on the one hand, but also made people feel safe. No matter the disadvantages of Communist policy, people felt much more secure.”
She’s no apologist, however. We’re now standing outside a block of Stalin-era houses, a stark illustration of the gap between the noble intentions and the eventual reality of Soviet policy. These tall, solid edifices have almost a brutal elegance with their grand arches and columns – the apartments inside were always spacious and finished to a high standard, Julia tells us, rendering them extremely sought-after and accordingly expensive.
Yet most of these buildings are rotting at the core. We step into the hallway of one to find bannisters hanging off, entire steps missing from the staircase, paint peeling from the walls, the entire area awash with empty bottles, detritus and the smell of decay. Julia dryly translates a dusty notice on the wall which states that Communal Services mops these stairs twice a day. We continue on past another post-Soviet casualty, the empty shell of a half-finished office block, one of many never-to-be-completed buildings frozen in time at the point of the USSR’s collapse.
“I wouldn’t deny that Russians are a bit lazy,” Julia says frankly. “In Soviet times nothing belonged to you, so why work hard? But now there are jobs out there – if you want to work.” Nostalgia or no, Julia has moved with the times. “I leave the house at 7am and get home from classes sometimes at 10pm,” she tells me.
“My 40-year-old neighbour is always complaining about lack of money, but he’s home every day at 4pm.”
At our next stop we see that Julia’s discipline is a necessary virtue in St Petersburg, currently ranked the 12th most expensive city in the world ahead of Milan, Paris and Singapore, and a place where accommodation, above all, is priced at a premium. We’re moving up the architectural timeline now to a block of the ‘Khruschev houses’ that mushroomed all over Russia’s cities to try to cope with the critical lack of accommodation. Dilapidated and already long past its use-by date, what was meant to be temporary housing looks set to stand indefinitely, although to be honest, Julia’s description could be of any modern housing development in London (“no balcony, very small kitchen, bathroom and toilet in one room, no corridors … “). She lives in a block like this: “If I’m sitting at the kitchen table I can reach anything in the room.” What look like window boxes are in fact ‘winter fridges’ – there being no room inside for a real one.
Being roughly the same age, Julia and I grew up on either side of an ideological divide that shaped the world’s thinking. It’s fascinating to compare notes. For us, we admit, Russia was a grey, ominous place of empty shelves and political oppression. Julia says simply: “We didn’t even have enough information for a stereotype of the West. All we knew was that the Americans didn’t like us because they thought we wanted to rule the world.” She remembers empty shelves, but never felt her family were poor. “You knew how the system worked – if it wasn’t in the shops, you knew where to get it. That’s why it was good to have contacts,” she says in matter -of-fact reference to the black market.
As we leave the suburbs behind and draw closer to the city’s centre, a pair of teenage girls stride past in mini-skirts and designer sunglasses, bringing us back up to date. Is this post-Soviet generation different to Julia’s? “They’re more independent,” she says. “You need that to survive now. In Soviet times you didn’t allow yourself to be independent – the State took care of you.”
Our tour ends with a ‘home visit’ – tea and biscuits in a modest two-bedroomed flat just off Nevsky Prospekt, where Petersburg couple Igor (a lecturer) and Irena (a graphic designer) live with their young son. Crammed with posters, knick-knacks and books, the narrow hallway is dominated by a cartoon of Lenin, a gift made for Igor by some of his students. Like Julia, Igor and Irena have an emotional bond with these symbols – a reminder of the good, not just the the bad that they stood for. But nostalgia has its limits. Igor is interested to hear how we’ve spent the morning, but unequivocal about where he’d rather live. “I live here,” he says, “because this is St Petersburg. Outside is Leningrad.””