St. Petersburg is deservedly known as the Russian culture capital. It’s breadth and depth of cultural heritage is astonishing and in this post I’ll attempt to distil several hundred years of various art forms into a couple of paragraphs.
Aleksandr Borodin, Igor Stravinsky and Dmitri Shostakovich are the three prolific St. Petersburg natives in the classical music world, the latter two amongst the twentieth century’s greatest composers. St. Petersburg attracted a plethora of talent from other parts of the Russian Empire including Rachmaninoff, Mussorgsky and Prokofiev. But it was a certain Pyotr Tchaikovsky who is now synonymous with the city having composed The Nutcracker and Swan Lake ballets for the Mariinksy Theatre.
Renowned French choreographer Marius Petipa presided over the Mariinksy’s development into the world’s premier ballet troupe and collaborated with Tchaikovsky on The Nutcracker and Swan Lake.
Originally known as the Imperial Russian Ballet, it and its associated opera company were renamed the Mariinksy in 1860 and all three underwent two more name changes post-1917, most famously the Kirov in 1935, before returning to Mariinksy in 1992.
Given Mariinksy’s prominence in ballet, it produced and attracted household names such Nijinksy, Nureyev, Baryshnikov and local prima ballerina Anna Pavlova. During my visit I had the immense pleasure of attending a ballet at Mariinksy II, a magnificent concert-hall opened in 2013 adjacent to the original theatre.
But it’s St. Petersburg’s role as a writer’s hub which has assured it a prominent place in world cultural history. Vladimir Nabokov of Lolita fame and Ayn Rand of Atlas Shrugged fame were born here as was Nobel Prize winner Joseph Brodsky. Nikolai Gogol and Maxim Gorky lived in St. Petersburg as did poet Anna Akhmatova whose family suffered the full wrath of the soviet regime. The Akhmatova and Nabokov museums celebrate the lives and works of these respective authors.
Aleksandr Pushkin, considered by many to be the Father of modern Russian literature, died from injuries sustained in a duel on the Vyborg side of the city. The Bronze Horseman statue near the Alexander Garden was re-named after his epic poem of the same title.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky spent his final years in St. Petersburg and his home in the Vladimirskaya district is now a museum. His classic novel Crime and Punishment about the unhinged Raskolnikov is the definitive fictional take on the city, Arctic Noir so to speak.
Regretfully, my few days in St. Petersburg couldn’t do the city’s art collection justice. Firstly, the State Hermitage is one of the world’s largest museums and is home to over three million international works. The Hermitage is comprised of several buildings including the General Staff Building and the iconic Winter Palace. The Russian Museum houses an extensive collection of native artists. This list of two is far from definitive but to see all works in both museums one would need several years!
A site which serves as a common denominator to the arts in St. Petersburg is Tikhvin Cemetery at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery, final resting place of notable city residents, amongst them Borodin, Mussorgsky, Petipa, Tchaikovsky and Dostoyevsky.
I’m only skimming the surface of St. Petersburg’s cultural heritage so apologies to the city for what I’ve omitted. But I hope I’ve conveyed St. Petersburg’s sense of artistic achievement and highly recommend a trip to this thoroughly engaging and visually impressive city.
For a practical travel guide to St. Petersburg have a look at my Visting Putin’s Place: St. Petersburg Travel Guide post with general Russia travel tips found in this post.