Leningrad named in honour of Vladimir Ulyanov, otherwise known as Lenin, after his death in 1924.
Originally Sankt Petersburg named by Peter the Great after the Apostle Peter (not himself) in 1703 when he dreamt of establishing a European city to rival the great port city of Amsterdam.
Re-named Petrograd in 1914 to eliminate the Germanic ‘sankt” and “burg”.
Back to St Petersburg in 1991 after the collapse of communism.
Known as Piter to the locals.
In Leningrad, we treated ourselves to hotel accommodation, but the name of the hotel is not recorded in my travel diary. I do remember it as a very large, rather ugly building reminiscent of a block of housing commission flats back home. The long, narrow corridor leading to our room had warped floorboards in some places. The room was box-like, basic and functional. The toilet wobbled at the base and the seat was insecure. The bed was luxurious compared to the campervan, so we did not complain.
My research suggests that it was the Sovetskaya Hotel near the intersection of Lermontovsky Prospekt and the Fsontanka River. The first stage of the hotel had been opened in 1968 and had the capacity to accommodate 1,700 guests. It has been described as having been built “without architectural superfluities” and that was certainly the case.
Hotels had been closed down after the October Revolution in 1917. According to I. A. Bogdanov who wrote a piece about the history of hotels in Leningrad, there were seven hotels and six bunkhouses in the 1920s and by 1940 there were ten hotels and something called a Peasants’ House, all of which were converted into hospitals and 24 hour clinics for the treatment of dystrophy in the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945. After the war, hotels were developed out of army dormitories and then in the 1960s, there was a veritable rush of hotel building described by Mr Bogdanov as “typical Soviet projects”.
The Sovetskaya Hotel was a typical Soviet project: plain, functional, modular, fortress-like, exposed concrete, glass and steel.
I highly recommend scrolling through a collection of photographs of so-called ‘fossilised, Soviet architecture’, in this case, in Belarus.
On our first evening in Leningrad, we walked down to Nevsky Prospekt. That is what I recorded in my diary, anyway. I have no memory of this, but I do know that Nevsky Prospekt is the main thoroughfare of Leningrad and on a summer’s evening locals would have been out promenading or having ice-cream at Ogonek which according to Let’s Go Europe 1976-77 is ‘probably Leningrad’s nicest ice-cream parlour’, where amongst ‘potted plants and a pleasant, quiet atmosphere’ you can ‘indulge yourself on ice-cream, champagne, wine, candy, fruit etc.’ I do remember that at some point in our travels we visited an ice-cream and champagne parlour. Perhaps this was it.
Later that evening when it was still light, I was standing on the Kirov bridge gazing out over the Neva River when I was accosted for my jeans. A young man about my age approached me and the conversation went something like this.
I vant to buy your jeans.
Don’t be silly!
Your jeans, Yes. Now. Pleaze.
I give good wodka. Very good. Now. Your jeans.
Absolutely not. (Did he really expect me to take my jeans off then and there and go about in my underwear?)
He persisted for some time, him pleading more and more desperately and I responding less and less politely. It was a game, and eventually, I just walked away, with him calling out goodness-knows-what in Russian. This episode was a testimony to the declining centralised, Soviet command economy, in particular the stagnation of the Brezhnev era and the increasing demand for Western ”luxuries” like jeans, or LP rock records, or even biros. It lead to a burgeoning black economy.
That first evening we were victims of this when all the paraphernalia attached to the outside of our van was ripped off – the sticker of the kangaroo and the Australian flag, another sticker of Snoopy on his kennel. Also wrenched off were the large chrome VW logo at the front and the full name, Volkswagon that had been screwed onto the back. I suppose they became an addition to someone’s collection or more likely they were sold in the backstreets of Leningrad.
I later discovered that velvet was another scarcity. In Moscow, we went to the theatre one night and I was dressed in a brown velvet dress. Older women came up to me in the street and tentatively touched my sleeve, stroking the precious fabric, smiling sadly at me.
At the camping ground in Moscow, we gave away other scarce commodities – paperback books. I was re-reading classics and the students who worked at the camping ground were utterly delighted to receive a copy of Wuthering Heights which was apparently “unavailable”, although oddly enough Jane Eyre was. We received a bottle of vodka in exchange. This was all highly illegal, but such transactions were how people obtained the products they desired.
My memory of Leningrad is visiting palaces – testimony to the wealth and glory days of the Tsars (glorious for the aristocracy, that is). Breathtaking, opulent, gold colonnades, heavy rich embroideries, paintings fit for any of the major museums in the world, elaborately landscaped gardens with dozens of fountains and sculpture. Grand staircase and gorgeous views from windows into vast courtyards, gardens and parks.
A letter home in July 1976 tells more.
Leningrad was not as beautiful as all the books say. Many of the old homes of the nobility are in a state of disrepair; looking like stale and crumbling cakes iced in pastel shades of pink, pale blue, apricot and lemon. There are lots of extremely ugly high-rise flats (although not as bad as Poland’s) and many of the streets are dug up and no work seems to have been done on them. Rubble and holes and weeds. The people are poorly dressed, very dour and sombre, rarely smiling. Leningrad’s beauty and excitement are in her past. The Winter Palace is the most beautiful building I have ever seen. It now houses the Hermitage Museum – a fantastic collection and art and pieces – Rembrandts and da Vinci, Titian, the Impressionists as well as other fabulous things. The interior of the museum is left as the old palace was – incredibly lush décor of gold and marble. Quite breathtaking. We also went to Peter the Great’s Summer Residence which is famous for its fabulous fountains. No wonder there was a revolution!
In the Hermitage, there were supervisors for each room, some of them quite elderly. They were dressed in black and sat on chairs at the entrance to each room and simply watched us go in, but never made eye contact and hardly moved. They just sat and looked out. At what? Sad ghosts from earlier times, perhaps? When we went to take a photo, one old woman put her hands over her face and lowered her head. Generally, people were afraid of having their photo taken and many were simply afraid of us.
According to my diary, we did a city tour visiting St Isaacs and Palace Square. As tourists, we were entitled to a free tour of each city on a bus with a guide. Here was an opportunity for the Russians to educate Westerners. We were lectured on the greatness of the USSR, of its superiority in every way to the United States and the degradation of the West.
In Leningrad, there was constant reference to the Great Patriotic War, the fascist Germans and the terrible destruction they wrought on Russia. It was as if the war had only happened a few years ago, not 30. Even now I can remember the statistics: 20 million dead, 25 million homeless and thousands of cities and towns destroyed. Incomprehensible to young Australians with no experience of war.
Leningrad was also the city of the Revolution. We visited the Museum of the October Revolution, now called the Museum of Political History, situated in a beautiful art nouveau building once the home of a prima ballerina, Matilda Kshesinskaya, one-time mistress (when she was only 17 years old) of Tsar Nicholas II prior to his marriage. In 1917, she and her son fled to Paris where she lived a relatively quiet life as the wife of one of the Tsar’s cousins, Grand Duke Andrei Valdimirovich. Her Leningrad mansion was taken over by the Bolsheviks who used it as their headquarters. It was in this building in the glamorous reception hall that Lenin gave his thunderous and rousing call for continuous revolution.
The museum was established here in 1954 after much of the collection that had been housed in the Winter Palace had been lost or systematically destroyed because it did not fit with a Stalinist version of events. Graduates from the Leningrad State University worked to replenish the collection during the 1960s and 1970s and included artefacts from the era of Russian space exploration as well as the history of Russian communism and war.
As with the Lenin Museum which we visited in Moscow, we were provided with a tour by a friendly guide and a translator who spoke earnestly and proudly of the glories of Russia, the triumphs of war, the suffering endured, the heroic struggle of peasants and workers and the victories. Lenin was the hero. Stalin, of course, was not mentioned. We apparently impressed our guides with our knowledge of Russian history and they scurried about to find some postcards and booklets for us to take. They shook our hands, smiled and even patted us on the back. We seemed to have made an impression.
We left Leningrad that same day, got lost, arrested because we were on the wrong road heading to Kiev rather than Moscow and eventually ended up where we were supposed to be, in Novgorod. We had only been in Leningrad two days, but it was an intensely rich experience. Memories of it have lasted for decades and it must surely be time to return.