The Nevski Prospect – Russian Travel

The pride and boast of St. Petersburg. Its praises have been sung all over the world, and its name is as familiar as is that of Regent Street or of Piccadilly. The patriotic Russian believes that nothing can exceed the grandeur of the buildings, the opulence and luxury of the shops, or the smartness of the people who throng this famous street. As a matter of fact the Nevski is not particularly Russian in character. Its prototype may be seen in many a great city of Western Europe. The buildings and the con-tents of the shops might almost have been trans-ported direct from London, Paris, or Berlin.

The resemblance to Berlin is more complete than to the other towns, for the architects who built St. Petersburg were either Germans or received their inspiration from Germany. The uninspired copying of classical and Renaissance forms has produced long, regular and rather monotonous frontages. Stucco and plaster are universal, not boldly avowing itself as such, but ruled and squared into a miserable counterfeit of drest stone. This material suffers badly from the severe winters, and during the summer months it is continually under repair. The Admiralty spire at the west end redeems the perspective from absolute banality, and the wide sweeping colonnades of the Kazan Cathedral on the south side afford a most welcome rest to the eyes. At one point the fantastic Oriental towers and cupolas of the Alexander IL Memorial Church come into view, but they seem to belong to quite another world from the prim German houses which line the Nevski. We must look elsewhere than in the Nevski for the architectural monuments of St. Petersburg.

In one feature, however, the Nevski is absolutely unique. Nowhere else can there be seen so cosmopolitan a crowd as that which throngs its pavements. Every nationality and almost every costume of Europe and Asia is represented. Ladies in exquisite Parisian toilets, and “elegants” who might have stept from Bond Street or Hyde Park, officers in smart uniforms, and fierce-looking Cossacks and Circassian, peasant women with kerchiefs over their heads, and mujiks in their red shirts, priests with long hair falling over their shoulders and strange frocks and broad-brimmed hats-all combine to make the Nevski such a sight as will long remain in the memory of the visitor. The varied procession hardly ceases by night. At midnight the street is as busy as at noon. At 2 A.M. the traffic shows little sign of slackening. The pavements are crowded and noisy, and innumerable drozkis roll swiftly along, some noiselessly on the strip of wood, others clattering over the cobbles. In the short summer nights it is never dark, and the contrast between the hot fevered life of the street and the soft, tender, almost benignant light of the morning is a startling one. The restaurants keep open till three o’clock, and with hardly an interval, the work people are going about their morning tasks.

The first and most enduring impression which the visitor to St. Petersburg receives is that he is in the presence of an autocracy. Quickly he begins to realize its true nature—how it overshadows everything, reaches everywhere, and has its root deep in the physical structure of the country, and in the character and habits of the people. In St. Petersburg, everything that pertains to the imperial power is built upon a massive scale. The streets are broad and give magnificent prospects. The squares are extended with a lavish hand, regardless of site values. The palaces are enormous. The churches, domed like the heavens and pillared like the firmament, blaze with Byzantine splendor. The colossal monuments, which are so frequently met with in the streets and squares, are frequently carved from a single stone. The river is embanked with titanic blocks of hewn granite. Public institutions, museums, hospitals, libraries, theaters, stations, and showplaces cover the earth on a scale undreamed of elsewhere. The streets, restaurants, gardens, theaters and places of public resort swarm with officers and officials wearing the livery of the Czar.

The capital of Russia is, in fact, a monstrosity, a thing not in nature, a creature of arbitrary and autocratic power, the product of some compelling energy. St. Petersburg was decreed, willed, and brought into existence, over two hundred years ago, by Peter the Great, and it is as truly his city today as it was when he founded it. Peter’s life was a series of herculanean labors. He resolved to Europeanize his people, and only on the shores of the Baltic could he find a clear waterway to connect his empire with western civilization. The warlike Swedes, however, disputed with him the southeru shores of the Baltic. Fighting his way northward, he selected the site for his capital in the midst of the wild marshes at the mouth of the Neva. In 1703 he commenced to build the city. Wherever he built he could only find a foundation by driving piles deep into the oozing earth. This great city really stands upon stilts. When the Isaakovski Cathedral was rebuilt, 1819-58, it cost no less than £200,000 to make a foundation. But the conquest of nature was the easiest part of Peter’s task; he had to conquer human nature also. He had not only to build a city, but to find a population. From hundreds of miles around he drove the inhabitants into his new city. It was as if he had built his stables and drove his herds into them. His little finger was thicker than the loin of Ivan the Terrible. Ivan made them slaves, but Peter was an even severer tyrant—he civilized them! His dead hand is still heavy upon them. Centuries after his death his creative will still prevails. The soft, easy, careless Slavonic nature still groans beneath his coercion. St. Petersburg, the city which is against nature, and which Russians do not love as they love Moscow, not only exists but grows.

Standing beside some of the monstrous monuments of power which abound throughout the city one feels the savagery of its inhuman greatness. The Pyramids, the Winged Bulls of Assyria, and the monoliths of Stonehenge exhibit the same extravagance of power. This ostentatious affection of omnipotence and eternity has its design, spiritual rather than physical. It is the visible symbol creating in the minds of an imaginative people a superstitious veneration for the power behind it, a fatalistic resignation, a deep sense of the futility of resistance and revolt. Many a general and governor who has fallen a victim to the revenge of the revolutionists, has counted for less in the maintenance of the autocracy than do the Colonnade of St. Isaac’s, the Pillar of Alexander, and the riven boulder on which rests the statue of Peter the Great.