Moscow and St Petersburg couldn’t be more different. In part it’s due to the weather – an unfair comparison given that Moscow was blanketed in smoke and heat while I was there, while St Petersburg welcomes me with perfect northern European summer days: sunshine, pale blue skies enlivened with the occasional fluffy white cloud and cool breezes. The light sparkles off the city’s canals and river and I take in big mouthfuls of fresh air.
But the differences between the two cities are due to much more than the vagaries of weather; they have fundamentally different characters and psyches.
Where Moscow is functional and pared back, St Petersburg is all ornate and ormolu. At every corner, along every street, bejewelled baroque gems sit beside classical buildings shining pastel pale in the sunshine. Be it an everyday housing block or palace, it’s obvious that the motto ‘less is more’ has no place in St Petersburg. Even the train stations conform to type. Where the Moscow metro is a hymn to socialism, the St Petersburg version is a Tsarist monument of pomp and glory.
And while Moscow is home to parade grounds and great civic squares of brick and concrete, St Petersburg is filled with parks – shady green spaces with fountains tinkling, flower beds and stately trees. Ironically (given its former name) this is the only Russian city in which I can’t find a statue of Lenin, though there are plenty of Tsars Alexander 1 and Peter the Great. In St Petersburg it can sometimes feel that communist Russia never really existed.
The people are different too. In Moscow, stout workers jostle with kittenish nouveau riche women in high heels and short skirts as they push urgently through the streets in search of business, wealth and work. In St Petersburg elegant couples with immaculately turned out children stroll in the parks in the late afternoon sunshine, eating ice cream and holding hands.
That’s not to say I necessarily prefer St Petersburg. The city is very beautiful, in fact it’s so picturesque that after a while I tire of photographing it. I head out into the suburbs to find something more real but even here the classic proportions are still in place; a little more run down perhaps but still undeniably beautiful.
It’s the same at the Hermitage. There’s so much to see that I feel first daunted then overwhelmed. For the best part of three hours I hold my own with the huge tour groups of American, German and Japanese tourists who are grimly working their way through the entire collection. Then the sunshine glinting on the Neva river outside draws me away and I make my escape, cross the bridge, buy an ice cream and sit with the citizens of the city on the banks of the Neva.
While the locals swim happily in the tea coloured, chilly water I find a shady spot, leaning against the rough bark of a tree, and settle down for a spot of people watching.