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  1. 1. L EISURE Peter the Great’s ‘Window to Europe’ has included a Jewish presence in the city since its founding • TEXT AND PHOTOS: IRVING SPITZ A fter Tsar Peter the Great returned from a tour of Europe in 1698, he realized that Russia needed to import European tech- nology and culture to catch up to the West. In 1703 he founded the city of St. Petersburg on the Baltic Sea as an outlet to Europe. It was built on marshy ground on the banks of the River Neva by conscripted peasants and prisoners of war. Thousands perished in this endeavor. Peter brought in architects from Europe and com- pelled all his dignitaries to build a home there. With- in 20 years, he had constructed a major city. No buildings except for churches were allowed to stand higher than the tsar’s Winter Palace, a tradition which is still maintained today. The initial architectural style was baroque. This was succeeded by rococo, which then gave way to neo- classicism. This 18th- and 19th-century architecture is still preserved. Because of its palaces and churches on the canals, St. Petersburg is often called the Venice of the North. To me it was also reminiscent of Amsterdam, since both have a similar system of canals. In 1712, St. Petersburg became the capital of Russia and the seat of the Romanov dynasty. It was here that the struggle against the ruling class began, cul- minating in the 1917 Bolshevist revolution which led to the abdication of the last tsar and the estab- lishment of the Soviet regime. The capital reverted to Moscow and, after Lenin’s death in 1924, the city was renamed Leningrad. The city was blockaded by the Germans for 900 days during the World War II in one of the most destructive and lethal sieges in his- tory. Over 600,000 of its citizens were killed or starved to death. With the advent of perestroika (reconstruction), the Soviet Empire collapsed peace- fully in 1991 and was replaced by the Russian Feder- ation. Leningrad reverted to its original name. Today, St. Petersburg is Russia’s second-largest city with almost five million inhabitants. On my first trip to Leningrad, in 1984 under the repressive communist regime, I visited the refuseniks 16 TRAVEL – those Jews who were refused permission to emi- grate. The city was drab and the people depressed. My latest visit was like landing on another planet. The Jewish side of Nevsky Prospect, the main thoroughfare and the St. Petersburg center of the city, is now bustling with well-dressed people and lined with elegant hotels, restaurants, European fashion houses and boutiques stocked with exclusive brand names. With its numerous bridges, canals, churches and palaces, St. Petersburg is without a doubt one of the most beautiful cities in the world. The most magical time to visit is between May and August, during the White Nights. The sun never really sets and there is a persistent twilight. During this period, an hour or two after midnight, the bridges across the Neva and main canals are raised to allow the passage of ships. ONE OF the key tourist sites is the Peter and Paul Fortress. Situated on a small island in the Neva River,16 MAGAZINE August 17, 2012
  2. 2. TRAVELit is from here that Peter commencedbuilding his new city. The island isdominated by the St. Peter and St. PaulCathedral. Its architecture representeda complete break with traditional Russ-ian churches and its single gold spire,attaining a height of over 120 meters,makes it the tallest building in the city.All the tsars and their families areburied in this church. For much of its history, the Peter andPaul Fortress functioned as a prison.Opponents to the various regimes wereinterred here, including Peter’s son,Alexei, who was tortured to death. Theprison also housed the writers Dos-toyevsky and Gorky, as well as politi-cians including Trotsky and Lenin’sbrother. Vasilievsky Island, where the Nevabranches, is the oldest part of the city.The tip of the island, known as theStrelka, commands a magnificent viewof the city’s major landmarks. Here arethe two rostral columns modeled onsimilar prototypes from ancient Romedepicting prows of ships. Betweenthem is the old stock exchange, whichtoday houses the naval museum. Otherprominent landmarks on the islanddating from the 18th century includethe Kunstkamera (museum of anthro-pology), the Russian Academy of Sci-ences and one of the campuses of St.Petersburg University. Also situatedhere is Menshikov’s palace, the firststone building in the city. AlexanderMenshikov, a thief and profiteer, rosefrom humble beginnings to becomethe most powerful man in the countryToday, St. Petersburghas a vibrant Jewishcommunity with some80,000 Jews residing inthe city. There is a fullrange of religious andeducational facilities,centered in the GrandChoral Synagogueand the tsar’s right-hand man. Palace Square has been the scene ofmany dramatic moments in Russianhistory. In the center is the AlexanderColumn, cut from a single block ofgranite. On the pinnacle is an angeltrampling a snake. The main entry tothe square is from Nevsky Prospectthrough a triumphal arch crowned bysix horses and a chariot driven by theRoman goddess of victory. Both thearch and the column werebuilt to commemorate Rus- EXTERIOR OF the Choral Synagogue in St. Petersburg. MAGAZINE 17
  3. 3. TRAVELAN HOUR or two after midnight, the bridges across the Neva and main canals are raised to allow the passage of ships. sia’s defeat of Napoleon. On each side The Hermitage was considerably aug- dome dominates the skyline. From the of this arch are two large curved build- mented following the Bolshevist revo- colonnade there is a magnificent ings, formerly occupied by the army lution when the private collections of panoramic view over the city. Another and the Foreign Ministry. The other Impressionist and post-Impressionist notable landmark in Nevsky Prospect is sides of the square are dominated by art of the industrialists Sergei Shchukin the neoclassical Kazan Cathedral, the tsar’s Winter Palace and the Admi- and Ivan Morozov were nationalized. which was commissioned by Tsar Paul I ralty with its golden spire, one of the Whereas many items from this unpar- after a visit to Rome. main city landmarks. alleled trove of paintings traveled in Equally impressive is the colorful The Winter Palace is a mixture of the early days after perestroika, this is Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, baroque, rococo and neoclassical less likely to occur today since there is with its multiple onion domes, stone styles. Its magnificent salons, decorat- a possibility that these artworks may be carvings and gilded spires. Intricate ed in jasper, malachite and other pre- claimed by surviving family members colored mosaics cover both the outside cious materials, were the private apart- from whom the collections were expro- and the interior. It was built in the clas- ments of the Romanov family. Within priated. sical Russian style by Alexander III on the Winter Palace is the Hermitage, one Located on the other side of the the site of his father’s assassination. of the greatest repositories of art in the Admiralty on the bank of the Neva is During the Soviet era, most churches world and the main tourist attraction the Bronze Horseman, the famous stat- were either closed down or functioned of the city. Catherine the Great began ue of Peter the Great by the French as museums, but have now reverted to the enterprise by buying outright many sculptor Etienne Maurice Falconet. It their original purpose. European collections. Today the inven- depicts Peter crowned with a laurel A short distance from the city are the tory contains over two and a half mil- wreath astride a horse overlooking the Romanovs’ great summer palaces. Pride lion objects. Some notable items Neva and trampling a snake. Commis- of place goes to Peterhof Palace, which include Scythian and Sarmatian gold sioned by Catherine the Great, the sim- was begun by Peter the Great, greatly objects and an unparalleled collection ple inscription in Russian and Latin expanded by his daughter Elizabeth of Western art. The Dutch section reads: “To Peter the First from Cather- and subsequently by Catherine the alone boasts 25 paintings by Rem- ine the Second, 1782.” Great. It represented the Romanovs’ brandt and 40 by Rubens. The Her- A stone’s throw from the statue is St. answer to Versailles. Most prominent is mitage is also very strong in French, Isaac’s Cathedral, the third-largest the Great Cascade with its three tiers of Spanish and Italian paintings. Church in the world. Its gold-plated waterfalls with over 60 spouting foun-18 MAGAZINE August 17, 2012
  4. 4. tains and gilded statues of mythologicalfigures, Greek gods and nymphs. Thecenter piece is the statue of Samsonopening the jaws of a lion. The mainpalace has a great ceremonial staircaseand lavishly decorated rooms, the mostnotable being the throne room. Scat-tered over the gardens are other royalresidences, including Monplaisir, whichwas Peter’s preferred residence. The town of Pushkin is named afterthe great Russian author AlexanderPushkin, who studied there. Here isanother sumptuous summer residence ofthe tsars. In the magnificent baroquemasterpiece, Catherine Palace, is therecently restored Amber Room and theincomparable Great Hall, used for grandballs. Both Peterhof and Pushkin werealmost completely destroyed by Germantroops in World War II and have beenpainstakingly and carefully restored.THERE HAS been a Jewish presence inthe city since its founding. Many tsars,however, expelled Jews and prohibitedthem from settling in the city. Excep-tions were Catherine II and Alexander Iand II, who permitted wealthy Jewishmerchants, industrialists, scientists andphysicians to settle in the city. The hardtimes endured by Jews in the Soviet peri-od are over. Today, St. Petersburg has avibrant Jewish community with some80,000 Jews residing in the city. There isa full range of religious and educationalfacilities, centered in the Grand ChoralSynagogue. The original building permitfor this synagogue was obtained fromAlexander II and it was consecrated in1893. It is the second-largest synagoguein Europe and its architecture is based onthe Moorish style. The National Library of Russia has 20million items in its collection. The Jew-ish Karaite leader, traveler, merchantand archeologist Avraham Firkovich(1786–1874) amassed an enormousnumber of Hebrew, Arabic and Samari-tan manuscripts during his many trav-els. He was even at the Cairo Genizabefore Solomon Schechter. The librarypurchased Firkovich’s large collection,which today forms the core of itsunparalleled trove of Hebrew manu-scripts, one of the largest in the world.This was made available to researchersafter the beginning of perestroika. Of the 18 known dated hand-writtenHebrew manuscripts published before1020, 12 are in the possession of thislibrary. The most celebrated is theLeningrad Codex, which is the oldestcomplete manuscript of the HebrewBible using the masoretic text and isdated to 1009. The Aleppo Codex,compiled between 930 and 950 andnow housed in the Israel Museum, isolder but, unlike the Leningrad Codex,it is incomplete. However, in quality,the Aleppo Codex surpasses all otherbiblical texts. The erudite librarian Boris Zaykovskyshowed us the Codex Babilonicus Petro-politanus, a compilation of the LatterProphets from the year 916. Written onparchment, this is the oldest datedHebrew manuscript in existenceand the first known manuscript INTERIOR OF the Choral Synagogue. MAGAZINE 19
  5. 5. TRAVELVIEW OF the Winter Palace from the River Neva at night. with the Babylonian system of vowels. pa and later Diaghilev worked with We also saw an incomplete Hebrew dancers like Pavlova and Nijinsky. Bible from the year 930. The same Philharmonic Hall in St. Petersburg scribe, Shlomo Ben Buya’a, who com- was the venue where Tchaikovsky him- piled the Aleppo Codex, also con- self conducted the premiere of his sixth tributed to this Bible, aided by his symphony only a few days before his brother, Rafael. Yet a further fascinat- death. It was also here, in 1942 during ing Hebrew Bible in the collection the Nazi siege of Leningrad, that dates from the 11th century and con- Shostakovich’s seventh symphony, tains an Arabic translation of the Bible “The Leningrad,” had its premier. I was written in Hebrew characters copied privileged to attend a most memorable from the great Babylonian author and performance of this same symphony in scholar Sa’adia Gaon. the same hall on the 70th anniversary of its first performance by the St. Peters- TCHAIKOVSKY, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mus- burg Academic Symphony Orchestra, sorgsky, Borodin and Shostakovich, as conducted by Alexander Dmitriev. well as other composers, lived and Unlike at similar events in the West, worked in the city and many are also there were many young people and buried here. even children in the audiences. The There are three resident opera com- rich musical tradition of Russia has panies. The most well-known is the been maintained. Mariinsky, directed by the indefatiga- It was difficult for me to gauge with ble conductor Valery Gergiev. When any accuracy what the Russian people the set workshops of the Mariinsky thought of the current situation in their were destroyed in a disastrous fire, country. There was, of course, the lan- Gergiev spearheaded the effort to guage barrier. I was surprised by how establish a new concert hall on the site. few Russians, even in the younger gen- This hall has some of the best acoustics eration, speak English. People in general that I have ever encountered. Current- seemed reluctant to discuss politics, but ly the Mariinsky is in the process of I did detect much disenchantment with building a new opera house. the present regime. Perhaps the most From May to July, the Mariinsky telling remark came from someone high hosts the White Night Festival with up in the tourist ministry: “Not every- participation of local as well as promi- thing was bad under the Soviet regime,” nent international orchestras and she remarked wistfully to me. ■ soloists. In the productions I attended, almost all the principal singers were The author is grateful to Dr. Rafael Zer, from the Mariinsky’s own roster of editorial coordinator of the Hebrew Univer- soloists, which attests to the very high sity Bible Project, for his helpful comments. standard of the company. The author, an emeritus professor of medi- Ballet has a rich tradition in Russia in cine, writes, reviews and lectures on medical general and in St. Petersburg in partic- topics, music, art, history and travel ular, where it occupies a special place ( Additional pictures in the cultural life of the city. It is in from this and other trips can be seen at fact more popular than opera. It was Irving Spitz blogs atFOUNTAINS AT Peterhof. here that the great choreographers Peti- MAGAZINE August 17, 2012