I am now departing St. Petersburg after a full day and overnight visit. We took an overnight train/sleeper car from Moscow yesterday, departing at around midnight and arriving at 8:00 am-- so we awoke in St. Pete fully rested. It's certainly an excellent way to travel, and cheaper than flying! We check into the Grand Hotel Europa--and I'm immediately impressed by its layout, design and luxury.
Just down the street, I meet a friend at "Dom Knigi" on St. Petersburg's main avenue--Nyevsky Prospect. It's a Russian version of Barnes and Noble, in a multiple story building with a very distinctive signature glass globe towering above it. It caters to a multinational consumer audience and has a nice cafe on the second floor. On our way to a breakfast cafe, we passed the popular "Coffee House" which has become a chain throughout Moscow and St. Petersburg--it's an unauthorized and unabashed Starbucks clone that bears every likeness to it's U.S. counterpart. I'm told that the Starbucks name in Russia has been legally copyrighted by an opportunistic businessman in Russia who reportedly is asking a wildly expensive dollar amount for its acquisition--Starbucks has reportedly declined to pay his asking price. Western business investment in St. Petersburg is lagging behind Moscow, but has accelerated in the past year from 6% to 14%. Nonetheless, the current environment favors large corporations--especially those with West European foreign subsidiaries who can more easily pay the "incentive" fees (read "bribes") to city officials in establishing there presence here. U.S. companies are not authorized to pay bribes in any form. The city's corporate-centric approach penalizes multinational small businesses from gaining a foothold here by subjecting them to at least 13 separate and distinct inspection regimens...tax inspectors, building inspectors, safety inspectors, business license inspectors, cleanliness inspectors...the list goes on and they can descend at any moment, en masse, on all small businesses that fall out of favor with city officials--especially if they are deemed to be more competitive than their favored Russian counterparts. Corruption remains a substantial dis-incentive for small businesses in Russia. On the other hand, I'm told that the consulate is now rarely required to weigh in on business disputes between St. Petersburg city officials and U.S. corporations, which they regard as a promising sign for the future.
The weather in St. Petersburg is spectacular as we make our way through the ancient Russian cathedrals with their breathtaking frescoes and mosaics of saints, past patriarchs, the holy spirit (manifested as a silver dove) and the risen Christ. We climb the narrow outer stairwell of the St. Isaac's Cathedral, and emerge at the top dome with a superb 360° view of the tremendous Italienate and Russian Orthodox architecture--a rare occasion for a port city that is often enshrouded by clouds and mist.
As we walk, we suddenly find ourselves in the massive square behind the Hermitage Museum. Young boys on skateboards and bikes race around the square, entire families are out too, walking together arm-in-arm in short sleeves. Spring seems to have finally arrived in St. Petersburg! I'm struck by the large number of Russians who are flooding into the Hermitage to visit the exhibits. When I was here two decades ago, there were not nearly as many Russian visitors. Today, they fill the hallways, and tourists like me appear to be relatively few. By contrast, I'm told that during the Summer months the tourist population increases a hundred-fold as the Baltic cruise ships arrive and dump their (mostly elderly) passengers out on St. Petersburg's ports--some of those elderly tourists have trouble coping with the heat and the crowds, and ultimately succumb to the bustle and heat--meeting their maker in St. Petersburg!
My second visit to the Hermitage is as fascinating as my first. This is without question the most impressive art museum in the world, with works dating back to the Stone Age. Through the maze of massive elaborate rooms are displayed countless masterpieces--sculptures by Michelangelo and Bernini; paintings by DaVinci, Renoir, and Monet; ancient marble sculptures of Jupiter, Dionysis, and Mercury.... Walking around the Hermitage, it is difficult to visualize this as an actual residence or palace of the tsars until you find yourself walking through the recreations of those rooms--the White Room, Catherine the Great's's Bourdois in red, the Gold Room.... You leave awestruck and a bit exhausted from all the walking and the blur of masterpieces you have seen throughout its six buildings!
St. Petersburg is indeed a beautiful city and well-deserving of the title "Window to the West." I leave this remarkable and historic city, wishing I could stay longer....