Vistas Da, Food Nyet

Ivan is not so terrible. But don’t go to Leningrad for the food.

January 1 1989 by Loyd Grossman


The cliches began on the coach trip into the city from Leningrad’s outlying Pulkovo airport. “To the left is a factory famous for the production of small electric turbines,” announced our severely glamorous guide from the state travel agency, Intourist. “To the right is one of the 21 churches open for religious worship; to the left is a statue of Plekhanov, the brilliant Marxist theorist,” and so on.

We arrived at the Leningrad hotel to find the lobbies vast and ill-lit, decorated with photographs of Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, Mikhail Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan and the inauguration of the second blast furnace at the Magnitogorsk Steel Mills, which occurred in 1932. Casually strewn about were exhortations to world peace and arcane ideological pamphlets in English, German and French. Thus far, it was just what the movies led me to expect.

By the time we checked into our rooms, it was time for dinner so we trooped into the astrodome-size hotel restaurant. There were bottles of smoothly sweet Russian champagne, Georgian red wine and local mineral water, which tastes of old tin cans. Dinner was not a gastronomic landmark: fatty salami and cucumber salad followed by some sort of meat in some sort of sauce with very sweet pudding cake for dessert. Going to Russia for the food, we quickly learned, is like going to the dentist for the magazines.

“They just don’t serve,” says Four Seasons Hotels chairman Isadore Sharp, who, with his wife, recently visited Leningrad and Moscow. Both fell ill while in Moscow, having to call in the hotel’s doctor for medication to treat a bad case of diarrhea. “They were going to quarantine us,” he says. “They wanted to know where we had been and what we might have picked up.”

But the Canadian-born Sharp called in the “Mounties,” placing a call to his embassy. With help from officials and another examination from a group of Russian doctors, he managed to convince them that he and his wife didn’t need to be sent to Siberia, but that they could recuperate on their own.

Leningrad, we were taught at school, was created as an act of will by Peter the Great. He wanted his despotic, oriental realm to have a ‘window on Europe’ and chose the site where the River Neva drains into the Gulf of Finland. Peter and his successors employed a series of expatriate Italian architects who gave the city and its principal monuments its grand, high Baroque atmosphere. Although Leningrad was the capital city of Russia (first as St. Petersburg and then as Petrograd) for only two hundred years, it remains an unmistakably imperial city full of breathtaking vistas and ceremonial spaces.

The raison d’etre of the place is best seen at the Peter Paul Fortress, which occupies all of Zaychiy Island. Russian and Swedish prisoners built Peter’s headquarters there in 1703. The elegant gilded spire of the Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral towers over the grim fortress walls where so many Russian notables-Dostoyevsky, Trotsky and Gorky among them -were imprisoned. All but three of the Russian emperors and empresses are buried there and a fresh rose lies on Peter’s tomb.

Astonishingly, given the Soviet propensity to rewrite history, there is no vendetta against the physical legacy of the Czarist regime. Everywhere one goes in Leningrad, rebuilding is in progress. The churches, palaces and public buildings of the Tsars are lovingly reconstructed and redecorated.

Leningrad suffered terribly during WWII-what the Soviets call the Great Patriotic War: Six hundred thousand residents died and countless buildings were blown to smithereens by German artillery. If you go out of the Neva Gate of the Fortress, you can stand on the Commandants Pier and look across the river to the State Hermitage and the great bulk of the admiralty, the former headquarters of the Russian navy and one of the few great Leningrad buildings designed by a Russian architect.

“The Hermitage, alone, is worth the trip to Leningrad,” says David Sherwood, chairman of the New York Insurance Exchange and former president of Prudential. The Hermitage is perhaps the most overwhelming of all the world’s museums. A portion of the collection is housed in the Winter Palace, built for Catherine II by Bartolomeo Rastrelli. Mummy cases coexist with Attic vases, Tintorettos, Louis XVI furniture and galleries of paintings by Matisse and Picasso. Perhaps the most extraordinary rooms are the ones devoted to “The Special Collection,” with its astonishing horde of Scythian goldwork and collection of 17th-, 18th- and 19th-century European jewelry.

Leningrad has an abundance of museums. The Russian Museum, housed in the huge and beautiful palace built for Grand Duke Mikhail in 1825, is chock-a-block with icons and some stunning 18th century Russian portraits. On a much smaller and more specialized scale, the Pushkin House is a moving evocation of the last days of the great poet Alexander Pushkin.

Another important part of any trip to Leningrad is a visit to the suburban palaces of Pushkin (formerly Tsarskoye Selo), Pavlovsk and Petrodvorets (formerly Peterhof). Pushkin is the site of the rambling summer palace, a sumptuous, baroque confectionery built by Rastrelli for the Empress Elizabeth.

Used by the Germans as a barracks during the last war, looted and partially blown up, the 1000-foot-long palace is regal living at its most exuberant. The recently restored great hall is the most splendid setting imaginable for imperial shindigs and the surrounding part is full of delightful follies like the Turkish Bath house in the style of a mosque, built as a memorial to the Russo-Turkish War of 1828-9.

Petrodvorets is across the Gulf of Finland and is reached by hydrofoil. Peter built a beautiful, but humble palace there in the Dutch style. He and his daughter Elizabeth went on to build palaces and gardens there in the manner of Versailles, including a complex and fascinating group of fountains and waterworks. The trick fountains are perhaps the most notable-fountains disguised as trees or garden seats ready to drench without warning the Tsar’s courtiers-a highly sophisticated version of the plastic flower in the buttonhole that squirts water.

Altogether less joyous is Pavlovsk, the forbidding classical palace built for the mad Czar Paul by the Scottish architect Cameron. Pavlovsk has wonderfully imposing furniture and interior decor. You could spend entire days in churches, palaces and museums, but Leningrad’s cultural resources don’t end when the museums close their doors.

The Kirov ballet-among the world’s best-performs in a stunning jewel box of a theater. Visitors can also listen to Russian or Italian opera at the Marly Theater and concerts at the Philharmonic.

Perhaps best of all is the circus which performs most nights in a permanent circular theater on the banks of the Fontanka river. Indeed a visit to the circus sums up that ebullient sense of fun so characteristic of Russians that Westerners rarely see.

Like London and Paris, Leningrad should be on the travel beat of every civilized person. The easiest way to visit is as part of a group and a number of tour operators offer trips there. We traveled with Serenissima, a well-established, high-end English company known for their cultural tours. They took care of all of our ticketing, reservations and paperwork and supplied us with a plucky and indispensable English courier and an English art historian to supplement the often turgid com mentaries of the official guides.

Leningrad is a very rainy city and can be extremely cold for much of the year; umbrellas and raincoats are de rigeur. Foreign tourists stay at one of the Intourist hotels, which tend to be large and without soul, but clean and perfectly functional.

Hygiene, however, is currently not a Russian strongpoint. Our doctor recommended polio and typhoid inoculations. Use bottled water only-to brush your teeth and try to avoid raw vegetables and ice in your drinks. Although Intourist had a rigorous program for us, we were able to drop in and out of the tour, to walk freely and to use the very cheap and extensive public transport system with ease. (A word of caution: Intourist reserves the right to rearrange itinerary at short notice.) “The lack of automobiles on the street is striking,” says Sherwood. “Everyone travels by public transportation-from army officers to peasants.”


GETTING TO LENINGRAD

Serenissima Travel Ltd. hosts several different trips to the USSR to various cities. Trips fill up early so book yours in advance. Headquartered in London, their staff is both pleasant and well-informed. Serenissima is located at 21 Dorset Square, London, NW1 6QG, England. Their telephone, telex and fax numbers are, respectively: 01-730-9841/ 723-6556; 914032/28441;01-723-5654.