Ever since I sailed into the beckoning and beautiful Haifa harbor years ago, I discovered the best way to enter a country is by sea rather than to touch down on some airport’s dull tarmac.
Even with its heavy port traffic, St. Petersburg, Russia, the city on the Neva, the Venice of the North, the mother of two revolutions in 1917, the city that changes its name as the political winds blow – from St. Petersburg to Petrograd to Leningrad and from Leningrad to St. Petersburg once again – welcomed me.
It remains a popular cruise destination because not many cities can claim the titles of “beautiful” or “architectural gem,” as can St.
Petersburg with its sweep and artistry.
You see the city’s palaces and buildings exude “an almost mystical enchantment,” especially during the long white nights of early summer.
Wherever I walked, I felt that the greats of the Russian arts were with me: Pushkin, Chekhov, Babel, Bely, Brodsky, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Tolstoy, Chagall, Shostakovich, Nijinsky, Nureyev, Baryshnikov and Pavlova.
In St. Petersburg, I strolled the streets that Anna Karenina and her lover, Vronsky, must have traversed in their droshky.
I searched for Raskolnikov of the famous 19th-century novel, Crime and Punishment, by the author’s home. Yes, the Russians have honored Fyodor Dostoevsky with a museum at 5/2 Kuznechny Pereulok.
I gazed at the Winter Palace and climbed the steps that the Bolsheviks charged up at 2 a.m. in the coup of October 26-27, 1917. They called it the Great October Socialist Revolution, but as we now know, it was nothing but a putsch.
The palace now houses the magnificent Hermitage Museum.
In visiting St. Petersburg, I relived history and understood why Peter the Great chose the mouth of the Neva River for his new capital in 1703, then nothing but a huge swamp.
Most tourists stand by the impressive monument of Peter commissioned by Catherine the Great and created by the French sculptor, Étienne Maurice Falconet.
Known as “The Bronze Horseman,” the statue portrays Peter the Great sitting heroically on his horse, his outstretched arm pointing toward the Neva River in the west.
I watched young couples on their wedding day come here to place roses at the foot of the statue or pose in front of this massive and impressive sculpture.
Back in the beginning of the 18th century, they called Peter the Great’s efforts “the mad dream of an imperious autocrat,” but anyone who tours the city can not but admire its citizens, who throughout the past centuries, survived the most extreme attempts of man and nature to extinguish it, from flood, famine and disease to civil war, Stalinist purges and Hitler’s armies. Monuments remind travelers of the “900 Days of the Siege” of Leningrad in World War II when a million people perished, most of them from starvation. The “Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad” in Victory Square is well worth a visit.
ST. PETERSBURG, Europe’s third largest city after Moscow and London, boasts about 5 million residents.
On one visit, I noted that buildings were often entered through courtyards that existed in the days of the great Russian novelists.
Amazingly, the courtyards were the size of a Manhattan block and the arches took the form of a space that you could squeeze a few townhouses into.
The new high-rise buildings, hotels and stores in the center of the city attract travelers. However, because of low oil prices and Western sanctions against Moscow’s seizure of Crimea, Russia’s economy remains in difficulty.
“Nevertheless, foreign tourists can see the city without problems,” says former resident Alla Markova, whose Zekher Avoteinu organization can arrange Jewish tours of St.
Petersburg and other cities.
Until the 1917 Russian Revolution, Jews were frequently banned from St. Petersburg. Yet by 1910, 35,000 Jews resided in the city, where they made up nearly 2 percent of the population. According to author Solomon Volkov, many of them were educated, affluent and influential – including prominent bankers, accomplished musicians and leading journalists. By the eve of the German invasion in June 1941, 200,000 Jews lived in Leningrad.
However, not a single Jewish family here and throughout the former Soviet Union passed the war without losses.
With the large Jewish emigration after the fall of the USSR in 1991 and with increases in aliya in recent years, it is estimated that the Jewish population in the city today numbers less than 40,000.
Two sites especially attract Jewish visitors.
The Edmond J. Safra Grand Choral Synagogue, remains as one of the most beautiful, ornate and well-preserved synagogues in Europe. Located on Lermontovsky Avenue, the building seats 1,200 people and features a whitish-blue dome. This is the second largest synagogue in Europe after the Dohány Street Synagogue in Budapest.
Through 70 years of Communism, through all the changes and oppression of Stalinism, the Choral Synagogue remained a symbol of the undying Jewish faith. Architecturally, the house of worship stands as an eclectic blend of neo-Byzantine and Moorish revival styles with arabesque motifs. Some observers believe that it is modeled in part after Berlin’s Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue.
Chabad Rabbi Menachem Mendel Pewzner, formerly of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, has served as spiritual leader of Choral Synagogue since 1992, one year after the downfall of the Soviet Union.
Today, according to the rabbi, 28,000 people are registered in the data base of this Chabad. The organization boasts four schools, two kindergartens and five other synagogues in the city. Also on Lermontovsky, stands the kosher Golden Café.
On Passover, the synagogue sponsors a communal Seder in its house of worship as well as in Jewish centers around the city. Attendance reaches more than 1,200.
The second site of major Jewish interest is Yesod, (the Hebrew word for foundation). This Jewish community center, which the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee sponsored and organized the capital for, is a state-of-theart, 21st-century, four-story, 7,000 square meter, $11 million communal home, replete with meeting rooms, offices, classrooms and a blast-resistant wall – one of the largest Jewish buildings in the country.
The St. Petersburg Jewish community has won prizes for its architecture, including one from the World Club of St. Petersburgers, whose award to the JCC cited its “modern architecture in the context of historic city environment.”
Out in the countryside, Catherine’s Palace in Pushkin, with its golden spires and luxurious interiors, is a popular site for tourists.
Perhaps the grandest of St. Petersburg’s many palaces, its 18th-century baroque style reflects the glamour and glitz of czarist days.
Returning to the city, strolling down Nevsky Prospekt, I find myself agreeing with Jewish novelist Isaac Babel, who wrote, “There is teeming life on the Nevsky.”
Even today, albeit admittedly a slight exaggeration, it remains safe to say that all Russia promenades on the Nevsky, the city’s ChampsÉlysées.
The Nevsky runs to Vosstaniya Square, where the railway station is located.
Here I board the train to Moscow and bid farewell to St. Petersburg, a special city with special people.
The author, a travel writer and lecturer, just-published Klara’s Journey, a Novel (Marion Street Press); The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond (Globe Pequot Press); and A Travel Guide to Jewish Russia and Ukraine (Pelican Publishing Company).
Follow him on twitter @bengfrank