Another side of St Petersburg

Since I only booked our first air BNB for 8 nights and we decided to stay in St Petersburg a little longer, we had to change apartments.

Our last apartment was on the main Street in the center of the city, a little like staying right in Time Square in New York.

Our new place is a little ways from the city center and a in little more “working class” neighborhood. But, it’s close to the metro, right next door to a grocery store, and only $27 a night (so you know it’s gotta be fancy).

Thursday night, I took a guided tour called “A Different Side of St Petersburg”. We started out in an area called the Art Center, which became hub if musical activity in the USSR in the 80’s. Many famous Soviet rockers got their start here. It still is a musical and visual art center, but the buildings that had been in disrepair in the 80’s have now been renovated.

The Liverpool four at the headquarters of the Beatles fan club. If you go inside, you have to answer Beatles trivia, and if you answer incorrectly, they whack you with a spoon.

Most of the tour though was spent looking at buildings in the very center of St Petersburg that have a pretty interesting history. The majority of these buildings were built in the late 1800’s and were occupied by the well-to-do. Fancy entry ways, ornate decoration, some even had ceilings over 20 feet high!

Under communism, the apartments in the buildings were subdivided. Thin walls were installed to form small, single room apartments. These still remain. On a single floor, there may be 80-90 of these rooms. They have a communal kitchen and 2 communal bathrooms. 2 bathrooms for 90+people.

This is in the middle of downtown St Petersburg where real estate is most valuable, and in buildings that from the outside are beautiful. Here are a few photos.

Communal kitchen with laundry drying.
Hallway on a communal floor
If you look at the ceiling on the right, you can see that a wall was added to a room that used to be much larger.
You can see how ornate these buildings once were

The rooms in these communal apartments are owned individually. A single room can’t be sold without the consent of all the owners on a floor. For that reason, they are generally only sold to someone who can purchase the entire floor. Even that rarely happens and many people have lived this way for several generations and have no desire to sell. So, in the downtown center if St Petersburg, where each floor of these buildings is worth tens of millions of dollars, people live in absolute filth and poverty in small, sectioned of rooms

Our guide was somewhat of an expert on this topic as he lived 18 years of his life in one of these communal situations. He said that it was a fairly miserable existence.

Because often within a building, some floors have remained communal and some have been purchased and converted into luxury multi million dollar apartments, there’s an interesting mix in and around the buildings.

The tour culminated with an “unofficial” rooftop tour where you could see the whole city. Unofficially, we had to be very quiet and break our group into a few at a time so we could sneak up through the attic of an apartment building and onto a roof.

Beautiful view

We used our phones as flashlights to make our way through the attic and onto the roof. On the way back down, our guide pointed out the fire damaged beans that had supported our rooftop jaunt. He was worried the other group on the roof might come crashing through onto to us.

Today (Friday), was a little bit of a bummer. It rained all day so we wanted to do something inside. We decided to take a look at Tsarsckoe Selo, a palace built by Catherine the Great.

It took us about an hour and a half to get out there between the metro and the mini bus shuttle. When we got there, we had just barely missed the cut off time to buy tickets to enter the palace. They were shooting the place down early for some event that everyone just referred to as “an activity”. When I asked the cashier at the ticket office what the activity was, I got a typical Russian response, “how am I supposed to know?”. I asked multiple employees about it and got the same response. In any case, the activity involved food, music, and people dressed in period costumes of the 1700’s as well as regularly dressed guests.

This palace contains the Amber Room, a room completely covered from flour to ceiling in amber panels. The room is literally made from amber.

I wanted to see it even though, we couldn’t “officially” get in, so I followed a group of people into the palace with my kids in tow. When the guard asked if I was here for the”activity”, I said yes and kept walking. They stopped us at another checking in the palace though and it luck ran out. Although, I think we almost made it in as the lady working there said, “you must be the tall guy they told me about, although they didn’t say anything about children.”. I wasn’t sure if responding in the affirmative was going to get me past her or get the security called on us. Then a few other people got involved and in the end, whoever let me into the palace got a good tongue lashing over the walkie talky, and they booted us out.

Here’s a few pictures of the area though.

A free people in period dress for “the activity”
This is in the Agate House. They had us out on wool slippers to protect the intricate parquet floors
This entire room was covered in Jasper panels. The “painting”. You see is actually cut and inlaid stone of various colors

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