colossal window arch of early 20th-century building at Nesvky 21


St P

Where to stay?

colossal window arch of early 20th-century building at Nesvky 21
architectural detail of house at Nevsky pr., 21
Anatomy of a house

In St Petersburg architecture has always had a strangely detached existence from the lives of those who live inside and amongst it. The outer facades of the city's houses, institutions, and palaces swim slowly through time, displaying, for all their shabbiness, an unchanging, unworldly, geometrical perfection that seems to make them oblivious to the passing of mere years, decades, and centuries. And yet within these buildings, in the spaces that lie behind these rigid facades, life evolves at a different pace - sometimes gradually, sometimes in sudden great leaps. At key moments in the history of St Petersburg the city's interiors have been radically reshaped, giving rise to new patterns of living.

(What folllows is an article I wrote in 2002 for a book called 'Petersburg Perspectives', published by Fontanka, London)
door of early 20th-century building at Nesvky 21

One such moment came with October 1917 and the establishment of communist rule. Another series of abrupt changes was provoked by that much more recent Russian revolution, the establishment of ‘democracy' in the 1990s. During the last ten years life behind the facades of St Petersburg's houses has again been set pouring into new channels, new forms - reshaping living spaces beyond recognition, setting off powerful waves of migration, remoulding people's minds. These changes are mostly invisible from the street (looked at from below, the faces of the houses seem faded, dirty, blank, half asleep; the windows, vacant). To see what has happened and what is happening today, we have to move closer. We have to look beneath the city's architectural skin. The easiest way to do this is to consider a typical apartment block - partly real, partly fictive - in the centre of St Petersburg.

Built in 1909, our house stands on the embankment of the River Fontanka – so called because it supplied the fountains that used to play in the Summer Gardens – in a spot which in the 18th century, before it fell under the magnetizing influence of nearby Haymarket Square, looked out peacefully over unpolluted waters to country estates dotting the opposite bank. Previously on this site there stood a modest three-storey building, erected in 1736 as the osobnyak, or private house, of a merchant supplying goods to the market. The elongated territory extending far to the back of the main building was originally home to an untidy collection of sheds, servants' living quarters, trees, bushes, a sea of mud (dust in summer), seven pigs and a brood of hens. The merchant himself rarely bothered to glance at, let alone set foot in, his yard; yet when he did, was always comforted - the scene reminded him of his birthplace, a small town in central Russia.
The embankment of the River Fontanka in the first few years 
of the 19th century
The embankment of the River Fontanka in the first few years
of the 19th century
In 1835, however, this idyll of provincial life was wiped out. The merchant's descendant and heir, a young officer of the Guards, staked the property on the Queen of Spades one evening, and lost. The new owner, an aristocrat who already had two palaces and three houses in St Petersburg to his name, showed no interest in his new acquisition. It was, frankly, in what was considered the wrong part of town, and so he turned it over to his steward, to be exploited at the latter's discretion. The steward proceeded to make the most of the situation, moving his family and various relatives into the house. Then, by knocking down the sheds at the back and putting up a warren of hastily constructed barrack-like three-storey structures alongside the original servants' quarters, he created St Petersburg's first large concentration of commercially run slum accommodation. The barracks offered a cheap bed to the teeming thousands who made their living on and around the nearby Haymarket: seasonal workers, market traders, sailors, old soldiers, stone masons, street hawkers, petty criminals, leather tanners, street musicians, prostitutes, beggars, fleas, cockroaches, and rats. The oddly shaped plot became in effect an entire district, with its own bath-house, brothel, food stalls, drinking dens, small manufactories, even its own air.
photo of overcrowded Vyzameskaya lavra on the embankment of the River Fontanka, St Petersburg (last third of the 19th century)
The overcrowded Vyzameskaya lavra
on the embankment of the Fontanka (last third of the 19th century)
In fact, the air became so dense with the aromas of poverty and disease that the steward, after three years of living behind hermetically sealed windows, was forced to move out. By this time he could afford to do so: while generously surrendering ten percent of the income from the property to its owner, he had himself become a millionaire. New public sanitation laws introduced in the 1880s forced the closure of these slums. For the next fifteen years the plot stood unoccupied, forgotten by its aristocratic owner until mounting debts jogged his memory. The new title-holder, a fast-moving entrepreneur, demolished everything that stood on the lot. The building he constructed in its place in 1909 provided the perfect solution to the challenge of how to collect the maximum rent from an awkwardly shaped territory situated in by no means the most fashionable area of town.

This structure represented the last word in turn-of-the-century capitalist functionalism and construction technology: a towering seven-storey brick box clamped together with metal beams and ingeniously packed with apartments of varying sizes calculated to suit the needs and pockets of different categories of Petersburg citizen. It divided into two unequal parts: a smart-looking front end facing onto the street, and a long, unprepossessing tail consisting of steep walls of apartments pulled together around narrow, light-starved courtyards that step back one after another – one, two, three – into the depths of the lot.
House 121 on the Fontanka embankment, St Petersburg House 121 on the Fontanka embankment
This typically Petersburg combination – an elegant facade disguising dingy back courtyards – reflects the conditions that prevailed in St Petersburg at the turn of the twentieth century. At this time major American and European cities were developing rapidly in a horizontal direction, as improvements in public transport made it possible to relieve some of the pressure on central districts by placing residential areas at a distance from manufacturing facilities. St Petersburg, however, had no underground railway, a very limited and expensive tramway network, and very little private transport. Its workers were condemned to live within close distance of their place of work, and these workplaces (government departments, offices, markets, small manufactories, even factories) were concentrated in the centre. This meant that the city could not expand outwards, but was compelled to grow ever more compact within its existing boundaries. Increasing pressure drove residential buildings upwards (until they bumped against the ceiling set, out of respect for the imperial family, at the height of the cornice of the Winter Palace), and ballooned them outwards, towards the backs of the plots in which they stood, pulling them closer and closer around narrower and narrower spaces left for shaft-like courtyards. The street-facing facade of our house is its public face. Dressed in handsome reconstituted stone, enlivened with a sprinkling of decorative elements selected from the architect's make-up box (mosaic tiles, stucco medallions, tiers of balconies), the front of the building salutes passers-by with a reserved dignity that puts it,
Fontanka 121, detail Fontanka 121, detail
at the very least, on equal terms with its neighbours. Equally dignified are the two front entrances. This, though, is the beginning of the 20th century, not the 19th: here you will find no superfluous grandeur or ostentatious wallowing in precious space; instead, the key words are comfort and convenience. The entrance-halls are generously sized, but not cavernous. The staircases, made of plain stone rather than marble, are wide, but not grand. Pride of place goes to the elevators, elegantly caged in art-nouveau ironwork. This wonderfully democratic, radically levelling device opened up the upper floors to habitation by the middle layers of society, wiping out the previously unbridgeable chasm that existed, up to almost the end of the 19th century, between the first three storeys and those above (where, because of the fatiguing climb needed to reach such altitudes, no self-respecting citizen, given the means to live elsewhere, would ever consider taking up residence).

Here, at the front end of the house, the apartments were made for living in comfort and a degree of style. Each had a minimum of six rooms, some (on the second and third floors) as many as ten. The main reception rooms –the study, drawing-room, library and dining-room – overlooked a quiet, tree-lined stretch of the River Fontanka (the water cast agile reflections onto the ceilings). Some of these rooms still contain restrainedly ornate moulded ceilings, oak parquet floors, and brass door-handles and window fastenings. Overlooking the courtyard were the main bedrooms, a governess's room, a water-closet, and a bathroom with running hot water (an exciting novelty for the beginning of the twentieth century), while the kitchen and a small pantry or servant's room led off a dark, narrow corridor at the back of the apartment. A back door leading to a steep back staircase (without a lift) enabled the kitchen staff to come and go without being seen.

So much for the smart front end of the house. Walk through the archway into the first of the three internal courtyards and you will find a different story. Away from the street, out of the public eye, the building gives up all effort to impress, becomes undisguised function. The plain plastered walls with their unadorned windows have always been drab; now, after 90 years of confrontation with the Petersburg climate, they're stained and tattered, the plaster peeling off to reveal scabs of dusty red brick.
A typical St Petersburg well-courtyard A typical Petersburg well-courtyard
This narrow conduit (courtyards like this are so steeply sided, so dark, that citizens of St Petersburg call them ‘wells') receives the back or so-called ‘black' staircases of apartments whose main rooms are situated at the front end of the house. It also has its own ‘main' staircase leading to apartments that give exclusively onto the courtyard. There is no lift here. The apartments have fewer and smaller rooms than those at the front of the house (a maximum of four rooms, while some have only one) and these rooms are more simply decorated (cheaper parquet; in some cases, floorboards; plainer ceiling mouldings). Worst of all, though, their windows admit from the courtyard a twilight that hardly ever varies in intensity.
photo of atmospheric courtyard, St Petersburg
Photo from (thank you!)

The St Petersburg apartment block has always been a mixed box, a vessel carrying representatives of all social classes. Writing in 1845, the philosopher and literary critic Vissarion Belinsky called the typical house in this city ‘a genuine Noah's ark in which you can find a pair of every kind of animal.' In our house the front and back ends have from the very first been separate worlds populated by tenants drawn from sharply differing social and economic backgrounds.

The original occupants of the front part of the house were a cross-section of middle-class Russian society which, under the gathering winds of capitalism and liberalisation, was beginning to move in new directions at speed. On the upper three floors, where, in spite of the existence of a lift, the apartments were less expensive to rent, lived people from various professions: middle-ranking government officials, two engineers, a private school headmaster, a tailor, and the architect who designed the house. The fourth floor was taken up by, among others, a widowed Baroness, a university professor, and a doctor. The doctor practised in his front rooms. The larger and relatively grand apartments on the third floor were occupied by an army general and the owner of a contracting firm. The general lived on his own in ten darkly furnished rooms, entertained lavishly, though rather stiffly, on every major church holiday, was otherwise rarely at home in the evenings, and was to be seen at fixed hours every day leaving for or arriving from the General Staff Building on Palace Square in a lacquered dark-blue carriage. The building contractor, the product of a long line of thickly bearded merchants, was a man of modern outlook who realised that commercial success in today's conditions called for entirely new ways of thinking and doing business. The turn-of-the-century construction boom had thrown up opportunities for those capable of handling contracts for vast apartment blocks built to rigid deadlines, and he had taken them. He and his family lived in relative simplicity, without any of the excesses for which the merchant class were famous in earlier times – no gilded furniture, no swollen retinue of servants, no week-long carousing in dark and heavily panelled chambers. Knowing the value of a proper education, he had sent his sons to university to study law and languages. His daughters, elegant young women devoid of affectation, were accomplished musicians who looked set to marry officers, high-flying government officials, and other members of the nobility. This family was not to dally in our slightly trade-oriented district for long, however. In 1913 they would move to the highly fashionable Sergievskaya Street, where they would occupy an entire floor in a newly built mansion.

These were the first inhabitants of the front end of our house. Following the October Revolution, those who did not flee the country, die fighting or from famine during the civil war, and were not arrested by the Communists, stayed put. Now, though, they were forced to share their apartments with crowds of new fellow-tenants in a process called uplotnenie (‘compression'). The Baroness, for example, declared that at her age she was staying put.

Room in a kommunalka (photo taken from
In 1921 she was ordered to move her essentials into her dining room and hand over all other rooms in her apartment to various people at whom, prior to the Revolution, she would never have looked twice. Thus private residences were converted into nationalised kommunalki: within each apartment space was divided up, re-parcelled into rooms of roughly equal size and identical purpose. Pantries became bachelor's pads. Society ballrooms were surgically cut into a number of sections, each accommodating an entire family. Toilets, bathrooms and kitchens became shared territories. Where a household of four or five had lived before, now there were twenty or thirty citizens all queuing up to use the same toilet and bathroom. In this way St Petersburg's once spacious apartments were transformed into intricate labyrinths with miles of cluttered corridors and uncountable populations.

The years went by. The state had planned to build accommodation of a new kind for a radically new communist way of life: indeed, a very small number of experimental ‘commune houses' were built, in which the residents, while each having their own room, ate together in a communal dining-room, washed their clothes at a communal laundry, and spent their leisure hours reading in a communal library or sunning themselves at a communal solarium. But these were very rare exceptions;
commune house on Troitskaya ploshchad, St PetersburgCommune house on Troistkaya ploshchad
in general, it was left to the people themselves, ever adaptable, ever resourceful, to invent new structures to accommodate their lives. To create a measure of privacy, families subdivided their rooms into still smaller units. Partition walls were improvised from bookcases, dining-room dressers and curtains, transforming single rooms into entire microcosms with separate zones for eating, sleeping and watching television. Others took advantage of their high ceilings to put in a second storey at the back of their rooms – a mezzanine that could be used as a sleeping area.

Then in the 1960s and 1970s the Soviet Union finally initiated mass construction programmes, building millions of square metres of low-quality residential housing on the outskirts of almost every town and city. Jaundiced by years of communal living, people abandoned themselves to the dream of acquiring their own separate flat, however small, however badly built, and however far from the city centre. Those who were intelligent, influential, industrious, pushy – or just plain lucky – moved out. The remainder were left to sit it out in their large communal apartments. Gradually, the city centre evolved into a forcing pit for hardship, discomfort, dirt and social problems.

Hope of change came with economic reform and the establishment of ‘democracy' at the beginning of the 1990s. As the market economists had predicted, new money began to move people around. The communal apartments at the front of our house were gradually bought up by those with the means to do so, attracted by three things: the relative youth of the building (and in particular the fact that it had metal, rather than wooden, beams); the size of the apartments and spaciousness of the rooms (compared, that is, to flats built under Soviet rule); and the view. First to settle was a barrister. Then came a young trader working for a foreign bank, a builder, a publisher of science fiction, an estate-agent... The Russian wife of a Swiss businessman took a large apartment on the third floor. An artist who, riding on the wave of interest in Russian art provoked by perestroika, had successfully exhibited in Paris and London in the late 1980s, bought a space on the seventh. For six summers running the house trembled from dawn until dusk and the air shook with the sound of violence as apartments were banged, beaten, drilled, and hammered into new shapes. Partition walls were torn down, parquet floors ripped up, plaster brought crashing down from century-old ceilings, arches punched out of load-bearing walls, massive brick fireplaces erected where none had been before. The builder installed a swimming-pool-sized jacuzzi supported by specially reinforced beams. The barrister knocked together three rooms at the front of his apartment to make a ninety-square-metre columned hall (a vast trompe l'oeuil of fauns in a mediterranean landscape adorns the back wall, while classical statues stand idly between the columns). The artist spent three years building himself a penthouse studio in the attic above his apartment. Now, when you look up at the front of the house, you can see that the tasteful monotone grid of the original facade has been haphazardly renovated with new window frames of different colours (white, brown, grey), varying materials (wood, PVC, aluminium), and different design.

As the new rich moved in, so the old poor moved out, setting off on a long trek to much smaller apartments in the suburbs. They were not the only ones to move. Mice and rats who had lived side by side with the old tenants for years suddenly found their welfare cut off and upped and left in protest. Cockroaches moved camp en masse. On days when chemical warfare was being waged against them in one apartment, entire armoured battalions might be seen trooping down the outside walls of the house, pouring through windows they met on their way in the hope of finding another old-style kommunalka with its guarantee of plentiful dirt, moisture, and old-style Soviet cockroach comfort. Where they found it most often was in the courtyards at the back of the house.
House plan showing a typical pattern of St Petersburg courtyardsHouse plan showing a typical pattern of courtyards
The inhabitants of these back apartments have always been drawn from the darker depths of the ocean that is St Petersburg: people who for whatever reason have found themselves trapped in accommodation they could never conceivably have wanted to make their home, even though after a few years they grow accustomed to the gloom, settle back into their submarine recesses like fish each into its own protective cranny, develop habits of behaviour that enable them to survive, if not thrive, in the given conditions, and all in all begin to find it difficult to imagine living anywhere else. In the years before the Revolution the residents of this part of the house were minor government officials, qualified factory-workers, hard-up widows, traders at the nearby markets, schoolmasters, stage performers and musicians, pawnbrokers, students. Many tenants sublet some or most of their rooms – or even parts of rooms – to others even less well-off than themselves. Typically, a single room might have been sublet to four students or to the family of some minor clerk. It is easy to see, then, that the advent of Soviet rule after the Revolution brought few changes to the back of the house: the light-starved, crowded rented apartments became light-starved, crowded communal apartments and embarked on seven decades of gentle, but persistent decay. As the years passed, paint steadily thickened and curdled on woodwork as new coats were piled on top of old; ceiling mouldings gradually disappeared under accumulating layers of whitewash; window glass darkened and denatured; pipes burst, were patched up, and then burst again; siftings of dust and detritus fell through the cracks in floors, accumulating in the half-metre gaps between storeys, only to be exhaled in sudden puffs through floor grills whenever a draught ran through the building. And generations of less mobile Soviet citizen (those who were not determined, skilful, or lucky enough to secure for themselves a separate flat in a new building on the outskirts of town) replaced one another, spinning out time with the help of cards, a fishing-rod, and vodka.

Today very few of these apartments have changed hands. Because of the lack of light and the low social attractiveness of the neighbours, property in this part of the house is almost unsellable. Renting out is a different matter. St Petersburg contains, and attracts, large numbers of people who cannot afford to buy an apartment of their own, but desperately need a space in which to live. Thus the courtyards of our house are awash with an ever-changing tide of temporary tenants paying minimal rents. Babushkas supplement their pensions by renting out rooms cluttered with a lifetime's possessions to students. Young couples, drawn to St Petersburg by the hope of finding better-paid work, pay $200-250 a month to share a one- or two-room apartment with a battalion of cockroaches. Market traders from the Caucasus live ten to a room in a three-room apartment on the ground floor. In a two-room apartment above the archway between the first and second courtyards two ambitious young women, Masha and Kristina, have set up a cooperative providing sexual services to moneyed segments of the male population.

The lives of the people who live here have an improvised, makeshift quality: they are attempts to piece together an existence from discarded scraps, agile wrigglings whose aim is to squeeze through the few remaining narrow loopholes left in the thickening barrier between the present and the future, convincing demonstrations of the Russian ability to adapt and survive in conditions where the odds are minimal and where no help is to be expected from the state, no guidance provided by established patterns of behaviour. A team of prematurely aged drunkards daily tours the area's dustbins, gathering paper and cardboard which, carefully folded and attached with string to a heavy trolley, they wheel to a basement collection point at the end of the day and exchange for the monetary equivalent of two bottles of vodka. A jobless woman in her forties, desperate to support her teenage son and parents, starts selling macrame knitted by her homebound mother at a stall improvised on the side of the street, then realises that there is an untapped market for such handiwork and enlists all her mother's friends to knit for her as well. Young men fresh from university, unable to find employment on the strength of their university degrees, discover an unsuspected talent for plastering and plumbing and set up in business as interior decorators, transforming a series of battered communal flats into glossy, spacious apartments.

If you look up at the third floor in the second yard, you will see four windows lined with heavy velvet curtains and begonias. Here, in a three-room apartment, live some of the wealthiest residents of this part of the house: Olga Aleksandrovna, Olga Nikolaevna, and Vera Maksimovna, three women who between them are almost as old as St Petersburg itself (in fact, they total a mere 225 years against the city's 300, but they're catching up fast). Unlike many of their fellow-pensioners, who have nothing but their pensions to draw on, they live in luxury, denying themselves nothing. They think nothing of treating themselves to massage sessions, the best seats at the theatre and opera-house, days out at the Hermitage, summer boat trips along the city's rivers and canals, even the occasional fling at the casino. What is the secret of their wealth? Very simple. Three years ago Olga Aleksandrovna invited her friend Olga Nikolaevna, who lived all on her own in a four-room apartment in the front of the house, to move in with her at the back end. Not only did this provide mutual companionship (and they spent almost all their time in each other's company in any case), but it meant that Olga Nikolaevna's apartment with its wonderful view could then be rented out for a handsome sum, which would make living for the two of them easier still. The experiment was so successful that a little later they asked their friend Vera Maksimovna, who also had an apartment all to herself, to come and join them. Now, with the monthly income from renting out two apartments, they live the life of three wealthy young bachelors with not a care in the world.

Just beyond the arch connecting the second and third courtyards, in a tiny one-room apartment once occupied by the house's senior dvornik or courtyard attendant (before the Revolution there were no fewer than seven dvorniki serving this house) lives Yakov Leopoldovich. A retired rocket scientist, this courteous old man, deeply ingrained with the values of his city (not St Petersburg, but Leningrad - the city of Spartan living, terrible suffering heroically borne, self-sacrifice, and at the same time of a determined clinging to a belief in the possibility of a better, more humane, socialist future), has a pension of 800 rubles ($28) per month. Until recently, this was sufficient to take care of his bodily needs. After all, he does not need much: he has his radio, his books, a cheap season-ticket for the Philharmonia, and as for food, ‘when you've lived through the Blockade, a bowl of porridge is a full meal, a loaf of bread is a feast, and two slices of meat is enough to give you indigestion'. But then he fell badly ill. Forced to spend his entire monthly pension on medicines, he had no choice but to supplement his diet with ‘tastier morsels' selected from local dustbins. One day, as he was wheeling his pickings back home, he was given a hand by a young woman who happened to be standing outside the bread shop. In fact, the young woman was so kind and helpful that she accompanied him to his apartment, made him tea, took an interest in all his difficulties, and then made him a remarkable proposal: she offered to feed and look after Yakov Leopoldovich until the end of his days, asking in return only that he make her legal heir to his apartment. Since the old man had no family, it seemed he had nothing to lose. The following day they went to the notary to set their contract down in law. Yakov Leopoldovich now tells his neighbour that, for all these cruel and selfish times, the old Leningrad spirit of compassion lives on. His neighbour, watching the young woman's increasingly irregular visits, is less convinced.

Much has changed in St Petersburg since the early 1990s, and yet in many respects we have come full circle, back to the nineteenth century. Thousands of originally palatial apartments have been emptied of their heterogeneous populations, stripped of their clutter, and returned to states resembling and even exceeding their original splendour. The fabulous, picturesque contrasts between poverty and riches, health and illness, elegance and ugliness, have been lovingly restored. In the well-like back courtyards of St Petersburg's houses, now that the public-welfare system has effectively collapsed, many of the classic urban social problems all but eradicated by the Soviet system (poverty, disease, crime) are once again on the rise. Tuberculosis has made an unexpectedly big come-back. Today, perhaps more so than at any time in the last eighty years, St Petersburg's houses remain Noah's arks packed to the gunnels with every kind of life form. Miraculously still afloat, they have, in spite of frequent sightings, yet to reach firm land. The voyage continues.
houses on the embankment of the River Fontanka, St PetersburgHouses on the River Fontanka