GRIM HISTORY: Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, where Alexander II was assassinated, in St Petersburg.
GRIM HISTORY: Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, where Alexander II was assassinated, in St Petersburg. AleksandarGeorgiev

Spellbound by St Petersburg, Pushkin's murky city

IT'S said St Petersburg emerged from the marshlands in 1703 after Peter the Great came back from Versailles and demanded the then capital of Imperial Russia be better than anything that he saw in Paris.

Having been to both cities, I can say the similarities are there.

The opulent palaces and cobblestone streets - worn out by aristocrats and their groupies - are all there.

But St Petersburg has a dark underbelly.

Its rambling streets of cracked arrondissements bear the scars of more wars and revolutions than any other modern city.

Choked by the Nazi occupation that starved almost a million to death, St Petersburg also houses the tombs of the Romanovs - the last of the Russian royals, executed as a family - and was used as headquarters for the country's many wars over territory and sea trade.

Inside the Peter and Paul Cathedral in St Petersburg, Russia, where the Russian Imperial family is buried.
Inside the Peter and Paul Cathedral in St Petersburg, Russia, where the Russian Imperial family is buried. Alina Rylko

Indeed, St Petersburg's history is as murky as its "louring skies of greenish pallor”, as described by 18th-century Russian poet Alexander Pushkin.

Pushkin spent three years in St Petersburg going to card parties, courtesans and balls, using his society pleasures as inspiration for love poems and fairytales.

The poet's work can be found in one of the city's most beautiful buildings, Dom Knigi, meaning 'house of books'.

Dom Knigi.
Dom Knigi. Alina Rylko

Topped with a giant glass globe that glows like a cauldron at night, this Art Nouveau masterpiece implodes with gothic charm.

It is a book lover's dream, offering an entire floor to English translations of Russia's literary giants, such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Crime and Punishment) and Leo Tolstoy (War and Peace, Anna Karenina). A top floor coffee room in Dom Knigi takes in the views of Nevsky Prospekt, a 4.5km signature thoroughfare of the city.

The street adorned by marble horses, lions and sphinx statues is a route to the city's most distinctly Russian landmark, the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood.

The colourful cupolas of the cathedral mark the spot where Alexander II, also king of Poland, was assassinated.

Peter and Paul Fortress, St Petersburg, Russia.
Peter and Paul Fortress, St Petersburg, Russia. Alina Rylko

Russia's president Vlamidir Putin is also a fan of the city.

In a recent interview with Oliver Stone, Putin could be overheard telling an assistant "you must come to St Petersburg”.

The former KGB spy graduated law in 1975 at Leningrad (as St Petersburg was called in the Soviet era) and worked at the city's mayor's office in the '90s.

During this time, Putin made his first TV appearance in a peculiar documentary promoting local governance in 'the character' of Stierlitz - a charismatic and cool soviet super-spy.

Another Russian institution, the ballet, also traces its roots to St Petersburg.

The State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Russia, has the world's largest paintings collection in the world, and contains over 3 million items.
The State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Russia, has the world's largest paintings collection in the world, and contains over 3 million items. Alina Rylko

The famed Mariinksy Theatre continues a tradition of indulgent entertainment, complete with caviar and champagne intermissions, with a line-up of popular classics including Black Swan and The Nutcracker.

Watching the beautiful ballerinas is hypnotic, much like all of St Petersburg, where history and its stories - some real, some fairytale - melt into one big spell.

Nevsky Prospekt.
Nevsky Prospekt. Alina Rylko

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