I visited St. Petersburg for the first time in the early 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union. 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 into which you could squeeze a few townhouses.
Wherever I walked, I felt the greats of the Russian arts were with me: Pushkin, Chekhov, Babel and more. The city’s palaces and buildings exude an almost mystical enchantment, especially during the long white nights of early summer.
Despite political tensions between the United States and Russia, tourists still visit this great seaport, especially on cruises that ply the Baltic. And despite the new high-rise buildings and hotels in the center of the city, the Russian economy — because of low oil prices as well as Western sanctions against Moscow’s seizure of Crimea — remains in bad shape.
Still, foreign tourists can see the city without problems, says former resident Alla Markova, of Zekher Avotenu, which arranges Jewish tours of St. Petersburgh and other cities.
With 5 million residents, St. Petersburg is Europe’s third-largest city, after Moscow and London. Most tourists stand by the impressive monument of Peter the Great, the city’s founder, commissioned by Catherine the Great and created by the French sculptor Etienne-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 saw 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 statue of the czar.
At the beginning of the 18th century, they called Peter’s efforts to build a capital on the Baltic “the mad dream of an imperious autocrat.” But anyone who tours the city cannot but admire its citizens, who over 300 years survived the most extreme attempts of man and nature to extinguish it from: flood, famine, disease, 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 persons perished, most of them from starvation.
Until the 1917 Russian Revolution, Jews frequently were banned from St. Petersburg. Still, by 1910, 35,000 Jews resided in the city, where they made up less than 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.
Two sites especially attract Jewish visitors. The synagogue known as the Edmond J. Safra Grand Choral Synagogue stands as one of the most beautiful, ornate and well-preserved synagogues in Europe. Located on Lermontovsky Avenue No 2, the building seats 1,200 people and features a whitish-blue dome. This is the second-largest synagogue in Europe after the Dohany Street Synagogue in Budapest.
Architecturally, the St. Petersburg house of worship blends 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 has served at the Choral Synagogue since 1992, one year after the fall of the former Soviet Union.
Today, according to the rabbi, 28,000 persons are registered in his data base. The organization boasts four schools, two kindergartens and five other synagogues in the city. At Lermontovsky 27 stands the kosher Golden Café.
I taxied over to Yesod (Hebrew for foundation). This JCC is a state-of-the-art, four-story, 75,000-square-foot facility, complete with meeting rooms, offices, classrooms and a blast-resistant wall.
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 glamor of czarist days.
Ben G. Frank, a travel writer and lecturer on Jewish communities around the world, is the author of “Klara’s Journey” (Marion Street Press) and “The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond” (Globe Pequot Press).