I have before me, as I write these lines, a handsome white envelope, marked in pale-blue characters with the six-pronged, anchor-fish-hook-crown emblem of this once imperial and still maritime city, which was offered to me by a friend as I was leaving St. Petersburg.  Inside, against an elegant dark-blue background illuminated by six colored pictures of various city landmarks and the dates 1703 and 2003, I was informed that this was a pam-yatnoye svidyetelstvo—a “commemorative testimonial,” thanking me for having sojourned in the city during the “year of its 300-year-old jubilee.”  Today, I cannot contemplate this touching testimonial without an ironic smile—given the extraordinary difficulties I encountered in visiting Russia as a self-reliant individual rather than as a docile member of a tourist group.

Incredible as it may sound more than a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, no foreigner can visit Russia today without being formally invited by some specific institution or accredited tourist agency.  In October 2002, I rashly thought I had solved this problem when I volunteered to join a group of Parisians whom a Russian guitarist was recruiting to accompany him to St. Petersburg in mid-February, when the temperature often drops to 20 or 25 degrees (centigrade) below zero.  A couple of weeks later, however, the cold-footed “group” disintegrated, and I was left to fend for myself.  In despair, I appealed to a Swedish friend, the widow of a Russian merchant-marine captain, who had left her native Stockholm to study Russian at the Alexander Herzen University in St. Petersburg.  Yes, she could arrange the tourist invitation and have me occupy an empty bedroom in an apartment inhabited by a Swedish schoolfriend.

The apartment my benefactress had found for me was located on the Zagorod-ny (literally, “suburban”) Prospekt—a long, nondescript avenue leading in a southwesterly direction from the Vladi-mir Mother of God Icon Church, whose golden domes Fyodor Dostoyevsky could almost see from his nearby corner-house apartment, past Russia’s oldest railway station, the Vityebsky Vokzal, to the massive redbrick building that now houses the city’s Technical Institute.  A “prospekt” (there are about a dozen of them in St. Petersburg) was the optimistic word that Peter the Great and his imperial successors coined for a series of long, broad avenues, which were supposed to offer their telega-, droshky-, or calash-borne inhabitants a splendid view—if not of the Neva estuary, which surrounds central St. Petersburg on three sides, at least of the once-wooded hinterland east and south of the city.

The proximity of my humble lodgings to the Kuznetskaya ulitsa (the Street of Blacksmiths), where Dostoyevsky spent the final years of his life writing The Brothers Karamazov, turned out to be symbolically appropriate.  If ever there was a dingy, run-down house up whose worn granite steps and past whose peeling walls one had to climb to reach the topmost floor, as Raskolnikov once did, it was surely this one.  Inside the apartment, nothing functioned properly—beginning with a bedroom key for a possibly never-used lock; two flimsily transparent curtains that could not be drawn more than halfway across the metal railing, and which consequently admitted rather than excluded the brightness of the summer nights for which St. Petersburg is so famous; a gas-operated water heater in the bathroom, which broke down during my stay, along with a leak in a corroded pipe; not to mention a lack of kitchen utensils so acute that I had to buy a new saucepan, a corkscrew, and six glasses.  (My Swedish “hostess” and her Russian boyfriend had, for months before my arrival, been drinking out of paper cups!)

It is, of course, stupid to assume that what one happens to encounter in a specific foreign locality is necessarily typical of what is to be found elsewhere.  Landlords or landladies who are forced to rent out the apartments they are lucky enough to own in order to augment their incomes are not likely to be rich, and this was clearly the case of the spidery, black-clad lady I saw the day she came to examine the leaking pipe.  From what I heard from others and actually saw with my own eyes, however, this rented apartment on the Zagorodny Prospekt was hardly an exception.  Indeed, shortly after my return to Paris in late May, an enterprising BBC reporter who wanted to show how less fortunate Peterburgers were actually living—next to the glittering façade of the Nevsky Prospekt, then strictly cordoned off and policed for the arrival of some 40 chiefs of state and retinues of accompanying VIP’s—took his TV-viewers inside a house whose staircase walls were so alarmingly fissured that a tenant had with difficulty survived a catastrophic drop when the tub in which he was bathing had suddenly burst through the bathroom floor into the apartment below.

One thing in particular surprised me even before I climbed the stone steps to “our” apartment: the untidy state of the mostly earth-covered inner courtyard.  A typical St. Petersburg street—the same is true of Moscow—is composed of “houses” (Dom—the word used in private addresses), each of which contains at least one inner courtyard.  Many of these houses do not possess front doors or gates but only a tunnel-like entrance open to the four winds, allowing anyone who is curious to wander around inside.  What you are likely to discover are a few unwashed automobiles in various degrees of decrepitude, which the fortunate owners are happy to park in the available space.  Still a minority in a country where an ordinary doctor or schoolteacher earns no more than a simple policeman (3,500 rubles, or slightly more than $100 per month), they at present have ample room to park their vehicle inside the courtyard where they live.  St. Petersburg is thus spared the acute Lebensraum problems that plague so many Western European cities, where motorists have to park their cars along and even over sidewalks, thus seriously congesting sluggish traffic.  Car owners here race at high speed along relatively unencumbered and impressively wide thoroughfares.  Traffic policemen are almost nonexistent—except on the fashionable Nevsky Prospekt—but traffic lights tend to be respected.  “The reason,” a Petersburger explained to me happily, “is that those still driving are experienced drivers.  The others perished long ago.”

My second surprise was the extent to which the inhabitants of St. Petersburg have in recent years become not simply “Westernized” but, more specifically, Americanized.  Blue jeans—quaintly advertised in cheap clothes-shop windows with Cyrillic letters as djins—are everywhere to be seen: easily assimilated in a once Bolshevized country where “shock workers” and others were encouraged to wear blue-denim shirts and trousers to emphasize their proletarian loyalty to the new socialist order of society.  The flat factory caps of yesterday have, by and large, been replaced with baseball caps; and the bare midriffs and navels casually displayed by boldly “up-to-date” girls were almost as numerous as those I now see on the streets of London or Paris.

“Hi-fi” and video shops, computer centers, and internet cafés have mushroomed everywhere.  Almost as ubiquitous are food shops marked “24,” which, like those of New York City, operate round the clock.

Nowhere, however, has the Americanization of St. Petersburg triumphed more insidiously than in the realm of sound.  It is virtually impossible today to find a restaurant, from the humblest to the most expensive, that is not deafened by big-beat or rock-’n’-roll rhythms.  This kind of music has become the programmatic symbol, the sonic badge of one’s “modernity.”  Any request that the volume be turned down tends to be met with incredulity and a refusal.

My primary purpose in coming to St. Petersburg was to visit the city’s rich treasure of museums, beginning with the most famous of them all: the deceptively named Hermitage Museum, which is, in reality, the back, northern, and Neva-facing side of the dazzlingly baroque, green-and-white-hued Winter Palace, which faces southward, across a huge square—everything in St. Petersburg is monumental, including spatial distance—and the curving, crescent-moon-shaped buildings that once housed the imperial general staff.

It did not take me long to discover that the best time to visit this gigantic museum is around 11 A.M.—one hour after the official opening—by which time the two queues lining up outside the main entrance have disappeared, thanks to a convenient multitude of counters and cashiers, who sell tickets to Russian citizens and foreign students residing in Russia for a nominal fee of 15 rubles, whereas foreigners are obliged to pay 350 rubles (slightly more than $11) for admission.  Although I heard some criticism of this notable disparity, I think it quite justified in view of the costs involved in dusting, cleaning, and polishing hundreds of halls, corridors, and chambers, each of which has to be supervised by a feminine watchdog (male wardens are rare), most of whom have to survive on a meager wage of 2,000 rubles (roughly $65) per month.

This is not the place to list all the marvels I was able to admire during a marathon visit lasting more than five hours.  For two things in particular, however, I think that this huge museum deserves to be commended: first, for the effort made to fill as many halls as possible with furniture at least resembling what those palatial chambers once contained; second, for the care taken to indicate on so many identifying cards from just whose collection this or that painting was acquired.

Small painter-and-subject identification cards cannot, of course, explain just how Catherine the Great was able to accumulate so many treasures for her “private” Hermitage apartments.  Few Americans—or, for that matter, Europeans—realize that the person most responsible for this extraordinary accumulation of riches was the French philosopher Diderot.  Aside from being a remarkable writer—Le neveu de Rameau and Jacques le fataliste are among the most scintillating philosophical dialogues ever written—Diderot was one of the authors of Europe’s first great encyclopedia.

In 1765, Elizabeth’s even more francophilic successor, Empress Catherine, heard that an impoverished Diderot wanted to sell his library to finance his daughter’s education.  She promptly arranged to buy it, while magnanimously allowing the philosopher to remain the owner of his precious books during his lifetime.  This was the beginning of an extraordinary friendship, perhaps unique in the entire history of philosophy.  On Diderot’s recommendation, French sculptor Etienne Falconet was invited to St. Petersburg, where, aided by a French colleague and two Russian sculptors, he spent ten years fashioning the magnificent bronze statue of Peter the Great, seated astride a rearing horse with an imperious finger pointed toward the Gulf of Finland and the West, that can now be admired on the grounds of the vast Admiralty building, with its distinctive gilt steeple.

It was Diderot, in effect acting as an artistic scout, who launched Catherine on her astounding shopping spree by advising her to buy up the paintings of two Paris collectors, Jean-Louis Gaignat and Louis-Antoine Crozat, as well as those of celebrated salon hostess Marie-Thérèse Geoffrin.  He was even invited to come to St. Petersburg in 1773 for a private cram session for the empress in judicious government and administration.  The result was a fascinating mismeeting of noble minds between the “liberal” French advocate of constitutional government and the autocratic ruler of all the Russias.

Diderot’s was not the only extraordinary French library that the voracious Catherine, and, thus, St. Petersburg, managed to acquire.  When, in 1778, Voltaire finally died, spurned by the Church hierarchy in France, who refused him a normal Catholic burial, the empress arranged to buy the library that he had accumulated in his country house at Ferney, near Geneva.  The offer was not altogether philanthropic: When the 7,000 volumes finally reached the port of Kronstadt, in the Gulf of Finland, Catherine was dismayed to discover that missing from the collection was Voltaire’s correspondence, including many letters she had personally written to her French “informant” and philosophical “mentor.”

Still, Voltaire’s books were a precious catch for an empress who liked to boast that, in artistic matters, she was “not a mere amateur but a glutton.”  The finest were given pride of place in a vaulted alcove library in the Winter Palace, also graced by Houdon’s marble sculpture of the impishly smiling, seated sage.  Last  June, all of these priceless books, many carrying the French philosopher’s sarcastic comments in the margins, were exhumed from their well-protected obscurity underground, where they had been saved, like so much else, from the monstrous destructions of the 900-day siege of Leningrad (1941-43).  They can now be seen and even examined, at least by Russian and foreign scholars, in a newly created Voltaire Center, located in the imposing mauve-and-white-striped palace on the Nevsky Prospekt, where are stored the many treasures of Russia’s National Library.

Unlike Voltaire—who was asked to write what turned out to be a highly fanciful account of Peter the Great’s Herculean efforts to construct a brand-new capital, without bothering to emphasize the city’s most formidable enemy (seawater and marshes)—French aristocrat Astolphe de Custine, who spent several months in St. Petersburg in 1839, soberly noted that here the “waters undo each night what is built during the day.”

Dostoyevsky, who, though born in Moscow, spent most of his life in St. Petersburg, once called it (in The Adolescent) the “most fantastic city in the world.”  In many ways, it has so remained, notwithstanding the blemishes that began to appear in the 19th century.  It is still the only capital or ex-capital in Europe to have been laid out and developed from the start according to an urban plan.  It thus became what Versailles (which never became a capital) was intended by Louis XIV and his architects to be and what certain American cities—notably New York, Washington, Savannah—actually became.

Custine, in this respect a typical specimen of French moderation, felt overpowered by the monumental size of St. Petersburg’s edifices and what he regarded as the exaggerated dimensions of its squares.  His criticism might have been well taken had Peter the Great and his successors chosen to make St. Petersburg a soberly gray or white city, like Paris.  Instead, with the active cooperation of a number of Italian architects—beginning with Francesco Rastrelli, the son of a Florentine sculptor—they created a flamboyantly polychrome city which, by the start of the 19th century, was being hailed—by John Quincy Adams (who twice served here as American minister), among others—as the most magnificent city in Europe and one of the architectural wonders of the world.

This uninhibited polychromatic exuberance—façades displaying everything from bright daffodil-yellow to butterscotch or caramel ochre, from bright apple or pistachio green to tender rose, tangerine, orange, or dark blood-red—imbues central St. Petersburg with an architectural vitality surpassing everything to be seen elsewhere, even in Italy.

Because he had actually lived and worked in Holland, Peter desired to make his new capital another Amsterdam.  The Dutch name he gave to “Sankt-Piterburkh” has survived to this day in the contracted form of “Piter,” regularly used by Petersburgers when they talk to one another.  Later, however, the name was Germanized by Peter’s two leading successors—empresses Elizabeth and Catherine.  What finally emerged, however, was neither Dutch nor German.  Thanks to a love of monumental grandeur and, above all, to bridges spanning two vaguely concentric “rivers” (in fact, canals)—the humble Moika (meaning “washing” in Russian) and the broader, more rectilinear Fontanka, with, serpentining between them, the canal that now bears the proud name of Griboyedov (Russia’s first significant playwright)—St. Petersburg, despite the rundown condition of many of its façades, offers aquatic vistas as breathtakingly beautiful as anything to be seen in Venice.

Among the many palaces and stately edifices that were, if not completely restored (a ruinously expensive task), at least splendidly repainted for the tricentennial celebrations of last May, I must single out the magnificent townhouse that Rastrelli, the designer of Empress Elizabeth’s Winter Palace, had built for the influential members of the Stroganov family on the corner of the Nevsky Prospekt and the quaint Moika River.  Originally green, it was recently repainted a delicate rose hue, more likely to attract the lunchers and diners who care to frequent the spacious buffet that now occupies a good part of the palace’s ground floor.

If I have a soft spot in my heart—or, should I say, in my stomach?—for this splendid palazzo, it is because of the legendary largesse of its most celebrated inhabitant, Count Grigori Alexandrovich Stroganov, a distinguished gourmet known to chefs all over the world as the promoter of a kind of beef stew named in his honor.  The extravagant epitome of Russian hospitality, this eccentric host used to hoist a flag over his palace to indicate that his would be a delightfully “open house” for anyone wishing to drop in for supper that evening.  Foreign visitors, and particularly fastidious Frenchmen, would be amazed to walk into a banquet hall with couverts laid for a hundred diners, though the number of self-invited guests who had made the most of this opportunity might not exceed a dozen.

No one who lives in St. Petersburg for any length of time can fail to be amazed by another quaint custom born not of aristocratic largesse but of the indigence of poverty.  The number of cars equipped with a luminous rooftop marker indicating that they are professional taxis is infinitesimal compared with the number of amateur motorists who are prepared to pick up a waving pedestrian.  Many are the wretchedly paid engineers, schoolteachers, or doctors who, on their way home from work, are happy to pick up a “client” and to drive him or her to the indicated destination in return for a few rubles obtained through haggling.  No less surprising for a foreigner, but typically Russian, is the conclusion of the “deal,” when the “client,” instead of installing himself behind, opens the front door and sits next to the driver.