The first thing many people notice about Saint Petersburg is how different it feels compared to the rest of Russia. Architecturally closer to Venice or Amsterdam than any Russian city and referred to as the ‘cultural capital’ of Russia, it is eclectic, home to bustling youth subcultures, bars and a vibrant NGO scene.
The city is known for its intelligentsia. Myriad events take place day and night, especially when the night is almost as light as day in June and July during the ‘white nights’ season.
The city is home to the most vibrant LGBT+ scene in Russia, but at the same time the roots of the ‘anti-gay’ law come from a lawmaker from St. Petersburg who used to attack LGBT+ rights events with a group of thugs. This lawmaker is now a member of the federal parliament.
The city also saw some violent neo-Nazi terrorist groups attacking minorities in the mid-2000s.
Saint Petersburg has a hugely colourful history. Founded in 1703 by tsar Peter I not just as a new capital for the empire, but as a ‘window to Europe’, the tsar-reformer wanted to attract Western European science and culture, inviting German, French, Dutch, Swedish, Finnish, English, Italians and Greeks to settle in St. Petersburg.
Unique for the times, tolerance became the city’s foundation. Even the name itself, ‘Saint Petersburg’ is more common for German towns. In the 18th century it became the only city in Europe to feature all Christian religious temples on the central street, which surprised many visitors, such as Alexander Dumas who reportedly called Nevsky avenue ‘a street of religious tolerance’.
The tolerance included not just Europeans. One famous story mentions an African boy kidnapped as a child, ‘presented’ to Peter I as a servant and raised as the tsar’s godson – Abram Gannibal. He rose to become one of the most prominent members of the imperial court, while his great-grandson became the great Russian poet – Alexander Pushkin.
In the 19th century, as the Russian Empire expanded to incorporate more peoples and entities, Saint Petersburg acquired new temples of other religions. The Grand Choral Synagogue was completed in 1880s, which the local Jewish community considers one of the most beautiful in the world till this day. At the beginning of the 20th century St. Petersburg became the first European capital to host a mosque and a Buddhist temple, providing the freedom to exercise religion.
Following the 1917 revolution many Western European communities left St. Petersburg, with those remaining often facing repression especially during the Stalin times – accused of espionage, deported and executed.
In the late Soviet period the new diasporas from South and East of Russia started arriving to St. Petersburg – peoples of the Caucasus, Central Asia, Korean community. This trend continued after the collapse of the Soviet Union, adding modest numbers of Africans and scores of students from around the globe coming to the city.
To get a glimpse of the city’s diversity you would do well to stroll along its main avenue – Nevsky prospekt for a start. Here’s a few highlights on your way:
- Nevsky avenue, 20 - House of the Dutch reformed church and round the corner at Bolshaya Konyushennaya, 25 – the former French reformed church, currently housing a hotel and restaurant.
- Nevsky avenue, 22-24 – Petrikirche, German Lutheran church, functioning. Its interior was largely destroyed in Soviet times. The church marks the beginning of the Lutheran quarter, with a German school Petrischule founded in 1709. Two further Lutheran churches are located on both sides of the quarter – Finnish (Bolshaya Konyushennaya, 6a) and Swedish (Malaya Konyushennaya, 1). The Swedish diaspora in St. Petersburg is known for Alfred Nobel’s family living in the city for almost 20 years.
- Nevsky avenue, 25-27 – Kazan cathedral, the main Russian Orthodox church in the city and a monument of military glory, built in Italian style. Russian general Mikhail Kutuzov, the victor of Napoleon I, is buried here. Next to his grave you can see the keys from conquered European cities and also the banners of defeated forces.
- Opposite the Kazan cathedral if you walk along the Griboyedov channel embankment, you will reach another Russian Orthodox church - Savior on the Spilled Blood, right opposite the FIFA Fan Fest. The Church is built in the late Russian style at the place where emperor Alexander II was assassinated by anarchist bombers in 1881.
- Nevsky avenue, 32 – Saint Katherine Basilica, the main Catholic church build with a significant contribution of the Polish community. In 1798 the last king of Poland, Stanislaw II was buried here.
- Nevsky Avenue, 40 – Armenian Church of St. Katherine – centre of Armenian diaspora life.
Other highlights of the city’s diverse history:
- Anglican church – English embankment, 56. The building marks the former English quarter created in the 18th century. English sailors had introduced the game of football to Russia and founded the Saint Petersburg football league in 1901.
- Grand Choral Synagogue, Lermontovsky avenue, 2 serves as the centre of Jewish religious life. The city is home to more than 50 Jewish community organisations.
- ‘Apraksin Dvor’ founded in 1754, has became quite an international market for clothes with merchants from China, Korea and much of tCentral Asia and the Arab countries, while the nearby Sennoy food market became a true Eastern bazaar with people from all over Europe and Asia. As at any market in the world, beware of pickpockets.
- The main Mosque in St. Petersburg built at the beginning of the 20th century now serving the local Tatar and other Muslim communities. In Russia, Islam is followed by peoples of the Ural, Volga, Caucasus regions and Central Asia, among others.
- Buddhist temple close to Krestovsky island where the new stadium is located. The temple is run by the Buryat community. A small café of Buryat cuisine operates in the temple.
- The Russian Museum of Ethnography stands out if you want to learn about diversity. Russia’s diversity is revealed here, with more than 700,000 artefacts and photographs representing the cultural heritage of 157 peoples from European Russia, Siberia, the Far East, Caucasus and Crimea dating from the 18th century to now.
The local football club Zenit St. Petersburg, passionately supported by people of all walks of life, also has a dark side. Its biggest fan group is Landskrona, which occupies the famous ‘Virazh’ stand, published a manifesto - ‘Selection 12’ - in 2012 calling the club not to sign any gay or non- Slavic players, claiming this would break the club’s traditions. Although Zenit have since fielded several black players, including Brazilian superstar Hulk, the club has still never had an African player in the team.
The issue first caught international attention in 2004. During a UEFA Cup fixture against the now defunct Austrian club Superfund, an angry Zenit fan invaded the pitch to reveal his t-shirt on TV, reading in both Russian and English: ‘There is no black in the colours of Zenit’.
Six years later, in 2010, an aspiring defender Brian Idowu, born and raised in St. Petersburg to a Nigerian father and Russian-Nigerian mother, was making his way up through Zenit’s youth academy. After several years trying to make it to Zenit’s first team, he decided to switch to different Russian Premier League side Amkar Perm, revealing in an interview that his agent had told him it wasn’t worth trying to get into Zenit’s first team as they would not take a black player. Zenit lawyers later made him retract his statement and clarify he wasn’t accusing them of racism.
With a Russian passport, and playing in defence at a time when Russia’s national team was experiencing a generational crisis at the back, he could realistically have hoped for an international call-up. But as time passed, he never got a chance to prove his worth for Russia.
Instead, in spring 2017 he accepted an offer from Nigeria to get a passport and play for their national team. His staggering debut in a friendly played in the Russian city of Krasnodar saw Idowu score against Argentina in a 4-2 win for Nigeria.
Historically in Russia homosexual relationships were accepted more readily than in many European countries. The criminal code did not have any provisions relating to homosexuality up until the 18th century, when the influence of Western European communities and religious groups who came to St. Petersburg led to the emergence of laws against homosexuals.
In practice these laws were nevertheless applied very seldom. Several prominent figures of the time, such as composer Tchaikovsky and producer Sergei Dyagilev, were openly gay; this didn’t lead to any legal difficulties for them.
Gay life in St. Petersburg was on par with other European capitals at the time. Moreover, in 1906 Russian modernist poet Mikhail Kuzmin in his novel ‘Wings’ for the first time in world literature expressed an unprecedented philosophical idea about the possibility of a happy same sex family, proving it with his own example, living happily with his husband for 22 years.
After the 1917 October Revolution, the anti-gay laws were cancelled, and the movement enjoyed a short revival in 1920s Russia and St. Petersburg in particular. It all changed under Stalin when many homosexuals were repressed and criminal punishment for homosexual relationships was reintroduced. It was only eliminated again in 1993. Because of the fear for his freedom, the famous ballet dancer Rudolf Nurejew had to flee St. Petersburg. Lesbians were not prosecuted as widely but subjected to punitive psychiatry.
The LGBT+ community is very active in St. Petersburg with dozens of initiatives and several community centres:
- Coming Out NGO http://comingoutspb.com/
- LGBT Network – biggest Russian LGBT+ organisation https://lgbtnet.org/
- Alliance of heterosexuals and LGBT+ people for equality https://vk.com/straights_for_equality
- HIV assistance and community center ‘Action’ https://vk.com/center_action
- International film festival on LGBT+ rights celebrating its 10 years anniversary – ‘Side by Side’ http://www.bok-o-bok.ru/default.asp?lan=1
Historic places significant for the LGBT community include:
- ‘The Horseshoe’ (Podkova) – two squares in front of the Kazan cathedral served as a meeting spot for lesbians during Soviet times.
- ‘Katkin sad’, Ostrovsky square – a frequent meeting place for LGBT+ people during tsarist and Soviet times. In 1983 the first LGBT+ rights organisation in USSR, called ‘Gay laboratory’ was founded here.
- Gostinnyi Dvor, Nevsky avenue, 35 – meeting spot for Soviet LGBT+. Historic importance of the place is confirmed by the fact that today the most popular gay clubs, ‘The Blue Oyster Bar’ and ‘Central Station’ (Lomonosovskaya, 1) are located nearby.
Some activists organise excursions on the LGBT+ history of Saint Petersburg. To learn more contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Saint Petersburg is generally a safe city, hosting scores of tourists every year. Most bars and cafes are welcoming and safe, and countless craft beer bars and restaurants are frequented by young people.
The city centre should be mostly safe, although in recent times there have been reports of physical attacks and robberies at night around the clubs on Lomonosova street and Dumskaya street. Exercise caution leaving clubs or walking around these streets at night and try not to walk there alone.
Locals advise to be more careful around Kupchino district in the South at night and generally avoid the suburbs after dark.
Be especially careful using taxi services as even the biggest providers had several incidents where passengers, especially women, were robbed or raped. Always check the route on your phone and inform friends where are you going and, if possible, the car number plate. Avoid using any taxis from the street. Always order through an app.
Due to the scores of tourists visiting St. Petersburg the city is experiencing a problem with prostitution and human trafficking that may mean increased chances of harassment of women in bars or mixing substances to your drinks. Always keep an eye on your glass. Prostitution is illegal in Russia thus the business is run by criminal gangs and is very dangerous for anyone.
If your accommodation is on Vasilevskiy island or generally across the Neva river from the centre – the bridges are raised around 01:30 AM so if you are not back by then you will have to wait a few hours or drive a long way around. Check the exact schedule for bridges, for example here.
One place to certainly avoid is a grocery store owned by Russian millionaire Herman Sterligov called ‘Bread and Salt’. Sterligov presents himself as an anti-scientific defender of ‘traditional values’ making homophobia one of the central marketing instruments for the chain. Signs in the store windows read ‘No f_ggots allowed’, later changed to ‘No sodomites allowed’ after public pressure.
Saint Petersburg features probably the liveliest civil society scene in Russia, ahead of Moscow. Many human rights initiatives and ethnic minority communities are active in the city.
Several grassroots initiatives have joined forces for ‘The Cup for People’ initiative, offering alternative excursions and human rights walks, a ‘Living library’, maps of welcoming places to visit and debates on human rights and mega events for World Cup visitors.
The Civic info centre with many initiatives participating in ‘The Cup for People’ alliance will be hosted by the Fare Diversity House in St. Petersburg.
Among other initiatives in the city you could do worse than visit:
- Jewish Community Centre of St. Petersburg - https://www.facebook.com/jccspb
- Community Centre for Civic initiatives ‘Open Space’ - https://www.facebook.com/spbopenspaceeng/
- ‘Children of St. Petersburg’ initiative providing educational activities for migrant and ethnic minority children - https://www.facebook.com/childrenofstpetersburg
- Human Library - https://www.facebook.com/humanlibraryspb/