Leningrad disappears in a gray fall night.
Except for the occasional flash of neon on this city's main Nevsky Prospekt, the city is dramatically underlighted. Street lights are dead or dim, building lights run at low wattage, cars drive with parking lights only. The winding back streets merge with the canals that lace their way through the city, pavement and water enshrouded by darkness.Arrive after sunset and the city looks vaguely dreamlike; daylight removes the dream, but doesn't completely dispel the impression of receding reality. Even in the soft northern light, Leningrad's pale blue, yellow and green Italianate buildings look faded and weary.
As if to maintain the metaphor, the Soviets allow you to fall asleep in Leningrad and awake in Moscow, traveling on the high-speed train that leaves Leningrad's Moscow Station each night at midnight. Overnight you travel from czar capital to communist capital, from a European Russia invented by the aristocracy to the ancient heart of Old Russia and the power center of Soviet Russia.
Leningrad must have always seemed slightly out of kilter with the real world, ever since Czar Peter the Great imposed the city on the gulf marshes in 1703 to give Russia an outlet on the Baltic. He called it St. Petersburg, a name de-Germanized to Petrograd in 1914 and then changed to Leningrad in 1924. Designed by Italian architects, the city is breathtaking, but out of scale and somehow out of place.
As the capital of the czars, Leningrad was the seat of Russian culture and imperial power, and one is struck by the remaining devotion to pre-Revolution grandeur. Once ambivalent about its czarist past, Communist Russia now promotes it as a tourist attraction.
The main tourist draw is the Hermitage, Catherine the Great's Winter Palace and one of the world's great art museums. Don't expect much in the way of art appreciation from the state-sponsored two-hour tour; the art gets swallowed by the surrounding opulence and the visitor gets buried in numbers - this room holds 26 Titians, that one 25 Van Dykes.
The palpable sense of history in Leningrad extends to memories of "The Great October Socialist Revolution." The Aurora, the cruiser that fired the revolution-launching shot heard round the world, is docked here, and every corner seems to hold some Lenin icon. You can even buy pins that purport to show baby Lenin (shades of the Infant of Prague), though the image really looks more like Wagner.
Far more imposing are the reminders of World War II and the 900-day siege that took at least 700,000 lives. If the city is haunting, perhaps it's because an entire gneration of "Petrograders," the old-world St. Petersburg society, died in the war.
If Leningrad is the temple of Russian culture, our guide told us, "Moscow is the gate to our soul." It pre-dates Leningrad by some 800 years, but it looks younger; the Soviet government has done its best to make the city look like a modern power center.
Moscow is not charmless, as some have said; parts of the city are really quite beautiful, at least when the weather cooperates. But it is a far more daunting and difficult city to manage.
You feel the difficulties at once. Hotels in Leningrad and Moscow require guests to show a card at the door to enter, but the doormen in Moscow enforce the rule with more diligence.
Service in the hotel, slow in Leningrad, stops in Moscow, and posted hours mean nothing. Every negative thing you've ever heard about the Soviet service economy - the indifference, the inexplicable lapses, the stone-faced attention to the letter of the law when it works against the customer - is magnified at Moscow's Rossia Hotel, a maze-like monstrosity that houses 6,000 people and an undetermined number of mice, roaches and ants.
The Rossia's only advantage is location: It's across the street from St. Basil's and Red Square. You can, in fact, spend a day in Red Square marveling at Lenin's Tomb and the imposing Kremlin walls without realizing the real marvel lies beyond those walls, inside the Kremlin itself.
We use the Kremlin so often as a synonym for Soviet government that we may forget it's an actual place. Inside this tiny walled city-within-a-city is a manicured park and three Russian Orthodox cathedrals, a forest of gold domes glittering through a glade of trees.
Outside the Kremlin, on the wall near the main gate, is the grave of the Unknown Soldier and a walkway honoring the cities that held the line against the advancing Nazi troops. Americans could dismiss "War and Remembrance" as ancient history; Soviet war memories have not faded.
The beauty of the Kremlin belongs to Russian Moscow. The drab, dreary city you've heard jokes about is Soviet Moscow.
From Stalin, the city got its landmark "Seven Ugly Step-Sisters" - seven nearly identical gothic skyscrapers, communist Chrysler buildings without the self-awareness. The Soviets have a taste for the grandiose, but no particular flair for it.