We arrive at our home-from-home in St Petersburg and notice the incredible disparity, walking from the Admiralty end with totally renovated buildings, to further down the dilapidated facades of communal apartment buildings, reflecting the history of the past century or more. Strangely enough we discover that the street was central to Jewish life in the city in the 19th Century, when we believe our great-great-great-grandfather Nicholas Filaretov lived here.
At no. 20, now looking very run-down, lived Jewish banker Baron Horace Yevselevitch Guenzberg, the ‘richest and most famous Jew in St Petersburg’ (1883-1909). He founded the first modern-style bank in Russia in 1859, I. E. Guenzberg, was a patron of the arts and a philanthropist – many met at his house including Turgenev. At no. 25 was the country’s oldest Jewish organisation, the Society for the Spread of Education among the Jews of Russia (OPE), with branches all over Russia, promoting the reformation of Jewish customs and culture, collecting a mass of statistics on Jewish peoples, and promoting educational activities. There is a plaque on the building, now owned by Gazprom, and nicely done up in yellow with shiny doorplates.
No. 61 belonged to Horace Guenzberg’s son Alfred, where he ran the Society for Hygenic Cheap Apartments for Jewish People. Also on the street lived the Polyakov brothers, Yakov and Lazar, whose interests included railway construction, banking and philanthropy. After the pogroms of the 1880s, the Jewish community began to fragment, and split between those willing to assimilate and others who were more orthodox. Some left St Petersburg, and those who stayed were subject to stricter and stricter laws, and persecution. Gradually the great involvement of the Jewish community in the social and cultural life of the city faded.
Under the Soviets, these huge buildings were divided into communal apartments where families would live in a few rooms, sharing kitchen and bathroom facilities. We talk to family friends Olga and Misha about life under Soviets, who tell us that sometimes as many as 10 families lived in an apartment, taking it in turns to have weekly baths. There was an allotment of 4 ½ sq metres per person, so every centimetre counted. You can see the remains of this system in the layout of the apartments we are staying in, which have subdivided rooms and corridors which have sometimes been reconnected.
In the new Russia, people try to sell their rooms but a whole apartment of families have to agree, which can create dischord. After selling their rooms, few can afford to stay in the centre. Companies are buying up buildings which then stand empty, or they rent them out to illegal migrant workers who pay over the odds, large numbers crammed to a room. Meanwhile, politicians have sold off state assets, so wealth is held in a few private hands, who then control the fabric of the city.
Walking along on street level are a mix of some private hotels and restaurants who have renovated parts of buildings so you see glimpses of glamour, and food shops with little signage which feel like a remnant of Soviet times, with dusty shelves of vodka and sparse looking refrigeration counters. Olga gives us her soap ration tokens and tells us how they would have to carry empty bottles and jars around on the off-chance that the shops would have fresh food in – no jar, no food.
Around the corner, New Holland island was used for shipbuilding and contains fantastic warehouses, built at different heights to store timber vertically, and a grand arch by Jean-Baptiste de la Motte. It is currently being subjected to ‘Urban Regeneration’ after being bought by Abramovitch, following the collapse of a competition won by Norman Foster. Walking into the high-security gated area, we could be back in London – there are containers housing trendy bars, and gallery spaces, a ‘rent a box’ communal garden, table tennis tables and big plans. I can’t help but feel that this new ‘cultural urbanism’ as the website calls it holds little reflection of the complex and multiple histories surrounding it.
The Jews of St Petersburg, Mikhail Beizer, 1989