On a St Petersburg arterial road, in drizzle, I stood in front of a once-grand apartment building. My guide, Peter, pointed up at a rain-streaked window. “That,” he said, “is the last apartment where Rasputin lived.” What, the bearded mystic, legendary lover and star of a Boney M hit? “Absolutely,” whispered Peter. “Let’s go into the courtyard but careful of your camera: the residents don’t like Rasputin tourists much.”
Visits to St Petersburg tend to follow a format: a romp around the Hermitage museum, Catherine’s Palace and St Basil’s Cathedral. Peter Kozyrev, of Peter’s Walking Tours (PWT), doesn’t like this photo-opportunity approach. “These tourists just do the landmarks,” said the lugubrious pedestrian. “That bothers me.”
Ships, slums and sieges
So, when he set up PWT more than a decade ago, Kozyrev decided to do unorthodox takes on Russia’s second city. Rather than give the punters palatial glories, he leads a Slum Walk, a Dostoevsky Walk, a Siege of Leningrad Walk, pub crawls and strolls in un-touristy neighbourhoods such as Petrograd, the wrong side of the river Neva, and the shipbuilding area of Vasilievsky.
“I take them to places tourists never go,” said Peter. “It’s amazing how few get away from Nevsky Prospect (St P’s version of Oxford Street).” He even did a semi-legal rooftop tour until it was banned due to terrorism fears. His most popular tour is the flaneur-influenced Original Walk, which has no itinerary. “People turn up and ask me to show them ‘something cool’.”
I signed up for it by email, and as I searched for Peter’s youth hostel offices in the snowy April streets, I realised St Petersburg needs an introduction. Nowadays the centre has a bling veneer, all mobile phones and brand names, but off-piste St P remains inhospitable. Tin gutters hang perilously from parapets, potholes stud the streets, chunks of granite kerbs have become detached from pavements.
Peter and I had a cup of green tea, then set off, passing the railway station, where he told me to hide my camera from the police. Why? Might they offer unwanted advice? “No. They might steal your camera.”
Big on gangsters and horses
We entered a desiccated but handsome area called Ligovka, full of brooding 19th-century tenements. “This was the big area for gangsters and horses,” said Peter in perfect English, honed by a sojourn in Denmark. We were defiantly off the drag and Peter led me through several more tenements featured on his Slum Walk, where archways led to bleak courtyards and further archways.
If you’ve seen Downfall, filmed in St Petersburg, you’ll know these dark, satanic environs. Are they still slums? “It depends how you look at them,” said Peter. “They’re nicer inside than out.” Inch by inch, in fact, they are becoming chi-chi urban flats.
Only a local could navigate these labyrinths, much like trying to get through a Moss Side estate. “People use them as short cuts,” said Peter, pointing out a Soviet-era enamel sign saying: ‘Don’t let children play with gas stoves’. It’s no surprise to learn that he also runs a Communist Legacy Tour, visiting old hammer and sickle signs. He tells me a lot of older people still call the city Leningrad.
We pass the offices of Pravda, skirt the KGB building, said to be deeper than it is high, then stop in a café (yes, Peter does a Food Tour too) and exchange pleasantries about the astonishing holiday Peter had just taken, starting in Algeria then through Niger to Benin. The thing that had irked him most about Communism was the lack of opportunity to travel. Returning through France, he had met some demonstrating students. “They were talking about Trotsky and how wonderful he was. I asked them, ‘Have you ever been to Russia?’”
Tea done, we walked along the Obvodny Canal, where gritty smokestacks ruptured a cloudy sky, then down Dostoevsky Street, where the great writer made his home (now a museum). “I often take people to the Crime and Punishment area,” he said. “I think people are a bit disappointed.” Baker Street syndrome, perhaps?
We turned back to Nevsky Prospect, and back in my clean, boring, safe hotel, I concluded that Peter is in the tourist vanguard. Perhaps one day, people will point out his old flat.
Visit Peter’s walks at www.peterswalk.com