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The Hidden Petersburg, Up Close and Personal

By Galina Stolyarova
Staff Writer, The St Petersburg Times

St. Petersburg, striving to live up to its self-proclaimed title of Russia's cultural capital, is abundant with guides wanting to sell you on the city.

Make your way to the center and they are everywhere, but when you actually start listening, their stories and routes tend toward the traditional tourist fare: the State Hermitage Museum, the State Russian Museum, Nevsky Prospekt. More adventurous tourists - or curious locals - have an alternative to standard tours, however, in Peter's Walking Tours, which was officially established last month. What the company's five guides offer is not quite an excursion, but more of an experience.

The driving force behind the project is Peter Kozyrev, a traveler whose globe-trotting backpacking experiences have taken him to Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, China, Vietnam, Central Asia and most of Europe, to name a few of his destinations. The other guides have comparable experience under their belts.

Kozyrev believes that, with standard tours, travelers don't get a full psychological portrait of the city, which is more complex than a stroll through the center of town might suggest.

"It is amazing how few tourists actually manage to step away from Nevsky Prospect. It's as if St. Petersburg is a village where nothing but the main street is interesting," Kozyrev said.

"We see ourselves as conductors between cultures, and we speak the same language as travelers - not just English, but 'backpackers' language," he added.

Kozyrev, 29, spent several years giving informal tours of the city. He prides himself that he was the only guide to run a rooftop tour route. His activities were somewhat secret, however, because he didn't have a license to be a guide. Even applying for the license would have been pointless, because walking on roofs is considered hooliganism by the city authorities, and certainly not an activity to be officially encouraged with guided tours.

Then, following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, city officials boarded up most of the attics and lofts, and most roofs are no longer accessible. Residents carefully watch those that are.

"If they see us [on the roof], they yell and get angry, and sometimes call the police," Kozyrev said.

So, instead of what he calls "urban rooftop mountaineering," Kozyrev and his colleagues developed several original walking routes. Then they registered the business so all profits and taxes are above-board. The tours, which are priced from 320 rubles (about $10) per person, focus on popular themes like the Bolshevik Revolution, the Blockade of Leningrad, Dostoevsky's novels and Rasputin.

"'Lover of the Russian queen' and 'Russia's greatest love machine' is how Grigory Rasputin is most frequently perceived [outside of Russia]," Kozyrev said. "Lots of people have heard that [disco band] Boney M song, yet very few have a reasonable idea who it is about - not to mention the fact that Russia never had a queen."

Kozyrev blends history, gossip, rumors and myth to draw a more detailed portrait of the mysterious and powerful monk who gained enough influence to manipulate the last Russian tsar, Nicholas II.

The Rasputin tour takes walkers to "Father Grigory's" last apartment on Gorokhovaya Ulitsa, Rasputin's murder site and many other sites related to the monk's life.

"I saw one of the apartment's current inhabitants once, but I resisted the temptation to talk to her," Kozyrev said. "I thought she'd probably already been asked too many questions."

The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution was one of the most popular tour themes of the official Soviet tourist agency, Intourist. Guides proudly talked about Leningrad as the "cradle of three revolutions." Kozyrev's Revolution tour also plunges walkers into the world of the revolution, but on a more critical, ironic note than the Intourist tours of old.

Sights include revolutionary symbols like the battleship Avrora, from which a shot supposedly rang out to start the revolution, the Winter Palace, the Smolny Institute, which served as the Bolsheviks' headquarters, and the armored train at the Finland Station, where Lenin first pronounced his April Thesis upon his return from exile in Europe.

Communist rule ended over a decade ago, but elements of the past can still be found in the city's architecture and observed in its citizens' mentality, so the group runs a Communist Legacy tour. The tour visits the metro, the world's deepest, where many of the oldest stations are decorated with Soviet symbols and mosaics depicting communist heroes or labor.

Dozens of statues of Lenin and other communist leaders have been removed, but many others still stand on St. Petersburg's streets, as well as inside many factories and public institutions. Tour guides point out hammers and sickles on the walls of buildings, Soviet-themed restaurants and former "palaces of culture" now turned into casinos. Though not a formal part of the tour, most Communist Legacy walks are enlivened by the Soviet-style attitudes and manners of shopkeepers and passersby along the way.

"I can tell from the questions from people on the tours that they are shocked by the level of Soviet mentality in Russian people, something they didn't expect to see, something they thought had long been dead and buried," Kozyrev said.

Those less interested in the city's political history and more interested in snacks can opt for Peter's Food Tour, which visits local markets and eateries. The cost of the food is not included in the price of the tour, but most dishes are inexpensive. For example, at most cafes where the tour stops, a portion of bliny costs in the neighborhood of 30 rubles, a bowl of soup 40 rubles and a shot of vodka 20 rubles.

In addition to traditional Russian fare, the tour can be an opportunity to discover Siberian pelmeni, Ukrainian borshch, Georgian sulguni cheese, Armenian lavash and other dishes from around the Soviet Union that have become beloved staples in post-Soviet Russian cuisine. Kozyrev deliberately changes the cafes and restaurants he visits on each tour to make it clear that he isn't involved in any kick-back schemes with the owners.

Kozyrev said the most popular tour is the Original Walking Tour, or the "hey-guide-show-us-something." Tourists show up and help develop the route on the spot right before the walk starts.

From years of walking tours - both taking them and leading them - Kozyrev has learned that the excursion is not so much about what is shown but how it is shown.

"I quite agree with what they say at [British company] London Walks: It all comes down to the guiding," Kozyrev said.

One of the Dostoevsky-related tours, the Dostoevsky Murder Route Pub Crawl, starts at the doorstep of Raskolnikov's house and ends at the doorway of pawnbroker Alyona Ivanovna's home. On the way, as the group hits six or seven pubs, they plunge deeper and deeper into the spirit of "Crime and Punishment."

"Nothing has changed: You can touch the sticky tables, bump the clumsy drunkards trying to reach for another glass, step into stairways that reek of urine," Kozyrev said. "Perhaps it would have been better for Raskolnikov to make his way to the old lady through all the pubs," Kozyrev said. "If he didn't go directly to her, maybe the bars would have stopped him short of the murder."

Eventually, Kozyrev is planning to expand the pub crawl selection by adding Revolution and Lenin crawls, which may appear in late spring or early summer.

"I am a backpacker myself, and I know what backpackers want: They want good value for the little money they pay," Kozyrev said. "What we are doing is what I would want for myself when I am abroad."

Tours do not need to be booked in advance. Just check out the schedule at www.peterswalk.com and then show up at the meeting point a few minutes before the walk is scheduled to start.

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