My favourite places in St. Petersburg no.1: Avtovo

Also by The Slacker: mystery novel ‘New Holland’

‘meticulously researched…offers a vivid insight into modern Russia’

For those of you not lucky enough to have visited, St. Petersburg is a fascinating place. In turns beautiful and ugly, cultured and brutal, inspiring and depressing – it’s a place nobody is indifferent to. Following five years living there in my twenties, and realising how much I was missing it today, I’ve decided to write a series of articles on my favourite parts of the city.

You can find plenty on The Hermitage, Nevsky Prospekt and Peterhof elsewhere, so I want to concentrate on some of the hidden corners (and it feels like there are millions of these). The first of these is Avtovo region, in the city’s southwest.

With a name deriving from a Finnish word meaning ‘middle of nowhere’, Avtovo is an industrial region that was once home to St. Petersburg’s most notorious market, Yunona (the market’s still there, but is far less dodgy nowadays). Avtovo is not high on the average tourist’s list of places to see: the huge tower blocks, peering over you from either side of the long roads, make you feel like an ant; the packed trams rattle by almost incessantly; cold grey faces hurry to and from the metro. But then again, this is what a lot of Russia looks like – all you’re seeing is normal life. Once you accept this, the tower blocks seem to be protecting you; the trams fit their knackered rails like an old shoe; the people just look a little disappointed with life, not threatening.

The best place to start taking in the sights is Avtovo underground station – from the outside it looks like a small museum. The platform is considered the most beautiful of all St. Petersburg’s, with its ornate glass pillars and a mosaic dedicated to the Leningrad Blockade. Here’s a picture, thanks to Matthias Kabel – well done for taking it Matthias: it’s actually illegal to photograph the interior of a metro station in Russia, so no wonder you got fined!

Not far down Prospekt Stachek is another monument to the Blockade – a meticulously detailed tram of the type that travelled the streets of the city at that time. That public transport continued during this time is a minor miracle; the trams would have been essential to lives being saved, making this a wonderful and poignant monument. Russia is good at getting important little details like this just right.

If you like shopping there’s Yunona, though the bootleg DVDs, hardcore porn and stolen property have all but disappeared. There’s also the Kontinent mall – including an Irish pub, a place selling the most over-priced burritos you’ll ever eat and a cafe with a gloomy view over the nearby port. I avoided it during my years there, unless I desperately needed new shoes. There’s also a strange river called Krasnenka which never freezes over, even at minus thirty. In the spring it suddenly becomes stuffed full of toads; in the summer some people swim or go fishing there, despite the obviously high pollution levels – so don’t buy the fish on sale outside the metro station.

If you keep walking south you reach a street dedicated to Zina Portnova, a teenage partisan and Hero of the Soviet Union who died resisting the Nazis in the Second World War. Zina Portnova Street leads onto Lenin Prospekt, which is watched over by a statue to the former leader, arm outstretched to the people, where it runs into Moscow Prospekt…

So there you have it: a quick guide to an area in St. Petersburg you probably won’t hear about anywhere else, but somewhere worth a couple of hours if you want to see the ‘real’ city. When I lived there I was perpetually trying to move to somewhere nicer – I never made it, and ended up staying for three enjoyable years. Avtovo was the place I started taking my writing seriously, and was a big source of inspiration for my writing about the shabby, dilapidated outskirts of the city.

Saul Pope is the author of ‘New Holland’, a mystery novel set in St. Petersburg (including Avtovo) and published by Espresso Books. You can take a peek here or here.

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