My favourite places in St. Petersburg no. 2: New Holland Island

Also by The Slacker: mystery novel ‘New Holland’

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

 

 

 

Walking through the centre of St. Petersburg, you’ll not fail to be impressed: the buildings are bright, imposing, powerful, beautiful – and perhaps a little overwhelming at times. If you find this is the case, ask for directions to the River Moika and wander south. You’ll immediately start to chill out – the streets are quieter here, the architecture still beautiful yet not so in-your-face. In fact, if you ignored the cars and occasional tourist boats you’d probably be looking at St. Petersburg much as it was 300 years ago.

And then you stumble upon a weird, shabby island you can barely see into because of its high red walls; there’s a huge Neoclassical arch on one side, which has been often described by writers as a lonely ‘ghost’ howling at the rest of the city centre. This is New Holland Island. For most of its existence New Holland has been closed to the public as it was an important Russian and Soviet military base – only in summer 2011 was it opened to the masses for the first time, thanks to the island’s new developers.

And herein lies the danger for New Holland. It’s shabby and overgrown. It doesn’t look pretty, though the arch is beautiful. It has masses of character, and its austerity and mystery provides a refreshing contrast to the rest of the city centre, whose main attractions work very hard to lay everything on a plate for you. It is a true hidden gem. However, its prime location means that some want it cleaned up and used properly – for selling things, primarily. A project several years back had Sir Norman Foster designing hotels and clubs on the island – fortunately this fell by the wayside when the financial crisis kicked in. But some are rich enough not to affected by such trivialities: the island’s new owner is Roman Abramovich, who plans to use New Holland for commercial and cultural purposes – including possibly housing his massive art collection.

Presuming he gets his way, a strange and quiet corner of a crowded and bustling city will be gone forever, as will a lot of its crumbling yet elegant buildings. New Holland will become as polished as the rest of St. Petersburg – the first time I glanced at the island from a boat more than ten years ago, it gripped me instantly and had me desperate to find out more. Will future generations say the same? And who will really benefit from all the new development?

Progress isn’t always about erasing what’s already there. And history isn’t only about preserving the big things: it’s about remembering the details – things which at the time seem mundane. I don’t want New Holland to change, though it will. In a tiny effort to do something useful, I made its plight a central part of my mystery novel of the same title: in a nutshell, someone rich wants to sell New Holland but suddenly disappears, and an ex-pat Brit living in the city is called in to investigate.

If you fancy a look at more of ‘New Holland’, published by Espresso Books, click here or here. Otherwise, I suggest a wander down the Moika and across the Bridge of Kisses to check it out for yourself – before it’s too late.

New Holland arch – photograph courtesy of Evgeniy Geraschenko.

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