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25 March 2020updated 08 Apr 2020 8:08pm

First Thoughts: The charms of St Petersburg, stockpiling and the dangerous urge to cough

In Russia, we found a country where coronavirus was still a distant rumour. Palaces, churches and restaurants were packed. Bars vibrated with live music. 

By Peter Wilby

On the inauspicious date of Friday 13 March, as gaps appeared on British supermarket shelves, my wife and I flew to St Petersburg, Russia, where we looked forward to exploring the city and spending time with our elder son, who works in Moscow. We found a country where coronavirus was still a distant rumour. Official figures claimed only 45 infections, with no deaths, among a population of 146 million. Everyone wanted to shake hands and were bemused by our attempts at elbow bumps. Palaces, churches and restaurants were packed. Bars vibrated with live music. I thought of Lisbon in the Second World War which, because Portugal was neutral, remained brightly lit throughout.

Why Russia is so insouciant about the pandemic is a mystery. Its central bank hasn’t cut the 6 per cent interest rate and Putin seems too preoccupied with staying in power to the end of the millennium to bother with a mere virus. Perhaps, thanks to EU and US sanctions, and cold winters, Russia is fortuitously insulated from the outside world. Perhaps official figures are wrong: some medics suggest deaths from coronavirus are being attributed to pneumonia.

When we left on 17 March, official infections had risen to 114 (at the time of writing they were approaching 500, with one death). Our hotel was almost empty and our breakfast room was moved “because of the virus”. Paris a few weeks before the Fall of France was a better comparison, I decided.

A ridiculous art

Fred Kite, the communist shop steward played by Peter Sellers in the 1959 film I’m All Right Jack, envied Soviet citizens enjoying “all them cornfields and ballet in the evening”. We didn’t check the cornfields but the ballet still flourishes in St Petersburg, and we went to The Sleeping Beauty at the Mariinsky Theatre. I have always regarded ballet as a faintly ridiculous art form because the pitter-patter of the performers’ feet during a Tchaikovsky harp cadenza strikes me as being like an actor’s tummy audibly rumbling during a Shakespearean soliloquy. But the Mariinsky performance, graceful and expressive, dispelled my prejudices.

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The forgotten city

St Petersburg, the Russian imperial capital for two centuries, has much more to offer. The Hermitage, founded by Catherine the Great, is the world’s second largest art museum after the Louvre. The Winter Palace stood through both the 1905 Bloody Sunday massacre, which began the sequence of events that led to the Russian Revolution, and the 1917 Bolshevik coup. Grigori Rasputin, whose influence over Russia’s last tsar Nicholas II is often compared to that of Dominic Cummings over Boris Johnson, was murdered at the Yusupov Palace. The 872-day siege of Leningrad (as the Soviet Union renamed the city) in 1941-44 was among the longest of the century. You may recoil from the extravagant gold decorations of former imperial and aristocratic residences, but they help explain why the first successful communist revolution happened here. According to Euromonitor, 

St Petersburg is only the 59th most visited city in the world, well behind Milan, Moscow and Seoul, for example. It deserves better.

Silver shoppers

Since we rarely eat anything tinned or frozen, we returned to almost empty kitchen cupboards. Through luck and fast feet, we soon found almost everything we needed. We are resolute against stockpiling. But it’s surprisingly difficult to resist. What can we do with all those courgettes I grabbed? And can two people really eat those two fat curly lettuces I secured in the Sainsbury’s “silver hour”, feeling rather as ancient humans must have done when they bagged a juicy antelope on the African Savanna?

No more coughing

For 60 years, I have coughed for England, first because I smoked heavily, later because the nicotine gum I still chew dries the mucous membranes. Over the past month, I have stopped coughing. Am I subconsciously preparing for Covid-19? Or am I afraid that, if heard, I shall be arrested and incarcerated for failure to self-isolate?

This article appears in the 25 Mar 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The crisis chancellor