Too often hotels are simply a place to rest your head between bouts of sightseeing. But once in a rare while, they are cultural attractions in their own right, living museums whose walls pulse with the weight of history. Russia’s grand dame hotels hold a particular allure because for many decades during the Cold War, they were off limits to much of the world.
Many gilded palaces built before the rise of Communism were repurposed or destroyed by war, but St Petersburg's Grand Hotel Europe and Moscow's Radisson Royal survived, thrived and have reinvented themselves in the likeness of modern Russia. Whether you want the glittering excess of tsarinas past and oligarchs present or a side of Iron Curtain with your raw silk curtains, these are places where you can get in bed with history.
The Grand Hotel Europe
Opened in 1875, the Grand Hotel Europe was made in the gilded image and likeness of St Petersburg's ornate palaces. And the goings-on inside the hotel were equally indulgent: Tsar Nicholas held lavish banquets, Rasputin downed bottles of booze, Tchaikovsky bedded his betrothed.
But after Vladimir Lenin's October Revolution, the hotel weathered as many changes as St Petersburg did (No, Leningrad! No, Petrograd!). The stately rooms became crowded with families awaiting apartment allocations and the hotel, like St Petersburg itself, got a new name, "The House of the Soviet Clerk". In between sheltering party leaders and workers, it did stints as an orphanage and a hospital. Its rich wooden furnishings became firewood to stave off the bitter winter chill, the marble arches blackened from the indoor soot and smoke.
It was not until the thawing of the Cold War in the 1980s that hotel management started to consider putting the grand back into the Grand Hotel. The resulting renovation revealed a basement full of priceless art once "liberated" from aristocratic houses, much of which now hangs in the hotel's suites and common spaces.
The Grand Hotel Europe reopened in 1991, the same year that the city re-embraced its original name of St Petersburg. Since then, the clientele has been as legendary as the hotel's history, counting Bill Clinton, Elton John, Prince Charles, Paul McCartney, Neil Armstrong and Placido Domingo among its guests.
Today the hotel reflects the character of St Petersburg itself, embracing modernity while still being firmly anchored in its illustrious past. I watched a Russian billionaire close a deal on his iPhone while a violinist played Stravinsky amid cut-crystal champagne glasses and sterling silver caviar dishes. In my room, my iPod sat charging on a priceless antique desk and my Converse betrayed a commoner's squeak against the blushing Rosso Verona marble floors.
Staying amid the excesses of Russia's past and present informed my impressions of the rest of the city, from the Giuseppe Zanotti stilettos that click-clacked across the marble floors of Catherine the Great's sprawling Hermitage to the gold-wheeled Hummer being valeted outside the Marinsky ballet. It also prepared me for the even wilder excesses of my next stop, Moscow.
The Radisson Royal
Where St Petersburg anoints the old, Moscow hurtles toward the new. Though it is more than 500 years St Petersburg's senior, Moscow's post-Perestroika identity is one of frenzied reinvention. That is what makes the new Radisson Royal Hotel such a worthy mascot.
Debuted in 1957 as the Hotel Ukraina, the building was Joseph Stalin's architectural darling, part of the Seven Sisters development, which married Neo-Classical, Russian Baroque and Gothic elements with the technology used to build Western skyscrapers. Anyone who thinks Communist aesthetics were confined to concrete block housing need only look at the Ukraina's frescoed ceiling and ornately carved towers to see that Stalinist Soviets knew from swagger.
Visiting party leaders and well-connected comrades from outside the city were among those granted the privilege of staying at the hotel in its early days. Police monitored the city from the hotel's penthouse suite, which was later turned into a restaurant. As the hotel and city itself struggled through financial reforms in the early 1990s, the building slumped into disrepair; its once-grand restaurant was chopped into office space.
But the Ukraina came roaring back via a $300 million renovation, reopening in 2010 as the Radisson Royal. Out went the KGB basement eavesdropping centre, in went an Olympic-sized pool, spa and saunas. Out went the lobby's sagging leather sofas and tarnished medieval chandeliers, in came a Rolls Royce dealership.
Sitting in my room just a few floors down from the former KGB observation deck, my gaze drifted from Soviet realist paintings (pieces from the hotel's 1,200-piece art collection hang in each room) out to the hulking stone hammer and sickles carved into the building's façade. Though Stalin may not approve of the Frette sheets and Bosch fixtures, the resilience of this stalwart building, its ability to adapt and reinvent itself, and its unbridled embrace of Russia's present and future, resonated more deeply with me than any of my Red Square wanderings.