On the wide expanse of Dvortsovaya Plonchard two thousand naval cadets from St Petersburg’s Admiralty stand in ragged formation awaiting their officers and the beginning of their passing-out parade. Caps pushed back on their heads, they lean nonchalantly on their rifles and chatter, seemingly unaffected by the grandeur of their surroundings. Behind them looms the Winter Palace, an enormous sweep of imperial light blue, brilliant white and gold leaf that completely overwhelms the crowds of onlookers packed beneath its ornate mass. Far across the great arc of the square, the golden acreage of St Isaac’s domed Cathedral radiates in the sunshine before the menacing black of an approaching thunder head. Across a sweep of park lies the Admiralty itself and from under its famous central spire come the horse-drawn carriages and mounted escort of the officers. Proud and austere in their high peaked caps and golden ‘tea tray’ epaulets, they clatter across the square as the massed cadets are called to attention.
As I watch the formalities begin I realise that but for the snapping cameras, the distant hum of traffic and perhaps the stylised uniforms, this parade could have been from any point of St Petersburg’s rich history. For more than two hundred and fifty years, cadets have paraded outside the Admiralty upon graduation. However, the first of their order gained their rank in far humbler surroundings when the Admiralty was a wooden structure and little more than the dockyards of Peter the Great’s fledgling city. Then this great metropolis known as the ‘Babylon of the Snows’ and ‘Venice of the North’ was just a dream, complete only in the mind’s eye of a young Tsar who, by turning a swamp into a city, would change the face of Russia and alter the balance of power in Europe.
As jubilant young officers, the seamen break rank and hurry over to their families and girlfriends. Corks pop to let sweet champagne spill onto the square’s historic stones and I raise my camera to three elated young men as they drink. Aware of my presence, one breaks into a happy protest of “No photo, no photo ‑ KGB” and the three erupt into roars of laughter then proffer their bottle.