THE arrivals hall at St Petersburg airport is an exquisite piece of mid-20th century transport architecture, all marble wrapped in triumphal columns. Inside, a stirring mural shows the founder of the Soviet Union reviewing a display of paratroopers tumbling out of military aircraft. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin salutes the soldiers - and the arriving tourists. He looks remarkably well, considering the aircraft shown were not built until long after his death in 1924. But taking historical liberties is nothing new in St Petersburg.

It is 75 years since the Russian Revolution, and St Petersburg is only now reviewing its alibis. The storming of the Winter Palace in October 1917, in which Lenin came to power, is celebrated by would-be revolutionaries around the world as the classic 'man the barricades and smash the state' action. In fact, more people died in the film-maker Eisenstein's restaging of the event than in the original uprising. Power was not seized from a bunch of aristocrats with a long history of oppression, but wrested from a provisional revolutionary government: Alexander Kerensky's 'bourgeois democrats' had deposed the Czar in February of that year.

The fine mess that Lenin got Russia into is evident on the edges of St Petersburg. The buses are improbably cheap (one-third of a penny to travel as far as you like) and impossibly crowded. The windows are filthy and permanently steamed up, but no one bothers to wipe through the grime to peer at the suburbscape. It consists of dirty streets and artless apartment blocks, daubed in colours from a spectrum that runs only from sickly, pale grey to drab brown. A fresh fall of snow, pierced by sad, diseased trees, accentuates the gloom. The canals that lace the city have frozen over, and disconsolate ducks toddle across the ice. Tourists lose their footing with a frequency that amuses the locals; feeble Western soles find it hard to cope with the first frosts of a Russian winter.

Peter the Great might have foreseen the hungry mallards, but the founder of St Petersburg could hardly have predicted the events that have befallen this most stunning of Russian cities. In 1703, the Czar chose a site for the nation's capital which had access to the Baltic and hence the (Western) world. He built his fortress on an island near the mouth of the River Neva in Russia's north-west corner. The site was similar to that of Deptford, the docks in south-east London where Peter had learnt the skills to build and defend a maritime city.

AT THE heart of the fortress is the graceful golden spire of the cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, where the tombs of Peter the Great and his successors lie. The walk around the southern edge of the fortifications is low enough to avoid the ugly additions of the 20th century, and the entire field of vision is occupied by the city that Peter built. Down by the water it appears contented: trams clank cheerfully across the bridge, shining domes and spires glitter above a perfectly proportioned Renaissance facade. Peter the Great spared no expense in coaxing a fine city from unpopulated marshlands. The best engineers and architects were recruited to build a capital for a nation keen to move briskly from the Middle Ages to the modern world.

A world-class city needs a top- grade cathedral. St Isaac's has the third largest dome of any cathedral in the world. Built in the mid- 19th century, it was the first house of worship to be based on industrial principles: the heating system is nothing short of miraculous. Stalin wanted to destroy it as the epitome of Russian Christianity, but he was persuaded to preserve it as a museum of atheism. St Isaac's endured Communism more or less intact. It has not, however, survived the transition to capitalism unscathed. The lavish interior is punctuated with souvenir stands; not, as in British churches, gentle stalls selling postcards and (with luck) cakes, but full-scale retailing opportunities. Television screens show trashy travelogues of St Petersburg - if you pause even briefly a vendor will try to flog you a videocassette.

So it's not only philistines who skip the interior of St Isaac's and head straight for the sky. The colonnade is 258 steps above street level. It is the most awesome ecclesiastical view in Europe, fully justifying the terror involved in reaching it. A vicious spiral staircase winds up one of the towers, then ejects you at roof level. You inch up the final 50 steps on a narrow, open steel staircase, your terror in proportion to wind speed and precipitation: the morning I tried, the weather was frighteningly fresh from Siberia.

The foreground, comprising the heart of St Petersburg, shows the vision of the city planners. Their sense of proportion blended with their imagination to compose a tableau that defies enhancement. Everything is compressed into a tight band of colour. Beyond the core is a dismal array of the appendages that keep the city functioning: lifeless docks, belching chimneys, formless apartment blocks. The real world has not been kind to St Petersburg.

After a lifetime of living in Leningrad, the citizens voted last year to return the city to its Christian name. But with inflation approaching 1,000 per cent annually, the change of name has done little to help the average Russian.

Economic austerity has not dulled the Russian appetite for culture. St Petersburg is steeped in the arts to the point of saturation. The jewel is the Hermitage, a magnificent collection of fine art housed in three connected palaces: the former royal residence, the Winter Palace; and the Small and Large Hermitages, built as retreats for Catherine the Great and her successors. To put this into perspective, a modest analogy would be for the contents of the National Gallery and the Tate in London to be decanted into Buckingham Palace and the whole place opened to the public.

TO SEE every gallery you would need to walk 13 miles, so stick to the first and second floors. And on a short visit ignore all the paintings. The surroundings are so sumptuous that the palace's role as an art gallery is swamped. The essence of the Hermitage is Pavilion Hall - not just a riot of colour, but a veritable uprising of gilt and crystal, marble and mahogany. At the centre is the Peacock Clock, a chronological confection of fine gold. It is covered up for repair, but nip round to the back of the case for a glimpse of its intricate component parts.

The exception to the 'don't look at the pictures' rule is the horrid modern part with cheap parquet flooring and fluorescent lights. Entire rooms of this extension are casually devoted to Cezanne, Picasso, Renoir and Rodin. Finish up at the Malachite Room, a growth of luminescent green marble dampened with rich scarlet curtains. The last meeting of the provisional government took place here on 25 October 1917. The leaders were arrested in the dining-room next door.

Looking out across the Neva, you stare more or less down the barrel of a gun. It points from the cruiser Aurora, the warship that signalled the start of the October Revolution at 9.40pm on 25 October 1917. Lenin ordered a blank shot to be fired from the Aurora, already in Bolshevik hands. This was the trigger for the taking of the Winter Palace. The Aurora survives as a kind of revolutionary Cutty Sark or HMS Belfast. A distant gun breaks the noonday peace every day in commemoration of the start of practical Leninism. But start the revolution without me - it's time for lunch.

The gastronomic day begins at the hotel restaurant. This one was just 30 feet away from my room, but to reach it involved a 10-minute chase - half of it outside, through a blizzard. The meal was at least as much of a struggle. My hotel card carried my room number along with a rough approximation of my name and the enigmatic heading 'List of Things'. I could have used a List of Things to describe the composition of my breakfast, a collation of unidentifiable dead things and yesterday's bread, plus a grubby white sauce pretending to be porridge. The Soviet mentality prevailed in the kitchen, restricting diners to a single chai; the current five-year economic plan seemed unable to run to a second cup of tea.

St Petersburg's main street is Nevsky Prospect, and hard-currency options for wining and dining begin almost immediately. The John Bull pub strives to recreate a 'genuine pub atmosphere', while the new Afrodite Restaurant has more pretensions than customers. I shunned both venues - and the brasserie at the Grand Hotel Europe - to try to eat with the Russians. This clumsy attempt to meet the people was doomed to failure. The Dom Zhurnallista means the Journalists' House, but it's just a typical Russian restaurant: drunks in one corner, dancers in another, incompetent band in a third.

A wad of dollars rather than a press card is the best way in. Formalities differ from Western restaurants. The first question is not 'what might Sir like to drink?' but 'in which currency is Sir proposing to pay?'. I settled upon a feast of smoked fish and grilled meat, washed down by a heavy Moldovan red wine. Even though extras on a Russian restaurant bill arrive faster than in an Eisenstein movie, the price is a modest pounds 5 for a solid dinner. Before you can leave, the patron tries to sell you tins of genuine caviar and bottles of counterfeit champagne.

NEVSKY Prospect is St Petersburg's Arndale Centre and car boot sale rolled into one. You pick your way through filthy puddles while choosing from 31 varieties of Baskin-Robbins ice-cream, freshly baked bread at Bulochnaya, scent at Lancome (where truckloads of roubles buy drops of perfume) - and jumpers at Littlewoods. The catalogues-to-cardigans consortium has opened an outlet inside the Gostiny Dvor department store. The Russian concept of a department store owes nothing to Harrods. A long, low and gloomy building hosts a hundred motley stalls. I was able to replenish a record collection depleted by loans and disfigured by scratches, and bought five mint pressings of Beatles albums for pounds 2 the lot. I hope they enjoy the royalties. The balcony that encircles the upper floor gives a good view of a St Petersburg streetscape. At this distance you can appreciate the underlying elegance of the city, a graciousness that has survived a lifetime of Communism and a year of instant capitalism.

Western visitors are targets of hard-selling hawkers. Traders can convert currencies instantly, from roubles to cigarettes (Marlboro are virtually legal tender) to dollars to German marks.

In the draughty, smelly underpasses beneath Nevsky Prospect, a parallel society tries to escape the cold, feed itself and even - with a few unconvincing buskers - entertain itself. The atmosphere matches what you might have found in an East End tavern in Victorian times, a mixture of degeneracy and desperation, where the saddest sight is the family mongrel being sold for scraps of local currency. The children of the revolution are starving tonight.

Nevsky Prospect concludes at the Nevsky Monastery, an elaborate home for the Russian Orthodox church. You escape from a jarring townscape into a prim churchyard that is almost English in its fussiness.

Many great Russian writers and musicians lived and died in St Petersburg. One corner of the monastery is occupied by the Poets' Cemetery. Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky and Borodin are buried beneath a trio of dark marble headstones. The grandest tomb is Tchaikovsky's; he died almost a century ago. As a child he suffered sleepless nights from what he called music in his head; his death was for years attributed to cholera, but is now thought to have been suicide.

The theatre where Tchaikovsky's greatest hits were first performed has also reverted to its original name. The Kirov theatre is dead, long live the Marinsky. Tickets for this indulgent dream of a venue - wild wedding-cake decor and sympathetic acoustics - are hard to get except through touts or tour reps. Seats for less-celebrated auditoria are sold for almost nothing through any ticket kiosk (KACCA) in the city. I went to a recital at the breathtaking Smolny Cathedral, only recently reopened after decades as a Communist Party office.

A TROUBLESOME sign greets passengers at Moscow station, where trains to the Russian capital arrive and depart. 'Leningrad - Hero City', it proclaims. The heroic proportions of St Petersburg - and the indisputable heroism of its people - have yet to lose their ties with the founder of the Soviet Union. Over in the 'Big Village', as Moscow is sneeringly referred to, Lenin's cadaver still occupies the marble mausoleum in Red Square. In a corner of the windswept Volkov cemetery is his mother's grave. Before he died - and before Stalin found it expedient to elevate Vladimir Ilyich to cult status - Lenin expressed his wish to be buried next to his mother's tomb. Perhaps he will come home soon, to a city which has yet to forgive or forget him.

Visas All visitors require these. Pay a travel agency or a visa specialist - such as the Visa Shop (071-379 0376) - to do the leg work. The Russian Consulate is at 5 Kensington Palace Gardens, London W8 4QP (071-229 8027; fax 071-229 3215).

Flights I paid pounds 281 for a flight on Finnair via Helsinki, booked through the travel club Wexas (071-589 3315). Only members may book flights, but Wexas offers a month's free trial membership. Discount agencies sell tickets on Austrian Airlines via Vienna, or non-stop flights on Aeroflot and British Airways. Specialists include Travelines (071-370 6131) and Unique Tours and Travel (071-495 4848).

Accommodation I paid pounds 55 per night for a double room including breakfast at the Oktobryaskaya Hotel in central St Petersburg, booked through Instone Travel (071-377 1859). Instone offers tours with accommodation included.

Attractions Cruiser Aurora: 10.30am-4pm, admission free. Dom Zhurnallista restaurant: 11am-11pm daily. Gostiny Dvor department store: 10am- 9pm daily except Sunday. Hermitage: 10am-6pm daily except Monday. St Isaac's Cathedral: 11am-5pm daily.

(Photograph omitted)