St Petersburg was Europe’s first-ever purpose-built capital city, built from scratch on a boggy piece of marshland, beginning from 1703 onwards. The reason for this unlikely site was that Peter the Great (the first Russian ruler to call himself “Emperor” and not “Tsar” – and who renamed the country from “Rus’” to “Rossiya”) had just defeated the Swedish Army (at that time the most formidable in Europe) there. Part of the reason was strategic – he needed to station a defensive fortress at the mouth of the River Never, to prevent Swedish warships simply sailing down Russia’s rivers unopposed, as had happened before. But Peter was the first Russian monarch to have made the “Grand Tour” of Europe, and seen the marvels of Versailles, London, Vienna and Amsterdam… and he wanted Russia to have nothing less. At some point, these two projects coalesced into one – and the defensive city in Russia’s North became the country’s new capital, with civic buildings, royal palaces, noble households, canals and embankments that were the smartest and grandest in Europe. Russia’s huge imperial expansion in the C18th and C19th went towards paying for all this – making the Russian Empire the only serious rival to the British Empire of the time. The rivalry between the two led to a century of military stand-offs, stake-outs and spying sometimes called The Great Game by those who part. Some have called The Great Game an early model for the Cold War – others would say that one grew seamlessly into the other with no pause, and that it still continues today. When Russia entered WW1, the Tsar renamed the city as Petrograd – because “St Petersburg” sounded “too German”, and the Germans were now the enemy.
St. Petersburg formed the backdrop for the events of the Russian Revolutions in 1917. In February the Tsar abdicated – after calamitous mismanagement of Russia’s involvement in WW1 and a mutiny by the army and navy against incompetent Tsarist rule. However, the interim Provisional Government managed little better, and with its mistakes under the magnifying-glass held up by Trotsky and the Communists, fell easy prey to a second revolution that occurred in October of the same year. The Communists moved the role of the capital back to Moscow (see Moscow above) because St Petersburg was only a few kilometers of the German positions in WW1, and within reach of German long-range guns.
The Communists renamed “Petrograd” once again in 1924, the year of Lenin’s death – it was named “Leningrad” in his honour. Under the name of “Leningrad” the city fought a bitter campaign in WW2, during which It was infamously besieged for exactly 900 days.. a quarter of the population starved to death, and those who survived did so by eating rats or wood-chippings. There are few cities in which May 9th (Victory Day) is marked more enthusiastically (and with a celebration and fireworks, rather than a day of mourning). The city threw-off its soviet-imposed name in a city-wide poll in 1990, reverting to the name of St Petersburg once again. Locals, however, have persisted in calling their city just “Peter” for centuries.
Don’t miss in St Petersburg…
The Winter Palace
… was the home of the Russian royal family in St Petersburg, and a visit combines two themes simultaneously… a chance to see the home of the world’s wealthiest royal family, plus a visit to one of the world’s most legendarily extensive and richly-endowed art collections, the Hermitage Collection which is now housed in the vacated palace. The Hermitage Collection did indeed begin there, in a palace annexe (reached through a small corridored bridge at first-floor level) called “The Hermitage” – it was the private art-collection of Empress Catherine II (“the Great”). However, even during the lifetime of the Tsars the collection became too extensive to display at once.. even now there are three times more exhibits than there is space to display them all. Allow at least half a day, although your eyes may start glazing-over at all this magnificence sooner than that.
The Russian Museum
contains all of the artworks and applied art in the city which is by Russian masters (the Hermitage contains almost exclusively foreign art) and was the first civic museum open to the public in Russia. It too is housed in a former palace – the Mikhailovsky Palace. The palace was once owned by a favourite of Catherine the Great, but he lost it at the gambling-tables – Catherine quietly arranged to repurchase it for him.
The Peter & Paul Fortress
… is almost the oldest structure in the city – the original fortress built to protect Russia from naval invasion by Sweden. However, it was quickly modified in purpose – instead of keeping people out, it was used to keep people in, and turned into Tsarist Russia’s most notorious high-security prison. Unwilling guests at different times included the famous novelist Dostoevsky (he had been accused of connections with foreign anarchist groups – merely for having a magazine in which some articles had been translated) – another prisoner was Lenin’s own brother. Dostoevsky was lucky enough to have friends at court – his death-sentence was commuted to Siberian Transportation, and then to hard labour with a guaranteed pardon. Lenin’s brother wasn’t so lucky. It’s a strange irony that these prisoners were kept chained-up just a few yards from the private church of the Romanov royal family – the St Peter & Paul Cathedral, which stands within the fortress itself. Visits to all of this, and other strange oddities (a display about the Russian space missions? Errr, why?) are available to visitors.
“Walk down Nevsky Prospekt, and it’s like stepping into a fairground” wrote the C19th satirist Gogol (who, err, hated St Petersburg and refused to live there). The huge broad central avenue of the Russian Empire retains that jovial fairground atmosphere. Along the way you shouldn’t miss the Kazan Cathedral, the great public church of the Imperial days – dedicated to the victory over Napoleon in 1812. More facetiously Gogol used the interior of the cathedral as the setting for a scene in his novel “The Nose” – about a Government official who is so hopeless at his job that his nose walks off to start a life of its own. He finally confronts the Nose (now in the uniform of an Imperial Assessor) in the cathedral.
Canals, Embankments & Bridges
Peter the Great was so impressed with Amsterdam that he used the idea of its canals and bridges in his own new city – he even sketched-out the canal-scheme in person. The new city was designed with canals as its highways, and many of the grandest aspects, civic buildings and buildings present their noblest face to the water… a canal-boar ride will reveal all to you, much of which can’t be easily seen from shore anyhow.
Churches & Cathedrals
… might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but in St Petersburg they’re a rather unusual collection. The Alexander Nevsky Monastery is at the far end of Nevsky Prospekt, and is one of the three holiest pilgrimage-spots in the Russian church. Adjacent to the Monastery is the cemetery in which famous writers and composers lie buried – Tchaikovsky, Dostoevsky, Mussorgsky and many more. Probably the most beautiful church in the city, however, requires a canal walk to reach it – the church of St Nicholas of The Weavers, a rococo masterpiece by Rastrelli. Although it’s a massive piece of gargantuan French architecture which is hugely out-of-place in St Petersburg, it is still worth visiting St Isaac’s – if only for the panoramic views from the top of the dome (closed in wet or icy weather). In the soviet era taking photos from the top was banned for strategic reasons.
There’s almost nothing about which St Petersburg doesn’t have a museum. Famous authors? Dostoevsky, Pushkin and more. For a history of state repression, the Museum Of The Political Police is remarkably frank. The Railways Museum? The Museum of the Arctic? The Museum of Bread? They’re all here.
Russia’s nobility were legally compelled to maintain a palace in the capital – and being Russians, they spent lavishly on such projects. Some are in use as civic buildings (but can still be visited at set hours on a guided tour – for example the magnificent palace of the Beloselsky-Belozersky family, on the Fontanka River). Perhaps the most famous – or infamous? – is the Yusupov Palace (they had palaces all over the country, as the wealthiest family in the land – but this was their main residence). As well as the sumptuous decorations (including a private opera-theatre all of their own) there is the basement dining-room in which Felix Yusupov (along with his Cambridge University chums) murdered the self-declared “holy man” Rasputin. A rather gristly waxworks illustrates the scene!
As well as a comfortable city residence, the nobler families also maintained country residences closer to the city (provincial nobility would head off back to their home towns in summer, to see the serfs who were, err, paying for their luxurious lifestyles in town). Most of these extravagant palaces are visitable, with varying degrees of complexity in the travel arrangements needed, and the “worth” in what there is to see if you go. Peterhof(“Petrodvorets”) is probably the most famous, although its interiors are unremarkable – they were mostly wrecked in WW2 actions (German officers billeted themselves in the palace – this was how close the Germans got to the city). The magnificent gardens, sub-palaces (Peter the Great’s private house of Mon Plaisir – he hated living in the palace itself), follies and fountains are the reason to come. The next two palaces have adjacent territories and can be visited together, although you will need a full day, and a picnic, to enjoy them both. Tsarskoe Selo (“The Royal Village” – this is a “village” in the same way that Marie-Antoinette was a “shepherdess”) is the grandest of the palaces, built for Catherine II, and still largely intact (being on the opposite side of the city to the WW2 actions which damaged Peterhof). Through a beautiful wooded park – with picnic possibilities – lies a marked footpath to the adjacent palace of Pavlovsk, built by “Mad” Tsar Paul I in a strange military style. Visitors were met by a major-domo who reminded them that “His Majesty is in full possession of his wits – for as long as you are with him”. The public transport deficiencies involved in getting toOranienbaum and Gatchina palaces don’t quite square-up to what there is left to see – beautiful gardens, but ruined palaces, and of interest only to serious history-buffs. Take a picnic – there’s nowhere else there to eat, unless you’re lucky and find ice-cream on sale in the park. Foreigners aren’t technically supposed to go to Kronstadt Naval Fortress (it’s an C18th town where the Russian navy was built and maintained) but you can often join-up with a local excursion if you keep quiet and don’t draw attention to yourself. There is nothing more secret there than some C19th docks anyhow. If you are really keen on the Russian artist Repin (the supreme portraitist of the end of the Tsarist era) you can take a suburban train out to Repino to visit his cottage and studio.