Saint Petersburg

We have now been in this beautiful city for two days and have been busy seeing many of the stand-out sights.

Saint Petersburg is situated on the delta of the Neva Riva in an area that was originally marshland. Its streets are intersected by many canals and it often carries the name ‘Venice of the North’.

It was founded by Tsar Peter the Great in1703 and between 1713–1728 and 1732–1918 it became the imperial capital of Russia, after Peter the Great moved the capital from Moscow and opened Russia to the West. In 1918 the central government bodies moved from Saint Petersburg (then named Petrograd) back to Moscow. It is Russia’s 2nd largest city with 5 million inhabitants. The Historic Centre of Saint Petersburg and Related Groups of Monuments constitute a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

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The weather here has been sunny and warm. They tell us that the city only has 60 to 90 sunny days per year, so I think we have been lucky. At this time of year it is the season of the ‘White Nights’. There is only about two hours between sunset and sunrise and the night stays as if it is twilight. Thank heavens for black-out curtains!

We began our visit with a city tour that included many of the places that I had seen on a previous trip, but it was very nice to see them again. We stopped off at the stunning blue-and-white Smolny Monastery which was originally built to house Elizabeth, the daughter of Peter the Great, when she was pushed to become a nun after being denied succession to the throne. Though political situations prompted a change in her plans and allowed her to ascend to power, construction of this Russian Orthodox convent continued for several years with the help of the royal family. The complex was built at the site of Elisabeth’s Palace and named after the tar (smolny) used to seal the hulls of ships in the nearby docks. The complex is laid out like a cross with the Cathedral in the center and four smaller churches in the corners. 

Before the cathedral was complete, much of the complex served as the Institute for Education, a school for aristocratic girls, later moved to the nearby Smolny Institute building. Lenin lived here in early 1918 before the complex became the city’s headquarters of the communist party. During the Soviet regime the convent and the church fell into disrepair. It was left to rot for more than six decades, with little regard for its architectural or historical significance. Restoration commenced in the early 1980’s.

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Next, we stopped at The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, one of the main sights of St. Petersburg. Like most Russian churches, its grand appearance is matched with an equally grand name. It looks a little similar to St Basils in Moscow with its onion domes, but it is not as old. It was built on the site where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated and was dedicated in his memory. 

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We continued around the city, passing many monuments and grand buildings such as the Peter & Paul Fortress, statues of major historical figures and numerous palaces and churches.

An interesting sight was the Aurora, an old naval cruiser that has quite a history. It was built between 1897 and 1900 at the Admiralty Shipyard in St. Petersburg and was one of three Pallada-class cruisers, all of which served during the Russo-Japanese War. After its construction was complete, Aurora assumed its place as part of the Russian 2nd Pacific Squadron. In May 1905, it took part in the Battle of Tsushima and was one of just a few Russian ships that survived the battle. After the battle in the Baltic, it returned to St. Petersburg and became a cadet training ship. The ship was resurrected during World War I. When it returned to St. Petersburg in 1916 for a major repair, the city was on the verge of revolution and many crew members joined the 1917 February Revolution and became part of the Bolsheviks, who were readily preparing for a Communist revolution. The ship is most famous for firing a blank shot that signaled the start of the attack on the Winter Palace and the beginning of the Bolshevik Revolution. It was a shot that changed the country.

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Most of our afternoon was easily filled in with a visit to The Hermitage, or the Winter Palace.  The collection of Catherine the Great, the German born wife of a failed tsar (another Peter) who then took over the rule of country, began with the purchase of more than 200 paintings from Berlin art merchant Johann Ernst Gotzkowsky. This collection consisted of a plethora of impressive works by artists such as Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Dyck, Raphael, Holbein, Titian, and several others. Historians say that during her lifetime Catherine the Great acquired 4,000 paintings by the “Old Masters”, 38,000 books, 10,000 engraved gems, 10,000 drawings, 16,000 coins and medals and a natural history collection filling two galleries. By amassing this large collection, Catherine the Great aimed to enhance the international reputation of the Russian imperial court. At the same time, it was a display of power and wealth, sending an important political symbol to rival empires in Europe.

As the years went on, the collection continued to grow, added to by other tsars and by donations made by individuals. Some works were purchased from the Papal Government and others were acquired when several palaces of the Russian Tsars and a number of private mansions were being “nationalised” and their art works redistributed among several Soviet state museums. The permanent collection of these works of art, and many more, at The Hermitage now includes about 3 million works that span the centuries from paleolithic to contemporary. The museum is so large that it is impossible to visit all its galleries . If you stopped to look at each exhibit for one minute, it would take seven years to see them all.

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St Petersburg has had a tough time since its inception with many conflicts. The revolution, and civil war of 1905, that preceded the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, began in Saint Petersburg and spread rapidly into the provinces. During World War I, the Imperial government renamed the city Petrograd, meaning “Peter’s City”, to remove the German words Sankt and Burg.

In March 1917, during the February Revolution Nicholas II abdicated both for himself and on behalf of his son, ending the Russian monarchy and over three hundred years of Romanov dynastic rule. On November 7, 1917 the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, stormed the Winter Palace in an event known thereafter as the October Revolution. This led to the end of the post-Tsarist provisional government, the transfer of all political power to the Soviets, and the rise of the Communist Party. After that, the city acquired a new descriptive name, “the city of three revolutions” and was renamed Petrograd. 

In September and October 1917, German troops invaded the West Estonian archipelago and threatened Petrograd with bombardment and invasion. On March 12, 1918, the Soviets transferred the government to Moscow. During the ensuing Civil War, in 1919 General Yudenich was advancing from Estonia, but Leon Trotsky mobilised the army and forced him to retreat. On January 26, 1924, five days after Lenin’s death, Petrograd was renamed Leningrad. Later some streets and other places were renamed accordingly. The city now has over 230 places associated with the life and activities of Lenin. Some of them were turned into museums, including the cruiser Aurora that I mentioned earlier.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the poor outskirts were reconstructed into regularly planned suburbs. Many “bourgeois” apartments in the city were so large that numerous families were assigned to what were called “communal” apartments. By the 1930s, 68% of the population lived in this type of housing. 

During World War II, German forces besieged Leningrad following the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. The siege lasted 872 days. The Siege of Leningrad proved one of the longest, most destructive, and most lethal sieges of a major city in modern history. It isolated the city from most supplies except those provided through the ‘Road of Life’ across Lake Ladoga. More than one million civilians died, mainly from starvation. Many others were eventually evacuated or escaped, so the city became largely depopulated. The authorities used spaces in public parkland to grow vegetables and by the end of the siege, people were so hungry that some resorted to licking the paste of the wallpaper.

One of the places that did not require much rebuilding after WW2 was the area of Peterhof which we visited this morning, our second day in St Petersburg. This palace complex was built in the early 18th century by Tsar Peter the Great as a magnificent palace and park complex meant to rival France’s Versailles. On an estate that covers more than six hundred hectares, Peter and his successors built some thirty palaces and pavilions in a mesmerizing display of wealth and power. It was meant to be a ‘modest’ place, but it gradually became more opulent over time. It is situated some 25 km west of St. Petersburg on the Gulf of Finland.

The focal point of the complex is a long palace building with an armoury on one end and a chapel on the other. However, the star feature is the magnificent Grand Cascade, completed in 1724 as the centrepiece of the waterworks plan, which was created after Peter the Great witnessed the Grand Canal and fountains of the Versailles Palace. Jill visited the palace, which I had seen before, while I did a tour of the gardens. It turned out to be less a tour of the gardens that it was a tour of the fountains. These are magnificent and appear in grand form in the carefully laid out ‘French’ style gardens as well as in many nooks an crannies around the park. We were there when the thousands of visiting tourists gathered for the ceremony to start the cascading fountain for the day.

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This afternoon we visited St. Isaac’s Cathedral. It is a colossal domed cathedral built in the 19th century after a design by the French architect, August Montferrand. Its magnificent dome, one of the city’s most famous symbols, is visible from kilometers away. It looks more like a Roman Catholic Church than an Orthodox one because of his French influence. This is the fourth church at this site dedicated to St. Isaac the Confessor, a monk from the 4th century and the patron saint of the city.

No expenses were spared to decorate the cathedral with the most expensive materials – fourteen different colors of marble and many semi-precious stones such as lapis lazuli and malachite were used, one of the reasons the cost of the cathedral ballooned to almost ten times that of the Winter Palace. 

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Under the Soviet government, the building was stripped of religious trappings. In 1931, it was turned into the Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism. In 1937, the museum was transformed into the museum of the Cathedral, and former collections were transferred elsewhere. During World War II, the dome was painted over in grey to avoid attracting attention from enemy aircraft. On its top, in the skylight, a geodesical intersection point was placed, with the objective of aiding in the location of enemy cannon. With the fall of communism, the museum was removed and regular worship activity has resumed in the cathedral, but only in a little chapel on the left-hand side chapel. The main body of the cathedral is used for services on feast days only.now a museum.

One comment

  1. Pamela Saunders · ·

    Bruce , your recollections of your tours loaded with outlines of history are a pleasure to read.
    And your photos are always a delight to behold. I indeed ‘travel’ with you. Thank you for sharing both. Lovely to know that the weather has been kind.

    I suppose power over the centuries has often been displayed in grand palaces, magnificent churches or cathedrals, temples, monumental government buildings, collections of art and the sophistication of items of warfare. Today I look at the contemporary architectural monuments of power which are also expressed in grand, expensive and sometimes engineering and architectural wonders of construction. Mostly the religious element of new buildings is absent and a new power has emerged in these expressions. Today they appear to be the expression of the power of corporations rather than individuals regal or otherwise ( with the exception of certain Arab parts of the world). Not to mention that the weapons of warfare become more sophisticated and mighty. Do we progress as human beings? i cannot but wonder.