History: Situated on the Neva River where it enters the Baltic Sea, St.Petersburg is the most westernised of all the Russian cities and is the northern gateway to that country. Known affectionately as The Venice of The North, it is almost as beautiful as Venice, but without the pervading stench of decay for which the latter has become infamous. Although less than 300 years old, St.Petersburg has a rich and varied history; it has seen the beginnings of many uprisings, several assassinations, and is the birthplace of many famous writers and composers. The short summers can be warm and the climate rather humid and you would be well advised to take along some mosquito-repellant if you intend visiting there between June and September. For the rest of the year, take along every winter woolly you can find, because you’ll need it – it’s bloody cold!
And now for some erudite facts: on May 27th 1703, Tsar Peter laid the first stone of the Peter and Paul Fortress on Zayachi Island and later moved the capital from Moscow to the town that was to grow around it. At first the city grew spontaneously around Trinity Square, but later an Italian architect, Domenico Trezzini had designed a city which would be based on Vasilievsky Island and which would incorporate a system of canals very much like Venice. This system can still be seen in the grid of streets and canals which make up the centre of the city. The original architecture of the city has become known as Petrine Baroque and was designed, not only by Trezzini, but also by other architects, amongst them a Frenchman named Jean-Baptiste Alexandre Le Blond. This style is epitomised by the Menshikov Palace, Kunstkamera, Peter and Paul Cathedral, and Twelve Collegia.
After Tsar Peter 1st had died, St Petersburg lost its status as capital city for a while, but regained it when Anna came to the throne. In 1736-1737 the city was ravaged by a series of major fires which resulted in its re-modelling by a committee under Burkhard Christoph von Munnich. The new city centred around the admiralty, known today as Nevsky Prospekt, but its architectural style remained the same until 1797 when it evolved into Elizabethan Baroque, in which Bartolomeo Rastrelli had a large hand with the design of The Winter Palace. However, by the end of the 18th century the dominant style of architecture was known as Neoclassical. By the 1840s the style of architecture had changed to that of romanticism, which remained dominant until the end of the century.
An interesting fact is that from 1762, the Commission of Stone Buildings of Moscow and St. Petersburg decreed that no building was to be higher than The Winter Palace and that spaces between buildings were to be eliminated. In 1850 the first permanent bridge was opened across the River Neva (Blagoveschensky Bridge).
In 1825 the Decembrist Revolt against Tsar Nicholas 1st was put down on Senate Square, just one day after he assumed the throne. The assassination of Tsar Alexander 2nd in 1881was commemorated by the building of the Church of the Saviour on Blood.
When the serfs were emancipated in 1861, St.Petersburg became one of the largest cities of the north (larger even than Moscow) and was one of the great industrial hubs of that age.
In 1905 the Revolution of that year began in St.Petersburg before spreading to the rest of Russia, but by 1914 the name of the city was thought to be too German and so it was changed to Petrograd.
Petrograd was quite a busy place during the First World War and, having spawned the 1905 Revolution it went on to give birth to the February Revolution (which ended the career of the Tsars, who were closely related to George V, and who appealed to him for help during their imprisonment at Ykaterinburg; he, however, declined to assist) and then the October Revolution, which brought Lenin to power. It was immediately after his death in 1924 that Petrograd was re-named Leningrad. From 1917 to 1920 many people fled the city during the Red Terror (during the Russian Civil War) and so the population shrunk noticeably in size. Because these several revolutions began in St.Petersburg, it became known as The Cradle of the Revolution by the government of the then USSR and an orgy of name-changing took place. At least it kept the various printers busy, as one’s address could change three times between 1914 and 1924!
To add to this city’s colourful past, the Siege of Leningrad began in September 1941 and lasted 872 days until January of 1944. This was the longest, most lethal, and most destructive siege of any city in modern history. Once again, the city became depopulated; more than one million people died and many more escaped or were evacuated.
After the Second World War Leningrad was re-built and re-designed and the Leningrad Metro (built according to plans laid out in the 1930s) was actually opened in 1955, only two years before the first space mission! After Stalin’s death, the type of architecture named after him lost its appeal and was replaced by the new Functionalist architecture which saw several large blocks, all of which looked exactly alike, being built in the suburbs, not unlike the slum-clearance which took place in London. On June 12th 1991, 64% of the city’s electorate chose to change the name back to St.Petersburg, so one could say that it had now come full-circle!
Transport: St.Petersburg is a major transport hub, having connections to Finland, Germany, Moscow, and all former republics of the USSR. The first Russian railway was built here in 1837, and although the underground railway system is relatively new, it is one of the most ornate in the world. The underground railway serves the five main railway stations as well as many of the suburbs, having four lines and sixty stations. The city has an international airport and three cargo airports. It is also served by several seaports and many smaller ports around the Neva Bay, but some of these only operate during Summer months. St.Petersburg still has an enormous system of trams, and those who wish to get around can avail themselves of buses and trolleybuses as well.
Appearance: St.Petersburg has not been spoiled by the building of enormous skyscrapers, so, apart from the TV Tower, it presents a fairly low profile. In 2008 the World Monuments Fund included the skyline in its watch list’ of the 100 most endangered sites, and although the suburbs of the city have been changed radically over the years, the Baroque and Romantic buildings in its centre have largely been preserved, apart from those reduced to rubble during the Siege, and those destroyed by over-zealous communists.
On Zayachi Island the fortress of Peter and Paul, and the cathedral of the same name dominate the skyline, and from the fortress there is a daily cannon blast at midday. Most of the city’s oldest buildings are to be found on the Vasilievsky Island (the Menshikov Palace, Kunstkamera, 12 Collegia, and the Imperial Academy of the Arts). The Winter Palace, the Admiralty Building, and the huge Hermitage Museum are to be found on the southern bank of the Neva. Another area not to be missed is the Nevsky Prospekt which runs from the Admiralty to the Belozeslky-Belozersky Palace and incorporates many of the most famous buildings of the city.
For those of you who seek out famous buildings, to the south of the city lie the Peterhof with its wonderful fountains and parks, the Tsarskoe Selo, and the Baroque Katharine Palace.
Museums: St.Petersburg has plenty: the famous Hermitage (which is the largest in the city and features interiors of the former Imperial Residence and an enormous collection of art), The Russian Museum (all Russian fine art), the Kuntskamera (considered by some to be the first museum in Russia and housing treasures from all over the world), the Railway Museum, the Siege Museum, and the Zoological Museum. It would be wise not to forget the residences of famous people, while you wander about the city: the apartments of Alexander Pushkin, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Feodor Chaliapin, Alexander Blok, Vladimir Nabokov, and Joseph Brodsky are all to be seen. Music and Arts: No visit to St.Petersburg can be complete without a call into the Mariinsky Theatre (known previously as The Kirov); Nijinsky, Pavlova, Nureyev, Baryshnikov, Ulanova, and Makarova were all principal dancers here.
Shostakovitch was born in St.Petersburg and actually wrote his 7th Symphony there during the Nazi siege, dedicating the symphony to the city (then called Leningrad remember?). St.Petersburg was also the home to the Russian jazz movement and has hosted many of the later popular groups.
Film: St.Petersburg also has its claim to fame with many recent and popular films (many previous films about Russia and purported to show the city were in fact filmed elsewhere because of the Soviet Government’s ban on foreign film-makers); amongst these are: White Nights, Anna Karenina (Sean Bean and Sophie Marceau 1997), Golden Eye (1995), Midnight in St.Petersburg (1996), Onegin (1999), and the city hosts the annual St.Petersburg Film Festival which has taken place since 1993.
Shopping: Shopping along the city’s festive main thoroughfare, Nevsky Prospekt offers the best variety of stores. Bolshoi Prospekt on Vasilyevsky Island also offers a comparatively good selection. Many stores accept credit cards, and all stores accept only rubles that you can buy at a number of conveniently located currency exchange points (obmenni punkti) throughout the city. You’re likely to get the best exchange rates on Nevsky Prospekt, but be sure to bring along your passport. Without a passport you can not change money. Most obmenni punkti charge about 50 cents to change money.
A Few Interesting Stories: “Like all proud fathers, Grigory Romanov, the mayor of Leningrad, wanted the very best for his daughter’s wedding. In January 1980, this senior member of the Soviet Politburo persuaded the director of the city’s Hermitage Museum to lend him Catherine the Great’s china tea-set especially for the occasion.
“Late in the exuberant proceedings one guest got to his feet and accidentally dropped a cup. Thinking that this was a toast the other guests took it as a signal for the traditional gesture of good luck, whereupon they all rose to their feet and hurled the entire service into the fireplace.”[Sources: Stephen Pile, Cannibals in the Cafeteria]
“Russia’s first museum of erotica is to open in St Petersburg – with Rasputin’s penis reputedly among the exhibits,” ananova reported in May 2004. “Museum founder Igor Knyazkin says the 12-inch organ will be the star attraction. Mr Knyazkin, who is also the chief of the prostate research centre of the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences, said he was particularly proud of the pickled penis. He said: ‘Having this exhibit, we can stop envying America, where Napoleon Bonaparte’s penis is now kept. Napoleon’s penis is but a small pod – it cannot stand comparison to our organ of 30 centimetres.'”
Some time later, it was reported that visitors were rubbing their hands over the jar in which the penis was contained in the belief that it would make them better lovers. “It is,” Knyazkin said without a trace of irony, “our biggest attraction.”[Sources: ; ananova, 6th August 2004]
In 1916, the “mad monk” and mystic Rasputin was assassinated in Petrograd (Leningrad) by noblemen who resented his Svengali-like influence over the family of czar Nicholas II and feared that his licentious manner and ignorance would undermine the monarchy. Rasputin, however, was no easy target. His assassins first fed him cakes and wine laced with enough cyanide to kill several horses. Rasputin ate and drank heartily – and, incredibly, showed no ill effects. At last Prince Felix Yussupov shot him in the chest and clubbed him on the head with a lead-filled walking stick. As an added precaution, Yussupov had his body thrown into the Neva River. He was happy he did; when the body was later recovered, the autopsy revealed that Rasputin had drowned.[Sources: Isaac Asimov’s Book of Facts Facts: St.Petersburg is Russia’s second largest city and Europe’s fourth. It is the most northern city of more than 1 million people. The centre of the city is listed by Unesco as a World Heritage site. It is situated at 59 degrees 57’ North and 30 degrees 19’East. The city has an area of 1400 square kilometers. From June 11th to July 2nd the nights never grow dark enough for the streetlights to be turned on because of its extreme northern latitude. Independent touring of the city will require a visa. Although Russian is the official language, English is widely spoken. Beware pickpockets! The city has been home to many famous musicians, composers, writers, and politicians – amongst them: Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, Pushkin, Lenin, Stravinsky, Rimsky-korsakov, Borodin, Balakirev, Moussorgsky, Dostoevsky, Nureyev, Ulanova, and was, of course, the main home to Tsar Nicholas II and his family.