Explore St Petersburg, Russia: the Venice of the north

Founded by Peter the Great as his imperial capital, St Petersburg grew to be a stylish, artsy metropolis. Jonathan Miles explores three centuries of history in Russia’s second city

With its grand mansion fronting almost 200 miles of waterways, St Petersburg often draws comparisons to venice (SergeyVButorin / Getty Images)

Raised from mud at the eastern edge of the Baltic in 1703 by Tsar Peter the Great (reigned 1682–1725), St Petersburg reinvented itself again and again. After 100 years of energetic construction, its writers and thinkers led the new Russian capital towards revolution in the Decembrist revolt of 1825, and again nearly a century later in the revolutions of 1917. Subsequently, the population endured Stalin’s terror, a gruelling 900-day siege by Hitler’s Wehrmacht, three name changes and the collapse of communism. Yet during its 315-year history, St Petersburg has made a phenomenal contribution to world culture and politics.

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The Peter and Paul Fortress, the city’s original centre, was initially constructed in earth and wood by more than 20,000 serfs before being rebuilt in stone, with bastion walls 20 metres thick. The Swiss-Italian architect Domenico Trezzini designed its cathedral, built 1712–33 with a soaring spire that shocked the young city: pointed spires had never before been seen in Russia.

On Vasilyevsky Island at the mouth of the river Neva stands the Kunstkamera, Peter’s ‘Art Chamber’, completed in 1727. It was built to house his collection of biological curiosities found in Siberia or purchased from Dutch collectors such as Frederik Ruysch. Exhibits include a two-headed calf, a lamb with eight legs and a dubious ‘flying dragon’.

Just across the river stands the Winter Palace complex and the General Staff Building, which now house the State Hermitage Museum. Its collections were established when Peter the Great acquired paintings by Rubens and Rembrandt, and were greatly enlarged by Catherine the Great (reigned 1762–96). Despite sell-offs from the 1920s by a cash-strapped Soviet government, a 1972 guide boasted that the “museum’s displays and store rooms contain about 2,650,000 works of art and other objects”.

Some 5 miles south of the city centre, hidden among Soviet housing developments, is Chesme Church, consecrated in 1780 and resembling an elaborate wedding cake. Yuri Veldten built this church and nearby Chesmenskiy Palace for Catherine the Great as a staging-post en route to her summer palace at Tsarskoe Selo. Catherine ordered a 952-piece dinner service from Josiah Wedgwood for this chateau, then called Kekerekeksinen, or ‘Frog Marsh’ Palace. Each piece featured an image of English country scenery, reflecting Catherine’s preference for the quiet respectability of England over the tastes of revolutionary France.

In the constellation of palaces around Petersburg, the most gracious is the Palladian-style Pavlovsk, built from 1781 for Catherine’s son Grand Duke Paul. The ordered informality of the English-style garden, designed by Scot Charles Cameron, suited Catherine, who despised “straight lines and paired paths” and “fountains which torture water”.

So much of Petersburg’s history has occurred on its premier thoroughfare, Nevsky Prospekt. By 1830, it had become a ‘show street’, comparable to the Rivoli in Paris or London’s Regent Street. The Nevsky offered glimmers of hope, yet frequently – particularly in the pages of Gogol and Dostoyevsky – delivered despair. It reinforced hierarchies but also offered a space shared by different orders of society, providing the context for the social interaction that led to revolution.

Some of the greatest dancers came of age at the Mariinsky Theatre, built in 1860, including Nijinksy, Pavlova and Nureyev. Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker premiered here on 18 December 1892.

In August 1942, during the long siege by Hitler’s forces (from September 1941 to January 1944), the neoclassical Philharmonia Theatre hosted the Leningrad premiere of Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony. Some members of the cobbled-together orchestra died of starvation before the performance. That era is commemorated by the Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad on Ploschad Pobedy (Victory Square) six miles south of the centre. The obelisk-and-ring memorial is accompanied by statues paying homage to the female workers, barricade-makers, snipers, soldiers and sailors whose fortitude helped the city endure that long, terrible siege.

St Petersburg in nine sites

1: Peter and Paul Fortress – The original citadel built by Peter the Great from 1703, dominated by a slender, 123-metre-high gold-painted spire

2: Kunstkamera – Peter the Great’s cabinet of curiosities, officially the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography

3: State Hermitage Museum – Treasure trove of wonders in beautiful venues including the Winter Palace

4: Chesme Church – Wedding-cake Orthodox church built for Catherine the Great

5: Pavlovsk Palace – Palladian edifice with English-style gardens created for Catherine’s heir

6: Nevsky Prospekt – The city’s main artery, lined with churches, palaces and opulent shops

7: Mariinsky Theatre – Venue that nurtured Russia’s greatest ballet talents

8: Philharmonia Theatre – Neoclassical theatre where Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony was played by starving musicians during the siege

9: Monument to the Heroic – Defenders of Leningrad Moving memorial to citizens and soldiers who held out against Hitler’s long siege

Jonathan Miles is a cultural historian, author of St Petersburg: Three Centuries of Murderous Desire (Hutchinson, 2017)

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This article was taken from issue 8 of BBC World Histories magazine, first published in February 2018