Saint Petersburg (Russian: Санкт-Петербу́рг, tr. Sankt-Peterburg; is the second largest city in Russia. It is politically incorporated as a federal subject (a federal city). It is located on the Neva River at the head of the Gulf of Finland on the Baltic Sea. In 1914 the name of the city was changed from Saint Petersburg to Petrograd (Russian: Петрогра́д; IPA: [pʲɪtrɐˈgrat]), in 1924 to Leningrad (Russian: Ленингра́д; and in 1991, back to Saint Petersburg. In Russian literature, informal documents, and discourse, the word “Saint” is usually omitted, leaving “Petersburg”. In casual conversation Russians may drop the “burg” as well, referring to it as “Peter”: Russian: Питер.
Tsar Peter the Great founded Saint Petersburg on May 27 1703. Between 1713–1728 and 1732–1918 Saint Petersburg functioned as the imperial capital of Russia. In 1918 the central government bodies moved from Saint Petersburg (then named Petrograd) to Moscow. It is Russia’s second-largest city after Moscow, with 5 million inhabitants (2012), and the fourth most populated federal subject. Saint Petersburg is a major European cultural center, and also an important Russian port on the Baltic Sea.
Saint Petersburg is often described as the most Westernized city of Russia, as well as its cultural capital. It is the northernmost city in the world with a population of over one million. The Historic Centre of Saint Petersburg and Related Groups of Monuments constitute a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Saint Petersburg is home to The Hermitage, one of the largest art museums in the world. A large number of foreign consulates, international corporations, banks, and businesses have offices in Saint Petersburg.
One of the world’s most beautiful cities, St. Petersburg has all the ingredients for an unforgettable travel experience: high art, lavish architecture, wild nightlife, an extraordinary history and rich cultural traditions that have inspired and nurtured some of the modern world’s greatest literature, music, and visual art.’
From the mysterious twilight of the White Nights to world-beating opera and ballet productions on magical winter evenings, St. Petersburg charms and entices in every season. And I of all people, had the chance to visit this amazing historical city and shot as many pictures as my cam could handle. Enjoy this article, as I take through an historical journey as well as the many photos taken by yours truly.
Swedish colonists built Nyenskans, a fortress, at the mouth of the Neva River in 1611, in a land then called Ingermanland, that was inhabited by Finnic tribe of Ingrians. A small town called “Nyen” grew up around it.
Peter the Great was interested in seafaring and maritime affairs, and he intended to have Russia gain a seaport in order to be able to trade with other maritime nations. He needed a better seaport than Arkhangelsk, which was on the White Sea to the north and closed to shipping for months during the winter.
On May 12 1703, during the Great Northern War, Peter the Great captured Nyenskans, and soon replaced the fortress. On May 27 1703, closer to the estuary 5 km (3 mi) inland from the gulf), on Zayachy (Hare) Island, he laid down the Peter and Paul Fortress, which became the first brick and stone building of the new city.
The city was built by conscripted peasants from all over Russia; a number of Swedish prisoners of war were also involved in some years under the supervision of Alexander Menshikov. Tens of thousands of serfs died building the city. Later, the city became the centre of the Saint Petersburg Governorate. Peter moved the capital from Moscow to Saint Petersburg in 1712, 9 years before the Treaty of Nystad of 1721 ended the war; he referred to Saint Petersburg as the capital (or seat of government) as early as 1704.
During its first few years, the city developed around Trinity Square on the right bank of the Neva, near the Peter and Paul Fortress. However, Saint Petersburg soon started to be built out according to a plan. By 1716 Domenico Trezzini had elaborated a project whereby the city centre would be located on Vasilyevsky Island and shaped by a rectangular grid of canals. The project was not completed, and is evident in the layout of the streets. In 1716, Peter the Great appointed Jean-Baptiste Alexandre Le Blond as the chief architect of Saint Petersburg.
The style of Petrine Baroque, developed by Trezzini and other architects and exemplified by such buildings as the Menshikov Palace, Kunstkamera, Peter and Paul Cathedral,Twelve Collegia, became prominent in the city architecture of the early 18th century. In 1724 the Academy of Sciences, University and Academic Gymnasium were established in Saint Petersburg by Peter the Great.
In 1725, Peter died at the age of fifty-two. His endeavours to modernize Russia had met with opposition from the Russian nobility—resulting in several attempts on his life and a treason case involving his son. In 1728, Peter II of Russia moved his seat back to Moscow. But four years later, in 1732, under Empress Anna of Russia, Saint Petersburg was again designated as the capital of the Russian Empire. It remained the seat of the Romanov dynasty and the Imperial Court of the Russian Tsars, as well as the seat of the Russian government, for another 186 years until the communist revolution of 1917.
In 1736–1737 the city suffered from catastrophic fires. To rebuild the damaged boroughs, a committee under Burkhard Christoph von Münnich commissioned a new plan in 1737. The city was divided into five boroughs, and the city center was moved to the Admiralty borough, situated on the east bank between the Neva and Fontanka.
It developed along three radial streets, which meet at the Admiralty building and are now one street known as Nevsky Prospekt (which is considered the main street of the city), Gorokhovaya Street and Voznesensky Prospekt. Baroque architecture became dominant in the city during the first sixty years, culminating in the Elizabethan Baroque, represented most notably by Bartolomeo Rastrelli with such buildings as the Winter Palace. In the 1760s, Baroque architecture was succeeded by neoclassical architecture.
However, it was not until 1850 that the first permanent bridge across the Neva, Blagoveshchensky Bridge, was allowed to open. Before that, only pontoon bridges were allowed. Obvodny Canal (dug in 1769–1833) became the southern limit of the city.
The most prominent neoclassical and Empire-style architects in Saint Petersburg included:
- Jean-Baptiste Vallin de la Mothe (Imperial Academy of Arts, Small Hermitage, Gostiny Dvor, New Holland Arch, Catholic Church of St. Catherine)
- Antonio Rinaldi (Marble Palace)
- Yury Felten (Old Hermitage, Chesme Church)
- Giacomo Quarenghi (Academy of Sciences, Hermitage Theatre, Yusupov Palace)
- Andrey Voronikhin (Mining Institute, Kazan Cathedral)
- Andreyan Zakharov (Admiralty building)
- Jean-François Thomas de Thomon (Spit of Vasilievsky Island)
- Carlo Rossi (Yelagin Palace, Mikhailovsky Palace, Alexandrine Theatre, Senate and Synod Buildings, General Staff Building, design of many streets and squares)
- Vasily Stasov (Moscow Triumphal Gate, Trinity Cathedral)
- Auguste de Montferrand (Saint Isaac’s Cathedral, Alexander Column)
In 1810, Alexander I established the first engineering Higher learning institution, the Saint Petersburg Main military engineering School in Saint Petersburg. Many monuments commemorate the Russian victory over Napoleonic France in the Patriotic War of 1812, including the Alexander Column by Montferrand, erected in 1834, and the Narva Triumphal Gate.
In 1825, the suppressed Decembrist revolt against Nicholas I took place on the Senate Square in the city, a day after Nicholas assumed the throne.
By the 1840s, neoclassical architecture had given way to various romanticist styles, which dominated until the 1890s, represented by such architects as Andrei Stackenschneider (Mariinsky Palace, Beloselsky-Belozersky Palace, Nicholas Palace, New Michael Palace) andvKonstantin Thon (Moskovsky railway station).
With the emancipation of the peasants undertaken by Alexander II in 1861 and an industrial revolution, the influx of former peasants into the capital increased greatly. Poor boroughs spontaneously emerged on the outskirts of the city. Saint Petersburg surpassed Moscow in population and industrial growth; it developed as one of the largest industrial cities in Europe, with a major naval base (in Kronstadt), river and sea port.
The names of saints Peter and Paul, bestowed upon original city’s citadel and its cathedral (from 1725—a burial vault of Russian emperors) coincidentally were the names of the first two assassinated Russian Emperors, Peter III (1762, supposedly killed in a conspiracy led by his wife, Catherine the Great) and Paul I (1801, Nicholas Zubov and other conspirators who brought to power Alexander I, the son of their victim). The third emperor’s assassination took place in Petersburg in 1881 when Alexander II fell victim to narodniki (see the Church of the Savior on Blood).
1900 to present
The Revolution of 1905 began in Saint Petersburg and spread rapidly into the provinces.
On September 1, 1914, after the outbreak of 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, which 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” referring to the three major developments in the political history of Russia of the early 20th-century.
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, to keep it away from the state border. During the ensuing Civil War, in 1919 general Yudenich advancing from Estonia repeated the attempt to capture the city, but Leon Trotsky mobilized 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 toponyms were renamed accordingly. The city has over 230 places associated with the life and activities of Lenin. Some of them were turned into museums, including the cruiser Aurora – a symbol of the October Revolution and the oldest ship in the Russian Navy.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the poor outskirts were reconstructed into regularly planned boroughs. Constructivist architecture flourished around that time. Housing became a government-provided amenity; many “bourgeois” apartments were so large that numerous families were assigned to what were called “communal” apartments (kommunalkas).
By the 1930s, 68% of the population lived in such housing. In 1935 a new general plan was outlined, whereby the city should expand to the south. Constructivism was rejected in favor of a more pompous Stalinist architecture. Moving the city center further from the border with Finland, Stalin adopted a plan to build a new city hall with a huge adjacent square at the southern end of Moskovsky Prospekt, designated as the new main street of Leningrad. After the Second World War, the Soviet-Finnish border moved northwards. Nevsky Prospekt with Palace Square maintained the functions and the role of a city center.
In December 1931, Leningrad was administratively separated from Leningrad Oblast. At that time it included the Leningrad Suburban District, some parts of which were transferred back to Leningrad Oblast in 1936 and turned into Vsevolozhsky District, Krasnoselsky District, Pargolovsky District and Slutsky District (renamed Pavlovsky District in 1944).
On December 1, 1934, Sergey Kirov, the popular communist leader of Leningrad, was assassinated, which became the pretext for theGreat Purge.
During World War II, German forces besieged Leningrad following the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. The siege lasted 872 days, from September 1941 to January 1944. 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.
On May 1, 1945 Joseph Stalin, in his Supreme Commander Order No. 20, named Leningrad, alongside Stalingrad, Sevastopol, and Odessa, hero cities of the war. A law acknowledging the honorary title of “Hero City” passed on May 8, 1965 (the 20th anniversary of the victory in the Great Patriotic War), during the Brezhnev era. The Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR awarded Leningrad as a Hero City the Order of Lenin and the Gold Star medal “for the heroic resistance of the city and tenacity of the survivors of the Siege”. The Hero-City Obelisk bearing the Gold Star sign was installed in April 1985.
In October 1946 some territories along the northern coast of the Gulf of Finland, which had passed to the USSR from Finland in 1940 under the peace treaty following the Winter War, were transferred from Leningrad Oblast to Leningrad and divided into Sestroretsky District and Kurortny District. These included the town of Terijoki (renamed Zelenogorskin 1948).
Leningrad and many of its suburbs were rebuilt over the post-war decades, partially according to pre-war plans. The 1948 general plan for Leningrad featured radial urban development in the north as well as in the south. In 1953 Pavlovsky District in Leningrad Oblast was abolished, and parts of its territory, including Pavlovsk, merged with Leningrad. In 1954 the settlements Levashovo, Pargolovo and Pesochny merged with Leningrad.
Leningrad gave its name to the Leningrad Affair (1949–1952), a notable event in the postwar political struggle in the USSR. It was a product of rivalry between Stalin’s potential successors where one side was represented by the leaders of the city Communist Party organization—the second most significant one in the country after Moscow. The entire elite leadership of Leningrad was destroyed, including the former mayor Kuznetsov, the acting mayor Pyotr Sergeevich Popkov, and all their deputies; overall 23 leaders were sentenced to the death penalty, 181 to prison or exile (exonerated in 1954). About 2,000 ranking officials across the USSR were expelled from the party and the Komsomol and removed from leadership positions.
The Leningrad Metro underground rapid transit system, designed before the war, opened in 1955 with its first eight stations decorated with marble and bronze. However, after the death of Stalin in 1953, the perceived ornamental excesses of the Stalinist architecture were abandoned. From the 1960s to the 1980s many new residential boroughs were built on the outskirts; while the functionalist apartment blocks were nearly identical to each other, many families moved there from kommunalkas in the city centre in order to live in separate apartments.
On June 12, 1991, simultaneously with the first Russian presidential elections, the city authorities arranged for the mayoral elections and a referendum upon the name of the city. The turnout was 65%; 66.13% of the total count of votes went to Anatoly Sobchak, who became the first directly elected mayor of the city.
Meanwhile, economic conditions started to deteriorate as the country tried to adapt to major changes. For the first time since the 1940s, food rationing was introduced, and the city received humanitarian food aid from abroad. This dramatic time was depicted in photographic series of Russian photographer Alexey Titarenko.
In 1995 a northern section of the Kirovsko-Vyborgskaya Line of the Saint Petersburg Metro was cut off by underground flooding, creating a major obstacle to the city development for almost ten years.
In 1996, Vladimir Yakovlev defeated Anatoly Sobchak in the elections for the head of the city administration. The title of the city head was changed from “mayor” to “governor”. In 2000 Yakovlev won re-election. His second term expired in 2004; the long-awaited restoration of broken subway connection was expected to finish by that time. But in 2003 Yakovlev suddenly resigned, leaving the governor’s office to Valentina Matviyenko.
The law on election of the City Governor was changed, breaking the tradition of democratic election by a universal suffrage. In 2006 the city legislature re-approved Matviyenko as governor. Residential building had intensified again; real-estate prices inflated greatly, which caused many new problems for the preservation of the historical part of the city.
Although the central part of the city has a UNESCO designation (there are about 8,000 architectural monuments in Petersburg), the preservation of its historical and architectural environment became controversial.
After 2005, the demolition of older buildings in the historical centre was permitted. In 2006 Gazprom announced an ambitious project to erect a 396-meter skyscraper opposite to Smolny, which could result in the loss of the unique line of Petersburg landscape. Urgent protests by citizens and prominent public figures of Russia against this project were not considered by Governor Valentina Matviyenko and the city authorities until December 2010, when after the statement of President Dmitry Medvedev, the city decided to find a more appropriate location for this project.
Saint Petersburg has three skyscrapers: Leader Tower (140 m), Alexander Nevsky (124 m) and Atlantic City (105 m) all three being situated far away from the historical centre. Current regulations forbid construction of high buildings in the city centre. The 310-meter (1,020 ft) tall Saint Petersburg TV Tower is the tallest completed structure in the city. However, there was a controversial project endorsed by the city authorities, and known as the Okhta Center, to build a 396 meters (1,299 ft) supertall skyscraper.
In 2008, the World Monuments Fund included the Saint Petersburg historic skyline on the watch list of the 100 most endangered sites due to the expected construction, which threatens to alter it drastically. The Okhta Cernter project has been finally cancelled at the end of 2010 and instead of that Lakhta Center project is started at the city outskirts.
The complex shall include 463 meter tall office skyscraper and several low rise mixed use buildings. Lakhta center project causes much less controversy and, unlike the previous unbuilt project, is not seen by UNESCO as potential threat to cultural heritage because it is located far away from historical center. Skyscraper construction has already started, the building should be constructed in 2017. It is assumed that the building will be the tallest in Russia and Europe.
Unlike in Moscow, in Saint Petersburg the historic architecture of the city centre, mostly consisting of Baroque and neoclassical buildings of the 18th and 19th centuries, has been largely preserved; although a number of buildings were demolished after the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power, during the Siege of Leningrad and in recent years.
The oldest of the remaining building is a wooden house built for Peter I in 1703 on the shore of the Neva near Trinity Square. Since 1991 the Historic Centre of Saint Petersburg and Related Groups of Monuments in Saint Petersburg and Leningrad Oblast have been listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
The ensemble of Peter and Paul Fortress with the Peter and Paul Cathedral takes a dominant position on Zayachy Island along the right bank of the River Neva. Each noon a cannon fires a blank shot from the fortress. The Saint Petersburg Mosque, the largest mosque in Europe when opened in 1913, is situated on the right bank nearby.
The Spit of Vasilievsky Island, which splits the river into two largest armlets, the Bolshaya Neva and Malaya Neva, is connected to the northern bank (Petrogradsky Island) via theExchange Bridge and occupied by the Old Saint Petersburg Stock Exchange and Rostral Columns. The southern coast of Vasilyevsky Island along the Bolshaya Neva features some of the city’s oldest buildings, dating from the 18th century, including the Kunstkamera, Twelve Collegia, Menshikov Palace and Imperial Academy of Arts. It hosts one of two campuses of Saint Petersburg State University.
On the southern, left bank of the Neva, connected to the spit of Vasilyevsky Island via the Palace Bridge, lie the Admiralty building, the vast Hermitage Museum complex stretching along the Palace Embankment, which includes the baroque Winter Palace, former official residence of Russian emperors, as well as the neoclassical Marble Palace. The Winter Palace faces Palace Square, the city’s main square with the Alexander Column.
Nevsky Prospekt, also situated on the left bank of the Neva, is the main avenue in the city. It starts at the Admiralty and runs eastwards next to Palace Square. Nevsky Prospekt crosses the Moika (Green Bridge), Griboyedov Canal (Kazansky Bridge), Garden Street, the Fontanka (Anichkov Bridge), meets Liteyny Prospekt and proceeds to Uprising Square near the Moskovsky railway station, where it meets Ligovsky Prospekt and turns to the Alexander Nevsky Lavra.
The Passage, Catholic Church of St. Catherine, Book House (former Singer Manufacturing Company Building in the Art Nouveau style), Grand Hotel Europe, Lutheran Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, Great Gostiny Dvor, Russian National Library, Alexandrine Theatre behind Mikeshin’s statue of Catherine the Great, Kazan Cathedral, Stroganov Palace, Anichkov Palace and Beloselsky-Belozersky Palace are all situated along that avenue.
The Alexander Nevsky Lavra, intended to house the relics of St. Alexander Nevsky, is an important centre of Christian education in Russia. It also contains the Tikhvin Cemetery with graves of many notable Petersburgers.
On the territory between the Neva and Nevsky Prospekt the Church of the Savior on Blood, Mikhailovsky Palace housing the Russian Museum, Field of Mars, St. Michael’s Castle, Summer Garden, Tauride Palace, Smolny Institute and Smolny Convent are located.
Photos of the Smolny Cathedral where I visited.
Smolny Cathedral was originally intended to be the central church of a monastery, built to house the daughter of Peter the Great, Elizabeth, after she was disallowed to take the throne and opted instead to become a nun. However, as soon as her Imperial predecessor was overthrown during a coup, carried out by the royal guards, Elizabeth decided to forget the whole idea of a stern monastic life and happily accepted the offer of the Russian throne.
Smolny Cathedral’s stunning blue-and-white building is undoubtedly one of the architectural masterpieces of the Italian architect Rastrelli, who also created the Winter Palace, the Grand Catherine (Yekaterininsky) Palace in Pushkin, the Grand Palace in Peterhof and many other major St. Petersburg landmarks. The cathedral is the centerpiece of the convent, built by Rastrelli between 1748 and 1764.
When Elizabeth stepped down from the throne the funding that had supported the constructed of the convent rapidly ran out and Rastrelli was unable to build the huge bell-tower he had planned or finish the interior of the cathedral. The building was only finished 1835 with the addition of a neo-classical interior to suit the changed architectural tastes of the day.
Today Smolny Cathedral is used primarily as a concert hall and the surrounding convent houses various offices and government institutions.
More on downtown Saint Petersburg
Many notable landmarks are situated to the west and south of the Admiralty Building, including the Trinity Cathedral, Mariinsky Palace, Hotel Astoria, famous Mariinsky Theatre, New Holland Island, Saint Isaac’s Cathedral, the largest in the city, and Senate Square, also known as Decembrist’s Square with the Bronze Horseman, 18th century equestrian monument to Peter the Great, which is considered among the city’s most recognisable symbols.
Other symbols of Saint Petersburg include the weather vane in the shape of a small ship on top of the Admiralty’s golden spire and the golden angel on top of the Peter and Paul Cathedral. The Palace Bridge drawn at night is yet another symbol of the city. Every night during the navigation period from April to November, 22 bridges across the Neva and main canals are drawn to let ships pass in and out of the Baltic Sea according to a schedule.
It was not until 2004 that the first high bridge across the Neva, which does not need to be drawn, Big Obukhovsky Bridge, was opened. There are hundreds of smaller bridges in Saint Petersburg spanning across numerous canals and distributaries of the Neva, some of the most important of which are the Moika, Fontanka, Griboyedov Canal, Obvodny Canal, Karpovka and Smolenka. Due to the intricate web of canals, Saint Petersburg is often called Venice of the North. The rivers and canals in the city centre are lined with granite embankments. The embankments and bridges are separated from rivers and canals by granite or cast iron parapets.
Southern suburbs of the city feature former imperial residences, including Petergof, with majestic fountain cascades and parks, Tsarskoe Selo, with the baroque Catherine Palace and the neoclassical Alexander Palace, and Pavlovsk, which contains a domed palace of Emperor Paul and one of the largest English-style parks in Europe. Some other residences situated nearby and making part of the world heritage site, including a castle and park in Gatchina, actually belong to Leningrad Oblast rather than Saint Petersburg. Another notable suburb is Kronstadt with its 19th-century fortifications and naval monuments, occupying the Kotlin Island in the Gulf of Finland.
Since around the end of the 20th century a great deal of active building and restoration works have been carried out in a number of the city’s older districts. The authorities have recently been compelled to transfer the ownership of state-owned private residences in the city centre to private lessors. Many older buildings have been reconstructed to allow their use as apartments and penthouses.
What can I say about Saint Petersburg, Russia? Ive been to this amazing place three times during my world voyages and even though Ive visited here three times, there doesnt seem enough time to see it all. Its such a huge city, only second to Moscow. It didnt seem as though there were over one million inhabitants at the times I was there, even whilst on a planned tour for passengers. There again, it must have been on a weekday, so almost everyone was at their office working their butts off.
The Russian people look so serious most of the time and sometimes brings back what it must have been like during the Stalinist era. But when you get to know them, which I did here and there, theyre pretty friendly people though a tad cautious what with so many tourists visiting their city and country all year round. Three times is not enough to see everything you wish to see, if only I had the time to stay overnight everytime the cruiseship docked.
To end this article here are some quick facts on Saint Petersburg, Russia:
St. Petersburg in Facts and Figures
- Eastern Europe, the Eastern shore of the Baltic Sea (Gulf of Finland)
- 59 degrees 57′ North
- 30 degrees 19′ East
- 16 (27) May, 1703
- celebrated each year on May 27
- 5.2 million (as of 2015)
How does St. Petersburg compare?
- The most Northern city in the world with a population over 1 million
- 1400 square kilometers
- Neva. The city is located in the delta of the Neva River on numerous islands, a fact which prompted some observers to call it “The City on 101 Islands”
Main natural phenomena:
- White Nights, Floods
Origin of the name:
- Named in honor of St. Peter and not Peter the Great, the founder of the city.
- The name can be translated as “The City of St. Peter”. St. Petersburg, FL was named in honor of St. Petersburg, Russia by Russian-born railroad builder Piotr Dementyev (Peter Demens)
May, 1703 – August, 1914
August, 1914 – February, 1924
February, 1924 – July, 1991
July, 1991 – Present
- “The Venice of the North”(referring to St. Petersburg’s many rivers and canals)
- “The Palmyra of the North”
- “The Northern Capital of Russia” (referring to the centuries-old rivalry between St. Petersburg and Moscow)