St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg is a city of haunting magnificence, an imperial capital that seems to have been built as a monument to its own passing. Less than three centuries have passed since Peter the Great began building his grand city on the Gulf of Finland, but it is difficult to visit its vast, crystalline squares and palaces without feeling the enormity of the gulf that separates that time from our own. All of which, of course, makes St. Petersburg more evocative of Russia's past than any place except perhaps the Moscow Kremlin. This impression is only deepened by a more familiar acquaintance. The enigmatic homeliness of Peter's cottage and the city's placid canals may contrast with the brooding grandeur of the Winter Palace, but they share with it a graceful stillness that is difficult to forget.

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Designed as the successor to Moscow's great imperial squares, this vast formal court is best known as the focal point of the great political struggles that transformed Russia during the first decades of the twentieth century

The first of these events was "Bloody Sunday," the catastrophe that initiated the Revolution of 1905. On the morning of Sunday, January 9, 1905, thousands of striking workers, including their wives and children, marched into the square to present a petition for relief to Nicholas II. They were met by soldiers, who began firing on the crowd almost immediately, killing hundreds (according to some accounts thousands) of the demonstrators. The causes of the massacre are disputed, particularly in light of the complicated political tensions in the government at the time. Some historians, for example, argue that both the demonstration and the military reaction were planned by the conservative secret police, who were alarmed by signs that the Tsar had decided upon reform. Whatever its cause, the effect of Bloody Sunday was clear--popular opposition to the Tsar was galvanized, and conservative reactionaries gained strength in the government.

In the wake of Bloody Sunday the country's politics became increasingly divisive, and genuine compromise and reform unlikely. Civil unrest broke out all over the country, and, with the disaster of the Russo-Japanese War, the government was forced to accede to popular demands for reform. It soon became clear, however, that Nicholas and his government had no intention of making good on this agreement. Popular discontent and radical political movements were harshly repressed. While these policies were successful for a time, the government's inept conduct during the First World War created an enormous surge of dissent. The critical turning point came in February of 1917, when the underfed, poorly led, and discontented army refused to act to put down strikes in Moscow and St. Petersburg and called for an end to the war. By March, Nicholas had no choice but to abdicate.


A provisional government assumed control under the leadership of the moderates, first Prince Lvov, then (in July) Aleksandr Kerensky. From its seat in the Winter Palace, the Kerensky government tried and failed to gain popular support and restore civil order. Among the socialist anti-government parties, the radical Bolshevik wing gradually gained strength among the increasingly impatient army and workers. Within a few months the Bolsheviks decided to assume power. On the night of October 26 they staged an armed coup d'etat, storming across the Palace Square and seizing the Provisional Government as it met within the Winter Palace. Although the storming of the Winter Palace was by no means the massive popular uprising that it was to become in the Bolshevik commemorations and in Sergei Eisenstein's film October, it was certainly the moment of symbolic birth of the Soviet state.

This towering triumphal column was erected in 1833 as a somewhat belated monument to the defeat of Napoleon in 1812. Designed by Auguste de Montferrand, who also designed St. Isaac's Cathedral, the Alexander Column was hewn from the rock face of a cliff in Karelia over a period of two years, requiring the labors of thousands of workers. It was then carefully transported to St. Petersburg, taking an entire year for to complete the transit. On arrival, the monolith was erected by two thousand veterans of the war. It is surmounted by an angel of peace, the visage of which bears considerable similarity to Alexander himself. In keeping with the geometric formality of the Imperial structures of the city, the Alexander column is positioned so as to align perfectly with the entrance to the Winter Palace and the triumphal arch that serves as the entry to the General Staff building opposite.

The Admiralty building was constructed in 1823 as the administrative headquarters of the Russian Navy. Designed by Andreyan Zakharov, it is best known for its impressive central tower and crowning gilt spire. Rising to a height of over seventy meters, the spire is surmounted by a brilliant windvane in the form of a frigate, which has become the ubiquitous symbol of the city. The Admiralty's ornate facade is laden with appropriately nautical sculptures and reliefs, and looks out over the trees and statues of the pleasant Admiralty Garden.

Commissioned by Catherine the Great and sculpted by the Frenchman Etienne Falconet, this striking, dynamic statue has long been one of the most symbolic monuments in St. Petersburg. Catherine intended it to glorify the philosophy of enlightened absolutism that she shared with her predecessor, and for good and bad Falconnet seems to have succeeded. From different angles the rearing equestrian statue seems by turns to be benevolent and malevolent, inspiring and terrifying. In 1833 Pushkin immortalized it in his masterful poem The Bronze Horseman, in which the statue comes to life to pursue the poor clerk Yevgeny through the flooded streets of the city. For most of its history, the Bronze Horseman has been regarded as a symbol of tyranny and destruction. However, as Russia's Tsarist past has become more distant and somewhat less politically charged, the statue has come to be appreciated as much for its dramatic beauty as for its imperial associations.

Peter's first concern in the creation of St. Petersburg was with the defense of the approaches of the Neva river delta, and the Peter and Paul Fortress was the first major building project undertaken. In fact, it is entirely possible that the idea of building a new capital city on the site occurred to the young Tsar while he was living in his cottage and supervising the fortress's construction.

The primary attraction within the fortress is the Peter and Paul Cathedral, begun by Peter as soon as the fortress had been constructed, though not completed until 1733. In keeping with Peter's Eurocentric bias, its design follows the pattern of Dutch ecclesiatical architecture rather than Russian. The most noticeable characteristic of this is the cathedral's tall thin spire, which was designed specifically so as to best Moscow's Ivan the Gret Belltower as the tallest structure in Russia. The cathedral is the resting place of most of the Romanov monarchs (excepting Peter II, Ivan VI, and Nicholas II), and their sarcophagi can be viewed inside.

With the possible exception of the Louvre, there is no museum in the world that rivals the Hermitage in size and quality. Its collection is so large that it would take years to view it in its entirety--at last count, there were nearly three million works on exhibit. The museum is especially strong in Italian Renaissance and French Impressionist paintings, as well as possessing outstanding collections of works by Rembrandt, Picasso, and Matisse. Visitors should also take advantage of its excellent Greek and Roman antiquities collection and its exhibits of Siberian and Central Asian art. Not least among the attractions of the Hermitage is the museum itself, with its fine interior decoration and architectural detail. As the Hermitage is so enormous, its collection so strong and diverse, and its interior so attractive in its own right, many visitors find that the very best way to tour the museum is to make several briefer visits rather than one frenetic and exhausting marathon tour. While there is much to be gained by simply allowing the curiosity of one's eye to take at least occasional precedence over a list of works and collections dictated by a guidebook or even a guide.

The origins of the Hermitage can be traced back to the private art collection of Peter the Great, who purchased numerous works during his travels abroad and later hung them in his residence. Catherine the Great expanded the collection considerably, and she and her successors built the Hermitage collection in large part with purchases of the private collections of the Western European aristocracy and monarchy. By the time Nicholas II ascended the throne in 1894, he was heir to the greatest collection of art in Europe.

After the Revolution of 1917, the museum was opened to the public, and its collection was further augmented by the addition of modern works taken from private collections. Today, the Hermitage has embarked on a major renovation effort. Its collection is in the process of being reorganized, and many of its works have for the first time become available for travelling exhibits outside of the country.

The Winter Palace is undoubtedly the most famous building of imperial St. Petersburg, not only as the residence of the Tsars and the backdrop for the 1905 and 1917 Revolutions, but also as the home of the Hermitage, the world's largest museum of art.

The present structure, completed in 1762 and designed by Bartolomeo Rastrelli, was commissioned by the Empress Elizabeth. Its opulent baroque facade, stretching two hundred meters, is a veritable cornucopia of pilasters, bays, and statuary. The palace served as the winter residence for every ruler of Russia since Peter III, who installed himself there along with his mistress, the Countess Vorontsova. After his wife Catherine the Great seized the throne, she redecorated and appropriated her husband's old quarters. While her son Nicholas I lived in a modest apartment there, his wife Alexandra commissioned the famously luxurious Malachite Room, later to be used as the meeting place for Kerensky's Provisional Government. Nicholas II had his quarters immediately above this room until 1904, when he moved from the increasingly discontented capital to Tsarskoe Selo. In July of 1917, the Provisional Government took up residence here, thus setting the stage for the October Revolution. After consolidating its power, the Bolshevik government transferred its capital to Moscow, and since that time the Winter Palace has been associated primarily with its role as the Hermitage Museum.

The weighty mass of St. Isaac's Cathedral dominates the skyline of St. Petersburg. Its gilded dome, covered with 100 kg of pure gold, soars over 100 meters into the air, making it visible far out into the Gulf of Finland. The Cathedral was commissioned by Alexander I in 1818 and took more than three decades to complete. Its architect, August Monferrand, pulled out all the stops in his design, incorporating dozens of kinds of stone and marble into the enormous structure and lading its vast interior with frescoes, mosaics, bas-reliefs, and the only stained glass window in the Orthodoxy. By the time the cathedral was completed in 1858, its cost had spiraled to more than twenty million rubles--as well as the lives of hundreds of laborers. Both the exterior and the interior of the cathedral deserve prolonged observation, and the view from the dome is stupendous.