Saint Petersburg: the Melting Pot of Russian History and Culture

Saint Petersburg, Russia

If you are looking for a truly Russian experience, a place that can show you what it ttuly feels to be in Russia, Saint Petersburg should be number choice. Founded by Tsar Peter I, the city bore witness to more than 200 years of Russia’s political and architectural transformations. It is now considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with its numerous monuments meeting at the core of the city’s historic center.

Named after its founder’s favorite saint, Saint Peter the first apostle of Jesus, Saint Petersburg was also called Petrograd and Leningrad in the past. The name changes were purely political. “Leningrad” was a tribute to Lenin, while “Petrograd” was a more Russian sounding version of the city’s original name. The city was renamed Saint Petersburg in 1991 after 54% of Russia’s citizens voted for the old city’s name back. Today, locals simply call the city Petersburg, or more informally, Piter.

Saint Petersburg is currently home to 4.6 million people. It is considered the most “Western” city of Russia. It is also inevitably a European cultural center. Throughout history, the city was also referred to as the “northern capital”. Statistically speaking, Saint Petersburg is the second largest city in Russia after Moscow. This also makes the city the third largest in the whole of Europe. It is geographically located in the middle taiga lowlands, along Neva Bay off the Gulf of Finland. Because of the proximity of the city to the Baltic Sea, Saint Petersburg suffered from four disastrous floods in 1824, 1924, 1955, and 1975. These floods necessitated the building of the Saint Petersburg dam in 1979.

Some of the city’s terrain has also been artificially raised, merging several islands and changing the hydrology of the city. Aside from the Neva, there are several other important rivers in the city, namely Sestra, Okhta, and Izhora. Saint Petersburg enjoys short summers with cold, humid winters that come close to subarctic climates. From mid-May to mid-July, “white nights” can be experienced, when twilights last all night during the early summer. Truly, Saint Petersburg is an important Russian sea port from the Baltic Sea.

Recapturing the Fortresses

When Peter the Great became Tsar in 1699, his first mission was to reclaim the natural outlet to the Baltic Sea. During this time, the land was being held by the Swedish. A great war between Russia and Sweden ensued in 1700, and this lasted for 21 years. Russia overtook two Swedish fortresses by 1703 namely Noteburg and Schluesselburg. The Tsar’s army then built a new sea fortress named the Kronstandt in 1704. The three fortresses served as the boundaries of the new Russian capital.

Acknowledging the strength of the land’s location, the Tsar moved the capital of Russia from Moscow to Saint Petersburg in 1710. This meant that his family and all the important government constituents were also relocated in the new “northern capital”. By 1714, the Russian army, led by the Tsar himself, managed to capture the Gangut cape. This opened Russia’s door to the rest of Western Europe. As a market of the Tsar’s victories, an architect was hired to design the capital’s architecture. Domenico Trezini poured his efforts in laying out the city center. He also designed the Summer Palace for Peter the Great, and administered the building of the Twelve Boards. He is also responsible for the planning of the famous Alexander Nevsky Monastery, which is a famous landmark till today.

The general city layout, on the other hand, was designed by John Baptist Leblon. Two palaces were simultaneously built during that time, namely the Menshikov and the Kunstamera. For all its grandeur and modernization, however, the city’s development had to be put on hold when Peter the Great died in 1725. Traditionalists who opposed of the Tsar’s modernistic reforms removed the capital from St. Petersburg again and relocated the center to Moscow. It was not until the reign of Empress Ann that the capital was brought back to Saint Petersburg. For easier management, the empress divided the city to five districts. She also moved the city center to Admiralty Island, and built three thoroughfares stemming from the center namely the Nevsky Prospect, the Median Prospect, and the Voznesensky Prospect.

Architectural style moved from classic to Baroque during her successor Empress Elizabeth’s reign. This was embodied by the building of the Winter palace, the St. Nicholas Church, and the Smolny Monastery which was designed by B. Rastrelli. On the other hand, Empress Catherine II continued Peter’s reforms and conquests during her reign. Russia was able to capture Crimea during this time, and also claim the northern shores of the Black Sea. Russia also reclaimed significant regions of Poland and joined Kurkandia in the map.

The Empress had a strong hand on the legislations, policies, and fine arts that were promulgated during that time. Among the architectural finds that were build during the era were the Academy of Fine Arts in Felten, the Gostiy Dvor, the Marble Palace, the Old Hermitage, the Taurida Palace, the YUsupov Palace, and the Smolny Institute. After the empress’s death in 1796, Emperor Pavel (Paul) ascended the throne. The Mikhaylovsky Palas was built by architects V. Brenna and V. Bazhenov between 1797 and 1800. The palace housed the Emperor’s family in 1800s, but shortly after he and his family were assassinated, the successors relocated the Royal family home back to the Winter Palace. During the reign of Alexander I, the great war between Napoleon broke out. This was in 1812, and both Moscow and Saint Petersburg were both on the verge of being invaded by French troops. Much of the Russian palaces, including the structures that were built during this time, were damaged in the war.

Famous landmarks of the emperor’s reign include the Senate and Synod, the House of Ministries on Palace Square, and the St. Isaac which is Russia’s biggest Cathedral. The cathedral was designed by the famous architect Montferrand.

Facing hardships during the Imperial Era

Russia faced a lot of political hardships during the imperial era. Right after Alexander I’s death in 1825, his successor to the thrown Nicholas I faced trouble as he was taking his oath of office. His guards’ regiment refused to pledge loyalty and alliance to the new ruler. The military planned to take over the Winter Palace, and the Peter and Paul Fortress. They aimed to crush serfdom and autocracy, and introduce democracy into Russian lands.

This event was later called the Decemberist Rebellion. Under Nicholas I’s rule, Russia waged war against Russia and Turkey. Despite the nation’s own internal turmoil, the reign is described as an era of fast economic growth and industry. St. Petersburg turned into a site of healthy capitalism. The government saw the rising of squares near railway stations.

Nicholas I was succeeded by the reformer Tsar Alexander II. During his reign, serfdom was abolished. He also made significant changes in the nation’s administrative, military, financial, and educational structures that allowed for a more democratic Russia. Famous structured built during his reign include the famous Mariinsky Imperial Palace, the Capella, the Palace of Grand Prince Vladimir Alexandrovich, and the granite embankment fronting the Admiralty. Alexander II was assassinated on March 1, 1881 by a bomb. He was succeeded by Alexander III who continued his reforms in a more peaceful reign.

20th Century

Saint Petersburg during the 20th Century opens to the reign of Nicholas II. This term was marred by a lot of wars including the war with Japan which led to the demise of the Russian fleet in Tsushima Island. Russia also lost Port Arthur in China, and in 1914, World War I broke out. Because Russia during this time was fighting against Germany, Petersburg was renamed Petrograd in 1914. St. Petersburg, for the Russians of this time, sounded too “Germanic” for them. This also signaled the death of Russian autocracy. In 1917, the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, effected changes in the Russian political system. The whole nation was “communized”, leading to the destruction of sacred objects of the Church, and the seizure of private properties. Families were placed in common apartments, and the city was renamed Leningrad to honor Lenin when he died in 1924.

The Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany began in 1941. News leaked out that Hitler was planning the complete demolition of St. Petersburg. For 900 days, the Red Army managed to keep the Germans out of Leningrad. However the Blockade of Leningrad also caused deaths caused by hunger to about 53,000 civilians. In 1942, 20,000 civilians were also killed by bombs. Memorials in Piskarevskoye and Seraphimovskoye were constructed to commemorate the heroism of those who fought and were killed in the blockade.

Modern developments and landmarks

The city saw big developments between 1960 and 1980 along the Finnish gulf coast, the north-west and the Southern districts. The victory square was built during this time. Modern Russia also bore witness to the rising of several important constructions including the Oktyabrsky concert hall, the Palace of Sport, the Pulkovskaya Hotel, the Pulkovo airport, and the Sport and Concert Hall. The new administration also too measures against flooding by building the St. Petersburg Dam.

In 1991, the city was renamed St. Petersburg after city referendum. The high speed railway between Moscow and the Northern Capital was also launched during this year. Today, St. Petersburg serves as an important trading gateway as well as financial and industrial centers of Russia.

After having to face so many wars and political transformation, Russia is now a pioneering trader of oil, gas, ships, aerospace vehicles and technologies, radio, electronics, computers, and numerous relevant softwares.

One can say that St. Petersburg is a fusion of both the grandeur and richness of the past, and the promise of the future. More than 20 museums line the grand city of St. Petersburg, while it acts as an important trading port for machinery, vehicles, mining products, chemicals, medical equipments, and many other businesses.

Being the smart tourist in St. Petersburg

Despite the fast-paced economic development of the city, St. Petersburg isn’t exactly the naïve tourist’s haven. You need to be street smart if you’re planning to survive the streets of Russia’s second largest city. While capital crimes are low, there are numerous reports of street crimes. St. Petersburg has its fair share of gangs and robbers. If you think you can’t survive New York in style, you need to be extra careful when you’re walking the streets of St. Petersburg as a stranger.

As for the weather, St. Petersburg is relatively cold through major portions of the year. Tourists find the short span of time during the early summer most convenient for a visit. Temperatures can rise up to 34◦C during this time of the year.

Among the biggest attractions in St. Petersburg is the biggest cathedral, the St. Isaac’s, and the Winter Palace. Its numerous palaces, of course, are also worthy of your time and visit. While you’re in St. Petersburg, you’ll enjoy Classical and Baroque architecture that survived the war. Guided tours are available in most of its historical landmarks, for a price of course.

St. Petersburg is the site of many famous literary pieces including Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and the novels of Pushkin, Gogol and Dostoevsky. Most of these classics are also translated into film and theater, and if you’ve come for a visit during the peak seasons, you’re most likely to catch these being screened or performed in the theaters.

St. Petersburg boasts of high literacy ratings, and you won’t get lost even if you don’t know much Russian because English is widely used for business in this city.

If you’re a big sports fan, the Petrovsky Stadium is also worth a visit. The 2008 UEFA Supercup was held here.

Transportation in St. Petersburg is easy. Most people cross the city by rail and through trams. Buses are also popular choices for public transportation. The Pulkovo International Airport also sits in the city center. Most travelers choose St. Petersburg as “home base” because it’s easily connected by rail to Moscow and other major Russian cities.


Palace Square

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