St. Petersburg served as Russia’s capital from the 1700’s until 1918. This maritime city of five million inhabitants is still widely known as Russia’s cultural capital. St. Petersburg was founded by Tzar Peter the Great in 1703 and the city plan reflects the Tzar’s desire to imitate the great cities of western Europe. A particular focus was given to imitating the French culture as it was most in vogue at that time and the city’s placement was selected due to its strategic location with access to the Baltic Sea. Russia at that time desired a closer connection to the rest of Europe via the sea, and the founding of St. Petersburg allowed for Russia to pursue a greater role in European affairs due to its ability to project naval power more directly. Tzar Peter was obsessed with all things European and as a result, the power centers in Russia shared his interest. At a certain point, French became a popular spoken language amongst the nobles in St. Petersburg.
Our time in St. Petersburg introduced me to the notion of the “Europe envy” that Russia carries, which was further driven home by our experience in Moscow. By all accounts, the city was founded on the Russian desire to be more European. This desire to project Russian greatness to European visitors morphs into an extravagance visible throughout the city and great monuments in the country. This grandeur is apparent in the gold encrusted hallways, ornate fixtures, and grand architecture that populate any public space and visible site. This way of matching and "outdoing" European style and culture is in my opinion what characterizes the modern Russian aesthetic. The time of the Tzars reflected this national desire in full swing and the Russian revolution and resulting communist era, showed a stark and direct reaction against it. This is seen in the architecture and style of the communist era. Post-communist Russia has swung the pendulum back in the other direction towards the western world and the conspicuous consumption present in the Russian society today is in full view.
We spent our four days in St. Petersburg touring many of the sites and could get a great sense of the culture and history of the city during that time. We started our grand tour of St. Petersburg at Peter and Paul Cathedral and fortress. This site was established when the city was founded in an attempt to protect it from a Naval attack. The fort contains incredibly thick brick walls and multiple battlements on either side of the Neva River. The protected artillery positions on each side of the river act as a crossfire and would have quickly obliterated any unwelcome ships attempting to enter the city through the river. At the time, Russia was at war with Sweden and feared a counterattack against the city. From that time onward, the fort served as the main base for the military in St. Petersburg as well as a prison for high ranking political figures. Over the years the prison housed famous characters including Leon Trostky, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Josip Tito. The cathedral, positioned within the fortress is the first and oldest landmark of the city. It is visible throughout most of the city center by its tall and skinny gold spire and is well known as a symbol of St. Petersburg. It is the highest Russian Orthodox church in the world and serves as the final resting place for almost all the Russian emperors and empresses from Peter the Great until Nicholas II. This includes Catherine The Great, one of Russia’s more prominent figures who ruled Russia for 34 years. The grounds and church itself are very impressive, with gold leafed walls and no shortage of décor. This site is at once the city’s oldest place of worship, fortress, and prison. All these uses operating within the same compound is a bit ironic. Perhaps a window into the Russian psyche.
We spent over half the day at the State Hermitage Museum and it left me feeling overwhelmed and wanting to spend more time there. It was one of the most amazing places I have ever been and serves as one of Russia’s finest examples of its culture and history. The sheer scale of the facility is daunting and it is no wonder it serves as one of the most visited sites in the city. It is considered by some, the largest and oldest museum in the world- housing three million individual items. This UNESCO world heritage site was founded in 1764 by Catherine The Great to house her own large art collection. It now houses the largest collection of paintings in the world, and its six buildings include the Winter Palace - the old residence of Russian emperors. Its more notable collections include Rembrandt and Van Dyke. As much as the collection was impressive, I was most struck by the décor of the museum itself. Grand staircases, plush draperies, and impossibly ornate furnishings met you at every turn. In touring the Hermitage, I got an immediate sense that one of the aims of the facility was to leave its visitors in awe. Its very existence belied the Russian desire to impress upon Europe how sophisticated and advanced they truly were.
We finished our day at the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. Another iconic example of Russian architecture and its onion shaped domes, the church was built on the exact site where emperor Alexander II was fatally wounded. In memory of this event, the church was erected between 1883 and 1907 and while in many ways Baroque, it harkens back to Medieval Russian Architecture and Romantic Nationalism. It intentionally resembles Moscow’s St. Basils Cathedral and serves as a quintessentially Russian icon in the center of a more European looking city. The cathedral served for phenomenal photos and is a large tourist draw.
On our second day, we piled into the car and drove to the St. Petersburg suburb of Pushkin. On the way, we stopped at a monument to the siege of Leningrad. During the communist era, the city was renamed Leningrad and in World War II was completely surrounded by the German Army and cutoff from the outside world for almost two and a half years. The siege caused the greatest destruction and largest loss of life ever known to a modern city. Over 1.5 million soldiers and civilians died and the people were only rationed 125 grams of bread per day – half of which was sawdust and other inedible mixtures. Amidst this starvation, winter temperatures got as low as 22 below zero and in many cases, people resorted to cannibalism. Half the citizens and soldiers of Leningrad died in those years. The amount of suffering the people of this city endured is astounding and beyond understanding.
After a bit of a sobering Leningrad memorial, we arrived in Pushkin where we visited the Catherine Palace. In its prime, Catherine Palace would have eclipsed the Hermitage as we know it today. The palace was the summer residence of the Russian Tzars and is a shining example of Russian architecture and opulence. Unfortunately, the contents and décor of the palace was all but destroyed by the Nazis in World War II and while the main halls have been restored with a high degree of historical accuracy, the many sections and wings of the palace are still in disrepair. Efforts to restore the palace to its former grandeur are still underway today. Upon arriving, you are struck by the grounds. Lush green gardens and grand open spaces, the palace was Catherine The Great’s masterpiece. She spent a lot of time and effort redesigning the palace to house guests from all over the world and served as her favorite residence. The restored golden gilded ballrooms, and infinite detail serve as a window back in time to the late 1700’s and the height of Russian imperial dominance. We spent several hours touring the palace and the grounds as well as viewing an exhibit on the Nazi destruction of the property. It was angering for me even to this day to see images of this amazing example of Russian culture laid waste by German invaders who stripped the property bare and used it as a warehouse for the remaining years until reclamation. I could only imagine the lingering resentment felt against Germany by the Russian people.
Our final day in St. Petersburg was spent walking the city and enjoying some of the local cuisine as well as taking an airfoil boat ride to Peterhof Palace. Yet another impressive property, this palace is actually a series of palaces and gardens and is widely thought of as a Russian Versailles. Also a UNESCO world heritage site, this sprawling property is adorned with sixty-four fountains with gold-leaf statues at the main palace entrance. At the top of the bluff sits the main palace and the view down the middle of the property is inspiring. Impeccably maintained gardens and parks below are punctuated by smaller residences and a canal running through the middle of the property. It was a warm sunny day and a perfect time to enjoy the palace grounds. We stopped for some ice cream and strolled around trying to make some distance from the extensive crowds gathered around the palace entrance. As a last major tourist destination of St. Petersburg, it did not disappoint.
St. Petersburg offered us unforgettable examples of the best and worst humanity has to offer. Intolerable suffering and unimaginable wealth swirl together in this opulent and scenic city. Walking the streets, its short and powerful history are perceptible on every corner. On our last night, we stumbled across a local band playing folk songs in the street. We stood for some time enjoying the scene and watched the small crowd of locals gather around that Friday evening. My proficiency in Russian is nonexistent, but when the band played a song with a chorus of “Leningrad O Leningrad” the crowd roared awake and sang along as the song crescendoed to a festive end. That moment drove home in me the immense love of and pride in the city its citizens possess – I will never forget it. St. Petersburg’s history of suffering and grandeur are forever grafted to the heart of its people, and no matter what name it carries – its essence remains unchanged. // Jeff