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An Introduction to St. Petersburg: Russia’s Window to the West
Ryan Eyre
Posted January 2, 2008


No trip to Russia would be complete without visiting St. Petersburg, the country’s second largest and most Westernized city. Its grandiose architecture, rich collections of art, watery setting and general accessibility make it the most appealing Russian city for any foreign visitor. What follows is a brief background to St. Petersburg’s history and many (though not all) of its main sights. 

St. Petersburg was founded in 1703 by Tsar Peter I (the Great) at the delta of the Neva River on territory taken from Sweden in the Great Northern War. The new city’s strategic location gave Russia access to the Baltic that it had not previously enjoyed. 

St. Petersburg was built on the backs of thousands of serfs, many of who died during its construction from disease carrying mosquitoes (which are still an annoyance in the summer months). Peter’s attempts to westernize Russia led him to move the court from Moscow to his new city in 1712. It would remain the capital of Russia until 1918. After the October Revolution Lenin moved the center of government back to Moscow again.    

After Lenin’s death in 1924 the city would be renamed Leningrad, and kept its name until 1991 when it reverted to its original name, St. Petersburg. The 20th century would see some of the most dramatic events in the city’s history, the February and October Revolutions of 1917 as well as the nearly 900-day-siege of Leningrad during the Second World War when over a million of its inhabitants died. 

What one is first struck by is the un-Russian look of the city. Even its name is Western, Peter’s admiration for the Netherlands leading him to give his new city a Dutch sounding name. Peter and the tsars after him employed European architects and engineers to build most of the prominent buildings in St. Petersburg. Subsequently the majority are imitative of Western European architecture, in particular Baroque, Rococo and Neoclassical styles. The lack of traditional Russian architecture and the geometric layout of the city center can give one an impression of artificiality; that the city is a contrived place attempting to ape Western Europe. The longstanding argument of whether Russia is a part of Europe notwithstanding it would be hard to imagine what Russian culture would be without the works of Gogol, Dostoevsky, Tchaikovsky or Shostakovich (to name but a few prominent Russian artists) who all lived and worked in St. Petersburg.  

The main thoroughfare of St. Petersburg is Nevsky Prospekt. The street cuts through the heart of the city and most of the main sights are a short distance away. Walking along Nevsky Prospekt northwest from Moscow Station one passes by the Kazan Cathedral which was modeled after St. Peter’s in Rome. At the western end of Nevsky Prospekt is the Admiralty, formerly the headquarters of the Imperial Russian Navy; its golden spire visible for miles around.  Just northeast of the Admiralty is the central square of St. Petersburg, Palace Square. Approaching from the southeast one passes through the archway of the Neoclassical General Staff Building.  It is to the other side of the square that the attention of the visitor is immediately drawn: the sight of the famous Winter Palace. Designed by Bartolomeo Rastrelli and residence of the Russian tsars from 1762 to 1917 it now houses the Hermitage Museum, whose enormous art collection was once the possession of the tsars. This is an obvious and very popular destination for tourists, and in no way should be missed. The collection is so rich and vast, however, that only a fraction of the museum can be properly absorbed in a single visit. Almost all of the art on display is non-Russian in origin, including the work of such luminaries as da Vinci, Rubens, Van Gogh and Picasso as well as significant ancient Egyptian and Scythian artifacts. Observing the sheer opulence of the palace with its Rococo frills and gold leaf it doesn’t require a leap of the imagination to understand the social unrest that led the Revolution. During the night of November 7, 1917 (October 25 on the old Russian calendar) Bolshevik forces stormed the Winter Palace, initiating the October Revolution - though hardly in as dramatic fashion as Soviet propagandist would later imply. 

If one wants to see Russian art one of the world’s best collections is on display at the Russian Museum at the Mikhailovsky Palace just a short walk east of Palace Square. The works on display range the gamut from medieval Orthodox iconography to early modern and Soviet realist works and provides a counterpoint to the Hermitage’s western European collections. Nearby is another of St. Petersburg’s landmarks, and one of the few buildings to actually be built in traditional Muscovite style: the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. This noteworthy Orthodox church was built on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. Its wooden and gold onion domes stand in marked contrast to the Baroque and Neo Classical edifices that define the city aesthetically.  

Beyond the Hermitage is the River Neva, which at this point is nearly a half mile across. Crossing Palace Bridge over to Vasilievsky Island, one passes the neoclassical St. Petersburg Bourse with its red granite Rostral Columns. On Vasilievsky itself one can find the Kuntskammer with its macabre collections and beyond St. Petersburg University. Crossing the Exchange Bridge from Vasilievsky Island over to Petrogradsky one comes across the first building constructed by Peter the Great: the Peter and Paul Fortress. Originally the city’s main fortress it was eventually converted into a prison where Dostoevsky and Tito were interred at various times. Inside the fortress is the Peter and Paul Cathedral where Peter the Great and almost all the Romanov tsars are buried; its thin spire was once the city’s tallest structure. Walking along the river embankment east of here one passes by the Aurora battleship, which played a part in the October Revolution (again embellished after the fact). Beyond this is Finland Station, where Lenin first arrived back in Russia after years of political exile…leaving Russia for Finland one would have to depart from there. A prominent statue of Lenin stands outside the station and the train he traveled on is preserved inside.  

Russia can seem a daunting, somewhat forbidding place to visit. The prospective visitor should not be put off by the complicated visa system nor by the gruff exteriors of most Russians. Learning a little bit of Russian before arriving (including becoming familiar with the Cyrillic script) goes a long way to making a visit here more rewarding. 

And as for being supposedly dangerous be aware but not afraid. St. Petersburg is as safe as any other large European city. Meanwhile the level of customer service and tourist infrastructure is improving (witnessed by the increasing number of hostels and general information in English) as the city caters to an increasing number of foreign visitors. A visit to St. Petersburg should be a justly interesting and engaging experience.   

About the author: Ryan Eyre is a self-professed Europhile whose recents peregrinations have taken him to most of the countries of Europe. He hopes to return there on a more permanent basis in the near future. When not contemplating European history and culture, he is a resident of his hometown Seattle.

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