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The most European of all Russian towns and cities celebrated its 300 anniversary in 2003. St. Petersburg was founded by the most famous Russian Tsar Peter I (the Great) and named in honor of the apostle Peter (the keeper of the keys to the gates of Paradise) under whose protection was the Emperor himself.
Tsar Peter is one of the key figures in the history of Russia. Real reformer, a man of tremendous will and energy, extremely intelligent but at the same time cruel and merciless, he could handle oars and ship cordage, knew how to hammer iron, built shipyards, ruled the state… He managed to transform the patriarchal Moscovia into the European Russia. In his innovations, the Tsar was extremely severe: on pain of punishment, he forced the boyars (noblemen) to shave their beards and to wear European-style clothes, ordered to dress up New-Year fur-trees all around the country, and raised drinking coffee to the rank of a state necessity. His stature matched his other talents - the Russian Emperor stood six feet six tall.
In the City Emblem of St. Petersburg there are two anchors: for the sea and river. Peter the Great believed that just anchors were the keys for Paradise. That is how he wanted to call his new city initially.
The Venice of North, Northern Palmira, Paradise, The City of White Nights, Petropolis, Petrograd - all these are different names of the largest northern city in the world. From 1924 to 1991 it was called Leningrad, after the name of the first communist leader of Russia Vladimir Lenin.
St. Petersburg started with the Peter & Paul Fortress. The foundation of it was laid on May 16, 1703, and this date is considered the birthday of the city. Peter the Great chose the location quite well: from the small island (750 by 360 meters) between the channels of the Neva river in its broadest part, the fortress commanded the waterway along the river; so the route into Russia from the Baltic sea and the city itself were safely protected against any invaders by its mighty bulwarks. At midday sharp, a cannon shoots on one of the Peter & Paul Fortress' bastions and the people collate their clocks or watches with the report of the shot; this tradition has been kept since 1736.
From the very beginning the city was destined to become the new capital of Russia. Having won from Swedes the northern lands and gotten the way out to the Baltic sea, - having "hacked a window open on Europe" by the words of Russian poet Alexandr Pushkin, - Peter I decided to build his new city in the image and likeness of Amsterdam. One of the Neva's islands, where the Admiralty shipyard used to be located, even now is still called the New Holland. Thousands and thousands of peasants and craftsmen were driven together from all over Russia to the dismal marshy terrain of the Neva delta. 100,000 workers died during only the first 10 years of building the fortress-city. Dozens of canals were dug, bridges and dams were built. The best architects, sculptors, artists and engineers were invited from all around Europe - Italy, France, Holland, Germany… Nevertheless, the northern capital of Russia acquired its own face, its own unique "Peresburgian" style.
St. Petersburg is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Even though the capital of the state returned to Moscow in 1918, "Peter" retained its status as the second capital. The city has more than 5,000,000 inhabitants, who are considered "the most intellectual Russians". Maybe because of the fact that they are lucky to live in a real city-museum.
Like Venice, St. Petersburg is spread across a lot of big and small islands. Their number has been continuously decreasing because of the work of the town-planners who fill up the river channels impeding the city life. There were about 150 islands at the beginning of 19 century, 101 a hundred years ago, and now there are only 42.
Today, on the territory of the city there are 93 rivers, canals or brooks, and more than a hundred lakes or ponds. But the water surrounding, so much beautifying any city, is a constant source of troubles for St Petersburg. Strong winds from the Gulf of Finland often drive the Neva water back into its mouth, flooding the residential areas. Floods of extremely dangerous extent alone have occurred 65 times! The most disastrous ones with lots of casualties happened in 1777, 1824 and 1924. In 1955 Neva's waves assaulted the city again, but then luckily nobody died. At the same time a daring project of hydraulics engineering arose - to build a giant dam across the Gulf to protect the city of St Petersburg against the sea. So far the project has been realized only partially - mostly due to environmentalists' objections and the lack of funds - but the floods became weaker.
What is the symbol of St Petersburg? There is no common opinion. It might be the Bronze Horseman - the monument to the founder of the city Peter I on the Senate Square, or the Alexander's Column erected on the Palace Square in honor of the victory in the war against Napoleon Bonapart in 1812-1814, or the "Needle" of the Admiralty tower with a golden ship on the top, or the Rostral Columns on Strelka (spit) Point on Vasilievsky Island, or the famous "Mariinsky" ballet…
A peculiar calling card of the city is also its season of white nights, when the pulled apart bridges across the Neva are pretty visible against the background of the light sky. Those who get to St Petersburg from the end of May to the middle of July - for more than 50 days when the sun almost doesn't set behind the skyline - they can admire the wonderful panoramas of the city at night, walking along numerous stone embankments.
There are 342 bridges in the city now, 21 of which are pulled apart at night. The longest one is Alexander Nevsky bridge (905.7 m), the broadest - Siniy (Blue) across the Moika river (97.3 m). One of the most beautiful bridges across the Neva - Troitskiy (completed in 1903) - was designed by the world famous French engineer Eiffel, the author of the tower in Paris named in his honor. You just can't help admiring the fine structure of Bank chain bridge decorated with gilded-winged griffins, or the horse statues by Peter Klodt on Anichkov bridge.
During the World War II, being blockaded by the enemy, the city of Leningrad experienced the most difficult period of its history, which lasted for 900 days. The horrible winters of 1941 and 1942 with their frosts and starvation, artillery shelling and Luftwaffe bombardment called the lives of more than 640,000 citizens. In commemoration of that, touching and majestic memorials have been erected on Piskariovskoie and Serafimovskoie cemeteries.
Leningrad citizens who survived the blockade recall that when the sacks with sand protecting the Bronze Horseman against the enemy's shells had been removed - somebody drew with chalk a medal "For Defence of Leningrad" on Peter the Great's chest.
The main street of St Petersburg is 4.5 kilometer long Nevskiy Prospekt. A walk along Nevskiy is a sort of life-asserting rite for many inhabitants of the city. Everything is smart, fashionable and elegant here, always.
The Hermitage belongs to the largest museums in the world. You just can't miss visiting it; though the same with the Russian Museum, gigantic the St. Isaac Cathedral (101.5 m high), Letniy Sad (Summer Garden) with its famous tracery iron grill, the Peter & Paul Fortress where many Russian Monarchs are burried.
There are also some exotic museums. In the Kunstkamera (in translation from German "Rarity Chamber") some freak babies have been kept preserved in alcohol since the Great Peter's days. The Tsar often said: I want people to see and learn. In the first years, the visitors didn't have to pay anything; on the contrary, they were given a treat, for which special funds were earmarked from the Treasury.
Across the Neva from the Winter Palace, a real navy cruiser from the beginning of the past century has been moored for several decades. A blank shot from the prow cannon of the cruiser Avrora in November 1917 signaled seizing power in Russia by the communists led by Lenin. There are more than 14,000 displays at the Museum of Bread, which is situated across the street from the Museum of Arctic and Antarctic.
Those interested in Russian literature surely know that St. Petersburg is the city of Pushkin and Dostoevsky. Here started his poetic career the Nobel Prize laureate Joseph Brodsky. Composers Rakhmaninov, Prokofiev, Shostakovich - were peterburgians as well.
Beautiful and romantic are the suburbia of St Petersburg, hardly inferior to those of Paris or Berlin. Try to get to a yearly Fountain Festival in the Peterhof at the end of May, walk along the shady alleys of Gatchina, Pavlovsk, Oranienbaum… And in one of the halls of the luxurious Сatherine Palace in Tsarskoe Selo (King's Village) you will hear a dramatic story about the unique Amber Room, stolen by the fascists during the War, and see the process of its minute reconstruction.
Unlike Moscow, St Petersburg is calm and non-fussy. Unfortunately, sunny days are not as frequent here as overcast or rainy; but petersburgians - adoring their city - find some charm even in that. And you can see their point: it is just impossible not to fall in love with St. Petersburg!
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