St. Petersburg​—Russia’s “Window on Europe”


“I love thee, work of Peter’s hand!/I love thy stern, symmetric form;/The Neva’s calm and queenly flow/Betwixt her quays of granite-stone.”​—ALEKSANDR SERGEYEVICH PUSHKIN.

PUSHKIN’S famous poem about St. Petersburg, partially quoted here, draws attention to the city’s founder and to its location in the far north, where the Neva River enters the Baltic Sea. ‘But how,’ you may wonder, ‘did this major city of the world come into existence in a northern marshland?’

By the late 17th century, Russia’s growth was stymied by its lack of access to the sea. The dream of Russia’s young czar, Peter the Great, was to establish for Russia a “window on Europe” in the form of an outlet to the sea. To the south, access to the Black Sea was blocked by the Ottoman Empire. So Peter turned his attention north to where Sweden possessed the territory that borders the Baltic Sea.

To fulfill his dream, in August 1700, Peter declared war on Sweden. Although his military efforts were at first repelled, he did not give up. By November 1702, Peter had forced a Swedish withdrawal from Lake Ladoga. This largest lake in Europe is connected by the Neva River to the Baltic Sea, about 40 miles [60 km] away. The Swedes became entrenched in a fortress on a tiny island near where the Neva flows from the lake. Peter was able to wrest this island fortress from Swedish control and rename it Shlissel’burg.

Later the Swedes took their stand in a fortress called Nienshants, near where the Neva  flows into the Baltic. In May 1703 the Swedish garrison there was overwhelmed. This victory put the Russians in control of the entire delta. Immediately, Peter began building a fortress on nearby Zayachy Island for defending the mouth of the Neva. Thus, on May 16, 1703, about 300 years ago, Peter the Great laid the first stone of what is known today as the Peter-Paul Fortress. This is the accepted date of the founding of St. Petersburg, named after the czar’s patron saint, the apostle Peter.

The Making of a Capital

Unlike many capital cities, St. Petersburg was from the outset planned and built to be an impressive capital. Despite its location in the far north​—the latitude is that of present-day Anchorage, Alaska—​Peter forged ahead with construction. Wood was brought in from the area of Lake Ladoga and from Novgorod. One way that Peter obtained stones for building was by imposing a quota. Any Russian bringing goods into St. Petersburg had to bring a certain number of stones as well. Also, Peter banned the construction of stone houses, first in Moscow and then in the rest of his empire. As a result, unemployed masons turned up in St. Petersburg.

Construction of the city proceeded at what The Great Soviet Encyclopedia calls “an exceptional pace for that time.” Drainage canals, foundation piles, streets, buildings, churches, hospitals, and government offices soon appeared. In the year of the city’s founding, construction started on a shipyard, known as the Admiralty, which in time became the headquarters of the Russian fleet.

By 1710 construction began on the Summer Palace, a summer home  for the czars. In 1712, Russia’s capital with its many governmental offices was moved from Moscow to St. Petersburg. The city’s first stone palace, still preserved, was finished in 1714. It was built for the city’s first governor, Aleksandr Menshikov. That same year, work also began on the Peter-Paul Cathedral inside the fortress of the same name. Its towering steeple is a city landmark. The Winter Palace on the Neva River was also built, and it was rebuilt several times. Later the present Winter Palace of some 1,100 rooms was built. This grand palace has become the city’s center and home to the famous Hermitage, the State museum.

St. Petersburg’s first decade was marked by astounding growth. There were reportedly some 34,500 buildings within the city by 1714! Construction of palaces and huge buildings continued unabated. The powerful influence of religion in Russia’s history is evidenced by many of the city’s buildings.

For example, there is Kazan Cathedral, with its semicircular shape and frontal colonnade. Its striking appearance on the city’s foremost street, Nevsky Prospekt, played a role in the street’s being called one of the world’s great thoroughfares. Later, construction began on St. Isaac’s Cathedral. Some 24,000 piles were driven into the underlying marshy ground to support the structure, and 220 pounds [100 kg] of pure gold were used to gild its massive cupola.

Building in the outlying areas of St. Petersburg was also dramatic. Work on the Great Palace, a residence for Peter, was begun in 1714 in Peterhof, now Petrodvorets. Meanwhile, in the nearby town of Tsarskoe Selo, now called Pushkin, the lavish Catherine Palace for Peter’s wife was built. In the latter  part of the same century, two grand palaces were constructed in the two southern suburbs, Pavlovsk and Gatchina.

The beauty of this newly developed city was largely amplified by the hundreds of bridges constructed over its many river channels and canals. Thus, St. Petersburg has often been described as the “Venice of the North.” French, German, and Italian architects worked along with talented Russian counterparts to produce what The Encyclopædia Britannica states is “one of the most splendid and harmonious cities of Europe.”

Endurance Despite Adversity

Little did Peter’s opponents realize with what tenacity the Russians would hold on to their window on Europe. The book Peter the Great​—His Life and World explains: “From the day that Peter the Great first set foot on the mouth of the Neva, the land and the city which arose there have always remained Russian.”

Indeed, as the above-quoted book says, “through the centuries, none of the conquerors who subsequently entered Russia with great armies​—Charles XII, Napoleon, Hitler—​was able to capture Peter’s Baltic port, although Nazi armies besieged the city for 900 days in World War II.” During that long siege, some one million people in the city died. Many perished from cold and famine during the winter of 1941/42, when temperatures fell to 40 degrees below zero. This temperature happens to be the point at which the Celsius and Fahrenheit scales register the same.

In 1914, when World War I began, the city’s name was changed to Petrograd. When the first head of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Lenin, died in 1924, its name was changed to Leningrad. Finally, in 1991, with the fall of the Soviet Union, the city’s original name, St. Petersburg, was restored.

Contributions to the World

In 1724, the year before Peter’s death at age 52, the Russian Academy of Sciences was founded by his decree, and in 1757 the Academy of Arts was established in the city. The 19th-century Russian painters Karl Bryullov and Ilya Repin studied there and went on to international acclaim.

In 1819 the St. Petersburg State University was founded, and in time so were many other institutions of higher learning. In the  late 19th century, as a resident of St. Petersburg, the Nobel Prize-winning Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov developed the concept of the conditioned reflex. And here the Russian chemist Dmitry Mendeleyev composed his periodic table of elements, or Mendeleyev’s table, as it is known in Russia.

The city’s cultural life also drew international attention. In 1738 a dancing academy was founded, eventually becoming the world-renowned Mariinsky Ballet. Soon many ballet and concert halls and theaters graced the city. Famous composers made their home in St. Petersburg, including Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky. He is known for such enduring music as the classical ballet scores of Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, and The Nutcracker as well as his famous composition the 1812 Overture.

St. Petersburg also nurtured a host of celebrated Russian poets and writers who made their residence here. Young Aleksandr Sergeyevich Pushkin became what many consider to be Russia’s “greatest poet and the founder of modern Russian literature.” The Russian answer to Shakespeare is Pushkin, whose works have been translated into all major languages and include the ode to his adopted city, which was quoted at the outset. In addition, there is Dostoyevski, who The Encyclopædia Britannica says is “usually regarded as one of the finest novelists who ever lived.”

So it might be said that whatever St. Petersburg received from Europe in its humble beginnings, it gave back generously many times over. Through the years its residents have certainly enriched world culture.

A Time for Reflection

During the week of May 24 to June 1, hundreds of thousands of visitors to St. Petersburg shared in the celebration of its 300-year anniversary. As they enjoyed the results of the massive preparatory work, many reflected on the city’s beauty and remarkable history.

Coincidentally, just the week before, many had visited St. Petersburg for the dedication of the enlarged facilities of the Russia branch of Jehovah’s Witnesses, located in the city’s suburbs. The following day, 9,817 met in the Kirov Stadium in St. Petersburg to hear both a review of the dedication program and encouraging reports about the activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses in many countries.

More Than Can Be Seen

Visitors to St. Petersburg often feel that there is so much to see that they do not know where to start. Such is the dilemma in the Hermitage. It has been estimated that if one were to spend a minute on each object in the hundreds of display rooms, it would take years to complete the tour.

Others consider one of St. Petersburg’s richest treats to be its ballet. For example, in the famous Mariinsky Theater, one may sit beneath ornate crystal chandeliers surrounded by shimmering interior facades and walls, gilded with almost 900 pounds [400 kg] of gold. In this setting, what is possibly some of the best ballet in the world can be seen.

A simple walk in this city of about five million inhabitants can yield the rewarding experience of seeing elegant buildings along the Neva River. Just traveling by the city’s marvelous underground metro, one of the deepest in the world, can itself be a cultural treat. Over two million people a day ride the metro, traveling between its more than 50 stations on about 60 miles [98 kilometers] of track. Some stations are among the most beautiful to be found anywhere. In 1955, the year of the metro’s opening, The New York Times called the stations “a series of twentieth century underground palaces.”

Indeed, it is difficult not to be impressed by St. Petersburg​—by its spectacular creation and development as well as its enduring legacy of beauty, art, culture, education, and music. Whatever their interests are, visitors may well agree with the reference work that calls St. Petersburg “one of the most beautiful cities of Europe.”

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Peter the Great, founder of the city

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The Peter-Paul Fortress with its cathedral, where the foundations of St. Petersburg were laid

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The Winter Palace on the Neva River, now home of the Hermitage museum (interior at far right)

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The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg

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The Great Palace

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St. Petersburg has been called the Venice of the North

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The world-renowned Mariinsky Theater

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Steve Raymer/National Geographic Image Collection

Photo by Natasha Razina

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St. Petersburg’s subway stations have been described as “underground palaces”

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Top picture: Edward Slater/Index Stock Photography; painting and emblems: The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg