Information about Saint-Petersburg
Saint-Petersburg - Official Web Site
The State Hermitage Museum
The State Russian Museum
Wandering Camera - Notes about St.-Petersburg
Downtown Map (151 304 bytes)
ST PETERSBURG, Petrograd, Leningrad and now again, St Petersburg - the city's succession of names mirrors Russia's turbulent history. Founded in 1703 as a "window on the West" by Peter the Great, St Petersburg was for two centuries the capital of of the Tsarist empire, synonymous with excess and magnificence. During World War I the city renounced its German-sounding name and became Petrograd, and as such was the cradle of the revolutions that overthrew Tsarism and brought the Bolsheviks to power in 1917. Later, as Leningrad, it epitomized the Soviet Union's heroic sacrifices in the war against Fascism, withstanding nine hundred days of Nazi siege. Finally, in 1991 - the year that Communism and the USSR collapsed - the change of name, back to St Petersburg, proved deeply symbolic of the country's democratic mood.
St Petersburg's sense of its own identity owes much to its origins and to the interweaving of myth and reality throughout its history. Created by the will ofan autocrat, the imperial capital embodied both Peter the Great's rejection of Old Russia - represented by "Asiatic" Moscow, the former capital - and of his embrace of Europe. The city's architecture, administration and social life were all copied or imported.
Today, St Petersburg is a confused city: beautiful yet filthy, both progressive and stagnant, sophisticated and cerebral, industrial and maritime. Grandiose facades conceal warrens of communal apartments where diverse lifestyles flourish behind tri-locked doors, while beggars and nouveaux-riches rub shoulders on Nevskiy prospekt. Society is in a state of flux, reeling under the enormous changes of recent years.
Everything in St Petersburg is built on a grand scale, which makes mastering the public transport system a top priority. The city is split by the River Neva and its tributaries, with further sections delineated by the course of the canalized rivers of Moyka and Fontanka, all of which conveniently divide St Petersburg into a series of islands, making it fairly easy to get your bearings.
St Petersburg's centre lies on the south bank of the River Neva, with the curving River Fontanka marking its southern boundary. The area within the Fontanka is riven by a series of wide avenues which fan out from the most obvious landmark on the south bank of the Neva, the Admiralty. Some of the city's greatest sights and monuments - the Winter Palace and the art collections of the Hermitage, the Russian Museum, the Engineers' Castle, the Summer Garden, and the St Isaac and Kazan cathedrals - are located in and around Nevskiy prospekt, the main avenue.
Across the River Neva, and connected by Dvortsoviy most (Palace Bridge), is Vasilevskiy Island, the largest of the city's islands. In an area known as the Strelka, located on the island's eastern tip, are some of St Petersburg's oldest institutions: the Academy of Sciences, the University and the former Stock Exchange, as well as some fascinating museums.
On the north side of the River Neva, opposite the Winter Palace, is the island known as the Petrograd Side, home to the Peter and Paul Fortress, whose construction anticipated the foundation of the city itself. As well as its strategic and military purpose, it also housed St Petersburg's first prison and cathedral.
Back on the mainland, east of the River Fontanka, the conventional sights are more dispersed and the distances that much greater. The two most popular destinations in this club-shaped wedge of land, which was largely developed in the latter half of the nineteenth century, are the Smolniy district, from which the Bolsheviks orchestrated the October Revolution and, further south, the Alexander Nevsky Monastery.
Nevskiy prospekt has been the backbone of the city for the last two centuries. Built on an epic scale during the reign of Peter the Great, under the direction of the Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Le Blond, it manifests every style of architecture from eighteenth-century Baroque to the fin-de-siecle and is home to the city's most important sites.
Set back on the southern side of Nevskiy prospekt is the cream-coloured Anichkov Palace - now called the Palace of Youth Creativity; access to the building is limited to concerts and other cultural events. Near the Dom Knigi, the former emporium of the American sewing-machine company, Singer, further west along Nevskiy prospekt, is Kazan Cathedral (Kazanskiy sobor; Mon-Tues & Thurs-Fri 11am-5pm, Sat 11am-4pm), one of the grandest churches in the city, modelled on St Peter's in the Vatican. The cathedral was built to house the venerated icon, Our Lady of Kazan, reputed to have appeared miraculously overnight in Kazan in 1579, and transferred to St Petersburg by Peter the Great, where it resided until its disapperance in 1904. Now that the cathedral has been reconsecrated and the museum renamed the Museum of Religion (formerly the Museum of Atheism), only objects which relate to Christianity are on show. The museum is due to be relocated soon and the cathedral will revert to purely religious functions.
Buffeted by storms from the Gulf of Finland, pear-shaped Vasilevskiy Island (Vasilevskiy ostrov) cleaves the River Neva into its Bolshaya and Malaya branches. The island forms a strategic wedge whose eastern "spit", or Strelka, is as much a part of St Petersburg's waterfront as the Winter Palace or Admiralty, its Rostral Columns and former stock exchange (now the Naval Museum) reminders that the city's port and commercial centre were once located here.
Originally, Peter envisaged making the island the centre of his capital. Alexander Menshikov, the first governor of St Petersburg, was an early resident - the Menshikov Palace is the oldest building on the island - and Peter compelled other rich landowners and merchants to settle here. By 1726 the island had ten streets and over a thousand inhabitants, but wilderness still predominated, and the hazardous crossings by sailing boat from the mainland destroyed any hope of the island becoming the centre of St Petersburg.
Although you can reach the Strelka by trolleybus (#1, #7 and #10), bus (#7) or express (#3-47 and #129) from Nevskiy prospekt, it's better to walk across Dvortsoviy most (Palace Bridge), which offers fabulous views of both banks of the Neva. By day, the Strelka steals the show with its Rostral Columns and stock exchange building, an ensemble created at the beginning of the nineteenth century by Thomas de Thomon, who also designed the granite embankments and cobbled ramps leading down to the Neva.
Of great appeal is the Zoological Museum (Zoologicheskiy muzey; 11am-5pm; closed Fri), located in the Southern Warehouse on Universitetskaya naberezhnaya, facing Dvortsoviy most. Founded in 1832, the museum has one of the finest collections of its kind in the world, with over one hundred thousand specimens, including a set of stuffed animals that once belonged to Peter the Great. Upstairs, you're confronted by the skeleton of a blue whale, models of polar bears and other arctic life. The most evocative display shows the discovery of a 44,000-year-old mammoth in the permafrost of Yakutia in 1903.
Even more alluring - or repulsive - is the former Kunstkammer next door, instantly recognizable by its tower and entered from an alley to the west. Founded by Peter in 1714, its name (meaning "art chamber" in German) dignified his fascination for curiosities and freaks. Peter offered rewards for "human monsters" and unknown birds and animals, with a premium for especially odd ones. Dead specimens had to be preserved in vinegar or vodka (which was reimbursed by the imperial pharmacy), while to attract visitors, each guest received a glass of vodka or a cup of coffee.
Within the Kunstkammer and continuing its work in a contemporary vein is the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (Muzey Antropologii i Etnografii; 11am-5pm, last admission 4.45pm; closed every Thurs & last Wed of every month), displaying everything from Balinese puppets to Inuit kayaks and including some lovely dioramas of native village life. The section upstairs covers Southeast Asia, the Antipodes and Melanesia, while Africa and the Americas are dealt with on the first floor. In the round hall between Africa and the Americas, a selection of Peter's pickled curios still excites wonder and disgust: Siamese twins, a two-faced man and a two-headed calf. Also shown are surgical and dental instruments, and teeth pulled by the tsar himself (a keen amateur dentist).
The chief reason to walk further along the embankment is to visit the Menshikov Palace (Menshikovskiy dvorets; Tues-Sun 10.30am-4.30pm), a gabled, yellow-and-white building built in the early eighteenth century which is now a branch of the Hermitage devoted to the life and culture of that time. It was the first residential structure on Vasilevskiy Island and the finest one in the city, surpassing even Peter's Summer Palace. The tsar had no objections, preferring to entertain at the Menshikov Palace, which was furnished to suit his tastes; though not as sumptuous as the later imperial palaces, it sports a fine Petrine-era decor. There are guided tours in Russian every thirty minutes (tours in English, French and German can be booked and paid for in advance, call tel 812/213 11 12); the entrance is below street level, past the main portico.
Across the Neva from the Winter Palace, on a small island, lies the Peter and Paul Fortress (Petropavlovskaya krepost), begun in 1703 and built to secure Russia's hold on the Neva delta. Forced labourers toiled from dawn to dusk to construct the fortress in just seven months. The fortress is permanently open - with no admission charge - but its cathedral and museums keep regular visiting hours (Mon & Thurs-Sun 11am-6pm, Tues 11am-4pm; closed every Wed & last Tues of every month) and require tickets. You buy one ticket for the exhibitions, housed in various different buildings and covering the history of the city and Russian life up to 1917.
The Peter and Paul Cathedral (Petropavlovskiy sobor) signals defiance from the heart of the fortress. The original wooden church commissioned by Peter on this site was replaced by a stone cathedral, completed by Trezzini in 1733, long after Peter had died. The facade of the cathedral looks Dutch, while the gilded spire was deliberately made higher than the Ivan the Great Bell Tower in the Kremlin - it remained the tallest structure (122m) in the city until the 1960s. Sited around the nave are the tombs of the Romanov monarchs from Peter the Great onwards - excluding Peter II, Ivan VI and Nicholas II. The latter, whose bones were discovered in a mine shaft in the Urals in 1989, was subsequently buried in the nearby Grand Ducal Burial Vault.
The fortress was also used as a prison from 1718, when Peter the Great's son Alexei was tortured to death here. The Prison Museum, however, fails to convey its full horror. The accessible cells are stark and gloomy, but far worse ones existed within the ramparts, below the level of the river, where the perpetual damp and cold made tuberculosis inevitable. Prisoners were never allowed to see each other and rarely glimpsed their gaolers. Some were denied visitors and reading material for decades; many went mad and several committed suicide.
A couple of kilometres to the east of Liteyniy prospekt, which runs due north from Nevskiy prospekt to the Neva, lies the Smolniy district, a quiet and slightly remote quarter.
The Tauride Garden (Tavricheskiy sad), at the end of Furshtadtskaya ulitsa, backs onto the palace of the same name. The gardens were designed by the English gardener, William Gould, in the eighteenth century and are now primarily a children's park, boasting an antiquated fairground on the western side. On the north side of the park is the Tauride Palace (Tavricheskiy dvorets), built by Catherine the Great for her lover, Prince Potemkin, to celebrate his annexation of the Crimea (Tauris) to Russia. Completed in 1789, the palace is one of the city's earliest examples of an austere Neoclassicism, but is sadly closed to the public.
Just east of the Tauride Palace, at the end of Shpalernaya ulitsa, it's impossible to ignore the glorious ice-blue cathedral towering on the eastern horizon, which is the focal point and architectural masterpiece of the Smolniy Complex. In the eighteenth century, Empress Elizabeth founded the Smolniy Convent (Smolniy monastyr) on the site. Rastrelli's grandiose Rococo plans - including a 140-metre-high bell tower, which would have been the tallest structure in the city - were never completed, and the building was only finished in 1835 by Stasov in a more restrained Neoclassical fashion. The cathedral's austere white interior (10.30am-5pm; closed Thurs) is disappointingly severe. The first floor now houses temporary exhibitions, as well as concerts. The Smolniy Institute, now the Mayor's Office (no public access), was built between 1806 and 1808 to house the Institute for Young Noblewomen, but gained its notoriety after the Petrograd Soviet moved here in August 1917 until the city's vulnerability in the Civil War impelled the government to move to Moscow in March 1918.
Two kilometres south of the Smolniy Complex, at the southeastern end of Nevskiy prospekt, lies the Alexander Nevsky Monastery (Aleksandro-Nevskaya lavra). The monastery was founded in 1713 by Peter the Great, and from 1797 it became one of only four in the Russian Empire to be given the title of lavra, the highest rank in Orthodox monasticism.
There are two main cemeteries within the monastery: the most famous names reside in the Tikhvin Cemetery (Tikhvinskoe kladbishche), the more recent of the two, established in 1823. Among those buried here are Dostoyevsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, Rubinstein and Glinka. Directly opposite is the much smaller Lazarus Cemetery (Lazarovskoe kladbishche), established by Peter the Great, and the oldest in the city. There are fewer international celebrities, but it's just as interesting in terms of funereal art. You should be able to locate the tombs of the polymath Lomonosov, and the architects Rossi and Quarenghi. Tickets are required for entry into the Tikhvin and Lazarus cemeteries (March-Sept 11am-6pm; Oct-Feb 11am-3.30pm; closed Thurs), but not for the monastery or the Trinity Cathedral, which are both open daily from dawn to dusk.
To reach the monastery itself, continue along the walled path past Trezzini's Church of the Annunciation, the original burial place of Peter III, Catherine the Great's deposed husband (currently closed). Trezzini also drew up an ambitious design for the monastery's Trinity Cathedral, but failed to orient it towards the east, as Orthodox custom required, so the plans were scrapped. The job was left to Ivan Starov, who completed a more modest building in a Neoclassical style which now sits awkwardly with the rest of the complex. The interior, however, is worth exploring, though bear in mind that this is a working church, not simply a museum.
To escape the crowds, head round the back of the cathedral to the Nicholas Cemetery (daily: summer 9am-9pm; winter 9am-6pm), an overgrown graveyard where the monastery's scholars and priests are buried, as well as nobles and intellectuals.