Category Archives: History

St. Petersburg Today

Familiar St.Petersburg

By the end of WWII, Leningrad had pretty much recovered from the consequences of the Siege and raids. Following the Great Victory, the government and city residents continued to sacrifice their lives for the city’s resurrection. Unlike other Soviet cities, Leningrad was restored to its pre-war magnificence. Even completely destroyed buildings, such as the Palace of Peterhof, were reconstructed precisely.

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By the 1970s, the city achieved social and economic stability and became one of the world’s greatest tourist attractions. Tourists from the USSR and from abroad, even those from rival countries, flooded the city’s historic blocks, squares, museums, etc.

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From the 1970 through the early 1980s the city’s economy was stable. With the advent of the renowned Perestroika reformist policy, the city began to deal with serious economic problems. In the times of total economic, political and social disintegration, followed by the breakup of the Soviet Union, the city slid into chaos and lawlessness.

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In 1991, after the city referendum, the city’s Soviet name of Leningrad was changed back to the Germanic St. Petersburg.

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Throughout the 1990s, St. Peterburg was dealing with political instability and notoriously high criminal activity. After the turn of the 21st century, some business areas began to show signs of improvement. By now, the city has attracted a substantial amount of foreign capital. Although most industries are still down, and St. Petersburg is behind Moscow and some other industrial cities economically, the city has obtained its own unique economic climate.  By the 300th anniversary of its foundation, which was celebrated in 2003, St. Petersburg had undergone a significant renovation. Being one of the world’s biggest tourist attractions, it has become no smaller an attraction for both domestic and foreign hotel business.

Revolution

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During World War I (1914-1918), when everything German would grate on every Russian citizen’s mind and ear, the Russian government decided to change the capital’s name from the Germanic St. Petersburg to the Russian Petrograd. The involvement in the protracted war entailed total militarization of national economy, and contributed to its rapid exhaustion and therefore social and political unrest.  By 1916, food supply deteriorated drastically, and the revolutionary process became irreversible. The social disturbance and wartime hardships culminated in the 1917 February Revolution, which ended in the abdication of Nicholas II – the last tsar in the history of Russia.

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The situation continued to worsen throughout 1917. The Provisional Government’s ineffective methods resulted in total chaos and discord. On October 25, the socio-democratic Bolshevist party, headed by Vladimir Ulyanov (Lenin), overthrew the Provisional Government and arrested most of the ministers. The cruiser Avrora fired a blank shot to signal the storm of the Winter Palace.

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Economic collapse and the brewing Civil War forced many city residents to leave Petrograd and settle in the countryside where food was more available. By 1920, Petrograd’s population decreased threefold.

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Because the Germans were dangerously close to Petrograd and the national boundary got closer to the city due to the collapse of the Empire, Vladimir Lenin moved the capital to Moscow. Many streets and objects in Petrograd were named after famous revolutionary activists and events. Nevsky Prospekt was named Prospekt of October 25. Palace Named after a famous Communist activist, Palace Square became Uritsky Square.

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The New Economic Policy instituted after the Civil War contributed to a relative betterment of the situation, and the city began to recover from the recent social, political and economical upheavals.

Silver Age

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The Silver Age was the calm before the tempest for both St. Petersburg and the rest of the country. Nicholas II, the son of Alexander III, and Russia’s last Emperor, reigned from 1894 till 1917.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the bureaucratic system was still intact. It hampered the country’s social, political and economical development, and first signs of instability appeared. However, the regime would not let go.

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In January 1905, the tsar’s guards gunned down a peaceful demonstration of workers who had come to Palace Square to get their problems through to the Emperor. The ‘Blood Sunday’ fanned the flames of the growing public outrage and triggered the 1905-1907 Revolution. After that, on October 17, 1905, the tsar proclaimed a manifesto, which had a significant democratic veer. It instituted a new parliamentary system. The new parliament was supposed to consist of the State Council and the Duma.

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The district where the parliament building was found boomed instantly. Sadly, most bills and decisions initiated by the Duma were blocked by the government. The WWI added more fuel to the fire, sending the country spiraling down into chaos and disintegration.

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The Silver Age inspired new life in the city’s architecture. During that period, a lot of commercial apartment buildings were erected in St. Petersburg, featuring well-shaped inner yards and modernist, neoclassic and eclectic décor elements. In 1903, when St. Petersburg was celebrating its 200th anniversary, the Troitsky Bridge was built.  Outside the central and historic districts, large workers’ blocks were erected around factories.

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Despite the brewing trouble, St. Petersburg was still an attraction for poets, artists, musicians, composers and writers. Before 1917, the city was considered to be the citadel of the Russian culture.

The 900-day Siege

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Definitely, this is the gravest chapter of the city’s history, since it is full of pain and sorrow. At the same time, the city residents have shown their ability to survive the toughest ordeals imaginable.

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A bit more than two months since the invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, the Germans staved the Red Army and encircled Leningrad (the city’s name had been changed to Leningrad after Vladimir Lenin’s death in 1924). The siege began on September 8, 1941, and ended on January 27, 1944. In total, the siege lasted 900 days.

The 900-day Siege

The city’s food and fuel stocks were exhausted shortly after the siege began. There was no electricity, heating, and the city transport stopped. The daily ratio was limited to about ¼ of a pound of bread per person. However, life went on in the besieged city, and some industries were still operational.

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The Hermitage’s exhibits were secured in the museum’s and Saint Isaac’s Cathedral’s basements. So were those of Petrodvorets and the Tsarskoye Selo Museum. Cultural life was still brewing. It was during the siege that Dmitry Shostakovich wrote his famous ‘Leningrad’ symphony.

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Neither city residents nor Red Army soldiers agreed to even consider the possibility of surrender. Many residents fled the city via the ‘Road of Life’ that ran across Ladoga Lake – the only connection with the mainland, which was attacked all the time. It was the only route by which food, water and fuel were delivered to Leningrad.

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In January 1943, the Red Army broke the Siege, but it took one more year to lift it completely. Over the three years, more than 600,000 people died of diseases and starvation. Most victims are buried in the Piskariovskoye memorial Cemetery.

The Foundation Ground

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Saint Petersburg is relatively young. Since its foundation in the early 1700s, the city was caught up in a stunning tapestry of historic economic, political and social events, which few one-thousand-year-old cities can boast.

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Before the city’s foundation, Russian people had inhabited Neva banks and the coast of the Gulf of Finland for many centuries. The strategic importance of the region was evident even then, since it served as a springboard for successful economical and cultural relationships with rapidly evolving European societies. The area was also an attraction for Russia’s eternal rivals – the Swedes and the Germans. In the 16th century, when the country was in decline, the Swedes conquered a vast area lying between Ladozhskoye Lake and Narva and blocked access to the Baltic Sea for Russia for nearly 100 years.

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The history of regaining the area goes hand in hand with the history of the city’s erection. Peter the Great took reign over Russia in critical times. The tsar realized that there was no way for the country to rise from the ashes of the Time of Trouble without establishing a long-lasting relationship with the rest of Europe. He also realized that it would take a military action to free the northern lands from the Swedes and win back access to the Baltic Sea and therefore to Europe.

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Saint Petersburg was founded in 1703, when the Swedes abandoned the area lying around the Delta of the River Neva. Here the river forms numerous forks and branches dissecting the piece of land into several big islands and scores of smaller ones. There were 101 islands in the delta formed by a network of canals, many of which were filled in as the city grew.

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In 1720, one of the representatives of the Polish Embassy gave his own description of the St. Petersburg’s foundation ground. In his story, he mentioned fifteen little hutches owned by Swedish fishermen, which were found exactly where the city was started.

St. Petersburg Heading Toward Capitalism

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When Alexander II was crowned, the Russian Empire was dealing with economic decline and the consequences of the defeat in the Crimean War. With the thunder of social unrest drawing closer than ever and the gap between Russia and the leading European economies growing more evident, an immediate action was required.

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The abolition of serfdom was one of the most radical steps toward liberal economy. Also, Alexander introduced local self-government organs called ‘zemstvos’, which were authorized to provide roads, medical and schooling services. St. Petersburg obtained a radically new self-government system.

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Meanwhile, there was a growing public dissatisfaction with the reforms as being not sufficiently liberal and therefore failed to overcome the conservative trends that inhibited the country’s social and economic development. The government’s oppressive policy resulted in the appearance of the Narodnaya Volya  – a clandestine terrorist organization, whose members assassinated Alexander II on March 1, 1881. The beautiful Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood was erected right at the murder site. Infuriated by his father’s assassination, Alexander III took an extremely tough line against radical organizations and curtailed all liberal reforms.

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In the late 1800s, St. Petersburg became a capitalist city with national and foreign enterprises growing and banking systems developing. In the 1890s, construction was booming and blooming, and the city’s architecture began to grow taller. Liteiny bridge was built, and it was the first place in St. Petersburg to be equipped with street lights. It was the time when monuments to Catherine and Nicholas I were erected. Also, the first monument to the poet Alexander Pushkin was built.

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Foundation of Saint-Petersburg

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By the time of the foundation of St. Petersburg, the Northern War had been raging for three years, and Russia had regained a large part of the land lost a century before, including the delta of the River Neva. However, with the threat persisting and more areas needing to be freed from the Swedish occupation, it was absolutely imperative that Russia strengthened its presence in the north-west by building a stronghold. Under these circumstances, Peter the Great released an order to erect a fortress on Zayachy Island – one of the many islands found in the delta.

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The fortress appeared to be the city’s first erection. The first stone was laid in its foundation on May 27 N. S., 1703. The fortress and, later, the city were named after St. Peter, the tzar’s patron saint. Nowadays, May 27 is officially celebrated as St. Petersburg’s foundation day. On May 27, 2003, the city celebrated its 300th anniversary, in preparation for which it had undergone a massive renovation.

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By the spring of 1704, the hexangular fortress was there, its front bastions projecting forward. Peter designed it as Russia’s main foothold in the war against Sweden

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In an effort to secure the conquered positions, Peter launched the construction of a military base with a ship haven, ammunition storage buildings, warehouses, barracks, and officers houses close to the Peter and Paul Fortress. The new city was designed as a military and trading port. It was supposed to concentrate industries serving military needs, including the casting bed, leather factory, powder mill, etc. The main shipping route was redirected from Arkhangelsk to St. Petersburg. In 1703, St. Petersburg gave a pompous reception to the first foreign trading ship arriving in it.

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It took a tremendous amount of manpower to build such a large city on such a boggy piece of land. Thousands of peasants were forced to move to the area, where they had to live an extremely tough life. Many of them perished from strain and diseases. In 1712, St. Petersburg gained the status of the capital of the Russian Empire.

Elizabeth’s Reign

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By the end of Peter’s reign, St. Petersburg had become one of the world’s most beautiful cities. It took centuries for most European capitals to become the cities they were at that time, and it took less than three decades for St. Petersburg to achieve equal footing with them. Peter attracted architects from inside the Russian Empire and from abroad, and it was a matter of pride for them to have a chance to implement their ideas in following the highly elaborate town-planning strategy.

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St. Petersburg continued to grow and develop after Peter’s death.  Peter’s daughter – Elizabeth – gave a new impulse to the formation of the city’s architecture and skyline. Unlike her father, who had placed a greater emphasis on the city’s role as a military port and the empire’s main stronghold in the west of the country, Elizabeth’s main concern was the city’s aesthetics.

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Elizabeth reigned from 1741 to 1461. Her natural beauty and infinite love of baroque style laid a strong imprint on the city’s life and appearance. She strove to embellish the city with grandiloquent temples and palaces for the city to live up to its capital status. It was the time when Bartolommeo Rastrelli – a renowned Italian genius of architecture – had his major take on St. Petersburg. The most famous Rastrelli’s creations include the Peterhof ensemble with a lavishly decorated fountain cascade, Tsarskoye Selo, Vorontsov’s and Stroganov’s houses,  Smolny Convent, and the Winter Palace. Nevsky Prospect had already become the city’s main road. Funded by local merchant communities, the construction of the Gostinniy Dvor was launched in 1755.

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Being a patron of the arts and sciences, Elizabeth contributed to national education, as she established the Russian Academy of Arts.  During Elizabeth’s reign, nobilities lived a pompous and glamorous life full of receptions, masquerades and balls.

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Catherine’s St. Petersburg

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Catherine the Great took power in 1762, and hers was one of the longest reigns in the Russian history, lasting 34 years. She enjoyed respect among the Russian nobility, who helped her overthrow her husband’s reign.

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Catherine the Great continued her predecessor’s city development course, and to her St. Petersburg owes many of the improvement that took place in it over the late 1700s. She launched a massive campaign against shabby wooden structures and ordered that all houses along the banks of the Neva and Fontanka rivers and along the main city roads be aligned and made of stone.

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Catherine strove to bring St. Petersburg at par with other European capitals. She cared so much about the city’s good looks and economy that she spent her entire reign in the city, and she would only briefly leave for Tsarskoye Selo on summer days. During Catherine’s reign, the city’s population grew from 60,000 people to 200,000 people.

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Unlike Elisabeth – an ardent baroque style adherer, Catherine the Great chose to follow the classic trend in architecture characterized by a stricter and more refined form. Jacomo Quarengi – a renowned classicist – designed more than 30 buildings in and around St. Petersburg, including the Old Hermitage, Saltikov’s House and many other creations of architecture.

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Works by Antonio Renaldi – another gifted architect – reflected a transition from baroque style to classic style. The Marble Palace is one of his most renowned buildings, which Catherine presented to Grigory Orlov in gratitude for helping her gain power.

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The embankments of the river Neva and the canals underwent a massive reconstruction and were clad with red granite slabs, under the direction of Yuri Felten, who crafted the famous iron wrought fencing for the Summer Garden.

Catherine the Great created an ample ground for arts to flourish. It was under her patronage that the first Public Library, the Academy of Fine Arts and the Russian Academy of Science were built.

Saint-Petersburg in 1800-1855

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After Catherine’s death in 1796, her son Paul I assumed power and began to steer the Russian Empire down the bureaucratic road. In an effort to blindly follow the Prussian policy model, Paul I aggressively exercised ultra-conservative policies. His assassination phobia forced him to build what is known today as the Mikhailovsky Castle, which proved to be of little help in the end. He was assassinated in his own bedroom on March 12, 1801, not without his son’s – Alexander’s I – assistance, who had sworn to continue Catherine’s line of policy.

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After the coronation, Alexander began to reform the governmental system. He introduced ministries and the State Counsil and thus laid the foundation for bureaucracy and tough police order to flourish for decades. It was the time when St. Petersburg underwent significant tailoring to meet strict perfectionist requirements. Several major pieces of architecture, such as the Admitralty and the Naval Headquarters, were restructured. The Rostral Column and the Stock Exchange appeared on the southern edge of Vasilievsky Island. A lot of work was done by Carlo Rossi, an outstanding Italian architect, who designed the Mikhailovsky Palace and Arts Square. Auguste Montferrand, a French architect, designed the St. Isaac’s Cathedral, which was intended to be the Empire’s main church.

Paul I

Right after Alexander’s death in December 1825, thelong- glowing political crisis exploded in a revolutionist action sketched by a group of liberal army officers – the Decembrists – who expected Nicholas I to officially introduce constitutional monarchy. They lined up on Senate Square, not taking any radical steps. Most probably, it was the shot by Kachovsky, killing General-Governor Miloradocitch, that triggered the violence. The revolt was crushed and five of the activists were sent to the gallows.

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This event drove Nicholas I to tighten the current conservative regime and militarize nearly all spheres of political and social life in St. Petersburg and the rest of the country.

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Despite the tough regime, the Russian culture flourished. It was during Nicholas’s reign that Alexander Pushkin, Fiodor Dostoyevsky and Mikhail Glinka created their most outstanding masterpieces. It was the time when the first railroad appeared in the country, which connected St. Petersburg with Tsarskoye Selo. It was the time when the first permanent bridge was built in St. Petersburg.

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