My first surprise when I started to read more about St. Petersburg was how recently it was founded. When Peter the great, chose the estuary of the river Neva in 1703 for his capital there was only a small settlement with a few Swedish traders and soldiers.
Peter the Great
Peter the great is an interesting historical figure. A very intelligent man with little formal education he was very adept at practical skills. Before he became czar he travelled widely and even worked for a time in a dock yard in the Netherlands. Peter must have looked a remarkable figure at 6ft 7in tall. He became convinced that Russia needed its own navy in order to compete with other European countries. He chose the estuary of the river Neva on the Baltic sea for his new dock yards. I think he must have needed a very strong character to persuade people to move to what was little more than a swamp with freezing winters. Many of the early workers were conscripted peasants or Swedish Prisoners of war but European aristocrats, merchants and intellectuals came to settle in his new city.
In a few years he established a thriving town with palaces, gardens and churches. He was inspired by the architecture he had seen in Paris, Vienna, London and Venice and managed to persuade many leading architects to work for him. Curiously at first he did not build any bridges as he wanted everyone to learn how to sail or row. St. Petersburg is sometimes called the Venice of the North because of the number of canals.
St. Petersburg remained the capital of Russia until 1914. After the Russian revolution it was renamed Leningrad but Moscow became the new capital. ( In 1991 the population voted to return to the old name in a referendum). During the second world war Leningrad was besieged by the Germans and perhaps a million people died of disease or starvation but the city did not surrender. Helen Dunmore: one of my favourite historical fiction writers told the story in “the siege” which I recommend if you don’t mind the grim subject.
We were lucky enough to spend two days in the city. There was a big contrast with the other cities we visited on our cruise. In Helsinki and Copenhagen we saw lots of bicycles and electric scooters for hire. In Leningrad we saw hardly any. I saw many older women dressed in the traditional black and as we drove through the suburbs we saw many of the drab grey soviet era apartment blocks.
We had not obtained Russian visas so had to stay with a guided tour. This was the first place where I had my passport stamped since a visit to America a few years ago. We chose to do a slow walking tour of the Hermitage and a sightseeing coach tour.
St. Isaac cathedral is now a museum. It was probably named in honour of Peter the Great who was born on St. Isaac’s day.
The beautiful Orthodox church of the Saviour of the spilled blood was built by the Imperial family on the site where czar Alexander 11 was assassinated with a hand grenade.
The Hermitage which was founded by Catherine the Great is the second largest art museum in the world. The sumptuous interior is lavishly gilded and it has an impressive collection of French impressionist paintings.
Although we could not wander round the designer shops on the main shopping street Nevsky Prospect, we were able to visit the souvenir shops on the quay side. They were full of Russian dolls, vodka, furs, jewellery and models of Faberge eggs. I even spotted a Putin calendar with the president improbably cuddling a puppy on the front cover.
I want to thank Bill for providing most of the photos for this post. As usual I love to read all your comments.