THE PETER AND PAUL FORTRESS
The Peter and Paul Fortress is the historical nucleus of St. Petersburg as well as one of its most interesting and beautiful architectural complexes. From as far away as the Gulf of Finland one can see the distant gilded spire of the fortress cathedral, one of the main features of St. Petersburg skyline.
The Peter and Paul Fortress was laid down on May 16, 1703 on Zayachiy (Hare) Island to secure Russia’s hold on the Neva delta. It was called St. Petersburg (named after the cathedral built on its territory). Later the name was given to the city that started to grow rapidly around the fortress grounds.
The Peter and Paul Fortress is the only surviving permanent fortified structure in Russia planned and executed in strict accordance with the bastion fortification system. The fortress consists of six bastions and six curtain walls. Its overall plan – an irregular hexagon with bastion points at each exterior corner – follows the approximate contour of the island from east to west. Peter the Great personally observed the construction of one of the three southern bastions, which was named the Tsar Bastion. The Tsar delegated the task of observing the erection of the remaining five bastions to five of his closest associates, and the bastions were named after each one correspondingly: the central southern was called the Naryshkin Bastion, the lower southern – the Trubetskoy Bastion, the lower northern – the Zotov Bastion, the central northern – the Golovkin Bastion, and the upper northern – the Menshikov Bastion. Later two ravelins – fortifications which were to protect the fortress from the rear and the sides – were added to the main structure.
Built as a military fortification, the Peter and Paul Fortress was never required to fulfill the purpose for which it was designed, and was soon turned into a political prison. Peter the Great’s son Aleksey was the first of a long line of prominent political prisoners to be held here.
Today the fortress is preserved as a historic monument. On the fortress grounds there is a number of structures that are of great architectural value.
The main access to the Peter and Paul Fortress is through the St. Peter’s Gate. The gate built by Domenico Trezzini in 1717-1718, served as a triumphal arch. Above the gateway is a relief of the double-headed eagle, and above that a bas-relief showing the magician Simon cast down by St. Peter. Lest the allegory of the defeat of Karl XII of Sweden should be missed, Tsar Peter stands among the onlookers wearing a laurel wreath. Statues of Bellona and Minerva represent Peter’s military and legislative virtues.
Through the gates and to the left of the main path stands the former Engineer’s Building (1748-1749), now a branch of the State Museum of the History of St. Petersburg, featuring the architecture of St. Petersburg from the beginning of the 18th to the beginning of the 20th century. The exhibits include draft plans and models of major buildings.
In the middle of St. Peter and Paul Fortress near the Engineer’s Building stands a controversial Statue of Peter the Great by sculptor Mikhail Shemyakin, unveiled in 1991. The image of the Tsar is both frightening and grotesque. His bald, wigless head, produced from the death mask taken by Bartolomeo Carlo Rastrelli, and the elongated spidery fingers contrast with the massive torso and rounded shoulders.
The most striking building inside the fortress is the St. Peter and Paul Cathedral. It is one of St. Petersburg’s most prominent landmarks and the tallest building in the city (only the TV tower exceeds it in height). The first wooden church was built on this site in 1703. In 1712 work began on the current stone St. Peter and Paul Cathedral according to the plan of architect Domenico Trezzini.
The unusual interior of the cathedral is divided into three aisles, separated by pillars. It is decorated with murals and reproductions of regimental colors captured in the Northern war against the Swedes. The pulpit is another feature unusual in an Orthodox church. The cathedral is lighted by chandeliers of crystal, gilt bronze and stained glass. The iconostasis with 43 icons is a unique specimen of wood carving, produced by over forty skilled carvers and gilders who worked after the designs of the architect and artist Ivan Zarudnyy.
The cathedral is the burial site of the Russian Imperial family, from Peter the Great onwards – with the exception of Peter II and Ivan VI. The gravestones marking the graves of Alexander II and his wife are particularly remarkable. These sarcophagi took 17 years to carve from whole slabs at the Peterhof lapidary workshop: the first from jasper, the second from rhodonite from the Urals. The place where Peter the Great is buried, to the right of the cathedral’s southern entrance, was chosen by him personally.
In the beginning of the 20th century members of the Romanov family were likewise buried in the Grand Ducal Burial Vault built specially for this purpose in the fortress next to the cathedral.
Opposite the St. Peter and Paul Cathedral stands the former Commandant’s House, built in 1740s and used for major political trials throughout the following century.
Facing the main entrance to the cathedral is a small building which once housed Peter the Great’s boat – “the grandfather of the Russian navy”. The female figure on the roof symbolizes “navigation”.
Across the courtyard from the cathedral looms the Mint, founded in 1724. The world’s first lever press for coining money was devised here in 1811.
Beyond the Mint, to the southwest is the former political prison of the Trubetskoy Bastion. It has been turned into a museum. Several of the cells have been restored to their 19th century appearance, and visitors can get an impression of what conditions were like for political prisoners in Imperial Russia.
Another interesting structure on the way back to the “mainland” is the Naryshkin Bastion. Every noon a cannon atop of this bastion fires to signal the time to the inhabitants of St. Petersburg – a custom dating back to the 18th century.
Next to the Naryshkin Bastion is the Neva Gate leading to the Commandant’s Pier. On each side of the gateway are two Doric columns mounted on granite blocks. Levels reached by the Neva River in “catastrophic” floods that have befallen St. Petersburg are marked on a wall underneath the arch. From here one can enjoy the glorious view of the Hermitage across the Neva.