ST. PETERSBURG THROUGH THE CENTURIES
St. Petersburg is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Founded in 1703 by Tsar Peter the Great (1682-1725), St. Petersburg has been at the center of attention and argument from the moment of its birth. Unlike some cities, it was not created by a process of gradual, graceful development but was constructed forcibly, stone by stone, under the force and direction of Peter the Great, for whose patron saint the city is named.
The year of the city’s birth, 1703, was a troubled one. Peter the Great was engaged in the Great Northern War with Sweden, in a struggle over domination of the Baltic. In a broader sense, he was engaged in a great struggle to speed up the Westernization of Russia. Peter’s desire to found a new city at the mouth of the Neva stemmed from both these conflicts. The building of the Peter and Paul Fortress that began on May 16, 1703 marked the beginning of the formation of the city, which was expressly built to serve as the capital. Peter wanted the European powers to see that Russia was now firmly on their level and the elites of Russia to see what the future looked like – European, regular, rational.
It has been said that St. Petersburg was built on the bones of the people who died building it. Peter’s word was indeed law in many things. Peter could force all those entering the city to bring with them at least one stone, for there were no stones in the area with which to build the city. He required the aristocracy to move to St. Petersburg and build lavish homes for themselves, as well as chip in to help erect government buildings. However, his grand plan of having Vasilevskiy Island as the center of the city never materialized, for few people wanted to live on an island with such dubious connections to the mainland. By the time of Peter’s death in 1725, however, much of his plan for the city had already materialized. In particular, the basic layout of the three major avenues converging on the Admiralty – Nevskiy Prospect, Voznesenskiy Prospect and Gorokhovaya Street – had been put into place. The original downtown was formed in the area between Peter and Paul Fortress and the Log Cabin of Peter the Great, the place which later became the Trinity Square. Most of the high class social events took place either in the Summer Gardens or in the palace of the Governor of St. Petersburg – the Menshikov Palace. At the same time the barracks of the Izmaylovskiy and Semenovskiy Guards were built. The tsarist state rested on the spiritual power of the church and the firepower of the guards, who were the crack troops of the Russian Empire.
This central role of the guards in the state is carried out by the events following Peter’s death in 1725. From Peter until Catherine the Great, there were 7 ruling monarchs, and the guards played a central role in the formation and deposition of these rulers.
Catherine I, Peter’s wife and his grandson, Peter II, died relatively soon after ascending the throne. After the death of Peter’s niece Anna Ioannovna (1730-1740), whose reign was called the time of German rule due to the influence of her German advisors, a coup by the guards brought Peter’s daughter, Elizabeth (1741-1761), to the throne. Elizabeth laid the groundwork for her famous successor, Catherine, both practically, by codifying criminal law, and aesthetically, by naming the great Italian architect Bortolomeo Rastrelli, whose unique Baroque creations included such important buildings as the Smolnyy Cathedral, the Winter Palace and the suburban palaces at Peterhof and Tsarskoe Selo. Under Elizabeth St. Petersburg became one of Europe’s grandest capitals.
The Imperial splendor of St. Petersburg was best reflected in the suburban residences of the tsars. The Grand Palace of Peterhof was decorated with extreme luxury. The Catherine Palace in Tsarskoe Selo, which once used to belong to Peter the Great’s wife Catherine, was now turned into a magnificent royal residence. Elizabeth commissioned the Smolnyy Convent and the Winter Palace, though she died before both buildings were completed.
Elizabeth tried to follow many of her father’s policies. She preferred to appoint Russians and not foreigners to the highest positions in the country. Being a patron of arts, she established the Russian Academy of Arts. Elizabeth’s choice of her successor, however, was an unfortunate one. Her nephew Peter III (1761-1762) adopted a pro-Prussian policy. He withdrew Russia from the Seven Years’ War, saving Prussia from almost certain defeat and forgoing great potential gains for Russia. This angered the guards enough that his German wife, the future Empress Catherine the Great, was able to lead a successful coup in 1762.
During Catherine the Great’s reign (1762-1796), the city of St. Petersburg came of age. Catherine’s reign set the stage for the events to come. She undertook a massive building project that followed two principles: the city should be as magnificent as possible and that the ensemble of buildings should be harmonious. Under her, the outlines of the typical classical St. Petersburg style became apparent.
Many of St. Petersburg’s architectural masterpieces were completed during Catherine’s reign. She completed the Winter Palace and started a royal art collection which later became the world-renowned Hermitage. Several additional buildings (the Small Hermitage and the Old Hermitage) were commissioned for the growing collection of art, and the Hermitage Theater was built. Catherine commissioned a French artist Etienne Falconet to sculpture a statue of Peter the Great, known as «The Bronze Horseman». The monument was meant to be a tribute by Catherine the Great to her famous predecessor on the Russian throne. For that reason both sides of the monument bear the dedication «To Peter the First from Catherine the Second». On Nevskiy Prospect the first Public Library was erected and the Gostinyy Dvor trading complex was opened. Under Catherine, the Great Palace was built in Pavlovsk for her son Paul and the Alexander Palace in Tsarskoe Selo for her grandson Alexander. Catherine also commissioned the Marble and Tauride Palaces for her favourites Grigoriy Orlov and Grigoriy Potyomkin.
Catherine II earned the title «the Great» from the successful foreign policy. In the park at Tsarskoe Selo are monuments commemorating Russian victories over the Turks, including the Chesma Column, and the Rumyantsev Obelisk on Vasilevskiy Island honors one of Catherine’s leading commanders. Catherine also carried on a PR campaign in which she starred as an enlightened despot. She corresponded with Voltaire and prepared a Nakaz, which was intended to rearrange the government along more liberal lines.
With Catherine’s death and the ascension of her son, Paul I (1796-1801), it seemed that much of what she had done was to be undone. Not without good reason, Paul hated his mother. One of the first actions he undertook as Emperor was to give his dishonored murdered father, Peter III, a decent burial. Motivated by a genuine desire to serve God and country, Paul preferred «to be hated for a rightful cause than loved for a wrong one». However, the partisans of his mother used every opportunity to discredit and slander him. They saw his reorganization of the army as a childish obsession with things military. They chafed under the new regime which cut down court expenses, streamlined the bureaucratic apparatus, imposed a tax on estates of the nobility and reintroduced the idea of male hereditary succession abandoned by Peter the Great. After a short reign of only four years, Paul became deeply unpopular with the guards, and the supporters of his son Alexander were able to lead a coup against him in the very castle he had built with a state of the art security system – a moat. Despite precautions, Paul was assassinated in his own bedroom on March 11, 1801.
With Alexander I’s (1801-1825) reign, the city of St. Petersburg began to be used as a large-scale theater for the tsars. The squares and public spaces began to be used as staging areas for mass spectacles at which the tsars displayed their power and the people displayed their love for the tsar.
The key event which brought about this change was Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in June 1812. Napoleon was eventually defeated by the vastness of Russian space, overstretched supply lines and the unwillingness of the Russian generals to engage him in the massive battles he was a genius at winning. The key Russian role in the victory of the allied forces of Austria and Prussia over Napoleon in 1812 and the marching of Russian troops into Paris on March 31, 1814 meant that the power and prestige of Russia was extraordinary high. Alexander’s status as a national hero was untouchable, and his own belief that he was on a mission from God to destroy Napoleon solidified the view of Alexander as an angel-tsar, unaccountable to anyone. After his great victory, Alexander reexpressed Russia’s military dominance in St. Petersburg as he had in Paris, on the parade ground. The focus of the capital thus shifted from intimate venues such as the Hermitage Theater, to the government ministries and parade grounds. Under Alexander beginning in 1819, the central string of squares running from Palace Square to St. Isaac’s was created and an extensive neoclassical building program took place. The Admiralty, the Exchange, and Kazan Cathedral are some of the most important buildings from this time. Catherine’s tradition of magnificence and of unified ensembles continued under Alexander. However, the earthly nature of this magnificence was highlighted when the great flood of 1824 occurred, which was later the subject of Pushkin’s «Bronze Horseman». There is evidence that Alexander saw the flood as divine retribution for his sins. Soon after, in December 1825, Alexander I died unexpectedly in the south of Russia.
The death of Alexander and the accession of Nicholas I (1825-1855) to the throne was complicated by dramatic political events. A group of aristocratic young officers (later called «the Decembrists») started a revolt, bringing troops to the Senate Square by the Bronze Horseman and hoping to force Nicholas I to sign a constitution for the country. They won over only part of the St. Petersburg garrison, and troops loyal to the new Emperor Nicholas were able to disperse the demonstration. Later, five of the rebellion’s leaders were hanged and about 100 other were exiled to Siberia.
After the Decembrist uprising Nicholas I initiated a period of reaction, characterized by an increase in the use of the secret police and informers, a rise in censorship and the number of secret trials and executions. However, repression and creativity coexisted. Alexander Pushkin wrote some of his best poetry, Mikhail Glinka composed his best operas and chamber music, Fyodor Dostoevsky started his career as a writer.
Despite its economic backwardness, which resulted in a humiliating defeat in the Crimean War (1853-1856), Russia was gradually moving down the road of technical progress. The first railways were built in this period; the line to Tsarskoe Selo was opened in 1837, while the «Nicholas Railway» between St. Petersburg and Moscow entered service in 1851.
Meanwhile St. Petersburg was becoming more and more majestic. The ensemble of the Palace Square was finished with the construction of the General Staff building, the Alexander Column and the Royal Guards Staff building. In 1839-44 the Mariinskiy Palace was built for Nicholas’ beloved daughter Maria. St. Isaac’s Cathedral was finally completed only in 1858, when Nicholas I had already died and his son Alexander II was on the throne.
The reign of Alexander II (1855-1881) was a period of crucial changes in the Russian society. In 1861 Alexander signed the historic decree allowing for the emancipation of the serfs, thus earning himself the sobriquet of «Tsar Liberator». He also pushed through a series of other reforms which represented a significant break with the past. He appointed zemstva, thus creating a limited form of local self-government; reformed the judicial system, introducing trial by jury and reduced military service from twenty-five years to six.
But the «Tsar Liberator» knew little peace in the last years of his reign. During the 1860s and 1870s revolutionary groups began to flower in St. Petersburg. At the end of the 1870s the «People’s Will» terrorist organization began a systematic campaign to kill the Emperor. Several attempts failed, but in March 1881 Alexander was fatally wounded and died the same day. The Church of Our Savior was built by Alexander III on the site of the attack.
Alexander III (1881-1894) rejected the idea that the autocracy needed reforming from above, and so the gap between the authorities and the people continued to widen. This conservatism did not extend to the buoyant economy, however. Until his death, Alexander III presided over the fastest-growing eco- nomy in all of Europe. St. Petersburg was rapidly becoming a capitalist city. The number of both foreign-owned and Russian-owned factories grew quickly, while Nevskiy Prospect was filled with banks and corporate offices.
Into this stage stepped Nicholas II (1894-1917). Like his father, he also presided over the years of unparalleled economic growth. Government's far- sighted policies of encouraging heavy industry and intensifying the building of railroads helped to sustain and intensify the pace of the massive economic boom in the 1890s. Bad harvests followed, along with an ill-planned war with Japan in 1904-05 which ended in a humiliating defeat at the sea and a peace treaty that gave territory to the Japanese.
However, the government troubles were not yet finished. In 1914 Russia was drawn into World War I. The war did not go well for Russia. Vast incompetence of the military leadership and terrible loss of life had created a situation ripe for an upheaval. With the tsar at the front, supposedly directing the Russian army, his conservative wife Alexandra and totally amoral priest Grigoriy Rasputin were left in charge of the government at home, making the confusion at the top worse.
The defeats abroad and the confusion at home brought about the February revolution of 1917 and the abdication of Nicholas II.
The political and economic crisis continued all through 1917 and in the fall the Bolsheviks had captured power.
With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the stage has been set for a new era. Today St. Petersburg is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and its past history of endurance and creativity is a justifiable source of pride.