Sunday, June 1, 2008

The History of St.Petersburg

St Petersburg is a relatively young city, by both Russian and European standards, and was only founded in 1703 by Tsar Peter the Greatas as his "window on the West". Despite its short life so far, Petersburg has a rich and exciting history. From the early days of Peter the Great's "Venice of the North" to the modern events of the 1991 coup d'etat, the city has always bustled with life and intrigue, revolution and mystery.

St. Petersburg is a beautiful and fascinating holiday destination and one of the most intriguing and historically significant cities in Europe. Whether you chose to visit the city in the midst of a romantic and snowy Russian winter or during the dazzling White Nights of the summer months, you will be spellbound by St. Petersburg's culture and beauty.

When and how was St. Petersburg founded?

During the course of the Northern War with Sweden, Russia's forces gradually moved from Lake Ladoga down the Neva River to the Swedish fort of Nienchanz. After an 8-day siege on May 1 1703, the Swedish garrison surrendered. To protect the newly conquered lands on the Neva delta Peter the Great needed a fortress, but Nienchanz was small and badly damaged. Looking for a site for his new fortress Peter the Great chose the Island of Enisaari (Hare's Island), which was known to the Russians as Zayachii ostrov. On May 16 1703 (May, 27 by the modern calendar) St. Petersburg's fortress (the Peter and Paul Fortress) was founded and that day became the official birthday of the city. Several days later a wooden Cabin of Peter the Great was built, and became the first residential building in the new city.

The original clay walls and bastions of the fortress were completed by the end of summer 1703 under the careful supervision of the Tsar and his close associates. The builders of the fortress (mostly soldiers and peasants) worked in very primitive conditions, since the climate was very damp, good housing nonexistent and food in very short supply. Working from dawn to dusk, they died in great numbers, but the war still went on and the fort had to be completed as soon as possible.

By August 1703 the new settlers in Peter's city had already encountered the infamous St. Petersburg floods. Due to the boggy nature of the terrain, the area was considered unhealthy for a town, but it had tremendous strategic importance, so Peter the Great continued constructing the city despite all the losses and extra expenditures. For its first few years the St. Petersburg of Peter the Great was limited to a small town around the fortress, but by 1712 it had grown enough to become the new Russian capital.

The St. Petersburg of Peter the Great

During the first few years of St. Petersburg's history, the the banks of the Neva saw an amazing transition from a swampy, scarcely populated area to a fine European capital. The first structure to be built in the new city was the Peter and Paul fortress. Althout it was originally designed to protect the area from possible attacks by the Swedish army and navy, the fort did not actually take part in any fighting. Just across the River Neva from the fortress Peter built the fortified Admiralty complex, where the most powerful ships of Russia's Baltic Fleet were built. Many of these vessels were to lead Russia to a great series of naval victories during the course of the Northern War. Many of St. Petersburg's street and district names still remind us today of Peter the Great's preparations for war and the great shipbuilding industry he instituted; Liteiny - meaning "the Foundry yard" and Smolny - "the Tar yard", which produced tar for the purposes of shipbuilding, for example).

Tsar Peter the Great's first residence in the city was a small hut, know now as the Cabin of Peter the Great. As the city developed the Tsar commissioned a Summer Palace to be built for him in 1714 and later a Winter Palace, just a little further down the river. Originally there were no bridges crossing the mighty Neva River and people had to be ferried between banks by boat, one of the reasons why St. Petersburg was given the epithet "the Venice of the North".

Theheart of the city was originally intended to be the area between the Peter and Paul Fortress and the Cabin of Peter the Great, which later became known as Trinity Square ('Troitskaia Ploschad'). The focal point of this area was the city's first church - the Trinity Church, and around it houses for the local nobility, a Gostiny Dvor (a market for local and visiting merchants) and several inns and bars were built. Most of the city's prestigious social events (receptions, balls, etc.) took place either in the Summer Gardens or in the residence of the Governor General of St. Petersburg - the luxurious Menshikov Palace.

Unfortunately, very few of the city's buildings from the early 18th century have survived, many havign been torn down or remodeled. The university building of the "Twelve Colleges" and the Kikin House on Vasilievsky Island give visitors an approximate impression of what the original city looked like.

When Peter the Great died in 1725, his wife Catherine assumed power and the city experienced a short decline while various rulers fought over the throne. For a short period, in the late 1720s, the royal court was moved back to Moscow. Many of the nobility and merchants, forced by Peter the Great to move to St. Petersburg, now chose to leave the city. St. Petersburg was only fully revived when Peter's daughter Elizabeth became Empress in 1741. Elizabethan St. Petersburg became a lively European capital and its population reached 150,000 people.

Elizabethan St. Petersburg

During the reign of Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great, St. Petersburg developed into a fine European capital to rival those of any in the West.

The Imperial splendor of St. Petersburg was best reflected in its suburban royal residences. Peter the Great's estate Peterhof was remodeled by Bartolomeo Rastrelli, the Italian architect of the Winter Palace and Smolny Cathedral. The Grand Palace and Grand Cascade fountain at Peterhof were luxuriously adorned with gold, precious stones and statues and reflected Elizabeth's decadent tastes and her disregard for Imperial funds.

The Yekaterininsky (Catherine's) Palace in Tsarskoye Selo (Pushkin), which originally belonged to Peter the Great's wife Catherine, was turned into a magnificent royal residence with a vast and elaborate Baroque garden.

Elizabethcommissioned the lovely Smolny Convent and the Winter Palace, though she died before both buildings were completed. Ironically, during Elizabeth's reign the area near the palace, which was later named Palace Square, was used as a grazing land for the royal cows.

Elizabeth tried to adopt and adhere to many of her father's public policies. Unlike some of her predecessors, she preferred to appoint Russians and not foreigners to the highest positions in the country and being a patron of the arts and sciences, she established the Russian Academy of Arts. As well as a conscientious leader, Elizabeth was also a very lively and social personality and organised regular balls, receptions, masquerades and firework displays.

Elizabeth's nephew Peter III did not rule the country for long, but shortly after assuming power was overthrown by his wife, a German princess, who reigned the country as the famous Catherine the Great. Under her rule St. Petersburg was turned into a "Grand City".

The "Grand City" of Catherine the Great

Catherine the Great assumed power in 1762 after a coup d' etat, which she engineered together with the officers of the Royal Guard. Unlike her husband, she was well loved by the country's elite and received a very good press in Europe thanks to her contacts with various figures of the French Enlightenment. Catherine enjoyed an extremely luxurious and decadent court life and was the first monarch to move into the newly built Winter Palace. Catherine started a royal art collection which later developed into the world-famous Hermitage which required the construction of several additional buildings (the Small Hermitage and the Old Hermitage) along the Neva embankment to house the growing number of exhibits. Catherine commissioned the building of the Hermitage Theater and ensured the area surrounding the palace was adorned with the finest houses and the only the most elegant architecture.

The embankments of the River Neva were reworked in elegant red granite and the Summer Gardens were adorned with an intricate wrought iron fence, designed by the craftsman Yuri Felten and created between 1773 and 1786.

Under Catherine's patronage science, the arts and trade all flourished. New buildings for the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Academy of Fine Arts and the first Public Library (now the Russian National Library) were constructed and the large Gostiny Dvor trading complex was opened on Nevsky Prospect. Many educational institutions were also established.

In Tsarskoye Selo (now Pushkin) several additions were made to the royal palace, including a new wing, the Cameron Gallery, which served as living quarters for Catherine the Great herself. The delightful park surrouding the palaces was littered with pavilions and architectural follies and gives some indication of the lively social life Catherine and her closet confidantes enjoyed.

In 1873 a monument to Catherine the Great was built in a small garden just off Nevsky Prospect (between the Public Library and the Alexandrinsky Theater). Thousands of people come to visit the tomb of the city's greatest and most progressive monarch every year in the Peter and Paul Cathedral.

Not to make it too long I will skip some parts of it and will jump to the part of the Siege of Leningrad.

A socialist city: Leningrad

Shortly after the Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin died, the city was renamed Leningrad (supposedly by public demand). During the years of the Revolution the population of the city had dropped dramatically and the city was slow to recover from the rigors and tragedies of the war.
In the late 1920s mass construction of cheap housing for workers became a very prominent feature of the Leningrad landscape. Many cultural centers, "palaces of culture", were built to provide the city's people with entertainment, clubs and other social activities. In terms of architecture most of what was built was rather modern and less than inspiring. The large apartments that had been constructed during St. Petersburg's Imperial era were turned into "communal" (shared) apartments, housing several families. Life was not easy in the socialist city of Leningrad, but the population was to suffer even greater hardships during WWII and the dramatic 900-day Siege of Leningrad.

The 900-day Siege of Leningrad (Blokada)

This was undoubtedly the most tragic period in the history of the city, a period full of suffering and heroism. For everyone who lives in St. Petersburg the Blokada (the Siege) of Leningrad is an important part of the city's heritage and a painful memory for the population's older generations.

Less than two and a half months after the Soviet Union was attacked by Nazi Germany, German troops were already approaching Leningrad. The Red Army was outflanked and on September 8 1941 the Germans had fully encircled Leningrad and the siege began. The siege lasted for a total of 900 days, from September 8 1941 until January 27 1944. The city's almost 3 million civilians (including about 400,000 children) refused to surrender and endured rapidly increasing hardships in the encircled city. Food and fuel stocks were limited to a mere 1-2 month supply, public transport was not operational and by the winter of 1941-42 there was no heating, no water supply, almost no electricity and very little food. In January 1942 in the depths of an unusually cold winter, the city's food rations reached an all time low of only 125 grams (about 1/4 of a pound) of bread per person per day. In just two months, January and February of 1942, 200,000 people died in Leningrad of cold and starvation. Despite these tragic losses and the inhuman conditions the city's war industries still continued to work and the city did not surrender.

Several hundred thousand people were evacuated from the city across Lake Ladoga via the famous "Road of Life" ("Doroga Zhizni") - the only route that connected the besieged city with the mainland. During the warm season people were ferried to the mainland, and in winter - carried by trucks that drove across the frozen lake under constant enemy bombardment.

Meanwhile, the city lived on. The treasures of the Hermitage and the suburban palaces of Petrodvorets and Pushkin were hidden in the basements of the Hermitage and St Isaac's Cathedral. Many of the city's students continued their studies and even passed their finals exams. Dmitry Shostakovich wrote his Seventh "Leningrad" Symphony and it was performed in the besieged city.

In January 1943 the Siege was broken and a year later, on January 27 1944 it was fully lifted. At least 641,000 people had died in Leningrad during the Siege (some estimates put this figure closer to 800,000). Most of them were buried in mass graves in different cemeteries, with the majority in the Piskariovskoye Memorial Cemetery, resting place to over 500,000 people and a timeless reminder of the heroic deeds of the city.

St. Petersburg today

The 1970s and the early 1980s were a period of stability for the Soviet Union and for Leningrad. Though political freedoms were greatly limited, most of the city's population enjoyed relative prosperity. When the government initiated the reforms known worldwide as Perestroika, stability rapidly disappeared and the population began experiencing economic hardship as the government quibbled over reforms. In 1991, after a city-wide referendum, the city of Leningrad returned to its original name - St. Petersburg.

Now, just after the turn of the new millenium St. Petersburg is still in a transition period, both economically and socially. While the city's industries is still in recession, services and retail sales are gradually improving and more and more foreign businesses are being attracted to the city's new business climate. Although, still far behind Moscow in economic terms, St. Petersburg had become a modern, rapidly growing commercial city.

Even nowadays, people in St.Petersburg are considered to be more intelligent, smart and polite while Moscow people are considered to be more to themselves, business-like, and fast.

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