St. Petersburg, the most European city in Russia, celebrated its 300th anniversary in 2003. It was founded by the famous tsar Peter the Great (the first Russian emperor Peter the First) and named after Apostle Peter (who guards the keys to the gates of Paradise), under whose patronage the emperor was as well.
Peter the Great (1672-1725) is one of the key figures in Russian history. A true reformer, a smart but merciless man of strong will and great energy, not only did he know how to rule the country but also how to handle oars and shipping gears. He was skilled as a blacksmith and could even build wharves as well. It is he who managed to transform patriarchal Muscovy into the Russian Empire, a state based on the European standards of the day. The tsar was categorical and strict in the implementation of his reforms: under threat of severe punishment, he forced the boyars to shave off their bears, wear European clothes and drink coffee. He was the first leader to have New Year fir-trees decorated everywhere in the country. Even his imposing height of 204 centimeters (over 6.5 feet) was in harmony with his numerous talents.
St. Petersburg was founded on May 16, 1703, which is the date when foundation for the Peter and Paul Fortress (considered to be St. Petersburg's starting point) was laid. Peter the Great luckily chose to have the fortress by located on a small island (with an area of 750 by 360 metres) among the Neva channels in the widest part of the river. The name of the place was "Hare's Island" in Finnish, or "Joyful Land" in Swedish. Every since, the fortress has protected both the way from the Baltic Sea inland and the new city itself against any invaders. Since 1736, the Peter and Paul Fortress cannon fires a volley every day at 12:00 p.m. and residents of St. Petersburg use this event to set their watches by.
On the St. Petersburg coat of arms, a river and a sea anchor intersect. Tsar Peter the Great considered anchors to be the keys to Paradies, and used this notion to plan the name of his new capital. Other various unofficial names for the second largest city in Russia included Northern Venice, Northern Palmyra, the city of White Nights and Petropolis. Still a majority of Russians affectionately call it simply "Peter". During 1914-1924, the city was called Petrograd and then, up until 1991, its name was changed to Leningrad (in honour of Vladimir Lenin, the first communist leader and founder of the USSR).
The city's immediate destiny was to become Russia's new capital. After winning back the northern lands from the Swedes, gaining access to the Baltic shore and thereby, as Russian poet Alexander Pushkin wrote, "chopping a window to Europe," Peter the Great decided to model his city on Amsterdam. One of the small islands on the Neva, where the Admiralty Wharf used to be, is still called New Holland. Thousands of peasants and craftsmen were brought to the swampy Neva estuary to dig canals and build bridges, and over 100,000 died in the first decade of the city's construction. The best architects, sculptors, painters and engineers were invited from the Netherlands, Italy, France and Germany. Nevertheless, Russia' northern capital took on its own unique style and special appearance.
St. Petersburg is one of the world's most beautiful cities. Since 1918, the capital of the state has been returned to Moscow, but "Peter" has maintained its unofficial status of second capital. The city's population today exceeds 5 million (including the vicinities), making St. Petersburg the world's largest city from its latitude to the North Pole. The city residents are considered to be the most intelligent and polite in Russia, apparently because they are lucky to live in a real city of museums.
Like Venice, the city is divided up among numerous islands; due to the activities of town-planners who continue trying to keep to a minimum the canals of the Neva which hamper city life, the number of islands is being reduced. There were about 150 at the beginning of the 19th Century, 101 a hundred years ago, and only 42 today.
Ninety-three natural and artificial canals (which form the Neva Delta) flow through the city, and there are over a hundred lakes and ponds there today. Although the canals are a beautiful source of decoration for St. Petersburg, water surrounding the city remains a source of trouble. Gales from the Bay of Finland often blow the Neva's water back into its estuary, creating flooding in the residential districts on the outskirts of the city. The most catastrophic occurrences of this kind happened in 1777, 1824 and 1924. The Neva waves flowed over the city again in 1955, but fortunately no one was killed. Around this time, a trail-blazing project was introduced to construct a giant dam that would protect Leningrad from the forces of the sea. Though only a part of the project has been completed so far, mainly because of a shortage of funding and the objection of environmentalists, the flood strength has been notably reduced.
There is no single opinion of what should be considered the symbol of St. Petersburg. Some people consider that it should be the "Bronze Horseman," a monument to the city's founder Peter the Great which stands on Senate Square. Others prefer the Alexander pillar on Palace Square, built in honour of the victory over Napoleon Bonaparte in the War of 1812, or the spire with a golden ship which decorates the Admiralty Tower. Yet others name the rostral columns at the Vassilievsky Island Needle, the thin spire of the Peter and Paul Fortress or the famous Marinsky Theatre ballet troupe.
White nights also should be mentioned as another special feature of the city. Those who manage to visit St. Petersburg from June 11th through July 2nd, when the sun practically never sets, can enjoy the fabulous city panorama while walking along numerous embankments during the white nights. However, one should remember that 21 out of the 342 bridges in St. Petersburg are separated during the night. The longest one is the Alexander Nevsky Bridge (905.7 metres); the widest one is the Blue Bridge across the Moika River (97.3 metres). The Trinity Bridge, one of the most beautiful bridges crossing the Neva, was built in 1903 as a project of the French engineer Gustave Eiffel, also famous for the tower by the same name in Paris. One cannot help admiring the subtle suspension Bank Bridge, which is decorated with figures of griffins with gilded wings, or the horse statues by the sculptor Peter Klodt on the Anichkov Bridge.
The most difficult period of the city's history came when Leningrad was blockaded by Nazi troops for 900 days. The terribly cold and hungry winters of 1941-1942, together with permanent bombings and shellings, took the lives of 640,000 civilians. Movingly majestic memorials to the victims of the Leningrad Siege are erected at the Piskaryovka and Seraphim cemeteries. The older residents of St. Petersburg who survived the siege remember the following story when the sandbags that had been used to protect the "Bronze Horseman" were taken away, someone had drawn the image of a medal "For the Defence of Leningrad" in chalk on Peter the Great's chest.
The city's man road is the fashionable and elegant Nevsky Prospekt, which is 4.5 kilometres long Many residents of St. Petersburg make a promenade along this central prospect into a lively ritual.
The Hermitage is one of the world's largest museums - it would be hard for any visitor to overlook such a masterpiece. Other sites not to be missed include the Russian Museum and the giant St. Isaac's Cathedral (whose height is 101.5 metres), the Summer Garden with its famous openwork gate, or the Peter and Paul Fortress which is the burial place of Russian emperors.
The most exotic museum in the city is undoubtedly the Kunstkammer (meaning "Chamber of Rarities" in German) where one can see wet specimens of malformed and diseased fetuses which have been preserved there since the time of Peter the Great, who said: "I want my people to watch and to learn." In the first years after its opening, the Kunstkammer was free to all visitors. In fact, they were even treated to the visits with funds specifically allotted from the city coffer.
Although every season in St. Petersburg promises a unique experience, winter is perhaps the most romantic and culturally simulating of all. Visiting St. Petersburg during the White Days is the world's ultimate winter experience. The city's internationally praised opera, ballet and concert performances are most readily accessible to visitors during this period. St. petersburg's Zhivago-like charm is most keenly experienced when the architecture is powdered with snow and the winter sun reflects like platinum on the city's canals. Only during the White Days can you stroll leisurely through the Hermitage and Russian Museum, ride in a traditional Russian troika through the parks of the tsars, or go ice-fishing on the Gulf of Finland.
Another fine sight in St. Petersburg is the famous "Aurora", a 20th century battle cruiser which still remains docked in the harbour across from the Winter palace. On November 7, 1917, Lenin's new communist regime received a gun salute from the cannon on board.There are over 14,000 exhibits in the Bread Museum, located across from the Arctic and Antarctic Museum.
Those who love Russian literature must know that St. Petersburg is the city of Pushkin and Dostoyevsky. Joseph Brodsky, a Nobel prize-winning poet, was a resident of St. Petersburg, as were the composers Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev and Shostakovich.
The Outskirts of Saint PETERSBURG
The Outskirts of St. Petersburg are amazingly romantic and nearly as beautiful as those of Paris and Berlin. One should try to visit the annual fountain festival in Peterhoff at the end of May and to walk in the shaded alleys of Pavlovsk, Oranienbaum or Gatchina. While visiting Katherine the Great’s luxurious palace in Tsarskoye Selo, one will hear the dramatic story of the unique Amber Room, which was stolen from Russia by the Nazis during the war; after being under restoration for several decades, it was finally finished just recently.
Unlike Moscow, St. Petersburg is tranquil and unhurried. Unfortunately, there are much fewer sunny days than cloudy and rainy ones. But those who live in St. Petersburg adore their city so much as to find a certain charm in cloudy weather. However, one can understand them: it is impossible not to fall in love with St. Petersburg.