St. Petersburg is a popular port of call for cruise ships sailing to Scandinavia and northern Europe, and traveling to this historical city via ship in the summertime is a great vacation. River cruises between St. Petersburg and Moscow also include a few days in St. Petersburg. This classic city celebrated its 300th birthday in 2003. For this momentous occasion, the city renovated many of its landmarks and was ready to celebrate with the world. Compact and architecturally spectacular, St. Petersburg is Russia's most tourist-friendly city.
History and Background of St. Petersburg
St. Petersburg has had centuries of strife and unbalanced power. Names familiar to us all such as Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, the Romanov royal family, and the legendary Rasputin have all contributed to its exciting and oftentimes distressing past. St. Petersburg is where the great communist revolution of the twentieth century was born. The stark contrast between the grand opulence of the royal Romanovs' palaces such as the Catherine Palace and Peterhof and the poverty of the masses is still remarkable.
St. Petersburg was named for its founder, Tsar Peter I, better known as Peter the Great. He was the grandson of Mikhail Romanov, founder of the Romanov dynasty that ruled Russia from 1613 until the Russian revolution in 1917. Peter's rise to power was not as easy as most monarchs. He was the son of Tsar Alexis (1645-1676) and his second wife. In order to become Tsar, Peter had to deal with his older half sister Sophie who was ruling Russia. After building up loyalty among the army, Peter overthrew Sophie and sent her to a convent in Moscow in 1689. In May 1703 Peter laid the cornerstone of the fortress he named St. Petersburg, in honor of the guardian of the gates of heaven. (And, coincidentally, his name!) Peter built a shipyard across the Neva River from the fortress, giving Russia a European trading seaport and important access to the West. In 1712, Peter moved the capital from Moscow to St. Petersburg and required all of the aristocracy to (1) move there, (2) build lavish homes for themselves, and most importantly, (3) contribute to paying for the construction of the government buildings there. Peter had studied fortification and shipbuilding in Western Europe and greatly influenced the design of the city with his ideas.
The rest of the 18th century saw St. Petersburg develop into a political, economic, and cultural center for Russia. While most of Russia was backward and underdeveloped, St. Petersburg thrived. At one point, Peter decreed that no masonry construction could be done anywhere else in Russia except St. Petersburg. The well-traveled, aristocratic residents of St. Petersburg brought a lot of European influence into the city, and Domenico Trezzini, an Italian architect and engineer, designed all of the early major structures built in St. Petersburg such as the St. Peter and Paul Cathedral and supervised their construction. Another Italian architect, Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli, used his talents and interest in the Versailles Palace outside Paris to design resplendent edifices such as the Winter Palace and the Great Peterhof and Catherine Palaces.
By the 19th century, the city's striking blend of Russian national architecture combined with European spirit gave St. Petersburg a wonderful look.
In 1914, St. Petersburg was renamed Petrograd because citizens thought that St. Petersburg sounded "too German" in a time of war between Russia and Germany. World War I was not kind to the city. When the Germans got close to the city, the capital was moved away from St. Petersburg back to Moscow. Government corruption and long food lines left its citizens disgruntled, leading to the Civil War of 1917-1921. Petrograd was subsequently named Leningrad in 1924 as a result of the government takeover by the Socialists. During World War II the city was besieged by the German army for almost three years, leaving its citizens starving and suffering. Over 600 thousand citizens died during the 900 day siege, but Leningrad never surrendered. Although much of the city was destroyed or severely damaged, Leningrad was rebuilt and renamed St. Petersburg in 1991 after a city-wide referendum.
Today St. Petersburg is still in a period of transition, both economically and socially. Like much of Russia, the city is in a recession, and its economy is still far behind Moscow. Unemployment is high and the many of the elderly live in poverty. With all of its architectural, artistic, and historical sites, St. Petersburg also has dull, gray, ugly utilitarian buildings, downtrodden-looking people, and polluting buses. Even with its downside, St. Petersburg is a city I would love to visit again!