St. Petersburg is a relatively modern city of 4.7 million inhabitants that will be observing its 300th anniversary in 2003. It is a kind of “Venice of the North,” built on 42 islands forming a delta where the Neva river flows into the Gulf of Finland, and thus it has more than 300 bridges. The city was founded by Emperor Peter I (Peter the Great) following a victorious 21-year war with Sweden, with a view to it becoming Russia’s showcase European-style capital. In 1725, following the death of Peter I, the capital of Russia was briefly transferred back to Moscow and the city began to decay, but the capital was soon shifted back to St. Petersburg and work was restarted on the city.
It was in St. Petersburg that the Communist revolution began in 1905, when strikers marching outside the imperial palace during the reign of Czar Nicolai II were massacred by government troops. The city was again the locus of revolutionary activity in 1917, and it was to here that Lenin came back from exile to lead his Bolshevik Party to power. However, Lenin determined that Moscow should once again be the capital city, and St. Petersburg was given the more properly Russian name of Petrograd. In 1924, after Lenin died, the city was renamed in his honor. During the 1930s, Leningrad became a focus of Stalin’s industrialization program, which extended down into the Baltics, and the city’s industrial infrastructure and suburbs were developed. The city suffered terrible destruction during 1941-44, however, when Nazi Germany laid siege to Leningrad for almost 900 days, as a consequence of which much of the city was turned into rubble and nearly one million of its residents died from the shelling, starvation and disease. It was rebuilt after World War II and in 1991, when the political climate changed with the rise of President Boris Yeltsin, the city council voted to change Leningrad’s name back to the original St. Petersburg.
The many palaces and government buildings in the city center and the outskirts were designed by Italian, French and other European architects commissioned by Peter the Great and later emperors in an attempt to create a truly impressive-looking city that would be the envy of Europe. The oldest building (1703) is the Peter & Paul Fortress, where many famous political prisoners were held (starting with Peter’s own son Alexey), and the complex includes an impressive Cathedral. The historic center of the city features the Winter Palace, which was the Imperial residence, and several adjoining state buildings that now make up the Hermitage Museum, with an enormous collection of precious mainly Western art (see http://www.hermitagemuseum.org/html_En/index.html
). Other museums include the Russian Museum, housing a fantastic collection of purely Russian art. The city also has 10 cathedrals, nearly 40 Orthodox churches, and numerous other religious buildings. In the outskirts of the city there are three old tsarist palaces, Petrodvorets (Peterhof), Pavlovsk (Catherine) and Pushkin (Great), all of which were destroyed by the Germans in World War II but have since been reconstructed, and they have beautiful grounds with fountains, canals and parks.
For additional background information, see http://wwweng.gov.spb.ru