The last time we were in Russia was during one of the most difficult periods in its post-Revolution history—a time when the country was in its deepest economic recession since the Great Depression and, as if this weren’t enough, at the exact same time when Mikhail Gorbachev had been kidnapped in an attempted coup.
Although it took us all too long to return, we finally made it back. Not necessarily at a time when the Russian economy is doing well, and definitely not at the most welcoming of times for Americans. We did, however, finally make it back-at least to St Petersburg. And we’re very glad we did.
Of course, we had to jump through the ridiculous hoop of first acquiring a visa. Hours and hours of work went into the process due to continual web site crashes and a ridiculous amount of information required (the last 30 countries you visited, where you went to elementary school etc.). After a lot of swearing, Joyce finally finished the paperwork. Then we went to the local place in San Francisco to get the visa, came back a week later and it was done. Whew! What a negative start to a trip. Frankly, Joyce had had enough of the entire visa process and didn’t want to revist Moscow or go to any other city. So we only went to a city that we had fond memories of—St. Petersburg
St. Petersburg has had many names.
- Petrograd from its founding to 1924,
- Leningrad from 1924 to 1991 and then to
- St. Petersburg
This is a young city—founded in 1703 by Peter the Great who was intent on creating a presence of the Baltic and Europeanizing Russia. He created a city that combined the canals of Venice and Amsterdam, with the grandeur of Paris and Rome. So committed was he to this vision that he designated the new city as the capital of the country in 1712, built his own palace on then swampy land and began creating the canals required to create the islands that would eventually become an archipelago of several hundred islands.
Such was Peter’s love for Western European aesthetics, that he began a collection of Western art that continued not only through the entire Romanov Dynasty, but also through World War II. At the end of WWII, Stalin capitalized on the Russian army’s initial entry into Berlin to loot much of the artistic bounty that Hitler and his staff had confiscated during the war. (The only break in this acquisition process came in the 1930s when the government sold some of this art to the west to help fund its industrialization process.) This ongoing collection of Western European art is now on display at the Hermitage Museum, whose three million-piece collection makes it the third largest art museum in the world.
This long-term love for Western aesthetics also included architecture. Peter and many of the Romanovs hired Western European architects to design most of the city’s palaces, during which they developed a particular fondness for Baroque architecture. While Baroque is already quite ornate, Russians made it even more decorative, with a modification referred to as Russian Baroque. And since this architectural style was so widely admired by the royal family, it was also adopted by many of the royal families and apartment and commercial developers.
Although Russia moved the nation’s capital back to Moscow in 1917, St. Petersburg has continued to grow (despite periods of decimation resulting from wars, sieges and starvation) to about five million. While most of the industry that fueled much of its recent growth has left the city, it continues to thrive as the country’s educational and cultural capital, a major shipping port and a magnet for tourists.
The central city, especially that just south the Neva River, is as incredible as we remember: the indescribable Hermitage Museum, the colors and the bulbous spires of the Church of the Savior on the Spilt Blood, the mosaics of St. Issac’s Cathedral, the walls of the Peter and Paul Fortress, the bridges over the Neva …. Need we go on?
Whether we need to go on or not, we will. The current city, especially the area around the Neva, is graced with one of the most impressive collection of structures we have ever seen in one place.
St. Petersburg’s Majesty
The buildings south of the river range from large to monstrous. The commercial and residential buildings are large and the government, royal and religious buildings are huge, or larger. Both are ornate, with most buildings adorned with elaborate carvings and, in the case of government, royal and religious buildings, gilt or gold foil.
The interiors of many of the royal buildings and churches are even more elaborate than the exteriors.
Consider, for example, a few of the churches:
- Peter and Paul Cathedral. Built from 1712 to 1733, the cathedral cuts a truly impressive profile with its bell tower, topped by a golden spire that soars 400 feet into the sky, making it the tallest structure in the city. The interior is at least as majestic, with its grand, faux marble pillars, spectacularly painted walls and ceilings, huge chandeliers, and magnificent carved, gilt alter canopy. Connected to the cathedral is the all-white Grand Ducal Burial Chapel, the burial spot for every Russian Emperor from Peter I to Nicholas II.
- Kazan Cathedral. Modeled on Rome’s St. Peter’s, Kazan has 96-column colonnade and huge, 80-meter dome, also has an intricately decorated interior, with particularly lovely gilded pulpit and especially alter. Most worshippers, however, come not for the columns or the gold, but for the image of Our Lady of Kazan, where people line up for hours to kiss and pray before the painted image.
- St. Issac’s Cathedral. As one of the largest and most ornate cathedrals in the world, it has a massive, ornate dome, gilded columns and carvings and floor-to-ceiling religious paintings and murals. While the original St. Issac’s dated from 1707, this third version was built between 1818 and 1858, overcoming huge engineering challenges along the way. This included the need to raise the huge foundation by seven meters to place it atop the 24,000 wooden pilings and the need to build a new type of scaffolding system to raise the massive columns. The church’s huge front gate alone weighs more than 20 tons. But as ornate as the current structure is, it is much less grand than when originally built. This is at least partially attributable to the removal of more than 48 kilograms of gold, 2,200 of silver and 796 precious stones from the structure to fund industrialization in 1922. The dome is encircled by a large colonnade that, after a 220-step climb, rewards you with views of the city.
- Church of the Savior on the Spilt Blood. This church is named for the spot on which Alexander II was assassinated. It is constructed of red brick and white marble and has the bulbous dome of an Eastern, rather than a Western Russian Church. It, and a number of its smaller domes are covered in large, colorful, colored glass tiles. Stepping inside, however, transports you into another world. The floors consist of ornate marble patterns. Nice, but nothing spectacular. But, virtually every inch of the walls and the ceiling, up to the top of its dome is covered with extraordinary mosaics—colored glass tiles, most little more than a half-inch square, that compose hundreds of biblical scenes that cover the entire interior. We’ve never seen anything like it. No other way to describe it but awesome! And all of this was despite decades of neglect after the revolution when the church was variously used for storage (especially of potatoes) and during the three-year German siege of 1941, as a morgue. It ended up taking 23 years to restore the church to its original glory, after which it reopened in 1997.
Government buildings can be almost as impressive, at least from the outside. Many, like the General Staff (which used to be the headquarters of the army, but now houses the modern section of the Hermitage collection) and the Senate and Synod Buildings are large, with some impressive architectural and design elements, but are most impressive for their size. The Admiralty (which used to house the Naval headquarters), on the other hand strikes a very impressive pose with its tall, slender, gold spire soaring into the sky.
It is, however, the royal palaces, or at least the buildings that were built as royal palaces before being nationalized after the revolution, that are most majestic of all. Many of these buildings, such as Mikhailovsky Palace, the Marble Palace and St. Michael’s Castle (each of which are now part of the Russian Museum) and many that are now private buildings, such as the Four Seasons Hotel and a number of the mansions along Millionnaya (“Millionaires Row”) are even more impressive.
None, however, come close to the size, majesty, the glamor and the excess of five primary royal palaces –the Winter Palace, the Small Hermitage, the New Hermitage, the Large Hermitage and the Winter Palace of Peter I that are combined (primarily via suspended arcades) to house the Pre-Impressionist collections of the Hermitage Museum (which we discuss in an upcoming blog).
The city’s majesty, however, is not confined to its churches, its government buildings or its palaces. Its monuments are also grand. First, there is the 155-foot Alexander Column, built in the 1930s (by a French architect nonetheless) to commemorate Russia’s victory over Napoleon. Crafted from a single piece of red granite, and topped by an angel (with a face that looks suspiciously like that of Alexander I, the emperor who commissioned it) holding a cross, it weighs more than 600 tons and remains the tallest columnar monument of its kind in the world. Then there are the grand monuments to Peter I (The Bronze Horseman) and Nicholas I, both mounted on horses that are reared up on their hind legs, ready to charge into action.
Nor should one forget some of the city’s more beautiful parks, such as park and grand fountain in front of the Admiralty Building, the arbor, fountains and ponds of the Summer Garden, the solemnity of the Field of Mars (with graves of revolutionary martyrs and the eternal flame that commemorated the victims of WWII) or the formality of the Mikhaylovskiy gardens
A number of residential and commercial buildings also hold their own in terms of size and exterior decoration. Some, such as the Singer Building (originally intended as the European headquarters of the sewing machine company) are even more majestic than (at least from the outside), although not as massive as the palaces. Even the facades of a number of the 18th- and 19th-century apartment buildings appear almost like pieces of art.
And all this started out a mere 200 years ago on an island that Peter selected as the site of the Peter and Paul Fortress with its bastions, casements and collections of buildings that now serve as the “Museum of the History of the City”. Although the facility consists of many such museums, from the Mint (the city’s oldest industrial enterprise) to the Museum of Cosmonauts and Rocket Technology), the Commandant’s House, with its portrayal of the city’s history.
Even the city’s primary bridges are impressive. Although not nearly as majestic and many other structures, they are fascinating in that 21 of the 22 bridges that span the Neva River open and close in different ways, and in a predefined sequence every night, from about 1:20 AM to 5:00 AM to allow large ships to enter and exit the harbor. Although we weren’t out late enough to watch the event, it is supposed to be quite a spectacle and spectator event, especially during the summer month of the White Nights.
Well, that’s it for a very long overview. We will go into more detail on many of these buildings in other blogs.