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Conceived by Tsar Peter the Great (1672-1725) as “a window on the rest of Europe,” Saint-Petersburg is a well designed city whose elegance reminds Europe’s most magnificent capitals. Built on more than a hundred islands in the Neva Delta linked by multiple bridges and canals, it was called the “Venice of the North” by Goethe. An Imperial city of golden spires and domes, of majestic palaces and cathedrals, it is filled with pleasures and alluring treasures.
The city became the birthplace of Russian literature, the setting for Dostroyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. From here, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, and Rimsky-Korsakov went to conquer the world with Russian music. It was here that Petipa invented – and Pavlova, Nijinsky, and Ulanova perfected – the ballet, the most aristocratic of dance forms. Latter, at the beginning of the 20th century, Diaghilev won the heart of the Western audience with the performances of his Ballets Russes. Great architects were invited to Saint-Petersburg by 18th century empresses to build palaces and cathedrals of gold, marble and malachite. A century later Fabergé craftsmen created those priceless objects of beauty that have crowned the collections of royalty and billionaires ever since.
The grand, new capital of the promising Russian Empire was built in 1703, its face to Europe, its back to reactionary Moscow, which had been the Russia’s capital until this time. It was forcibly constructed, stone by stone, under the mighty direction of Peter the Great, for whose patron saint the city is named. Peter wanted his capital to be equal of Europe’s great cities. Peter knew that his city’s source of life was water, and whether building cathedral, palace or fortress, he never missed to make his creations serve it.
Saint-Petersburg is not just about its fairy-tale setting, but, it is also about a centuries-long procession of wars and revolutions. In the 19th century, the city witnessed the struggle against monarchy oppression. Here the early fires of revolutions were blazed up, first in 1825 by a small band of idealistic aristocratic offices – the so-called Decembrists – and then by organized worker’s movements in 1905. The full-scale revolution took place in 1917 et led to the demise of the Romanov dynasty, the foundation of the Soviet Union, and the end of Saint-Petersburg’s role as the nation’s capital as Moscow reclaimed that title. But the worst ordeal came during Word War II, when the city – then known as Leningrad – withstood 900-day siege and blockage by Nazi troops. Nearly 1.1 million people were killed in air raids or died of starvation and disease.
During its brief history, the city had its name change three times. With the outbreak of World War I, it became the more Russian-sounding Petrograd. After Lenin’s death in 1924, it was renamed Leningrad in honor of the Soviet leader. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the city’s original name was restored.
TOP REASONS TO VISIT SAINT-PETERSBURG
The State Hermitage Museum: The Hermitage is the world-famous treasury of art, the largest art museum of Russia and one of the most famous museums in the world. The Hermitage was founded in 1764 when Empress Catherine the Great acquired a large collection of paintings by Western European artists. Here you can see everything from works by Manet, Monet, Renoir, Picasso, Malevitch, and Shagal to the opulence of Imperial Russia, from Egyptian mummies to Scythian gold.
The State Russian Museum: The State Russian Museum is a veritable treasure-house of Russian art. Paintings, graphic arts, sculpture, objects of applied and decorative art from ancient times to the present day – all these forms of art are represented in the museum’s rooms and halls. Especially large is the collection of painting from the first half of the 19th century – masterpieces by Orest Kiprensky, Karl Briulov, Alexander Ivanov and other outstanding painters.
St Isaac’s Cathedral: The third largest cathedral in the world dominating Saint-Petersburg’s skyline. The golden dome (covered with 100 kg of pure gold) is visible practically from all the ends of the city and on a clear day even from distant suburbs. Visitors to St Isaac’s can enjoy a fascinating panorama of the city from the colonnade of the cathedral.
Cathedral of the Resurrection (“Our Savior-on-the-Spilt-Blood”): The Cathedral of the Resurrection was erected to a project by the architect Alfred Parland and Archimandrite Ignaty (Malyshev) in 1883-07 on the site where on the 1st of March 1881 the members of the secret terrorist organization “People’s Will” mortally wounded the Emperor of Russia Alexander II. The Cathedral is well observed from Nevsky prospect. The facades of the cathedral are faced with decorative bricks and fine mosaic insets. Superb mosaics created by the best masters of that period – Victor Vasnetsov, Mikhail Nesterov and Andrei Riabushkin – cover the walls and vaults inside the building.
Peter and Paul Fortress: The Peter and Paul Fortress is unique open-air monument of history and architecture in St Petersburg. The fortress was founded on the small Hare Island on the 16th (27) May 1703 in the course of the Northern War. This date is taken to be the date of the foundation of St Petersburg.
Mariinsky Opera and Ballet Theatre: The Mariinsky Theatre that owes its name to the consort of Emperor Alexander II is one of the most famous theatres in Russia and the whole world. The Mariinsky Theatre is associated with such celebrated names as Maurice Petipa, Mathilde Kschessinska, Avdotya Istomina, Yekaterina Semionova, Vaslav Nijinsky, Galina Ulanova, Anna Pavlova, Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Fiodor Chaliapin and many others.
Environs of Saint-Petersburg: Being the capital of the Russian Empire for two centuries, the city acquired a precious “necklace” of imperial residences – Peterhof, Tsarskoye Selo, Pavlovsk, Gatchina and Oranienbaum, which enjoy world-wide renown thanks to the unrivalled beauty of their palaces and parks. Nearly all of them were founded at the beginning of the 18th century. Among those who contributed to the creation of the magnificent suburban ensembles were the best artists, sculptors, painters and gardeners, whose names have been recorded in the history of world art: Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli, Charles Cameron, Savva Chevakinsky, Vincenzo Brenna, Carlo Rossi, Yury Velten, Mikhail Zemtsov, Antonio Rinaldi, Pietro Gonzago, Andrei Voronikhin and many others.
White Nights: If you are planning to visit Saint-Petersburg in May through July you will be witness to this unusual spectacle where the city is aglow in daylight throughout the night. Enjoy the romance and the beauty of the illuminated nights on the banks of the Neva River.