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St Petersburg



Peter & Paul Fortress

Yusupov (Moika) Palace

Peterhof Palace

Catherine's Palace

Location of Sites


St Petersburg


The city of Saint Petersburg first came under Russia’s control in May 1703 when the Swedish fortress on the Neva River was captured by Tsar Peter I (the Great) during the Great Northern War (1700 – 1721). In order to protect the area he constructed the Peter and Paul Fortress (See article below) which was
one of the first buildings of the city. It is within the St Peter and Paul Cathedral, which is within the fortress, where most of the Tsars of the Romanov Dynasty are buried.


In 1713 Peter moved his capital from Moscow to Saint Petersburg (named after the patron saint of the city, St Peter and not after himself). With the exception of 4 years from 1728 – 1732 when Peter II moved the capital back to Moscow until Empress Anna moved it back again: It was to remain the capital of the Russian Empire and the seat of the Romanov Dynasty and Imperial Court until the communist revolution of 1917. In 1918 the capital of Russia returned to Moscow from St Petersburg although at that time it was known as Petrograd, a name it had between the years of 1914 to 1924. The other name it has had was between the years of 1924 to 1991 when it was called Leningrad, which it was renamed after Lenin's death.


The city has over 230 places associated with Lenin. Some of them were turned into museums, such as the cruiser Aurora – which became a symbol of the October Revolution – it was the Aurora that fired the salvo which signalled the storming of the Winter Palace - and is the oldest ship in the Russian Navy. During World War II Leningrad was besieged by German forces from September 1941 to January 1944, a total of 872 days. Isolated by the German forces, the only way of supplying the inhabitants was by the “Road of Life” across Lake Ladoga during the winter when it was frozen; this resulted in more than a million civilian deaths, mainly from starvation. In 1990 the Historic Centre of Saint Petersburg became a UNESCO World Heritage Site and in 1991 it reverted to the name of Saint Petersburg.


Russia's second largest city after Moscow; Saint Petersburg is a major European cultural centre and an important Russian port on the Baltic Sea. Known as the 'Venice of the North', due to its numerous canals, it has more than 400 bridges, although it was not until 1850 that the first permanent bridge across the Neva was constructed, before this only pontoon bridge were allowed.


St Petersburg is rich in history and contains many beautiful and historic buildings. Apart from the Peter and Paul Fortress and Cathedral there is the Church of the Saviour on Blood, built on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated by terrorists in 1881; St Isaacs and Kazan Cathedrals; The Hermitage - which is one of the great museums of the world. The Hermitage consists of six buildings, one being the Winter Palace, the storming of which led to the start of the October Revolution by Bolshevik forces, heralding the beginning of the Soviet Union. (See article below) Situated in the Square outside the Hermitage is the largest free standing column in the world, the Alexander column. Named after Tsar Alexander I, who was tsar during the French invasion of Russia under Napoleon, the column was built to commemorate the victory over the French.


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Cathedrals of St Petersburg


Saint Isaac's Cathedral is the largest Russian Orthodox cathedral in St Petersburg. It is dedicated to Saint Isaac of Dalmatia, a patron saint of Peter the Great who had been born on the feast day of that saint. The Cathedral was constructed on the orders of Tsar Alexander I between the years of 1818 to 1858 to replace an earlier structure. Under the Soviet government, religious trappings were removed and it became the Museum of Scientific Atheism.  With the fall of communism, the museum was removed and regular worship was resumed in the cathedral, although mainly in the left-hand side chapel. The main body of the cathedral is only used for services on feast days.


The cathedral is constructed in the late neoclassical architectural style and has its exterior faced with grey and pink stone. It has a total of 112 red monolithic Corinthian granite columns, 48 at ground level. The main dome rises over 100 metres and is plated with gold. During World War II, the dome was painted over in grey to avoid attracting attention from enemy aircraft. The dome is decorated with statues of angels. The Cathedral's bronze doors are covered in reliefs. Suspended underneath the peak of the dome is a sculpted dove representing the Holy Spirit. Internal features such as columns, pilasters and a statue of Montferrand (the Architect) are made of multicoloured granites and marbles. The iconostasis is framed by eight columns of semi-precious stone: six of malachite and two smaller ones of lapis lazuli.  The interior was originally decorated with paintings but when these began to deteriorate due to the cold, damp conditions inside the cathedral, Montferrand ordered them to be reproduced as mosaics.


Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ is better known as the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood or the Church on Spilt Blood.  Begun in 1883 under Alexander III on the site where his father, Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in a bomb explosion. It was completed in 1907 by Nicholas II.


Constructed in the medieval Russian architecture of the 17th century, similar to St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, it is in contrast to the predominantly Baroque and Neoclassical architecture of St Petersburg. The walls and ceilings inside the Church are completely covered in intricately detailed mosaics, covering over 7500 square metres, with the main pictures being biblical scenes or figures. A section of the embankment was extended out into the canal to allow a shrine to be constructed within the building on the exact place of Alexander's death. It consists of topaz, lapis lazuli and other semi-precious stones. The cobblestones on which the Tsar’s blood was spilled and which are exposed in the floor of the shrine provide a striking contrast.


After the Russian Revolution it was looted and badly damaged. During World War II it was used as a mortuary. It began to be restored during the 1970s and was opened as a Museum of Mosaic in 1997.



Kazan Cathedral is also known as the Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan and is dedicated to Russia’s most venerated icon of the same name. The Cathedral was modelled on St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. With construction starting in 1801, and taking 10 years to complete; it was intended to be the country’s main Orthodox Church.


After the war of 1812 (during which Napoleon was defeated) the church became a monument to Russian victory. Captured enemy banners were displayed in the cathedral.  Field Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov, who commanded the Russian army during the 1812 campaign, is buried inside the church. Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, the cathedral was closed until 1932, when it was reopened as the pro-Marxist "Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism."  Services were resumed in 1992; and four years later the cathedral was returned to the Russian Orthodox Church. Although still a museum it also functions as a church with regular services being carried out.


The interior features many sculptures and icons and numerous columns, echoing the impressive external stone colonnade, encircling a small garden and central fountain. A wrought iron grille, separating the cathedral from a small square at the rear, is considered to be one of the finest ever created. 


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The Hermitage


The Hermitage is a series of six buildings assembled over 250 years and which now makes up one of the world’s greatest museums.  The buildings are situated along the embankment of the River Neva, in the heart of St Petersburg.


The main building of the Hermitage Museum is the Winter Palace. Started by Empress Elizabeth in 1754 in the Baroque style it required a vast amount of money and involved over 4,000 people working on the construction.  Elizabeth never saw its completion as she died and the new monarch, Catherine II (the Great), was an admirer of the new architectural style, Neoclassicism and appointed a new designer and architect. The Palace was completed in 1762 when it became the official residence of the Russian Tsars.  In February 1917 the ruling dynasty of the Romanovs was overthrown by the Revolution. This started due to the shortages of bread during the First World War when on the 23rd February 1917 the women of Petrograd (which was the name of St Petersburg at that time) marched through the city protesting, over the next few days this was repeated and over 100,000 people occupied the centre of the city.  Although it was at that time just a demand for bread, the thing that turned it into a revolution was when the chief of the military district ordered his troops to fire on the unarmed crowds.  The situation deteriorated and Tsar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate resulting in a provisional government being formed.   After the February Revolution the Palace became the headquarters of the Russian Provisional Government although it is best known for being stormed at the start of the October Revolution by Bolshevik forces, under the leadership of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Lenin, which led to the beginning of the Soviet Union.  With the establishment of a new government under Lenin the Hermitage was declared a museum.


Between the years of 1771 – 1787 the Great Hermitage was built by Catherine II in order to house the Palace Art Collection and Library. Catherine was also to add the Small Hermitage, the New Hermitage and the Hermitage Theatre, which underwent a major renovation In 1991 and is now the home of the Russian Academy of Music. The General Staff building was built between 1820 and 1827 and was given to the State Hermitage in 1993 to house new exhibitions of the Museum. The Menshikov Palace was added as a branch of the Hermitage in 1981.


The square in front of the Winter Palace is considered to be the main square of the city and is an excellent example of how different styles can be combined.  In the middle of the square is the Alexander Column - named after Tsar Alexander I - which is made of a single monolith of red granite and is the largest free standing column in the world. The whole monument is 155 feet high which includes a statue of an angel with a cross, the face of the angel is said to be modelled on the face of Alexander I.


The Hermitage consists of many opulently decorated rooms and provides the opportunity to see the different styles of architecture with rooms such as the Throne Room provide an insight into the workings of the palace and the life style of the Tsar and his court.


The rooms contain works and artefacts dating from prehistory, Ancient Egypt and Classical times to early 20th century Europe. It contains over 3 million items including the works of the great sculptors and artists; including a significant amount of works relating to Renaissance and the modern masters. Paintings, sculptures, arms and amour, silver and gold objects, clocks and other exhibits by all the great masters are exhibited in some of the most exquisitely designed and opulent rooms. With many of the great masters such as Rubens and Leonardo da Vinci having rooms devoted just to their works.


The Hermitage is always crowded, although the opportunity exists for visitors to have private group tours in the evening which are combined with a concert in the beautiful Spanish Skylight room with its wonderful acoustics; something not to be missed.



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Peter & Paul Fortress


The Peter & Paul Fortress was one of the first buildings in St Petersburg. It was started in 1702 by Peter I (the Great) in order to secure the approach to the river Neva, which Peter took from the Swedes.   The first bastions of the fortress were constructed of earth-filled timber under the supervision of Peter and his Generals, who gave their names to the bastions. The fortress took over 20,000 labourers - many working with their bare hands to move the earth. The weather was extremely harsh, resulting in thousands dying.  In 1706 work began on the stone fortress to replace the wooden and earth one and in 1712 work began on the construction of the stone St Peter & Paul Cathedral to replace the wooden church built in 1704. The Swedes were defeated in 1721 before the fortress was even completed.  From then onwards the fortress housed part of the city's garrison and served as a high security political jail: amongst the first inmates was Peter's own son Alexei.


During the February Revolution of 1917, the fortress was attacked by mutinous soldiers and the prisoners were freed.  It was then used to hold hundreds of Tsarist officials.  On October 25th, the Fortress came into Bolshevik hands, and after the blank salvo of the Cruiser Aurora, the guns of the Fortress fired 30 or so shells at the Winter Palace, although fortunately causing only minor damage.  The Provisional Government ministers were the last prisoners at the Fortress.  In 1924 most of the site was converted to a museum, for which it is still used today. 


The Cathedral was completed and consecrated in 1733 but was destroyed by fire in 1756 to be rebuilt by Empress Elizabeth. Within the Cathedral, on either side of the nave are the graves of most of the Romanov rulers of Russia from Peter the Great onward. The two that stand out, which make them the easiest to find is Alexander II and his wife, Maria Alexandrovna, as their tombs are coloured; Alexander’s being made of malachite and his wife’s of pink Ural rhodonite. In 1998, on the eightieth anniversary of their execution the bodies of Nicolas II, his wife Alexandra, their children (with the exception of two of them who had not been found at that time) and their servants were buried in the small Chapel of St. Catherine within the Cathedral.


Also in the Cathedral is the beautiful carved ornate wooden pulpit covered in gold leaf. Opposite the pulpit is a small low platform on which the Tsar stood while attending the church service. At the far end of the Nave is the iconostasis.  This is a partition or screen separating the sanctuary from the main part of the church on which icons are placed. The iconostasis is made out of gilded soft lime wood.  Both it and the altar canopy were made in Moscow and delivered to St Petersburg in pieces to be installed in the Cathedral in 1729.


Other buildings are situated within the fortress and include the prison, the mint and the Commandants house.


A statue of Peter I has been the cause of controversy, as the tiny head, modelled on a mask made by Rastrelli on Peters death, is completely disproportionate to the body.  Legend has it that touching the statue brings good luck.


One of the finest architectural structures in the fortress is the Neva Gate built of granite in the Classicism style.  It is decorated with two pairs of Doric columns and a triangular pediment. The gate is known as the "Gate of Death" because prisoners were led through it to be executed. It was restored in 1998 - 1999, to resemble the gate of the middle of the 18th century, and leads a three-span granite bridge joining the Commandant's Pier and with views across the Neva to the Winter Palace.

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Yusupov (Moika) Palace

Originally a small timber property built in the 1770’s on the banks of the River Moika for the niece of Tsar Peter I. It was to grow into one of St Petersburg's finest palaces.

In 1795 it was obtained by Catherine II who gave it to her lady-in-waiting Countess Alexandra Branicka, the niece of one of her favourites - Grigory Potemkin.  The Palace was acquired by Nickolai Yusupov in 1830, when it became known as the Yusupov Palace. The Yusupovs owned 57 palaces which included four in St Petersburg.  In fact, the wealth of the Yusupovs rivalled that of the Tsar. The family could trace their lineage back over 1000 years and they served the Russian Tsars since the time of Ivan IV in the 14th century until 1917.

The Yusopovs had one of the country’s greatest private collections of paintings and sculptures; started by Nickolai.  His collection comprised of works from some of the finest artists and sculptors of his time and his expertise and contacts resulted in Catherine II and Paul I using him to build up the collection of the Hermitage and Tsarskoye Selo (Catherine’s Palace) as well as other palaces. The subsequent members of the Yusupov family continued to develop the palace and the art collection. 

At the time of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 the Yusupovs were the richest family in Russia. Their collection of art, sculptures and jewellery amounting to more than 40,000 items was confiscated following the revolution and placed in the State Hermitage and other museums.  In 1917 the palace was used as the Swedish and German embassies, which was a crucial factor in its not having been ransacked following the revolution. In 1925 the palace was taken over by the city's Education Commissariat, and today it is held by the Cultural Centre of Education Workers.

During World War II the palace was struck by a bomb and many of the rooms were damaged, but have subsequently have been repaired and restored to their former glory. 

Although the façade, with its classical six-column portico,  is striking it does not indicate the beauty and affluence of the interior. The Palace was developed over the years in a variety of architectural styles including Gothic, Renaissance, Oriental, Rococo and Historicism, making it one of the most beautiful palaces in St. Petersburg.

The Palace is noted for the opulence of the interior and its decorations which include wood and stone carving and multi-coloured marble. Many of the rooms are decorated in different styles and contain gilded chandeliers, silks, frescoes, tapestries and beautiful furniture. 

The ground floor includes the Turkish Study and Moorish Drawing Room and leads to the cellar, where on 17th December 1916 the murder of Grigori Rasputin took place.  Since 1919, it has housed a display of the wax figures of the members of the plot, including the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich (a cousin of Nicholas II) and Felix Yusupov, together with the figure of Rasputin himself. 

The motive for the murder was to remove the influence that Rasputin had over the Tsarina Alexandra and subsequently over the Tsar himself.  Rasputin’s murder was an extremely difficult act to carry out.  He managed to survive poison, gunshots and beatings.  His demise was finally accomplished when he was cast into the icy Moyka River.  Felix and Prince Dmitry were accused of murder and fled the country.  An act which undoubtedly saved their lives following the revolution.

Ascending the stairway to the first floor we find the ballroom and banquet hall. There is also the White Columned Room, where musicians perform short concerts throughout the day; The Red Drawing room is also called the Imperial Drawing Room as a result of the portraits of the Tsars which are displayed in the room.  We also find The Blue Drawing room with its white marble walls and blue panels and gilded décor and ornate ceiling.   

Also to be seen is the ornate Russian Baroque private theatre which is richly decorated by elegant gilt modelling with its boxes and balconies and also the Oak Dining Room, finished with carved panels and decorated with the family coats of arms and which provides a view onto the staircase. There are also numerous other spectacular rooms all of which convey an image of life in the time of the Yusupovs.


Peterhof Palace


The Peterhof Palace was built in the early 18th century by Tsar Peter I (the Great) to rival France's Versailles. Situated 29 km from St Petersburg the location was ideal as it enabled Peter ease of access to Europe from the Kronstadt naval base - which was situated on an island off the coast - and also to St Petersburg, it was also to provide a suitable place to enable the provision of Kronstadt.


The first building on the site was started in 1714; this was the Monplaisir Palace, which was to become Peter’s summer palace. Peter played a major part in the design of Monplaisir and the other initial buildings and fountains. Constructed in grounds that cover more than six hundred hectares it was eventually to contain thirty palaces and pavilions.


To facilitate construction a grand canal was dug between the main palace and the sea in order that building materials could be transported easily to the site by water from Western Europe in order to provide the thousands of workers. Peter wished to complete the construction in a short period of time and the main palace was completed in 1721. On August 14, 1723, Peterhof officially opened and was to become one of the favourite residences of the tsars, several of whom were to add to it over the years.

The main palace which is known as the Grand Palace was originally of similar size to the other buildings and was known simply as the Upper Palace. It was built between 1714 and 1721. The Palace was significantly altered and expanded between 1745 – 55 by Peters daughter the Empress Elizabeth, to the design of the Italian architect Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli, who added an additional floor, a new palace wing and a small domed church. The interior was remodelled in a baroque style, although Peter’s study room was left intact. The decoration to the Grand cascade and the development of the complex also progressed under Elizabeth and during the reign of Catherine II (the Great).


The Palace contains a number of opulent state rooms which are reached by a Rastrelli’s ceremonial staircase decorated with gilded statues. The rooms include the spacious Ballroom with the windows and mirrors on either side of the room creating the illusion of an even larger hall. Other notable rooms in the palace include the baroque Audience Hall, the blue Drawing Room, the white Dining Room, two Chinese study rooms, the original study of Peter I and the Throne Room which is the largest room in the Great Palace (300 square metres) with its portraits of the Romanovs. The Chesma Hall contains wall paintings depicting the naval battle of Chesma (1770) the first of a number of navel defeats for the Ottoman Empire by Russia. Also of note is the Picture Hall with its walls almost entirely covered by 368 paintings.


The Palace is however, most famous for its many and varied fountains. The greatest being the Grand Cascade, completed in 1724. This consists of a large cascade which runs from the foot of the Great Palace to a long canal that leads to the Gulf of Finland. The cascade consists of 39 gilded bronze statues, 64 water jets and 75 fountains. On a terrace at the top of the cascade is a pair of Tritons and a number of gilded sculptures. The centrepiece of the Grand Cascade is the Samson Fountain, which shows Samson opening the jaws of a lion out of which is a vertical jet of water shooting 20 metres into the air. The statue symbolized Russia's victory over Sweden at the Battle of Poltava (1709) in the Great Northern War. At the centre of the cascade is an artificial grotto connected to the palace by a hidden corridor. The grotto is constructed in brown stone and it contains artefacts of the fountains' history. This includes a table and bowl of artificial fruit which soak visitors when they reach for the fruit. A number of fountains are designed to catch the unsuspecting visitor who are wet when they approach a fountain or when they are within its reach.


All of the fountains operate without the use of pumps. Water is supplied from natural springs nearby and collects in reservoirs in the Upper Gardens. It is the elevation difference and not pumps that creates the pressure to work the fountains of the Lower Gardens, including the Grand Cascade. The Samson Fountain is supplied by a special aqueduct, over four km in length, which draws water and pressure from a source at a higher elevation.


The grounds of Peterhof are divided into three separate parks; it includes the upper, lower and the Alexandria Park. Around the park are numerous buildings and fountains.  By the sea front stands the Monplaisir Palace, this is at the centre of a small park which consists of six differently themed gardens. The dragon waterfall nearby is named after the three statues of dragons that spout water onto a checkerboard patterned sloping plane. Along from the Monplaisir Palace is the Hermitage Pavilion, a small building with a white façade. Nearby is the Orangery, built to protect plants and flowers from inclement weather. Also to be seen are the recently opened Olga Pavilion built in 1846 on a small island and Tsarina’s Pavilion both of which have undergone a recent renovation and are now open to the public.


In 1918 Peterhof became a museum although during World War II it was occupied by the German troops and suffered severe damage and was destroyed by fire. The reconstruction began almost immediately after the war and continues to this day.

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Catherine’s Palace


Catherine’s Palace is located 17 miles (28km) south of St. Petersburg in the town of Pushkin, which, prior to 1937, was known as Tsarskoe Selo. The palace started as a manor house which was acquired by Peter I (the Great) in 1708 for his mistress, who lived there until 1724. She was destined to marry Peter in 1712 and become Empress Catherine I in 1725; it is she who the palace is named after.

After her death, the palace was extended by Empress Anna between 1730-1740 and then by Elizabeth between the years of 1741 – 1756; undergoing a complete overhaul by the court architect Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli in the Baroque style.  When Catherine II (the Great) became Empress in 1762 she developed the palace in the Rococo style which emerged in France in the early 18th century.  In the 1770s Catherine II continued to lavishly develop the palace with rich collections of art.


In 1820 it was partly destroyed by fire, but rebuilt.  After the Russian Revolution it became a museum.  During World War II the German army occupied the palace and in 1944,  prior to their retreat,  they destroyed it.  The building we see today has been rebuilt since the war.


The Palace contains many beautiful rooms, including the Grand Hall or ballroom measuring 154 ft x 56ft with  2 tiers of windows. The painting on the ceiling depicts a colonnade around the perimeter of the room, and gives it a 3 dimensional feel, which extends the space upwards.  


The most famous room is the Amber Room.  This was started by Frederick I of Prussia as his palace in Berlin, although it was unfinished when he died in 1713.   Work was then stopped because his successor, Frederick Wilhelm I, did not like the room. When Peter the Great visited him and admired the room, Frederick Wilhelm gave it to Peter, and in 1717 the panels were sent to St. Petersburg.  However, as Russian craftsmen were unable to reassemble them they remained packed away.  In 1740, Russia’s then Empress, Elizabeth, asked for the amber to be used in the redecoration of a room in St. Petersburg's Winter Palace, although she died before it was completed.  Her successor, Catherine II ordered the amber moved to her summer residence at Tsarskoe Selo. It was completed in 1770 and used as a study.  During the war an attempt was made to cover the walls with paper and gauze in an attempt to conceal the amber,  but during the German occupation of the palace it was discovered by them, dismantled and removed to Germany, where it disappeared.


A full-scale reconstruction of the Amber Room began in the 1980s, with the techniques having to be re-learnt. The room was opened to the public in 2003. It is constructed from over 100,000 perfectly fitted pieces of amber and is estimated to have a value of approximately £160 million.

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