St Petersburg, a city of sudden and historic changes, turned 300 years old in 2003. From its spectacular birth at the order of Peter the Great, in the early years of the 18th century, the city has suffered chaotic years of revolution, the freezing death and starvation of the Nazi siege, the grim purges of Stalin and the end of the Communist era in the 1990s. Situated in the west, on the Baltic Sea, it is a city of extremes. Its outstanding architecture is amazing, but decay and dilapidation are constant threats, just about fought off by a never-ending restoration programme. The lavish life of the tsars depended on the hopeless poverty and squalor of serfs and peasants. Today, the newly rich, in their designer clothes, pass ragged beggars on the streets. Even the weather here is extreme – the rivers and canals freeze in the depths of winter, while in midsummer all of Petersburg stays outdoors to enjoy the White Nights of this northern latitude, where the light is never quite extinguished.
Peter the Great dreamt of a great northern capital to guard Russia from Swedish military threats. With extraordinary energy and his personal knowledge of building and engineering, he oversaw the rise of St Petersburg from the islands and swamps around the River Neva. By the time of his death, in 1725, he had forcibly moved the seat of government from Moscow, the population was 40,000, the Admiralty was building ships for the Russian navy, the imposing Peter Gate guarded the entrance to the Peter and Paul Fortress on Vasilevsky Island, and the Summer Palace and much more grand Menshikov Palace were already built.
In the century that followed, his successors built very magnificent palaces, from the simple style of Italian architect Trezzini, for Peter himself, to the grandiose Baroque constructions of Rastrelli, for the Empress Elizabeth, and the reserved neo-classical designs preferred by Catherine the Great. Alongside the palaces arose sophisticated churches from Trezzini’s gold-spired landmark of St Peter and St Paul – the final resting place of the Romanov dynasty – to the confection of bright colour, domes and gold of the Church on Spilled Blood or the carved and gilded extravaganza of St Isaac’s Cathedral. On Nevsky prospekt, St Petersburg’s main street, the styles of three centuries, from classical to Baroque to Style Moderne, have created one of the most beautiful streets in the world.
Accentuating the beauty of the buildings are the canals and rivers, which cross Nevsky prospekt. Like Venice, to which it is often compared, the twisting waterways which leads to the broad River Neva, are the heart of St Petersburg. Although the capital moved to Moscow after the revolution, St Petersburg is definitely Russia’s first city in terms of beauty. It is also the main centre for classical culture – from opera to ballet to music – with historic venues, such as the Mariinsky Theatre, presenting a repertoire and choreography that Tchaikovsky himself would recognise.
Peter the Great is commemorated in the huge statue of the Bronze Horseman, which rears up over the River Neva. Brought to terrifying life in the poem by Russia’s beloved poet, Pushkin, the Bronze Horseman insistently pursues the unfortunate Yevgeny through the streets of St Petersburg. Peter’s ambitious and ruthless drive built the city on a swamp of blood of thousands of serfs and prisoners, who remain the ghost of this beautiful city.