Castle of the Week 57 – St Petersburg

This week’s castle is a little different in that, although it was built for defence it was never used for fighting and also that it wasn’t built until after our normal ‘medieval’ time frame. The reason for this is that, after 15 months’ writing about castles, I’m handing over the reins to Sulis. As this is my swan-song, I’m writing about a castle and a city I’ve dreamed of visiting for the last thirty years. One day I may get there, but in the meantime here is a little of the story of a remarkable city and its castles.

In the early 18th century, Russia was fighting Sweden and Tsar Peter the Great needed a fortress to guard his newly conquered lands along the Neva river. He chose the island of Enisaari (Hare’s Island) which the Russians called Zayachii Ostrov which was in a very important strategic position. The Peter & Paul Fortress was begun on 16th May (27th May in the modern calendar) and that day is celebrated as the official birthday of the city.

The fortress was built by soldiers and peasants in very poor conditions under the close scrutiny of Peter. Many died, but as the war was still continuing the construction was urgent. It originally had clay walls which were later rebuilt in stone. The war was already won before the fortress was finished so the city garrison was housed there and, in 1718, part of it was converted into a political prison, its first inmate being Peter’s son, Alexei who was tortured to death. Over the years many well known political rebels were imprisoned in the fortress including Dostoyevsky, Gorky, Trotsky and Lenin’s elder brother. It was known as the Russian Bastille and was a place to be feared until the Soviet era when, in 1924, it was turned into a museum. Nowadays the Mint is also housed there.

In the centre of the fortress is the Peter and Paul Cathedral where all the Tsars and Tsarinas from Peter the Great onwards are buried, their tombs around the nave and their coffins in the crypt below. On 17th July 1998 the last Tsar, Nicholas II, and his family were buried there on the 80th anniversary of their murder. It was the first stone church in the city and is still the tallest (and oldest) building there.

Although really unsuitable for a town because of recurring floods and swamps, people started to settle around the fortress. Amazingly, within nine years, St Petersburg became the capital of Russia. Other military establishments were set up although Peter himself lived in a small cabin until 1714 when Summer and Winter Palaces were built for him a little way down the River Neva. The Winter Palace is probably the most famous landmark in the city and now houses the Hermitage Museum, one of the most famous art collections in the world. The palace is huge with 1,057 rooms and was mostly rebuilt in 1837 after a massive fire. The Menshikov Palace was built for the city’s governor.

Tsars changed and, with them, the fortunes of the city fluctuated. Between the late 1720s and 1741 the capital moved back to Moscow but the city was irrepressible. More great buildings were constructed over the years such as the Smolny Cathedral and Royal residences such as Peterhof and the Yekaterinsky Palace at Tsarskoye Selo.

Catherine the Great was the first ruler to live in the Winter Palace. The city flourished with public libraries, academies and the Gostiny Dvor store being opened. She started the Hermitage art collection in 1764 when she bought 255 paintings from Berlin. It now contains about 2.7 million exhibits from the Ancient Egyptians to early last century including most of the ‘Old Masters’, Impressionists and sculptures.

The other castle in the city is the Mikhailovsky Castle. Catherine’s son, Paul, followed her but was deeply unpopular. He was terrified of being assassinated so built a fortified palace surrounded by deep ditches to hide in. Legend has it that a soldier guarding the castle had a vision of the Archangel Michael guarding it with him and when he was told of this, Paul named the castle after the angel. Despite his precautions, it didn’t work as, five years later, he was assassinated in his bedroom in the castle by a group of officers inspired by his own son Alexander. Later it became an army engineers’ school and was renamed the Engineer’s Castle. Now it’s a museum.

During the 19th century more landmarks were built including the Kazan Cathedral (where Napoleon’s captured banners were displayed), St Isaac’s Cathedral, the Stock Exchange and the Church of Our Saviour on the Spilled Blood which was built on the spot where Alexander II was assassinated. The city’s economic fortunes declined but its arts flourished with Pushkin, Dostoyevsky and Glinka all working there. The first railway in Russia had been opened in 1837 joining St Petersburg with the palace at Tsarskoye Selo. Fourteen years later a railway connected the city with Moscow. Towards the end of the century the economy started to grow again with many factories, offices, banks and apartment blocks being built together with the Mariinsky Theatre and the Liteiny Bridge which had the first street lights in the city.

The city’s 200th anniversary was celebrated with the opening of the new Trinity Bridge but two years later, in 1905, disaster struck when troops fired on a peaceful demonstration by some workers in Palace Square which became known as Bloody Sunday. It was the beginning of the end for the Russian monarchy.

By the beginning of the 1st World War the city’s population had reached 2 million. When the war started, it was decided that the city’s name sounded too German so it was changed to Petrograd. Many of the great buildings, including part of the Winter Palace, became hospitals. The German advance brought them so close to Petrograd that the capital was transferred to Mosow once again. Petrograd suffered badly towards the end of 1916 as the city’s food supply came by train and the transportation situation in Russia was dire. There were long queues at food shops and this, combined with the losses incurred by the Russian armies brought about the February revolution in 1917 and the end of Imperial Russia.

After the war, the economic reforms brought in by the Bolsheviks started a recovery in Petrograd which, in 1924, was renamed Leningrad. The population had dropped dramatically but, under Stalin’s harsh regime, the economic growth was quicker at the expense of the aesthetics of the city. There was a huge proliferation of cheap workers’ housing; the huge old houses were turned into communal apartments housing several families.

The 2nd World War brought, probably, the city’s most tragic time. In September 1941 the Nazis surrounded Leningrad and began a siege that was to last 900 days. There were 2,887,000 civilians and soldiers in the city. Fuel and food had virtually run out by the first, unusually cold, winter so there was no heat and no water supply. In the first two months of 1942 200,000 people died … but the war industry kept going. Some people were evacuated across Lake Ladoga either by boat or trucks when the lake was frozen but this was dangerous as they were under constant fire. The city’s treasures were hidden and Shostakovich wrote his 7th Symphony which received its first performance in the besieged city.

Finally in January 1943 the siege was broken and a year later fully ended. The death toll is not fully known but may be up to 800,000. Even though the war hadn’t ended some of the museums reopened and ruins were covered with cardboard depictions of their prewar appearance. However, the economy had been ruined and there was food rationing and a shortage of housing. But the city rose from the ashes. It wasn’t modernised but sympathetically restored. Palaces were slowly rebuilt … some are still not completed.

The city finally enjoyed prosperity in the 1970s until stability disappeared with the Perestroika reforms. Finally, in 1991, a city-wide referendum was held and overwhelmingly voted for a return to the old name of St Petersburg. Economically the city is still well behind Moscow but people are still hoping for an economic recovery. They welcome visitors to see their treasures … maybe one day I’ll be one of them.

Finally I’d like to wish Sulis the best of luck with Castle of the Week. He’ll be excellent and I can only hope he has as much fun as I’ve had.

Write-up courtesy of GillB. Sadly no pics as I couldn’t get permission to use the ones I wanted.