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The Naval Cathedral of Saint Nicholas on the Island of Kronstadt in the Gulf of Finland.

Petersburg: Foundations of Controversy

Introduction – Executions at Dawn

To find the origins of St. Petersburg, I would suggest a visit to the Tetyakov Gallery in Moscow, a repository of Russian art rivaled only by the Russian State Museum in St. Petersburg. A painting by Vasily Surikov, The Morning of the Execution of the Streltsy, depicts a young Peter I looking out on a group of the Tsar’s guard, the streltsy, who had participated in an uprising against Peter the Great’s rule in 1698. During the drawn-out and bloody succession to Tsar Alexis I, Peter’s half-sister, Sophia Alekseyevna, had led the streltsy into an earlier rebellion in favor of her own brother’s pretension. The fighting claimed the lives of a number of Peter’s relatives, and Peter was unlikely to have forgotten the transgression.

Equestrian Peter, at right, observes a mass of streltsy at left on Red Square
Vasily Surikov, The Morning of the Execution of the Streltsy (1881)
"Отсе́ль грози́ть мы бу́дем шве́ду,
Здесь бу́дет го́род заложён
Назло́ надме́нному сосе́ду.
Приро́дой здесь нам суждено́
В Евро́пу проруби́ть окно́,
Ного́ю твёрдой стать при мо́ре.
Сюда́ по но́вым им волна́м
Все фла́ги в го́сти бу́дут к нам -
И запиру́ем на просто́ре."

Alexander Pushkin, writing in the voice of Peter the Great (1833), Медный всадник (The Bronze Horseman). A suitably stern rendition into English can be found in the translation and analysis by Walter W. Arndt, the late professor of Russian language and literature at Dartmouth College, in Pushkin Threefold (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1972), pp. 128-144.

It must be understood, however, that there never was, and never would be, another ruler like Peter. He was a notoriously hard partier, carousing naked in snow during the wintertime and forcing his courtiers to keep up with him as he danced the night through.1 His talent extended to carpentry and shipbuilding, but his vision penetrated even further, beyond the borders of Russia. Incognito travels to Europe furnished Peter with admiration for the city of Amsterdam, in Holland. Years later, during Peter’s Great Northern War against Sweden, Peter set himself to the task of building a similar capital city in what was, in 1703, swampland surrounding the mouth of the Neva River. Alexander Pushkin, a prominent Russian poet, expressed in his “Bronze Horseman” epic poem Peter’s object in this construction: to “break” a window through to the West (V Evropu prorubit’ okno), as distinct from merely “opening” (otkryt’) one. For one, the act reflects the ironclad will of Peter, and for another, such a window had never before been conceived. Its creation was hardly easy.

With this background on Peter’s forceful westernization of Russia, Surikov’s painting reveals more about the Tsar and his motives. Morning draws attention to the fate of the streltsy, who are in the foreground with their wives and children, their beards and peasant attire contrasting with the clean-shaven deputies of the Tsar wearing military uniforms. Behind the streltsy looms a symbol of old Russia in St. Basil’s Cathedral, on Red Square. Peter glares at the streltsy from his mount, no doubt prepared to give the final word as to their fate. In so doing, he has also implicitly abandoned Moscow, a city with Russian roots too deep for Peter’s taste.

Historical Petersburg

After Peter’s feasts came an inevitable reckoning. A “pleasure dome” built by the toil and countless deaths from a pool of twenty thousand bound laborers2 must contend with the whispered curses of the trampled. It was the ghastly figure of Eudoxia Lopukhina, abandoned by her husband, Peter, who rose up from the mists to declare, “St. Petersburg will stand empty!” The Table of Ranks established by Peter for advancement in the military, bureaucracy and court had the “superfluous man” of nineteenth century Russian literature as its offspring. The land itself conspired against the monumental architecture of Petersburg: the statues atop the Winter Palace, originally of stone, weathered until replacement by copper was necessitated less than two centuries after their emplacement.3

As Volkov - a Russian émigré of the Soviet period - suggests, St. Petersburg has long possessed its own eschatology. In Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony (Pathétique), Volkov hears the doom of both Petersburg and its favorite composer foretold, similar to the anxieties expressed in the early Acmeist poetry of Anna Akhmatova.4 I myself saw one of the paintings Volkov cites as being emblematic of Petersburg’s predestination,5 Leon Bakst’s Terror Antiquus (Ancient Terror, 1908), before reading anything about it. The painting gives its audience a distant and all encompassing view from the vantage point of the goddess inhabiting the foreground. Petersburg, historically threatened by the Neva River’s spring flooding, could easily take the place of the Atlantis depicted in the painting on display at the State Russian Museum. The scene is recalled in the work of another of Petersburg’s Acmeist poets, Mandelstam: “A light wanders terribly high, But does a star glitter so? O transparent star, wandering light, your brother, Petropolis, is dying” (1918).6

A lightning bolt illuminates a city undergoing some sort of catastrophe in the lower left.  A goddess looks on placidly in the foreground, holding a bluebird.
Leon Bakst, Terror Antiquus (1908)
"In order to intimate to me that I might, without displeasing him, survey his empire, His Majesty [Tsar Nicholas I] did me the honor of saying that it was at least necessary to see Moscow and Nijni [Nizhny Novgorod] before a just idea of the country could be formed. 'Petersburg is Russian,' he added, 'but it is not Russia.'"

Astolphe, marquis de Custine, Russia in 1839, from an abridged translation (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1854), p. 100.

A bleak future aside, Imperial St. Petersburg was condemned by contemporaries for being non-Russian. The Marquis de Custine, a French nobleman later portrayed as a sort of misanthropic version of Dante's Virgil in the film Russian Ark (2001), saw St. Petersburg as a poor imitation of European architectural styles. The Bolsheviks may have perceived what was then Petrograd in a way similar to John Reed, as they swiftly decided to move the capital back to Moscow after taking power. In reality, Petrograd/St. Petersburg was the cradle of the October Revolution (the national headquarters of the Bolsheviks was initially at the Smolny Institute, next to the Smolny Convent building where our classes were held).

Tribulation arrived for the city, now with the revolutionary name of Leningrad, in the form of hordes of Nazi Germans – still often referred to as fashisty (the fascists) by residents of Petersburg – and Finns who surrounded the city in 1941. As a result, Leningrad was left with a collective memory that has no counterpart in America’s relatively distant involvement in the war.7 The poignantly laconic diary of Tania Savicheva, eleven at the start of the Siege, fourteen by its end, lists the deaths of six of her family members within a six-month span. It ends with the numbed observation that “Everyone died. Only Tania is left.” Although Tania was evacuated from the city in 1942, before the breaking of the Siege, she was not well, and died soon after the siege ended. Akhmatova emerged from the destruction to put words to the suffering of Leningrad, both at the hands of starvation in the Siege and after, during the systematic murders of the Stalinist era.

"Petrograd, after all, in spite of being for a century the seat of Government, is still an artificial city. Moscow is real Russia, Russia as it was and will be; in Moscow we would get the true feeling of the Russian people about the Revolution. Life was more intense there."

John Reed (1919), an American journalist, on his decision to leave Petrograd for Moscow during his observation of the Bolshevik Revolution, Ten Days that Shook the World (New York: International Publishers, 1926), p. 246.

Architectural Petersburg

My initial impression of the Church of the Savior on Blood was that it must be something very old, its onion domes surely predating the neoclassical majority of the city. In fact, the church is of late nineteenth century vintage, built in fervor of nationalistic pride following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II. To a Russian eye, the numerous painted religious figures crowding the exterior might even seem overblown. Other places of interest include nearby Kazan Cathedral, built to commemorate Russia’s victory in the Napoleonic Wars; gostinij dvor, which houses a historic shopping district; the Admiralty, once home to naval shipyards; and St. Isaac’s Cathedral, which overlooks the site of the pro-reform Decembrist Revolt in 1825. The city is filled with monumental architecture representing every era, every style conceivable and every national origin.

See caption below.See caption below.
View of the many icons on the exterior of the Church of the Savior on Blood. (Photo provided by Karolina Krelinova)The Church of the Savior on Blood from a distance. (Photo provided by Aaron Koenig)

Modern Petersburg

As of mid-2011, the presence of migrant workers from Central Asia in St. Petersburg is apparent even to foreign visitors. Economic difficulties in their home countries have led many Uzbeks, Tajiks and Kyrgyz to seek work in Russia. It is estimated that between 2004 and 2008 alone, nearly five million migrants entered Russia.8 Due to the special relationship that exists between Russia and Central Asian former Soviet republics, these migrants do not require a visa, and the Russian government has shown willingness to ease registration requirements in response to Russia’s post-Soviet demographic crisis.9 Foreign guest workers are readily exploitable by unscrupulous Russian employers, often in the construction sector. A rising tide of Russian nationalism has made xenophobia common, though it by no means characterizes the perspectives of most Russians, especially amongst those old enough to remember when Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Turkmen, Tajiks, Kyrgyz and Russians were all fellow citizens of the Soviet Union. Security concerns also play into suspicion of migrants. Harassment by the militsiya, now the Russian police, is a reality for migrants.


  1. For anecdotes, see Solomon Volkov, St. Petersburg: A Cultural History, translated by Antonina W. Bouis (New York: Free Press, 1995), 12-14.
  2. William Craft Brumfield, “St. Petersburg and the Art of Survival,” in Preserving Petersburg: History, Memory, Nostalgia, edited by Helena Goscilo and Stephen M. Norris (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008), 3.
  3. Brumfield, 7.
  4. Volkov, 117-118, 138-139.
  5. Volkov, xi.
  6. Translation and exposition on the relationship between Mandelstam and St. Petersburg is found in Zara Torlone, “A Tale of Two Cities: Ancient Rome and St. Petersburg in Mandelstam’s Poetry,” in Preserving, Goscilo and Norris, 101, see 88-114.
  7. For more on Siege culture, see Cynthia Simmons, “Leningrad Culture under Siege (1941-1944),” in Preserving, Goscilo and Norris, 164-181.
  8. The subsequent collapse of the oil prices buoying the Russian economy, however, forced a significant number of migrants to return to their native country. See “Central Asia: Migrants and the Economic Crisis,” International Crisis Group, January 5, 2010, 5.
  9. Konstantin Rozhnov, “Will labour migrants save the Russian economy?” BBC News Business, February 27, 2011.

Further Information

  • Mapping Petersburg, with contributions by Olga Matich et al., UC Berkeley, accessed January 12, 2012.
    A collection of microhistory from UC Berkeley professors that aims to represent Petersburg as it was immediately before and after the 1917 Revolution - when the city successively bore the names of Petrograd and Leningrad. The focus of the project is on "the relationship between modernity and modernism" in the city.

  • Petersburg Perspectives, edited by Frank Althaus and Mark Sutcliffe with photographs by Yury Molodkovets (London: Fontanka, 2003).
    An eclectic collection of articles and short stories about Petersburg, many of which describe the pained decade of the 1990s. The anthology is accompanied by well-captioned photographs.

  • St. Petersburg: A Glimpse of What Russia is Not, a radio program by David Greene aired on August 26, 2010, National Public Radio, accessed January 12, 2012.
    A five minute program with perspectives on Petersburg's direction under the administration of its native sons, Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev.

  • St. Petersburg: A Portrait of a Great City, by Vincent Giroud (Connecticut: The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University, 2003).
    The book serves as a bibliography of interesting travelogues from the 19th century and earlier in the collections of Yale. Contemporary travelers have something to glean from reading the experiences of Europe's philosophers, politicians, captains and plain itinerants as they compared Russian society to their own.
Aaron Koenig