Saint Petersburg is the most northern city in the world. It enjoys an average of 35 days of sunshine per year. We were fortunate in be able to have two warm sunny days to visit this remarkable city and to enjoy being told the history and visit the many sites with our wonderful guide Marianna. We were picked up at the Norwegian Star and joined by six additional passengers for the two-day tour.
First a Little history.
Saint Petersburg is the second largest city in Russia with over 5 million residents. It was founded by Peter the Great on May 27, 1703, where it was basically swamp land on the Neva River at the head of the Gulf of Finland on the Baltic Sea. Russia had northern access to navigable oceans, but were frozen during most of the year. Russia was close to a feudal system until the revolution in 1917 and the communists led by Lenin took control.
The history of Saint Petersburg was interesting with all the Romanov family intrigue of the various czars and empresses that ruled Russia up until the revolution. Before 1700, Russia was very poor and behind Europe culturally. Peter the Great when young, spent two years working in the boat building industry in Denmark, learning the business. He went on to send time in Prussia and France where he took their culture to heart. When he became the sole Russian leader he declared German the language of the nobility, introduced drinking and the party mentality with in aristocracy. He built the strongest navy and declared the Russia to be an empire.
The Winter Palace, Now the Hermitage Museum
The Winter Palace on the Neva River became the center of the city. When we discuss Catherine the Great we will show the great works of art in the Winter Palace.
After moving his first wife to a nunnery, Peter eventually married his mistress, Catherine, who had been a laundress in the palace. Talk about upward mobility! or is that “upward nobility”. He then built the Summer Palace for Catherine. When Peter the Great died in 1725, he named no heir, so Catherine became Catherine I, empress, until her death 2 years later. She spent most of her time in the Winter Palace. Peter the Great had abolished slavery, not that it changed peasant life much at all. The other land owners supplied the labor to the Romanov’s.
This started the building of over 50 palaces thru the 19th century.
The Summer Palace
Versailles was, however, the inspiration for Peter the Great’s desire to build an imperial palace in the suburbs of his new city and, after an aborted attempt at Strelna, Peterhof – which means “Peter’s Court” in German – became the site for the Tsar’s Monplaisir Palace, and then of the original Grand Palace. The estate was equally popular with Peter’s daughter, Empress Elizabeth, who ordered the expansion of the Grand Palace and greatly extended the park and the famous system of fountains, including the truly spectacular Grand Cascade.He also build magnificent palaces and gardens like Peterhof, that rivaled Versailles.
As these pictures show the beauty of the Summer Palace and the Peterhof Gardens.
A cousin of Peter the Great’s daughter Elizabeth, ascended to empress. Anna was a cruel and folk-lore says she used to have serfs force animals towards the palace so she could shoot them from the windows on the second floor. She died in 1741. Anna spent most of her time in the Winter Palace while Elizabeth resided at the Summer Palace.
Elizabeth was crowned empress in 1742. She was the child of Peter the Great and Catherine I, born in 1709, She had a profound impact on the various palaces. The blue outer walls with the white Italian Baroque were highlighted with the gold gilt. The domes of the palace church is an example of the high use of gold gilt. Elizabeth died on January 5, 1762, and was buried at the Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg.
Catherine II Catherine the Great
After Empress Elizabeth’s death, Catherine’s husband assumed the throne, becoming Peter III, while she received the title of Empress Consort. The pair was leading separate lives and had little to do with his rule. Peter III wanted to replace Catherine with his mistress. He angered the Russian Orthodox Church, the military and other nobles, so, Catherine conspired with her lover, Gregory Orlov, a Russian lieutenant, along with several others in order to unseat Peter III. She was able to get him to step down from power, and assumed control herself. A few days after Peter’s resignation, he was strangled while in the care of her co-conspirators at Ropsha, one of Peter’s estates. He was then buried at Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg. where the Romanov family beginning with Peter the Great, are all interred.
Catherine the Great built an annex to the Winter Palace. It was a place for peace, where she could get away from her court and enjoy her art like a hermit, hence Hermitage. She acquired more and more art and precious sculptures only permitting about 500 members of the nobility a year to visit the palace.
Today the Hermitage museum is the 3rd largest art museum the world. Only 15 % if the art is ever on display, with the rest is in storage in the building. Our tour of the palace was incredible the large rooms and fantastic art and sculptures. There is art of many of the famous Russian artists as well as Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt paintings and the Peacock Clock. The clock is a large automation featuring three life-sized mechanical birds. It was manufactured by the entrepreneur James Cox in the 2nd half of the 18th century it was acquired in 1781 by Catherine the Great.
The clock is wound one time a week on Wednesdays to demonstrate how it operates (after 300 years it works perfectly!). We did not see it operate but if you are interested there is a video online.
Here is You Tube video of the clock functioning, unfortunately not in English, but worth the view.
Commissioned by Empress Catherine II in the late 1780s, the Raphael Loggias are the copy of the Gallery in the Papal Palace in Vatican City.
The Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood
This marvelous Russian-style church was built on the spot where Emperor Alexander II was assassinated in March 1881. After assuming power in 1855 in the wake of Russia’s disastrous defeat in the Crimean war against Britain, France and Turkey, Alexander II initiated a number of reforms. In 1861 he freed the Russian serfs (peasants, who were almost enslaved to their owners) from their ties to their masters and undertook a rigorous program of military, judicial and urban reforms, never before attempted in Russia. However, during the second half of his reign Alexander II grew wary of the dangers of his system of reforms, having only barely survived a series of attempts on his life, including an explosion in the Winter Palace and the derailment of a train. Alexander II was finally assassinated in 1881 by a group of revolutionaries, who threw a bomb at his royal carriage.
The decision was taken to build a church on the spot where the Emperor was mortally wounded. The church was built between 1883 and 1907. The construction of the church was almost entirely funded by the Imperial family and thousands of private donators. Both the interior and exterior of the church is decorated with incredibly detailed mosaics.
The Kunstkamera (cabinet of curiosities) 1727
Our tour guide pointed out one museum that was based on a collection by Peter the Great of preserving “natural and human curiosities and rarities”, a very typical type of collection in the period. His purpose was research into deformities, but put them on display to emphasis what bad health habits could do to you, such as drinking vodka! The guide mentioned that if one choses to go to the museum, they never return. The museum offers a shot of vodka, if you go for incentive! We did not stop to see this museum.
Peter and Paul Fortress – Peter and Paul Cathedral 1703
The first structure to be built-in St. Petersburg, and thus the birthplace of the city, it never served its intended defensive function. Instead it had become a forbidding jail that held some of Russia’s most prominent political prisoners. It is also the burial location for the Royal family.
Inside they are buried and the church is amazing!
This place was mostly used as a prison and here must have been where the prisoners went for relaxation! We are told this is the same group each day the sun is out, regardless of the temperature!
We had the privilege of visiting the Fabergé Museum. The first imperial egg the Jeweled Hen was made for Alexander III in 1885. The two halves open to reveal a gold yolk with a matt, finish containing a varicolored gold hen with ruby eyes. The hen is hinged on the tail feathers which allows it to also open up to reveal two additional surprises which are now missing. The first of these was a gold and diamond replica of the imperial crown. Suspended within the crown as the final surprise was a tiny ruby pendant. A necklace chain was included so the Tsarina could wear the pendant. They enjoyed the egg so much that Alexander III ordered a new egg from Fabergé for his wife every Easter. There was a “surprise” in every egg and the designer of the egg decided on the surprise, Fabergé did not know what the surprise would be so he could not tell, when asked by the Czar. Of the 54 known Imperial eggs, 43 have survived. The Imperial Easter Egg of 1887 has been found in the USA (it was bought by a citizen at a small antique store for eight thousand dollars and sold to Warrtski, a private collector for many millions.This only happened a few years ago Of the 54 imperial eggs they own 9 of the eggs, which were purchased by a rich Russian from Steve Forbes for 100 million dollars in 2007, the second largest collection next to the 10 eggs in the Kremlin collection. About 12 of the eggs are still missing from the wars. (You can, if interested , see where the eggs are by looking online for the imperial eggs). Here his a picture of one of the eggs in the museum, this is not the first hen egg but another with a hen.
Reconstruction after World War II
The Nazi’s never captured Leningrad but the siege was over two and a half years and managed to totally destroy the city. Much of the art was crated and shipped to Siberia for safe keeping. There were also drawings and photographs of the details of the various churches and palaces. After the war the USSR spent hundreds of millions of dollars rebuilding and refinishing the buildings to their original state. This is a continuing project of Russia today. The churches are 95% museums with religion only practiced in the other 5%.
This is all in the name of tourism!
We enjoyed the two packed days of the tour. The city is beautiful and the people we met were very nice. We were on a tour and did not go to local places so it is difficult to know much about the people. We can say our tour guide Marianna was excellent and thinks Putin is a “rock star”, he again proved it by skating at the ice hokey game that evening. John had a funny incident going through passport control when we were leaving. The Russian passport agent was beautiful and she kept looking at his passport and his face, finally she smiled and asked John to smile. His passport has him smiling, he did and she got a big grin on her face. Of course John told her how cute she was with the smile, and she turned beet red!