Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Saint Petersburg, Russia

St. Petersburg is the second-largest city in RussiaСанкт-Петербург lies on the Neva River at the head of the Gulf of Finland.  It is 306 km (190 miles) from Helsinki, 324 km (201 miles) from Tallinn, and 630 km (392 miles) from Moscow.  About 5.3 million people (the same as Atlanta) call St. Petersburg home.

Peter the Great wanted Russia to have a seaport for trading with other seafaring nations so St. Petersburg was founded in 1703.  The city was named after Saint Peter; not after Peter the Great.  From 1713-1728, and again from 1732-1918, it was the capital of Imperial Russia.

During World War I, the city was renamed Petrograd (Peter's City) so that it would not sound so "German".  In 1924, the city was renamed Leningrad (Ленинград).  In 1991, during the breakup of the Soviet Union, the city's name was changed back to Saint Petersburg.

The city is absolutely gorgeous!!  If you like Baroque and Neoclassical architecture then this is the place to visit.  The city's historic center and a number of monuments were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1990.

The Peter and Paul Fortress was the first structure built in St. Petersburg in 1703.  It never served its intended function as a defensive fortress.  Instead it served as a military base, home to various government departments, the burial ground for the Russian Imperial family and as a jail for political prisoners.

The Peter and Paul Cathedral was built between 1712 and 1733.  The bell tower is the world's tallest Orthodox bell tower.

The State Hermitage Museum is one of the city's most popular attractions.  With over 3 million items in the collection it is one of the world's largest museums.  The Hermitage was founded by Catherine the Great.  The bulk of the collection is located in the Winter Palace which was one of the official residences of the Romanov Czars.

The Alexander Column is named for Emperor Alexander I who reigned from 1801-1825.  The monument was erected to honor the Russian victory in the war with Napoleon.

Saint Isaac's Cathedral took 40 years to built but it was consecrated in 1858.  During the Soviet Era the building was stripped of religious artifacts and in 1931 it became the Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism.  Today it is the city's largest Russian Orthodox cathedral.

The Kazan Cathedral is officially the Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan.  It opened in 1818 after 17 years of construction.  In 1932, it too served as a museum of atheism.  Church services resumed in 1992 and in 1996 the cathedral was returned to the Russian Orthodox Church.  It is now the mother cathedral for St. Petersburg.

The Bronze Horseman statue of Peter the Great was commissioned by Catherine the Great.  The legend goes that while the Bronze Horseman stands in the middle of St. Petersburg, enemy forces will never be able to conquer the city.

Statue of Catherine the Great
The statue's red granite pedestal is the Thunder Stone which is said to be the largest stone ever moved by man.  The original stone weighed about 1500 tons and was carved down to 1250 tons during its 6 km (4 mile) move to its current site facing the Neva River.

The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood is also known as the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ.  Construction began in 1883 and it was completed in 1907.  The church was built on the site where Czar Alexander II was assassinated.  During the city's siege in WWII, the church was used as a morgue and after the war it became a vegetable warehouse.

The Admirality building used to be the headquarters of the Imperial Russian Navy.  During the 19th century it was re-built to support the Czar's maritime ambitions.  Today it is the headquarters of the Russian Navy.

The Aurora is a 1900 cruiser built in St. Petersburg for service in the Pacific.  The ship was active in the October Revolution and is currently a museum ship.  Officially, it is the oldest commissioned ship in the Russian navy.
The Russian Museum

In Russia, World War II is known as The Great Patriotic War.  During the war, the city of Leningrad was fully encircled by the German army.  For 900 days, from September 8, 1941, until January 27, 1944, the city endured its most painful time.  

The city had almost 3 million civilians, including 400,000 children, endured the most horrible conditions imaginable.  During the siege, at least 641,000 people died but some estimates put the number closer to 800,000.  

The Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad was unveiled in 1975 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of victory.    

Lenin statue
In a lot of former communist countries, socialist monuments were taken taken down.  However, St. Petersburg has let them stand.  It was explained to me that after the Soviet Union fell apart, the Russian government had bigger problems to deal with then taking down all of the communist statues.  The city owns its history, including its communist history.

Metro Station
St. Petersburg is one of my new favorite cities.  There is so much to see and do that I barely scratched the surface in my 72 hour visit.  The thing that stuck out the most for me was just how clean it was.  Even the subways.  They were spotless and no graffiti at all.  I may have to break down and apply for that 3-year Russian visa so that I can come back often.

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