St. Petersburg is Russia's second largest and, in the opinion of many, Russia's most beautiful city and cultural center. Known to locals simply as "Piter" and founded and initially designed by Peter the Great (1672-1725), it is filled with parks, museums, ornate palaces, colorful churches, canals and wide tree lined boulevards, and has been the home of many of Russia's greatest tsars, artists, intellectuals, composers, poets, ballerinas, composers, actors and directors. Saint Petersburg is regarded as the most European city of Russia. In the Soviet Union era, it was known first as Petrograd and later Leningrad. After the collapse of the Soviet Union it reverted back to its original name St. Petersburg.

St. Petersburg is about half the size of Moscow and home to about 5 million people. Located where the Neva Rive empties into the Gulf of Finland, which in turn is a branch of the Baltic Sea, it provides Russia with an outlet to Europe. St. Petersburg is situated primarily on a flat plain at the mouth of the Neva River, occupies 101 islands, and is laced by canals and various streams of the Neva. It seems much smaller than Moscow because most if the historical building are fairly concentrated and the sea is never far away, which also keeps the air relatively clean. Until recently There are no buildings higher than five stories in the historic center of the city because marshy ground beneath the city will not support buildings higher than that and because the State Inspectorate for the Preservation of Monuments prohibits them.

The architecture of St. Petersburg has been described as “northern baroque.” The first buildings — including the Peter and Paul Fortress, Alexander Nevsky Monastery, Peter’s Summer Palace, the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul and early homes occupied by noblemen — were designed by Peter the Great himself and the Danish architect Domenico Trezzini. The character of historical heart of the city is the work of Italian architects Carlo Rossi, Giacomo Quarenghi, Antonio Rinaldi and especially Bartolomeo Rastrelli who designed the Winter Palace (the Hermitage) and Summer Palace of Catherine the Great, among others. Grand palaces were built for the Tsars but also their friends: great families like the Yusupovs, the Shuvalovs, Sheremetevs and the richest of them all the Strogonovs.

St. Petersburg has a reputation of being more civilized and more European than Moscow and the place where things happen first. One young Petersburger told the New York Times, "Most stylish things in Russia — the whole music and dance scene, for instance — in a large part comes from St. Petersburg to Moscow, which then develops them commercially and on a bigger scale."

St. Petersburg and History

Steve Dougherty wrote in the New York Times: “St. Petersburg boasts cultural treasures that rival those of Paris, Vienna, London and Rome, but perhaps its greatest attraction in any season is its history. Vibrant and ever present, St. Petersburg's bloody, tumultuous past is as inescapable as the mists that rise from the ice-glazed streets with the winter sun at midmorning. “History here is a living thing,” Alexander Zukov, 45, a former war correspondent who now owns a wonderful small hotel, the Alexander House, tells me. “Everything that has happened here, the revolutions, the terror, the war, it is all alive to us.”“ [Source: Steve Dougherty, New York Times, December 31, 2006]

St. Petersburg is where Pushkin got into his famous duel, Catherine the Great romped with her lovers, Dostoevsky endured his mock execution, Rasputin wove his spells on the family of Nicholas II, Lenin launched his revolution, Nijinsky, Nureyev and Baryshnikov made their public debuts and Pavlov performed his ground breaking experiments with salivating dogs. The are so many many monumental buildings St. Petersburg is sometimes called the “City f Palaces.” But at the same time it is filled with American brands, European styles and tourists from everywhere.

Dostoevsky called St. Petersburg the "the most intentional and abstract city in the world." First time visitors find it elegant, faded, a little unreal and are surprised by its lack of onion domes and Russianess. It is dominated by the baroque and neo-classical taste of the Romanov tsars, especially Peter the Great, Catherine the Great and Nicholas II, and their baroque and neo-classical palaces. St. Petersburg has its share of Dostoyevskian squalor, yet St. Petersburg was largely spared the Stalinist buildings boom that has given Moscow its character. Most of its drab Soviet style buildings are located in the suburbs and on the outskirts of town. [Sources: Steve Raymer, National Geographic, December 1993 ↗; Howard La Fay, National Geographic, May 1971 .⌂

St. Petersburg and Peter the Great

St. Petersburg is among the youngest European cities. It was conceived and planned by Peter the Great (1672-1725) as Russia's "Window on the West" after the tsar traveled incognito as a tradesman throughout Europe and decided his country needed to be Europeanized. He chose the site simply because he liked its geopolitical location and created it from scratch from former swampland, frozen half the year, along the Baltic Sea that was occupied by Sweden until Peter claimed it in the Great Northern War (1700-21). According to one story, when Peter the Great first set a foot on the land where St. Petersburg now stands he proclaimed "Here shall be a town."

Peter formally established St. Petersburg on May, 16 1703, when the first shovelfuls of dirt were dug up for the foundation of Peter and Paul Fortress on Hare Island. Peter chose this sight to contain the Swedes, who had ruled the Baltic as their private lake before the Great Northern War. The nearest settlement with a large number of people was more than 100 kilometers away.

Peter set his sights on claiming the land occupied by St. Petersburg after a military campaign against the Turks, aimed at gaining access to the Black Sea failed. At that time Russia had not claimed Siberia or the Pacific Coast and its only outlets to sea were in the Arctic, By 1710, the Swedes had been drive out of the area of present-day St. Petersburg and Peter moved the Russian capital there in 1712. Peter had hated Moscow ever since he was ten when a mob of musketeers burst into the Kremlin and threw his uncle and members of his family over the wall onto upturned pikes waiting below. The skewered bodies were then hacked to pieces right before the boy's eyes.

St. Petersburg was conceived to be both a Venice of the North and a Paris-style city of the Northern Lights. The lay out of the city was probably inspired by Amsterdam. Peter the Great brought in architects from all Europe and forced noblemen and merchants and even dancers, painters and musicians from Moscow to build homes there.

Creating St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg is sometimes called the city “built on bones” and “founded on tears and corpses." Hundreds of thousands of serfs and slave laborers from all over Russia were put to work digging canals, dragging stones, draining the swampland, driving 16-foot-long oak pilings into the swamps and erecting buildings. Much of the digging was done by hand and the dirt carried in shirts. Tens of thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands, are believed to have died from overwork and diseases like scurvy and dysentery.

Finns, Cossacks, Siberian and people from the Caucasus all participated in the construction. They were conscripted like soldiers and given a travel stipend and six months wages. They worked all day and slept in rough shacks at night. To speed construction Peter forbade stone masons from working anywhere else in the world and levied a tax — paid in stone — on carts and barges entering the city. This meant that any mode of transportation arriving in the city brought building material with it.

The early residents of St. Petersburg hated it. Food was scarce and expensive. There was no good source of clean drinking water. The first houses caught fire easily. There were no fire brigades and people had to board boats to cross the canals. Those that ventured out in the bay sometimes drowned when their small boats capsized in sudden squalls. In the winter wolves prowled the city. In the spring the Neva River often flooded. Even so people kept on coming. By 1725, some 40,000 people lived in St. Petersburg and 90 percent of Russia's foreign trade passed through the town. At that time most of the major building that characterize the city today had not been built.

Later History of St. Petersburg

Although St. Petersburg has existed for over 300 years its has experienced more than its share of history. Katherine the Great built it into a great cosmopolitan city. Nicholas II ushered in a period of decline that culminated with the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, which largely took place here, not Moscow, after the last tsar Nicholas II abdicated.

The city was renamed Petrograd at the outset of World War I, and in 1918 the capital was moved back to Moscow. On January 26, 1924, 5 days after Lenin's death, the city's name was changed to Leningrad. The population of St. Petersburg dropped from 1.3 million in 1900 to 700,000 in 1921, after enduring World War I, the Bolshevik revolution and the Russian Civil War. As the focus of a Stalinist industrialization took shape to make factory workers out displaced peasants the population rose to 3.1 million. Throughout it history, the city has been prone to flooding and has seen more than its share of flood and storms. Disease has been a problem; for a long time the water was not safe to drink.

In World War II the Nazis blockaded then Leningrad for 900 days. Over a million people died, most of them during the "winter of starvation" in 1941-42 when people where lucky to have a ration of a chunk of bread to eat each day. Incredibly 1½ million survived, helped in part by a winter supply route that opened over the frozen Lake Ladoga. The city was badly damaged. Shells and bombs tore through churches, palaces and mansions.

During the Soviet era, St. Petersburg was regarded mostly as a cultural center far removed from the center of power. It became the center of the defense industry. After the collapse of the Soviet Union the defense industry and the local economy also collapsed. Since that period, St. Petersburg has shaped itself into a world class arts center. In 1991, as a result of a citywide referendum, the city resumed its historical name of St. Petersburg.

A lot of infrastructure projects were completed for the ill-fated Goodwill Games n 1994. In 2003, there was a big celebration to mark the 300th anniversary of St. Petersburg’s founding. By some estimates US$1.5 billion was spent to get the city spruced up for that. Projects included flood protection barriers and a new ring road. St. Petersburg is the hometown of Vladimir Putin. Since he became president he has elevated the city’s position. He chose to welcome world leaders George W. Bush, Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder and Jacques Chirac in St. Petersburg rather than in Moscow.

St. Petersburg Name Changes

St. Petersburg has perhaps gone through more name changes than any other city. Peter the Great named the city St. Petersburg after his patron saint not himself and is an adaption of the Dutch-style name “Sankt Pieter Burkh.”

In 1914, during World I, the name was changed from St. Petersburg to Petrograd. "Burg" was considered too Germanic. Petrograd was more Russian sounding. It means “Peter’s City.” After Lenin died in 1924, the city was renamed again to Leningrad to honor him even though he was the one who made Moscow the capital of the Soviet Union. Many locals simply call the city "Peter."

In June 1991 the Russian Parliament approved the city's petition to restore its tsarist name and Leningrad became St. Petersburg. It was the third name change the city had gone through in 77 years. When the famous Russian poet Joseph Brodsky heard the news that name of the city had been changed, he said: "Better to have it named for a saint than a devil."

St. Petersburg, Literature and Music

In terms of writer, St. Petersburg is arguably most associated with Dostoevsky, who was born in Moscow but spent 30 years here even though he was endlessly pursued by creditors and almost was executed in the city's main square. Describing the city in the short story “White Nights,” he wrote: "Somehow I cannot help being reminded of a frail, consumptive girl, at whom one sometimes looks with compassion, sometimes with sympathetic love, whom one sometimes simply does not cannot help asking oneself what power made those sad, pensive eyes flash with such fire?"

Pushkin died in St. Petersburg and Gogol wrote the “Inspector General” and most of “Dead Souls” here. Nabokov lived here as a young man and studied at a school where he learned to speak better people than Russian. Other writers associated with St. Petersburg include Aleksandr Blok, Sergei Yesenin (who committed suicide in what is now part of the Astoria hotel), Osip Mandelstam, Marina Tsvetayeva, Joseph Brodsky and Anna Akhmatova.

Brodsky one wrote, "The emergence of St. Petersburg was similar to the discovery of the New World: it gave pensive men a chance to look upon themselves and the nation as though from the outside. There is no other place in Russia where thought so willingly parts from reality."

St. Petersburg is also the home of the Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Mussorsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov. It is also where Diagalev, George Bakanchine, Nijinsky, Rudolf Nureyev, and Anna Pavlova and Mikhail Baryshnikov got their start

St. Petersburg Today

St. Petersburg experienced its share of changes after the break up of the Soviet Union most of them for the better. Lots of foreign investment poured in, lots of Western billboards sprung up and lots of new restaurants and businesses were opened.

St. Petersburg seemed to have suffered less than Moscow after the break up of the Soviet Union. This was partly because of its close proximity to Europe and the inflow of hard currency. Tourists come in droves. Not only because the city is so beautiful but also because it is quite accessible.

St. Petersburg has its share of pollution and traffic but it has prospered and fared well under the leadership of its governor Vladimir Yakovlev from 1996 to 2003. Many of St. Petersburg’s grand buildings have fallen into disrepair and are badly in need of maintenance and restoration. The city government doesn’t have much money for such repairs. It is said that when a sculpted ornament fall off a building the area where it fell off was roped because there isn’t enough money to fix it. Both local and foreign donations have been focused at preserving and restoring the older parts of the city and outlying imperial residences, some of which had not been fixed up since they were heavily damaged during World War II.

St. Petersburg and Economics

St. Petersburg in the Soviet area was an important center of shipbuilding and weapons-making industries. Its most famous manufacturer, the 220-year-old Kirosky Zavod, has produced everything from torpedo boats and tanks to tractors and railroad cars. Today it makes gas turbines for Gazprom among other things. The St. Petersburg-based brewery Baltika dominates the Russian beer market.

Although St. Petersburg declined in political importance after the capital back to Moscow in 1918, St. Petersburg retained importance as a military-industrial and cultural center. With a highly skilled labor force and a long history of industry and commerce, St. Petersburg was a major producer of electronic equipment, machine tools, nuclear reactor equipment, precision instruments, TV equipment, ships, heavy machinery, tractors, chemicals, and consumer goods. It has one of the country's largest dry-cargo ports. It remains a major center for publication, education, and scientific research.

St. Petersburg boasted relatively high growth rates in the 1990s and 2000s. Plans to make St. Petersburg a duty-free port failed to come to fruition. A major pipeline to the Baltic, which previously ended in Latvia, was built to St. Petersburg. The Germans want to create a "Baltic Bridge,: connecting the huge container port in Hamburg with small ports in St. Petersburg and the Baltic. The Nord Stream 2 pipeline is slated to follow the route laid down by the Nord Stream pipeline and run through the Baltic Sea from the St Petersburg region to the Baltic Coast of northeast Germany.

St. Petersburg has also been given a boost by the arrival of yuppies, go-getters and some high tech firms. A number of entrepreneurs have opened restaurants, small businesses and small hotels to cater the influx of tourists. Development projects have created construction jobs for people from all over Russia. But older parts of St. Petersburg continue to suffer from a lack of investment as they have over past decades.

St. Petersburg has been a reform-minded but it large military industry was slow to adapt to changing conditions. U.S. investment in St. Petersburg has been high and was used to open several major production facilities. At one time the St. Petersburg consular district accounted for about half of all U.S. investment in Russia. Nevertheless, crime has increased as a result of the uncertain political and economic situations.

St. Petersburg People

St. Petersburg is home to about 5 million people, which makes it about half the size of Moscow. People from St. Petersburg are called Petersburgers, St. Petersburgers, Petersburgians and St. Petersburgians.

Petersburgers are regarded as sophisticated and articulate. They consider their town to be much more civilized than Moscow, which they regard as uncouth, backwards and drab. Intellectuals in St. Petersburg kept alive tsarist era manners and speech styles as an part of rebellion against Communist authorities.

Petersburgers also have a reputation for being snobbier than Muscovites, who are considered arrogant, less cultured and greedy opportunists. You get a sense of this when you arrive by train and are greeted by Leningrad's municipal anthem, Glier's "Hymn of the City." Muscovites regard St. Petersburgers as "foppish bumpkins" who affect intellectual airs and sit around drinking tea and discussing weighty matters.

One young Petersburger told the New York Times, "People in St. Petersburg are more crazy, gutsy and daring than in Moscow, where people are more pretentious, money-conscious, and if something is just a little bit uncomfortable, they go home."

Muscovites say their city is much more interesting than St. Petersburg. One Muscovite told the Los Angeles Times. “The rest of the country doesn’t like us Muscovites. They think were are snobbish, like New Yorkers. They think we always win, we do not pay attention to other people, we are probably not polite. But at the same time, everybody wants to live in Moscow.”

St. Petersburg Crime, Health Issues and Warnings

St. Petersburg is not without its problems. It has a reputation for being Russia's "crime capital." In the late 1990s, a city councilman was indicted for running a murder for hire ring and an oil executive was gunned down with AK-47s and rocket-propelled launchers while stuck in rush hour St. Petersburg traffic in the armor-plated heavy Blazer.Tourist police Tel: +7 812 764 9787/278 3014.

Organized crime controls everything from nightclubs to cemeteries. It is said it is difficult to figure out where the city government ends and organized crime begins. In the late 1990s there were reports of cargoes being seized by police for no good reason. These practices have largely ended. There is also a lot of drugs and sex for money. Be alert around the walk to the Hermitage. Youth gangs here sometimes pursue Western tourists. Don’t get stuck on the wrong side of a canal late at night. Some bridges open for several hours in the middle of the night to let boats pass through.

Don't drink the tap water. It may be contaminated with giardia. The St. Petersburg water supply originates from nearby Lake Ladoga. Western health authorities have noted a high incidence of infection by the intestinal parasite giardia lamblia in travelers returning from St. Petersburg. Such evidence points to St. Petersburg as a possible site of infection. This diarrhea-inducing parasite is found in many parts of the world and can be contracted by drinking untreated tap water.

According to “Cities of the World”: “General health conditions in St. Petersburg are similar to those in Moscow, although dampness probably accounts for a higher incidence of colds and respiratory ailments. For health problems Americans and their families primarily use the American Medical Center of St. Petersburg or the EuroMed Clinic. The AMC is the only primarily English-speaking medical clinic in St. Petersburg. It is staffed with both Western-trained medical doctors and Russian doctors. AMC currently offers the services of a Western-trained dentist. Pharmacy and laboratory services are available on site. The AMC offers 24-hour doctor availability, house calls, and emergency care. All of these services are extremely expensive. American's have also used the services of special St. Petersburg polyclinics for adults and children, depending on the circumstances of the illness or injury. While local pharmacies offer a panoply of medications, it is often difficult to find a particular brand or formulation. [Source: Cities of the World, Gale Group Inc., 2002, from a 2000 Department of State report]

Climate, Weather and Flooding in St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg is cursed by an awful climate. During the winter it manages to be damp and freezing cold at the same time and grimy, fog rolls in. St. Petersburg is ice bound and the Neva River is frozen about half the year: from November to April. The city has been the site of countless floods. St. Petersburg experienced its largest flood in 1824.

St. Petersburg is slightly warmer and further north than Moscow, but it is damper since winter winds blow off the Gulf of Finland. Snow may fall as early as October, and sunlight dwindles to only a few hours a day in the months of January and February.

March is generally the rainiest month of the year. June brings the beautiful "White Nights" when the sun barely dips below the horizon. Summer weather can be quite varied, with temperatures fluctuating between the 10s and high 20s C (50s and 80s F). The average temperature in the summer is in the lows 20s; and ranges from -5°С to -10°С in the winter.

On St. Petersburg in the winter, Steve Dougherty wrote in the New York Times: “Hardy souls who visit during the Russian holiday season discover a city aglow, its broad boulevards, graceful bridges, glittering palaces, winding canals and beautiful, snow-blanketed parks illuminated throughout the long, dark nights. It's 7 a.m., three hours before dawn. The sky is dark as midnight but clear and sprinkled with silvery stars. A light snow has dusted the vast St. Isaac's Square, which surrounds the church....It is still dark when I leave the hotel at 9 and walk west toward the Neva River, passing the Bronze Horseman....By the end of the month, St. Petersburg will be plunged into the coldest winter since 1941-42, when hundreds of homeless people were found frozen in the street each day, it is now warm enough that I can leave my long underwear, woolen hat and bulky sweater in my suitcase..[Source: Steve Dougherty, New York Times, December 31, 2006]

“Overcast skies dull the 10am dawn as I leave Palace Square and walk east down Nevsky Prospekt. St. Petersburg's central thoroughfare,” Throughout the city, the slender and bare black branches of linden trees weave graceful, chalicelike patterns against the gray sky. In front of the Bolshoi Dom (Big House), a long building near the eastern end of the Neva Embankment, however, the lindens are stunted, their black branches gnarled and twisted as if in pain.”

St. Petersburg comes to life during the White Night season, around the summer solstice, in late June and early July, when twilight lasts well past midnight and the sun disappears for only two hours, between 1:00am and 3:00am. Tourists fill the city then and people party all night on the banks of the Neva River. Crowds gather at 1:30am to watch the raising of four drawbridges which stay open until 5:00am.

Due to low elevation and its location on the Neva Bay, flooding is part of life in St. Petersburg. Severe floods are most common in fall. Flood control projects include a dam across the Gulf of Finland completed in 2011 and used successfully the same year. The dam was set up to keep storm surges from the Baltic Sea from reaching the city and causing severe floods. The dam also serves as the final piece of the city’s Ring Road.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Federal Agency for Tourism of the Russian Federation (official Russia tourism website ), Russian government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in September 2020

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