Experience Summer in Russia’s Cultural Capital
There is no city like Saint Petersburg, former capital of the Russian Empire, home of tsars and intellectual and artistic elites, witness to revolutions and inspiration for great Russian art, music, novels and poems, including Pushkin’s Bronze Horseman, Gogol’s Nevsky Prospect and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. On the Baltic Sea, St. Petersburg’s old glory—its baroque and neoclassical palaces, churches and monuments—has been preserved, as has its place as Russia’s cultural capital. Today this city of about 5 million bursts with life, especially during its famous summer White Nights, when darkness never falls and instead buildings, bridges and parks are submersed in the soft light of a perpetual twilight.
I will never forget my first trip here, back when it was called Leningrad. I was a 16-year-old Moscovite and, even though my visit lasted just six days, fell in love with the city right away. Each day, the schedule was the same: Mornings and afternoons were spent at either the Hermitage or the Russian Museum. Evenings were music or theater: the Mariinsky for ballet and opera, the Alexandrinsky for drama, the Grand Hall of the Philharmonic or, for chamber music, a smaller hall inside a palace.
In between, I wandered the city: the wide, arrow-straight and always-busy Nevsky Prospect, which leads to the Palace Square, or the embankments of the Neva or smaller rivers and canals like Moika, Fontanka or Griboyedov. It was January, and the cold, dark and snow didn’t matter.
St. Petersburg—the name changed back to the original in 1991 when the Soviet Union was on the brink of collapse—pulls you in. I have been returning to the city again and again, visiting from Moscow and later from New York, in spring and summer, during its White Nights and in winter again.
I go to the southern bank of the Neva River, where the neoclassical Admiralty, the baroque Winter Palace and the Bronze Horseman are located. Walking slowly, you get beautiful views over to Vasilievsky Island’s Rostral Columns and some of the city’s oldest buildings. I absorb the spaciousness—the enormous sky and wide waters—and the harmony between nature and architecture. After midnight sometimes I join the crowds watching some of the 21 drawbridges rise for large ships to pass on the Neva. You can do a canal cruise, passing under several of
St. Petersburg’s 300-some bridges. Or visit a museum; there are more than 200, dedicated to military, science, vodka, toys, bread, literature, theater, musical instruments and great writers, composers and painters whose lives and work were connected with the city. Some of the latter are the restored residences of these artists—from Pushkin to Akhmatova and Rimsky-Korsakov. Take a stroll in the Summer Gardens of the tsar who imagined and built this city.
Younger than Philadelphia, St. Petersburg was born in 1703 by the will and determination of the energetic, tyrannical and visionary Peter the Great. He wanted Russia to have a strong naval post on the Baltic; the city was built on dozens of swampy, wooded islands in the estuary of the Neva River on the Gulf of Finland. By 1704, Tsar Peter I was referring to St. Petersburg as Russia’s capital, although the capital wasn’t officially moved here from Moscow until 1712.
After laying the foundation for the Saint Petersburg fortress on Zayachy Ostrov (Hare Island) on St. Peter’s Day (hence the city’s name) in 1703, construction began on the city’s first residence, Peter’s home, a cabin that he built largely on his own. Carefully preserved, it is now a museum.
Early in his reign (Peter became the sole ruler of Russia in 1696), Peter traveled for months around Europe, studying everything from carpentry and shipbuilding in Holland to city planning in England. He was eager to build a true European city (like his favorite Amsterdam) as a symbol of a new, Westernized, modernized and powerful Russia. Unlike medieval Moscow, St. Petersburg would be built methodically, according to a plan, from bricks and stone, in the newest European styles. Neither expense nor human force was spared: Many thousands of serfs, prisoners of war and Russian soldiers labored and died building the city. Foreign craftsmen, builders and architects were recruited. The Italians Domeico Trezzini and Bartolomeo Carlo Rastrelli were among the first to work here, planning streets, canals and buildings in the decorous Petrine Baroque style. In 1716, Frenchman Jean-Baptiste-Alexandre Le Blond became the first Architect General of Saint Petersburg.
Le Blond’s plan was for Vasilievsky Island to be the city center. Strelka (Arrow), the Stock Exchange, the Kunstcamera (the first Russian museum), government offices called “Twelve Collegia” and a grid of straight streets and canals were built there. But, because the island frequently flooded, the population gravitated to a bank on the mainland where the Admiralty—the shipyard and fortress—had been built earlier. In 1719, the German Nikolas Fridrich Gerbel designed a plan for that part of the city: five ray-like avenues (including Nevsky Prospect, the main “artery” of the city today) that converged at the Admiralty. Gerbel’s plan is the city’s backbone today.
After Peter’s death in 1725, subsequent rulers and governments left their marks, from Empress Elizabeth’s baroque-styled Winter Palace and Smolny Cathedral to Empress Catherine II’s neoclassical Russian Academy of Sciences, Academy of Fine Arts, Russia’s first public library and Falconet’s Bronze Horseman. Through the centuries, the city experienced floods and fires, and during the Leningrad Siege in the early 1940s, bombing and destruction. Remarkably its architectural and art glories remained mostly intact. In 1990, UNESCO added the city center to its list of World Heritage Sites. “In the history of urbanism, St. Petersburg is no doubt the only example of a vast project that retained all its logic despite the rapid succession of styles,” UNESCO wrote. St. Petersburg is no longer the official capital of Russia, but there’s no doubt it remains the country’s cultural capital.