Saint Petersburg, Russia – Celebrity Cruises

We docked in Saint Petersburg at 7am Saturday morning. We are here until 6pm Sunday night which gives us two days to explore the city – there is a lot to see. We had organised a private tour with Tours by Locals and our guide Margarita met us off the boat at 9am.

Saint Petersburg is situated on the eastern coast of the Gulf of Finland on the Baltic Sea and is considered the most European of all Russian cities. It is Russia’s second largest and Europe’s fourth largest city after Moscow, London and Paris. In 1914 the name of the city was changed from Saint Petersburg to Petrograd, in 1924 to Leningrad, and in 1991, back to Saint Petersburg. It is built on a network of islands, featuring 65 rivers and canals that crisscross the city. Along with about 400 bridges, the city also closely resembles Venice or Amsterdam.

Saint Petersburg was founded by Czar Peter the Great on the 27 May 1703. Between 1713–1728 and 1732–1918, Saint Petersburg was the imperial capital of Russia. In 1918, the central government bodies moved from Saint Petersburg (then named Petrograd) to Moscow. It is Russia’s 2nd largest city after Moscow with 5 million inhabitants. The total population of Russia is 150 million.

In 1725, Peter died at the age of fifty-two. His endeavours to modernise Russia had met with opposition from the Russian nobility—resulting in several attempts on his life and a treason case involving his son. In 1728, Peter II of Russia moved his seat back to Moscow. But four years later, in 1732, under Empress Anna of Russia, Saint Petersburg was again designated as the capital of the Russian Empire. It remained the seat of the Romanov Dynasty and the Imperial Court of the Russian Tzars, as well as the seat of the Russian government, for another 186 years until the communist revolution of 1917.

The names of saints Peter and Paul, bestowed upon original city’s citadel and its cathedral (from 1725—a burial vault of Russian emperors) coincidentally were the names of the first two assassinated Russian Emperors, Peter III (1762, supposedly killed in a conspiracy led by his wife, Catherine the Great) and Paul I (1801, Nicholas Zubov and other conspirators who brought to power Alexander I, the son of their victim). The third emperor’s assassination took place in Petersburg in 1881 when Alexander II fell victim to narodniki (see The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood).

The Russian Revolution of 1917 began in Saint Petersburg when the Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace. During World War I, the Imperial government renamed the city Petrograd, meaning “Peter’s City”, to remove the German words Sankt and Burg.

In March 1917, during the February Revolution Nicholas II abdicated both for himself and on behalf of his son, ending the Russian monarchy and over three hundred years of Romanov dynastic rule. On November 7, 1917, the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, stormed the Winter Palace in an event known thereafter as the October Revolution, which led to the end of the post-Tsarist provisional government, the transfer of all political power to the Soviets, and the rise of the Communist Party.

In September and October 1917, German troops invaded the West Estonian archipelago and threatened Petrograd with bombardment and invasion. On March 12, 1918, the Soviets transferred the government to Moscow. During the ensuing Civil War, in 1919 general Yudenich advancing from Estonia repeated the attempt to capture the city, but Leon Trotsky mobilized the army and forced him to retreat.

On January 26, 1924, five days after Lenin’s death, Petrograd was renamed Leningrad. Later some streets and other toponyms were renamed accordingly. The city has over 230 places associated with the life and activities of Lenin.

Stallin took over from Lenin in 1924 and ruled until his death in 1953. He was a very cruel man, if you were wealthy you were an enemy and put into prison. He was widely disliked and there are no statutes or memorials to him anywhere in Russia.

During World War II, German forces besieged Leningrad following the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. The siege lasted 872 days, from September 1941 to January 1944. The Siege of Leningrad proved one of the longest, most destructive, and most lethal sieges of a major city in modern history. It isolated the city from most supplies except those provided through the Road of Life across Lake Ladoga. More than one million civilians died, mainly from starvation. Many others were eventually evacuated or escaped, so the city became largely depopulated.

1991 saw the fall of the Communist Party and the election of a President. Leningrad was renamed back to St Petersburg. Meanwhile, economic conditions started to deteriorate as the country tried to adapt to major changes. For the first time since the 1940s, food rationing was introduced, and the city received humanitarian food aid from abroad.

Ironically, those close to the power at the time of the fall of the Communist Party benefited greatly when the state assets were privatised. They managed to buy these state assets for a pittance and now they are worth billions. These new Russians, as Margarita referred to them, are known as Russian Oligarchs in the western world.

Being under soviet rule actually made the Russian people feel safe – everything was regulated and they knew where they stood. In saying that the economy has never been better than now. Putin is considered a very secretive man but has made good changes. There is still a lot of corruption in the police and government but he is trying to clean it up Government ministers are now required to declare all their income and interests.

People in urban Saint Petersburg live mostly in apartments. Between 1918 and the 1990s, the Soviets nationalised housing and forced residents to share communal apartments (kommunalkas). With 68% living in shared flats in the 1930s, Leningrad was the city in the USSR with the largest number of kommunalkas. Resettling residents of kommunalkas is now on the way out, albeit shared apartments are still not uncommon. As new boroughs were built on the outskirts in the 1950s to 1980s, over half a million low income families eventually received free apartments, and about an additional hundred thousand condos were purchased.

Saint Petersburg is a major trade gateway, financial and industrial centre of Russia specialising in oil and gas trade, shipbuilding yards, aerospace industry, radio and electronics, software and computers; machine building, heavy machinery and transport, including tanks and other military equipment, mining, instrument manufacture, ferrous and nonferrous metallurgy (production of aluminium alloys), chemicals, pharmaceuticals, medical equipment, publishing and printing, food and catering, wholesale and retail, textile and apparel industries, and many other businesses.

The Saint Petersburg Mint (Monetny Dvor), founded in 1724, is one of the largest mints in the world, it mints Russian coins, medals and badges.

In 2007, Toyota opened a Camry plant after investing 5 billion roubles (USD200 million) in Shushary, one of the southern suburbs of Saint Petersburg. Opel, Hyundai and Nissan have signed deals with the Russian government to build their automotive plants in Saint Petersburg too. Automotive and auto-parts industry is on the rise there during the last decade.

Saint Petersburg is the location of a significant brewery and distillery industry. It is known as the “beer capital” of Russia, due to the supply and quality of local water, contributing over 30% of the domestic production of beer with its five large-scale breweries including Europe’s second largest brewery Baltika, Vena (both operated by BBH), Heineken Brewery, Stepan Razin (both by Heineken) and Tinkoff brewery (SUN-InBev).

The city has a lot of local distilleries which produce a broad range of vodka brands. The oldest ones is LIVIZ (founded in 1897). Among the youngest is Russian Standard Vodka introduced in Moscow in 1998, which opened in 2006 a new $60 million distillery in Petersburg (an area of 30,000 square meters, production rate of 22,500 bottles per hour). In 2007 this brand was exported to over 70 countries.

Saint Petersburg is inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list as an area with 36 historical architectural complexes and around 4,000 outstanding individual monuments of architecture, history and culture. New tourist programs and sightseeing tours have been developed for those wishing to see Saint Petersburg’s cultural heritage.

The city has 221 museums, 2,000 libraries, more than 80 theaters, 100 concert organizations, 45 galleries and exhibition halls, 62 cinemas and around 80 other cultural establishments. Ballet performances occupy a special place in the cultural life of Saint Petersburg. The Petersburg School of Ballet is deservedly named as one of the best in the world. With a packed cultural program and a large number of world heritage sites, as well as a developing tourist infrastructure, Saint Petersburg has become among the world’s leading centers of culture and tourism.

The weather in Saint Petersburg, however, leaves a lot to be desired. It gets up to about 25 in summer which is June and July and can get as cold as minus 25 in the winter. Due to location at ca. 60° N latitude the day length in Petersburg varies across seasons, ranging from 5:53 hours to 18:50 hours. A period from mid-May to mid-July when twilight may last all night is called the white nights.

History of Russian Czars
Czar (also spelled as tsar) literally means an emperor or a male monarch. It was the imperial title of Russian rulers, who ruled Russia from 16th century until the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. The title Czar is derived from the Latin word Caesar, the title of Roman emperors. Czar also means a person having great power. The Russian Czars were the rulers of Russia, whose reign began with Ivan, the Terrible and ended with Nicholas II. They ruled for nearly 350 years.

In earlier times, the rulers of Russia were known as Grand Princes of Moscow, Grand Princes of Vladimir, Grand Princes of Kiev, etc. The House of Romanov is the most popular dynasty in Russia. But, the use of the title, ‘Czar’ dates back to nearly 50 years before the Romanov emperors ascended the throne. Ivan IV (popularly known as Ivan, the Terrible) was the first Russian ruler to assume the title of Czar in 1547. He belonged to the House of Rurik and reigned from 1547-1584. He was an authoritarian and a ruthless ruler. Ivan IV is infamous for killing his own son in a fit of rage. Ivan IV died in 1584, leaving his worthless second son Feodor, as heir to the throne.

The time of troubles began in Russia, after Ivan IVth’s death. The country was torn by civil war, unrest and famines. Finally, in 1613, the chaos ended. Representatives of 50 cities and some peasants unanimously elected Mikhail Fedorovich Romanov as the new Czar. From here began the Romanov dynasty that ruled Russia till 1917.

Czar Peter, popularly known as Peter the Great, was the founder of modern Russia. He transformed Russia into a great European empire. During the reign of Catherine the Great, the Russian empire expanded and improved in administration. Czar Alexander II abolished serfdom in 1861. But, he was assassinated. His son Czar Alexander III, in order to avenge his father’s murder, imposed strict and ruthless laws. The last Czar Nicholas II’s failure to take action, even in extreme conditions, eventually led to his downfall and eradication of the monarchy in Russia.

The stories of the Czar’s fascinated me and a lot of what we saw and what Margarita told us about focused around Peter the Great (1696 – 1725), his daughter Elizabeth (1741 – 1761) and Catherine the Great (1762 – 1796). Peter the Great had 11 children of which only two survived – Elizabeth and Mary. There were a couple of rulers after Peter and then Elizabeth took over. Elizabeth didn’t have any children so her nephew succeeded her. He married a German woman called Rita who became known as Catherine II (Peter’s wife was Catherine I). Catherine had her lover murder her husband after which she took over the country. She ruled for 34 years and became known as Catherine the Great.

The Last Russian Czar
Nicholas II was the last Czar of Russia. He was not an able ruler due to inconsistency in his decisions and actions. He was under great influence of his wife Czarina Alexandra, and his corrupt ministers. A monk named Rasputin influenced the Czarina and manipulated most of the Czar’s decisions. Russia faced military as well as economic losses during the First World War. There was rising discontent due to the Czar’s reluctance to undertake immediate action. The people were fed up of the autocratic and dictatorial rule. The event known as Bloody Sunday, shattered people’s belief in the Russian Czars. The consequence of which was the Russian Revolution (Bolshevik Revolution), which took place in 1917. Czar Nicholas II abdicated. He and his immediate family were imprisoned, and later killed by the Bolsheviks. Czarism and monarchy came to an end in Russia with the death of Nicholas II.

Serfdom was prevalent in Russia during the reign of the Russian Czars. Almost 80% of the Russian people were either peasants or serfs. The Czars did not wish to end the feudal system. As they were afraid of losing power, capitalism was verboten. Most of the Czars were autocratic rulers. Although, the Russian Czars were oppressive, the world was gifted with works of great Russian authors, painters and artists during their reign.

After Margarita had picked us up from the Port we drove out of town to explore Catherine Palace.

Catherine Palace
The residence originated in 1717, when Catherine I of Russia engaged the German architect Johann-Friedrich Braunstein to construct a summer palace for her pleasure. In 1733, Empress Elizabeth commissioned Mikhail Zemtsov and Andrei Kvasov to expand the Catherine Palace. Empress Elizabeth, however, found her mother’s residence outdated and incommodious and in May 1752 asked her court architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli to demolish the old structure and replace it with a much grander edifice in a flamboyant Rococo style. Construction lasted for four years, and on 30 July 1756 the architect presented the brand-new 325-meter-long palace to the Empress, her dazed courtiers, and stupefied foreign ambassadors.

More than 100 kilograms of gold were used to gild the sophisticated stucco façade and numerous statues erected on the roof. It was even rumoured that the palace’s roof was constructed entirely of gold. In front of the palace a great formal garden was laid out.

Although the palace is popularly associated with Catherine the Great, she actually regarded its “whipped cream” architecture as old-fashioned. When she ascended to the throne, a number of statues in the park were being covered with gold, in accordance with the last wish of Empress Elizabeth, yet the new monarch had all the works suspended upon being informed about the expense. In her memoirs she censured her predecessor’s reckless extravagance.

Upon Catherine the Great’s death in 1796, the palace was abandoned in favour of Pavlovsk Palace. Subsequent monarchs preferred to reside in the nearby Alexander Palace and, with only two exceptions, refrained from making new additions to the Catherine Palace, regarding it as a splendid monument to Elizabeth’s wealth and Catherine II’s glory.

When the German forces retreated after the siege of Leningrad, they intentionally destroyed the residence, leaving only the hollow shell of the palace behind. Prior to World War II, the Russian archivists managed to document a fair amount of the interior, which proved of great importance in reconstructing the palace. Although the largest part of the reconstruction was completed in time for the Tercentenary of St. Petersburg in 2003, much work is still required to restore the palace to its former glory. In order to attract funds, the palace’s administration has leased the Grand Hall for such high-profile events as Elton John’s concert for an elite audience in 2001 and an exclusive party in 2005 featuring the likes of Bill Clinton, Tina Turner, Whitney Houston, Naomi Campbell, and Sting.


We then went to Peterhof. The Peterhof Palace is a series of palaces and gardens laid out on the orders of Peter the Great. These Palaces and gardens are sometimes referred as the “Russian Versailles”. The palace-ensemble along with the city centre is recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Peter the Great used the palaces to receive foreign dignitaries. He didn’t stay in the palace’s when he was there in the summer months – instead he choose to stay in a simple house down on the water’s edge. He was obsessed with water, hence the many fountains on the property and it’s proximity to the Gulf of Finland.


The State Hermitage
On Sunday we visited The State Hermitage which is located on Palace Square. The State Hermitage is a museum of art and culture. One of the largest and oldest museums in the world, it was founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great and has been open to the public since 1852. Its collections, of which only a small part is on permanent display, comprise over three million items, including the largest collection of paintings in the world. The collections occupy a large complex of six historic buildings along Palace Embankment, including the Winter Palace, a former residence of Russian emperors. Apart from them, the Menshikov Palace, Museum of Porcelain, Storage Facility at Staraya Derevnya and the eastern wing of the General Staff Building are also part of the museum. The museum has several exhibition centers abroad. The Hermitage is a federal state property.

Of six buildings of the main museum complex, five, named the Winter Palace, Small Hermitage, Old Hermitage, New Hermitage and Hermitage Theatre, are open to the public.

Just before the Second World War the artworks were shipped off in three train carriages to protect them from the Germans. The artworks returned after the war so are all original pieces. Van Gough, Rembrandt, Picasso and Leonardo Da Vinci feature amongst the artists. There are only 14 original artworks by Leonardo Da Vinci remaining in the world and we saw two in the Hermitage.

I had heard of the different styles of art but never really understood the differences – Margarita did a good job explaining the differences between renaissance, impressionist and baroque. You could spend days in The Hermitage – there is so much to see.


The Peter & Paul Fortress
We then went to the Peter & Paul Fortress which was built in 1703 to protect the area from Swedish invasion, and the the first site chosen by Peter the Great to build his new city. Inside the impressive Citadel is the former Royal Mint and the Peter and Paul Cathedral, with it’s tall slender golden spire, which was the City’s first monumental building and the burial place of all the Russian Czars. It became a museum in 1924. We saw the tombs of Peter the Great, Elizabeth and Catherine the Great. There bodies are actually under the ground and still accessible although under lock and key.


The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood
The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood is one of the main sights of St. Petersburg, Russia. It is also variously called the Church on Spilt Blood and the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ, its official name. This Church was built on the site where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated and was dedicated in his memory. It is completely decorated inside by mosaic paintings which were quite a sight and hard to capture on camera.


Saint Isaac’s
Saint Isaac’s Cathedral in Saint Petersburg, Russia is the largest Russian Orthodox cathedral in the city. It is the largest orthodox basilica and the fourth largest cathedral in the world. It is dedicated to Saint Isaac of Dalmatia, a patron saint of Peter the Great, who had been born on the feast day of that saint.

St. Issac’s Cathedral is the original Church of Russia. It has been rebuilt four times. The fourth and final church as situated on the site today was built between 1818 and 1858. A French architect oversaw this project – it was his life time’s work. He died 6 months after it was completed. It is decorated with 14 kinds of minerals and semi precious stones, as well as mosaic paintings.


The main religion in Russia is Russian Orthodox which has it’s roots in the Greek Orthodox religion although it broke away from that in the 15th century. My understanding is that it has many similarities to the Catholic religion and is extremely conservative. The Russian Orthodox Church currently claims its exclusive jurisdiction over the Orthodox Christians living in the former member republics of the USSR. Prior to the Russian revolution in 1914 there were 55,173 Russian Orthodox churches and 29,593 chapels, 112,629 priests and deacons, 550 monasteries and 475 convents with a total of 95,259 monks and nuns in Russia.

The year 1917 was a major turning point in Russian history, and also the Russian Orthodox Church. The Russian empire was dissolved and the Tsarist government – which had granted the Church numerous privileges – was overthrown. The Soviet government stood on a platform of antireligion, viewing the church as a “counter-revolutionary” organization and an independent voice with a great influence in society. While the Soviet Union officially claimed religious tolerance, in practice the government discouraged organized religion and did much to remove religious influence from Soviet society.

In the time between 1927 and 1940, the number of Orthodox Churches in the Russian Republic fell from 29,584 to less than 500. Between 1917 and 1935, 130,000 Orthodox priests were arrested. Of these, 95,000 were put to death. After Nazi Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union in 1941, Joseph Stalin revived the Russian Orthodox Church to intensify patriotic support for the war effort. Between 1945 and 1959 the official organization of the church was greatly expanded, although individual members of the clergy were occasionally arrested and exiled. The number of open churches reached 25,000.

By 1987 the number of functioning churches in the Soviet Union had fallen to 6893 and the number of functioning monasteries to just 18. Beginning in the late 1980s, under Mikhail Gorbachev, the new political and social freedoms resulted in many church buildings being returned to the church, to be restored by local parishioners. A pivotal point in the history of the Russian Orthodox Church came in 1988 – an implicit ban on religious propaganda on state TV was finally lifted. For the first time in the history of the Soviet Union, people could see live transmissions of church services on television.

The Church and the government remained on unfriendly terms until 1988. In practice, the most important aspect of this conflict was that openly religious people could not join the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which meant that they could not hold any political office. However, among the general population, large numbers remained religious.

This close alliance between the government and the Russian Orthodox Church has become a defining characteristic of Mr. Putin’s tenure, a mutually reinforcing choreography that is usually described here as working “in symphony”.

It was a fantastic couple of days in St Petersburg and we learnt a lot about the history of Russia both recent and further back. There sure is a lot of history here and it was so good spending two days with Margarita – she has experienced a lot of the recent history first hand so her insight was so interesting. We had some interesting discussions about communism, Putin and the current situation involving the Ukraine.

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This blog was originally set up to share our 9 month adventure around Europe and the USA with friends and family in 2014. On returning to NZ in January 2015 I decided to carry it on so I could continue to share any future travel adventures - it has become my electronic travel diary. I hope you enjoy and get inspired to visit some of the wonderful places we have visited.
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