St. Petersburg: How a Swamp ​Became the Cultural Capital of Russia


  The author in front of the Palace Square entrance of the Winter Palace, St. Petersburg. The two incidents that changed the course of Russia’s history forever, the “Bloody Sunday 1905” and the October 1917 Bolshevik coup, occurred here—the former, outside the palace gate, and the latter, inside the palace. Today, the Winter Palace is part of the Hermitage Museum, one of the largest in the world. It gets about 2.5 million visitors a year.

July 22, 2009—Wednesday

Until the early eighteenth century, there was no St. Petersburg in Russia. The uninhabited swamp on which it was built later did not even belong to Russia. It belonged to Sweden. The story of how a swamp got transformed into a modern city—and eventually the cultural capital of Russia—is also the story of Russia’s transformation from an insignificant czarist kingdom to a world power. It’s a fascinating story that history buffs have never been tired of hearing. And I have never been tired of narrating it.

The swamp was among the territories Czar Peter I of Russia captured from Sweden during the Great Northern War (discussed in chapter 6). The war, which began in 1700, continued until 1721. This particular piece of land came under Russian occupation in 1703, and Peter I began building a new city on it right away.

Peter coveted this piece of land for another reason: Though marshy and uninhabited, it was strategically located. It was located at the mouth of the Neva River, where it enters the Gulf of Finland. The Gulf of Finland opens into the Baltic Sea, controlling which was part of Peter’s grandiose plan. Whoever controlled the Baltic Sea controlled the Baltic trade, a rich source of wealth in those days. The Great Northern War was fought mainly to wrest control of both the Baltic Sea and the Baltic trade away from Sweden.

To Peter I, modernizing Russia meant Westernizing it. To accomplish that goal, he invited the best engineers, shipbuilders, architects, craftsmen, and merchants from Western Europe to come and work in Russia. He also sent hundreds of Russians to Western Europe to get the best education possible.

The city that Peter built on the Neva River delta was designed by the then-famous Swiss-Italian architect, Domenico Trezzini. He designed it in the Russian Baroque style. The new style, which he called the Petrine Baroque style (his way of flattering Peter) was noted for wide streets, huge buildings, cathedrals, and palaces. Peter’s ultimate goal was to build a “European paradise” and, toward that end, he channeled all the energy and resources he could muster.

Though known as a benevolent dictator, he was also very cruel at times. He ordered slaves and prisoners to work on his pet project. Even serfs were forcibly relocated from villages to the newly acquired swamp and made to do construction work. Living and working in harsh conditions made many of the workers rebel. Those who rebelled were mercilessly executed. Sickness, starvation, and executions claimed the lives of nearly 30,000 people.

In 1712, Peter moved the country’s capital from Moscow to the newly built city. He called it St. Petersburg, after his favorite patron saint. By the time the Great Northern War ended in 1721, the czar had proclaimed himself the Emperor of Russia. That is, he wanted his kingdom to be referred to as an empire. He also insisted on being be called Peter the Great.

Czar Peter I died in 1725. Even after 22 years of construction, St. Petersburg was far from being “the Venice of the North” he dreamt of making it. The honor of elevating it to that status went to the rulers who succeeded him. Designed by famed architects of the period, more palaces, cathedrals, museums, and other centers of culture came up in the city.

Subsequent rulers of Russia changed the name of St. Petersburg a couple of times. When World War I broke out in 1914, with Russia pitted against Germany, the city’s name was changed to Petrograd. The reason? Russians found the name St. Petersburg too German-sounding. The name was again changed after the Bolshevik takeover of the country. Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevikled coup of October 1917 that overthrew the Kerensky government (Nicholas II, the last czar to rule Russia, had abdicated in March) and became the head of the new government, died in 1924. Soon after his death, with a view to perpetuating his memory, his followers changed the city’s name from Petrograd to Leningrad. Even before changing the name, the capital of the country had been moved back to Moscow. It was moved in 1918.

It may be added that the Bolsheviks were the extreme wing of the Russian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party that spearheaded the Bolshevik Revolution. The party also underwent name change a couple of times. After it came to power, it was renamed the Russian Communist Party. As Russia steadily expanded and eventually became the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or the Soviet Union, the Russian Communist Party became the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. By 1991, with the collapse of Communist rule and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Lenin had become a name most Russians did not want to be associated with. In a referendum held in June of that year, the residents of Leningrad decided to restore the city’s original name: St. Petersburg.

The city might have ceased to be the political capital of Russia, but it still enjoys its status as the country’s cultural capital. It will continue to do so as long as it can preserve the historical and cultural sites dating back to the reign of Peter the Great. The most famous site every tourist makes it a point to visit is the Winter Palace. The czars’ official residence from 1732 to 1917, it is now part of the world-famous Hermitage Museum. I took a tour of St. Petersburg and the Hermitage Museum on July 22, 2009.

City of 42 Islands and 342 Bridges

One of the reasons why St. Petersburg is nicknamed the “Venice of the North” is that both cities are composed of several islands. St. Petersburg is a collection of 42 islands, linked together by 342 bridges. (The number of bridges, the tour guide told us, was according to a 1975 counting.) Before the first permanent bridge was built by Czar Nicholas I in 1850, people traveled from one island to another by boat. “Nicholas I is also known as Nicholas the Unforgettable,” the guide said, because of the many good things he did during his reign (1825–1855). Apart from the first bridge, he also built the first railroad—from St. Petersburg to Moscow. He is also credited with building and renovating many museums.

As our tour bus entered Nevsky Prospekt (prospekt comes from the Dutch word prospektiva, meaning boulevard), one could notice that, unlike other streets in the city, it has several business establishments with names written in English. It is the city’s most prominent avenue, and is famous all over Russia. As old as St. Petersburg itself, the avenue is now the very center of the bustling city.

The tour guide identified some of the beautiful buildings, bridges, and landmarks the bus passed by. When we passed one of the bridges, he told us that it was called the Police Bridge, because “the chief of the St. Petersburg Police lives in that building.” He pointed at a pink building at one end of the bridge.

Like most Russians I met, the guide was contemptuous of his country’s Communist past. His contempt became very obvious when he described how Lenin and Stalin rose to the helm of power and when he referred to the erstwhile Soviet Union’s much-dreaded secret police, the KGB. “KGB stands for kindness, generosity, and beauty,” he said, and followed it with a derisive laugh. 

Pointing to the famous cathedral in St. Petersburg—which locals call the “Church of the Saviour on the Spilt Blood,” or just the “Spilt Blood Church”—the guide said, “You will be surprised to know that in Soviet times, it was used as a warehouse for several years. The Communists even thought of tearing it down.”

It is called the Spilt Blood Church because it was built on the site on which Czar Alexander II’s blood was spilled, when a terrorist group attempted to assassinate him. The group, called the People’s Will, made the attempt on March 1, 1881, and the czar died a few days later. His son, Czar Alexander III, who ruled Russia from 1881 to 1894, built a church to preserve his father’s memory. Modeled on St. Basil Cathedral in Moscow’s Red Square, the Spilt Blood Church is a big tourist draw in St. Petersburg. I was disappointed that our escorted tour didn’t include a visit to it.

When the guide announced that the bus was passing through the city’s red-light district, an elderly man in our group said, “Tonight, no problem.” Two girls sitting in front of him looked back and burst out laughing.

“What is so funny about it?” the man asked. “I may be old, but I still have a very healthy interest in it.”

St. Petersburg legalized prostitution in 1843, and it was the first city in Europe to do so.

After passing through a few more areas of the city that are of interest to tourists, we reached our main destination, the Hermitage Museum, of which the Winter Palace is the most important component.

Hermitage Museum and Winter Palace

In the beginning, the Winter Palace was only the residence of the czars. And when Czar Peter I and his family moved into it in 1708, it was an unremarkable wooden house. It was replaced in 1711 with a stone house. That, too, was demolished, on orders from Empress Anna Ivanovna. Anna, who ruled Russia from 1730 to 1740, commissioned Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli, the recently appointed court architect, to construct something that would look like a real palace. The grand palace was completed in 1735.

However, that one also was replaced several years later. Empress Elizabeth, Peter the Great’s daughter, who ruled Russia from 1741 to 1762, did not find the palace grand enough for her. Architect Rastrelli, on her orders, tore it down. He built a new one befitting her grand vision and vanity. Unfortunately, Elizabeth was not destined to live in the new palace. She died a few months before the completion of its construction, in 1762.

It was Catherine II, known as Catherine the Great, who had the good fortune to live there. She used it as her official residence during her 34-year reign (1762–1796). Though her expansive tastes in many other areas, including sex, were questionable and subjects of juicy gossip, those in the area of the arts won her praise from one and all. Soon after she came to power, on her husband Peter III’s death (it was rumored that she had a hand in his death), she started foraying into the art world of Europe. Before she died in 1796, she had filled the palace with paintings and icons produced by famous European artists.

As our guide led us into the green-and-white Winter Palace, which has 1,057 rooms, he gave a brief history of the place, starting with Catherine the Great’s death. Though the exterior of the building has remained intact to this day, its interior was remodeled and redecorated several times. After a devastating fire in 1837 destroyed almost everything inside the palace, Czar Nicholas I, who was in power at the time, ordered that the entire interior be recreated as it had existed before the fire. And he insisted that it be done in one year. Thanks to the stupendous work put in by architects Vasily Stasov and Alexander Briullov, the feat was accomplished—almost. If Catherine the Great were to visit the Winter Palace today, our guide said, she wouldn’t notice any difference.

It was made part of the State-run Hermitage Museum on October 17, 1917. The State Rooms of the palace now form the most popular section of the Hermitage. It is the largest art gallery in Russia and one of the largest in the world. What started, in 1764, with 255 paintings that Catherine the Great brought from Germany, now has on display over 2.7 million pieces of art. They are the works of well-known artists of different periods, representing different styles. A trivia making the rounds among art aficionados goes thus: “If you were to spend a minute looking at each exhibit on display in the Hermitage, you would need eleven years before you had seen them all.”

Our guide did make it a point to take us to the most important artworks, especially the ones by world-famous artists. While in the lavishly decorated State Rooms, he made this sarcastic comment: “Now you know how the czars and czarinas lived when peasants in the country were starving.”

While climbing down to the ground floor, he took advantage of another chance to delve into his country’s past. Standing on the red-carpeted steps, he said: “These were the same steps that the Bolsheviks and soldiers from Kronstadt took while going up to overthrow the Kerensky government. Only the carpets have been replaced.”

The guide's remarks also reminded me of the incident which set off the revolutionary changes culminating in the Bolshevik coup that overthrew the Kerensky government, It took place only a few yards away from the steps on which I was standing.

On Sunday, January 9, 1905, the industrial workers of St. Petersburg and surrounding areas organized a demonstration to protest their deplorable working condition. Led by a priest by the name of Georgy Gapon, they peacefully marched on the Winter Palace, hoping to submit to Czar Nicholas II a petition listing their grievances and seeking remedial action. The palace guard tried to stop them at the gate. When the defiant marchers pushed ahead, the guard opened fire. More than one hundred workers were killed, and several hundred injured.

The notorious incident has been recorded in Russia's history as the “Bloody Sunday 1905.” The two incidents—the “Bloody Sunday 1905” and the Bolshevik coup of October 1917—changed Russia’s destiny forever.

The Hermitage Museum, we were told, gets 2.5 million visitors a year.


(Published on October 16, 2016, This is a slightly edited version of Chapter 8 from the author's recently published book,
An Indian Goes Around the World – II: What I Learned from My Thirty-Day European Odyssey. The book is available online at, and, and at Barnes and Noble.)

(Comments from readers are welcome. Send your comments to
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