St Petersburg (during the 20th century known as Petrograd and Leningrad, and commonly just referred to as “Peter”) is Russia’s former Imperial capital city and its most European-influenced city (with the exception of Kaliningrad, which is only really part of Russia by historical accident).
It was reputedly founded by Peter the Great in 1701, selected for its strategic position on the Baltic sea and within territory which at the time was being threatened by the powerful Swedish empire. Legend says it was built on a swamp, and Peter asked every visitor to the city, on every visit to bring a stone and lay it down to help construct a firmer foundation from the city.
Peter travelled through Europe a lot and in designing his city he was heavily influenced by European ideas, such as broad boulevards, canals, majestic palaces and huge grandiose public buildings.
I was only there for 3 days so I couldn’t comprehensively describe everything that Peter has to offer, but I can describe the places I visited.
Peter the Great (and his tiny tiny head)
Our first stop was “Hare Island” – Zayachy – on the Neva river, which houses the Peter and Paul Fortress, within which is the St Peter and Paul Cathedral. There are rabbit motifs everywhere (I’m not sure the difference between rabbits and hares has been considered) but no sign of any actual living rabbits or hares. There is also a statue of a young Peter the Great with long golden fingers and a disproportionately small head.
Inside the cathedral are the remains of all but two of Russia’s Romanov Tsars, from Peter the Great, through Catherine the Great, all the way up to the unfortunate Nicholas II, whose remains, along with those of his family, were transferred here after their discovery in Yekaterinberg where the Bolsheviks had murdered them.
Our next stop was the Alexander Nevsky Monastery. Nevsky took his name from the Neva river where, long before St Petersburg was founded, he fought off a previous generation of Swedish invaders to protect the old Duchy of Novgorod. He was a powerful Russian knyaz (prince) in the days before Russia was an empire, and in fact was a group of closely connected states all under the theoretical rule of the Mongol invaders known as the Golden Horde. He is one of Russia’s most highly regarded historical figures and his name and image will pop up often.
Anyway, I was more interested in the cemetery than the monastery, because this is where many of Russia’s great cultural heroes are buried. I saw the graves of Tchaikovsky here, Dostoevsky, Mussorgsky, Stravinsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin. After this, the Kremlin Necropolis, Novodedichy cemetery in Moscow, and the St Peter and Paul Cathedral, I have probably seen the graves of the vast majority of Russia’s most renowned figures.
Grand Russia Model
On a rather chilly day, with a few hours to kill in the early evening, we browsed Google to see what was still open and as soon as we saw that this existed, we had to come and see it. It is described as a representative model of all parts of the Russian federation, but I would personally describe it as a train set with grandiose ambitions.
The model is not to scale, it’s not really geographically accurate, but it does give a very good flavour of what the different regions of Russia are all about. It occupies a platform in the centre of the room, visitors can walk around it in any direction they like. Small trains and road vehicles whizz around the model according to precisely programmed routes, with models of buildings, mountains, bridges, facilities, villages, forests and pretty much anything you would expect to find in Russia, and a few things you might not expect also (like aliens, demons and yetis). Certain panoramas are labelled with a humorous title, others are partially interactive, you press a button and something moves, or some lights start flashing or some sound effect plays. Every so often the lights dim and we get to see Russia at night.
It is good fun and certainly one way to learn about the different parts of Russia – it was interesting for me to compare the model to places I had already visited, like Vladivostok and Volgograd.