Travel Reference
In-Depth Information
Peter the Great) went to war against Sweden with the aim of gaining easier access to
the North Atlantic (Great Northern War, 1700-1721). Sweden held on to Finland, but
Russia captured part of Estonia (including Tallinn), and much of modern-day Latvia
(with Rīga). Then, in the spring of 1703, Nyenskans fell to Russia; later that year, the
Russians began to build what is now called the Peter and Paul Fortress.
Peter the Great had studied shipbuilding in Holland and wanted to make St. Peters-
burg a great naval base—and the new capital of Russia. He also envisioned the city
as a “window on the West”—a gateway for Europeans coming to Russia, and mir-
ror of Peter's concept of a Europe metropolis. Across the river from the Peter and
Paul Fortress, top Italian architects laid out the city, with the Admiralty at its center
(symbolizing the importance of naval power) and three avenues radiating from it. Of
these, Nevsky Prospekt wound up becoming the city's main thoroughfare. The city
was named Petersburg—after Peter—but the German ending (-burg) hints at the en-
during importance of German settlers and the German language in the Baltic. The is-
land of Kronshtadt, which guards St. Petersburg out in the Gulf of Finland, was also
fortified (arriving cruise ships and passenger ferries still pass this island today).
Sweden responded by building a huge naval base and fort a few hours' sail to the
west—today's Helsinki. But during the Napoleonic wars, Russia took over Finland as
well, extending its empire even farther west at Sweden's expense. This would be the
pinnacle of Russia's push to the west. The first chip came when French and British
forces reduced Bomarsund—Russia's huge fortress in the Åland Islands (west of Fin-
land)—to rubble during the Crimean War in 1854. At the end of World War I, with the
Bolshevik Revolution underway, Finland, Estonia, and Latvia broke away, leaving St.
Petersburg as Russia's northwestern outpost.
Meanwhile, St. Petersburg grew into a cosmopolitan and intellectual city, with a
multiethnic population, beautiful architecture, and the country's governing and eco-
nomic elite. It was the setting for much great Russian literature (think Dostoyevsky's
Crime and Punishment and Tolstoy's Anna Karenina ). The railway to Moscow was
completed in 1851, to Warsaw in 1862, and to Helsinki in 1870.
After the communist takeover, the city was renamed Petrograd and the seat of gov-
ernment moved back to Moscow. After Lenin's death in 1924, the city was renamed
in his honor: Leningrad. During World War II, Germany held Finland and Estonia and
thought it would be short work to crush Leningrad, as if between the pincers of a crab.
At great cost, the city held out for nearly 900 days in what came to be called the Siege
of Leningrad (see Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery on here ) . By the end of the
communist era, Leningrad had become a huge city of five million people, larger than
Berlin and comparable in size to the San Francisco Bay Area. In 1991, the name was
changed back to St. Petersburg.
Before we head up the street, notice that St. Isaac's Cathedral is a 10-minute walk
away (to the right, with your back to the Admiralty, at the far end of this park)—you can
see its glittering golden dome from here. (For more on this church, see here . )
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