St Petersburg & Russia

The City of St Petersburg

In 1703, Tsar Peter the Great founded the city of St Petersburg on the mouth of the Neva in the Gulf of Finland. There, in that uninhabited flat marshland a modern capital would emerge, in emulation of Amsterdam.

Dutch model

The strategically situated Peter and Paul Fortress and the Admiralty buildings were designed as defence works: the site was territory captured from Sweden. Architects from all parts of Europe supplied designs for the new city. Three rivers met at the confluence: Neva, Moika and Fontanka. Smaller meandering waterways formed the canals. The reclamation of the marshy soil was based on the Dutch model. As in Amsterdam, countless tree trunks were sunk into the muddy ground to provide the subterranean supports above which the buildings were erected. Dutch windmills powered the water pumps and sawed the timber; wood and stone were shipped in from far and wide.


The tsar wanted a capital that provided Russia with a window to the West. Instead of traditional timber, this city would be made of stone. Architect Domenico Trezzini designed the first stone buildings: the tsar’s Summer Palace and the Peter and Paul Cathedral – the latter based on Dutch examples. Little stone is available in Russia for building. So all the material was shipped to Petersburg; no vessel could dock in the harbour without bringing a cargo of stone. Even so, the city’s first houses and the tsar’s temporary accommodation were of timber.


In 1712, Peter the Great left Moscow and moved into his new residence in Sint-Pietersburgh, as the Dutch shipbuilders called the city. Russia’s foreign ambassadors, civil servants, merchants and craftsmen followed suit. Along the Neva and its tributaries rows of mansions and palaces appeared, belonging to leading families: the Orlovs, the Shuvalovs, the Shermetevs, the Yusopovs and the Stroganovs. The more serfs they had, the bigger the palace. As in Holland, all the buildings were arranged neatly along the embankments. None were more than four storeys high, in order not to overshadow the tsar’s Winter Palace. Three large avenues divided the Neva’s southern bank, one being Nevski Prospekt. The grand 18th-century houses on what is today the main thoroughfare are reminiscent of the country mansions along the Vecht and Amstel.


Around the city the tsar (and after him his successors) had huge parks built in different styles. Dutch gardeners were clearly influential, especially in the early years. The lime trees on the terrace at Peterhof, Peter the Great’s summer residence, were specially imported from the Netherlands. The actual buildings are more reminiscent of Versailles: they were designed in the strictly symmetrical French style. Many of the country estates modelled their grounds on the English landscape style.


This glorious city did not build itself. Huge numbers of (forced) labourers, including many Swedish prisoners of war, perished from exhaustion and disease in the construction of St Petersburg. In all, around 100,000 people died in the eighteen years that it took to establish the city. Some called St Petersburg the city built on bones. Constructed in a sparsely populated area of the country, many people were ordered to move to the new city from other parts of Russia.

New Styles

After Peter the Great’s death, it was his daughter, Empress Elizabeth I, whose enthusiasm encouraged the next surge in construction in St Petersburg. This time new styles predominated: mainly French, Italian and traditional Russian. The residential areas and buildings by Elizabeth’s architect Bartholomeo Rastrelli – who designed the Winter Palace, Smolny monastery and the summer residence at Tsarskoye Selo - set the tone for the city. Under Alexander I, Carlo Rossi provided a classical impulse with his Mikhailov Palace and Alexandrinski Theatre.


Between 1850 and 1915, St Petersburg expanded and modernised, with railway stations, department stores, factories and apartment complexes - many in Style Moderne, the Russian version of Art Nouveau. After the 1917 Revolution, Petrograd (1914-1924), later Leningrad (1924-1991) was no longer Russia’s capital. Government offices moved to Moscow and major architectural innovations passed the city by. During the Second World War many 18th- and 19th-century buildings were either damaged or destroyed. After the war, most were given new functions: Kazan Cathedral, for example, was ironically reallocated as a Museum of Atheism. The architectural impact of the Soviet period remained limited to an uninspiring series of housing blocks and other rectangular structures.

Today’s new residential areas have a more typically Russian appearance: functional and monumental, yet here and there an upturned onion.

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Photo Roy Beusker Fotografie

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