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St Petersburg

History

On a warm August afternoon in 1782, a large crowd gathered along the Neva River’s south embankment. On a balcony above, Empress Catherine appeared and dedicated to St Petersburg its newest monument: the Bronze Horseman, a soaring likeness of the city’s founder, Peter the Great, commanding a half-wild steed. Immortalised in the words of Pushkin, ‘Behold the image sit and ride, upon his brazen horse astride.’

Precocious prince

For three centuries, Moscow hosted Russia’s ruler tsars. The onion-domed capital of the Ivans was shrouded in mystery and intrigue. The precocious Peter never fitted in.

Born in 1672, Peter was the son of Tsar Alexey I and his second wife Natalya Narishkina. He was one of 16 siblings. His spindly frame grew to be an imposing 2m tall and he suffered from a twitchy form of epilepsy. He loved ditching the claustrophobic Kremlin and traipsing through the countryside with his chums, staging mock military manoeuvres and sailing into make-believe naval battles. When his mother arranged a marriage for him to secure the family’s aristocratic connections, the teenager reluctantly consented. But a few years later he sent his first wife to a nunnery and took up with a Lithuanian peasant girl, Catherine I, whom he adored and married.

Peter was also exceptional for his insatiable curiosity about the outside world. He spent long hours in the city quarter for foreign merchants, who regaled the young prince with tales of the wonders of the new modern age. Once on the throne, he became the first tsar to venture beyond the border. Travelling in disguise, Peter and a raucous Russian entourage crisscrossed the continent, meeting with monarchs, dining with dignitaries and carousing with commoners. He recruited admirals, academics and artisans to apply their skill in his service. Peter was more than ever convinced that Russians were still living in a dark age. He vowed to replace superstition with science, backwardness with progress, East with West.

Peter abruptly ended his European expedition when news came of a Kremlin coup. His claim to the throne was illegitimate, some whispered. After his father died, the families of the two tsarinas clashed over the royal legacy: the Miloslavsky clan claimed lineage back to Ivan and represented the best of old Muscovy, while the upstart Narishkins were of recent Tatar and distant Scottish bloodlines. When he was only 10 years old, Peter watched in horror as his uncle was murdered by a Moscow mob, stirred by family rivalry. Eventually, a joint settlement was reached by which the boy shared the throne with his dim-witted half-brother, while his ambitious older stepsister acted as regent. In 1689, at the age of 17, Peter was ready: he consigned his sister to a nunnery and declared himself as tsar. Old Muscovy’s resentment of this act prompted the coup, which now brought Peter back from Europe.

Enough was enough. Peter began to impose his strong will on Russia. He vengefully punished the plotters, sending more than 1000 to their death and instilling fear in many thousands. He humiliated and subdued the old elite, forcing aristocrat elders to shave their beards and wear Western clothes. He subordinated the Orthodox Church to earthly political authority, and banished Old Believers who cursed him as the Antichrist. He upended the established social order, forbidding arranged marriages and promoting the humble to high rank. He even changed the date of New Year’s Day – from September to January. By now, the undisputed tsar had grown to despise the old capital, and was ready to start afresh.

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Great Northern War

Peter was anxious to turn Russia Westward, and he saw the Baltic Sea as the channel for change. The problem was that Sweden already dominated the region. It had been more than 400 years since Russia’s medieval hero prince, Alexander Nevsky, had defeated the Swedes near the site of Peter’s expanding ambition. The territory, however, had long ago passed out of Russian influence. In 1700 Peter put his new army to the test against the powerful Swedish Empire, and the Great Northern War was on. For the next 20 years northern Europe’s modernising autocrats, Charles II and Peter, fought for supremacy over the eastern Baltic.

To Peter’s dismay, his troops were badly beaten in their first engagement at the Battle of Narva in Estonia, by a smaller, more adept Swedish force. But Russia found allies in Poland, Saxony and Denmark, who diverted Charles’ attention. Peter used the opportunity to revamp his army and launch his navy. He established a small Baltic foothold on the tiny Isle of Hares (Zayachy Island) at the mouth of the Neva River, and used it as a base to rout a nearby Swedish garrison. This primitive outpost fort would become Peter’s northern capital.

By the time Charles tried to retake the territory, Peter commanded a formidable fighting force. Russia’s first naval victory came at the Battle of Hanko, where a galley fleet overwhelmed a Swedish squadron and secured Russian control over the Neva and access to the Gulf. His military chief and boyhood friend, Alexander Menshikov, ripped off a string of impressive battlefield victories, further extending Russian presence on the Baltic coast and causing his Scandinavian foe to flee. Like the last sardine at a smorgasbord, the Swedish empire expired. The Great Northern War shifted the balance of power in the Baltic to the advantage of Peter’s Russia. Hostilities were officially concluded with the signing of the Treaty of Nystad, in 1721, which formally ceded Sweden’s extensive eastern possessions to Russia, including its new capital city, St Petersburg.

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Peter’s paradise

Peter did not wait for the war to end before he started building. The wooden palisade encampment on Hares’ Isle became the red-brick Peter & Paul Fortress. In June 1703 Peter gave the site a name – Sankt Pieter Burkh, in his favourite Dutch tongue and after his patron saint, who stands guard before the gates to paradise.

There was a reason why until now the area had only attracted a few Finnish fishermen for settlement. It was a swamp. The Neva River runs from nearby Lake Ladoga, Europe’s largest, and flows into the Gulf of Finland through a low-lying delta of marshy flood-prone islands, more manageable for moose than man. Although it is close to the Arctic Circle, winds and waters from the Atlantic bring moderate and moist weather. This means that winter, during which the delta freezes up, is relatively short: a matter of no small significance to Peter.

Peter’s vision for the new capital was grandiose; so was the task ahead. To find enough dry ground for building, swamps were drained out and wetlands were filled in. To protect the land from flooding, seawalls were built up and canals were laid down. A hands-on autocrat, Peter pitched in with the hammering, sawing and joining. Thousands of fortune-seeking foreigners were imported to lend expertise: architects and engineers who designed the city’s intricate waterways and craftsmen and masons who chiselled its stone foundations. The hard labour of digging ditches and moving muck was performed by non-voluntary recruits. Peter pressed 30, 000 peasant serfs per year into capital construction gangs. Their ranks were supplemented with Russian convict labourers and Swedish prisoners of war. The work regimen was strict and living conditions were stark: more than 100, 000 died amid the mucous and mud. But those who survived could earn personal freedom and a small piece of marshland to call their own.

Russia’s new city by the sea began to take shape, inspired by Peter’s recollections of canal-lined Amsterdam. The locus of power was the military stronghold, the Peter & Paul Fortress. Next, he ordered the chief accompaniments of tsarist authority – a church and a prison. The first tavern was the German-owned Triumphant Osteria of the Four Frigates, where Peter would order his favourite drink – vodka with cayenne pepper. The first stone palace belonged to the former Dutch merchant captain and first commander of Russia’s Baltic Fleet, Cornelius Cruys. A more impressive dwelling put up by the territory’s first governor-general, Alexander Menshikov, soon adorned the Vasilevsky Island embankment.

Peter abandoned his wooden cabin for a modest Dutch-style townhouse across the river in the new Summer Garden. Nearby, on the future site of the Admiralty, a bustling shipyard was assembling his new navy. Impatient to develop a commercial port, Peter offered a generous reward to the first three ships to drop anchor at the new town docks. The presence of so many foreigners gave the crude swampy settlement a more cosmopolitan feel than the poshest parlours of pious Moscow.

In 1712 the tsar officially declared St Petersburg to be the capital. Inspired by the Vatican’s crossed keys to paradise, he adopted a city coat of arms that presented crossed anchors topped with an imperial crown. Peter requested the rest of Russia’s ruling elite join him, or else. He said Pieter Burkh was the place they ought to be, so they packed up their carriages and moved to the Baltic Sea. The tsar’s royal court, the imperial senate and foreign embassies were relocated to damper digs. Fearing Peter’s wrath, Moscow’s old aristocratic families reluctantly began to arrive. Apprehension turned to appal. To them Peter’s paradise was a peaty hell. They were ordered to bring their own stones to the party, with which to build elegant mansions and in which to start behaving like Westerners. It all seemed surreal.

When Peter died of gangrene in 1725, at the age of 52, some thought they might get the chance to quit his quixotic quagmire, but they were wrong. The wilful spirit of Peter the Great continued to possess the city and bedevil its inhabitants. Within less than a hundred years of its improbable inception, a new magnificent capital would stand on the edge of Europe.

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Peter’s heirs

By the end of the 18th century St Petersburg would take its place among Europe’s grand cities. But in the years immediately following Peter’s death, the fate of the Baltic bastion was still uncertain.

While Peter’s plans for his imperial capital were clear, those for his personal legacy were murky. His eldest son and heir apparent, Alexey, was estranged from his father early on, suspected of plotting against him later, and tortured to death in the Peter & Paul Fortress finally. The evidence was flimsy. On his death bed, Peter tried to dictate a last will, but could not name an heir before his galloping ghost departed into the grey mist. His wife Catherine I assumed the throne for the next two years, with Peter’s pal Menshikov acting as de-facto tsar. When she died, the reaction started.

The Petersburg-Moscow power struggle was on. The aristocracy’s Old Muscovite faction seized the opportunity to influence the succession. Without his protector, the mighty Menshikov was stripped of all titles and property, and sent packing into Siberian exile. Peter’s 11-year-old grandson, Peter II, was chosen as an unlikely heir. Delivering to his enabling patrons, the pliable Peter II returned the capital to Moscow. The city’s population fell by a half; its public works came to rest. When Peter II eventually got up the nerve to order Petersburgers to go back, he was ignored by the disdainful nobles. But this reversal of urban fortune proved short-lived.

The Romanovs were a delicate dynasty and the teen tsar soon succumbed to smallpox. Moscow’s princely power-brokers now entrusted the throne to another supposed weakling, Duchess Anna Ivanovna, Peter the Great’s niece. But Anna was no pushover – she was the first in a line of tough women rulers. In 1732 Anna declared St Petersburg to be the capital once more, and bade everyone back to the Baltic. Making the offer more enticing, she recommenced glamorous capital construction projects. Wary of scheming Russian elites, she recruited talented German state administrators. Still, the city recovered slowly. A big fire in 1737 left entire neighbourhoods in charred ruins. Even Anna spent much time ruling from Moscow. St Petersburg remained only half built, its dynamism diminished.

Not until the reign of Peter’s second-oldest daughter, the Empress Elizabeth (r 1741–62), did the city’s imperial appetite return in full. Elizabeth created one of the most dazzling courts in Europe. She loved the pomp as much as the power. Her 20-year reign was a nonstop aristocratic cabaret. The Empress was a bit eccentric, enjoying a hedonistic lifestyle that revolved around hunting, drinking and dancing. She loved most to host elaborate masquerade balls, at which she performed countless costume changes, apparently preferring to end the night in drag. Bawdy though she was, Elizabeth also got the Russian elite hooked on high culture. The court was graced by poets, artists and philosophers. Journalism and theatre gained popularity, and an Academy of Arts was founded. While her resplendent splurges may have left imperial coffers empty, Elizabeth made her father’s majestic dream a reality.

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Aristocratic soul

Peter’s determined drive to build a modern state transformed the means and expression of power: military revolution replaced medieval mercenaries; secular law replaced ecclesiastical canon; bureaucratic order replaced personal impulse. St Petersburg now displayed all the features of a seriously imperial capital: stately façade, hierarchical heart and aristocratic soul.

The city’s physical appearance reflected the transition. The centre of power moved across the river to the Neva’s south bank. Empress Elizabeth’s baroque beauty, the Winter Palace, was meant to impress – and how could it not, with more than a quarter of a million exquisitely embellished square feet. She forbade any new building to rise higher than her 1000-room, 2000-windowed, multicolumned mansion. The immense Palace Sq (Dvortsovaya pl; p66) could host as many as 50 parading infantry battalions at once. Across the square was an imposing semicircular structure housing the instruments of statecraft: General Staff, Treasury and Foreign Office. Its august archways led out to a beaming boulevard, the city’s central artery, the Nevsky pr. The commanding Admiralty stretched along nearly 400m of the south embankment, adorned with ancient heroes like conqueror Alexander the Great and sea goddess Isis and topped with a gleaming gold spire. The city’s monumental mélange reinforced its imperial pretension, with each ruler adding a personal stylistic touch: Peter’s restrained baroque, Elizabeth’s reckless rococo, Catherine’s refined neoclassicism.

St Petersburg was a city of ranks, literally. The capital’s social hierarchy reflected Peter’s image of a well-ordered modern state. To minimise the personal influence of the old nobility, Peter created a Table of Ranks, which formally assigned social status on the basis of service to the emperor. The table included 14 stations in the military forces, civil administration and imperial court. In this system, inheritance was no longer an exclusive means to elite status, as resourceful newcomers were rewarded too. Living quarters and salary were determined by rank. Each service had its own colour-coded uniforms, with distinguishing pecking-order plumage. Social manners followed suit: a lowly titular counsellor in a shabby overcoat could easily get a collegiate assessor’s nose out of joint by addressing him as ‘Your Nobleness’ instead of the appropriate ‘Your High Nobleness’. Not surprisingly, the old aristocratic families still managed to be well represented in the upper echelon.

Despite Peter’s meritocratic meddling, St Petersburg was in essence an aristocratic city. Capital life was infused by blue bloodlines. Although the tsar could upset the balance, for the most part power came by entitlement and property was passed down. Yes, it was possible for the capable and clever to climb the Table of Ranks, but they’d better have a noble patron to give them a boost. The aristocratic elite that once sneered at Peter’s vision of a cosmopolitan capital eventually came to wallow in it. They imported tastes and manners from their slightly more sophisticated continental cousins. European fashion and philosophy were conspicuously consumed. So far did it go that St Petersburg’s aristocrats preferred to speak French l’un a l’autre. Ancestral connections to kings and queens past became a coveted social commodity. Myths about family origin were eagerly propagated, with the ruling Romanovs taking the cup for uncovering their long-lost genetic link to Julius Caesar.

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Enlightened empress – despotic dame

In 1745, at the age of 16, Sophie Augusta of Prussia was betrothed to Duke Peter of Holstein: quite a score for her ambitious mother, as Peter was a Romanov and heir to the Imperial Russian throne. Sophie moved to St Petersburg, learned to speak Russian, delighted the court with her coy charm, and took the name Catherine when she converted to Orthodoxy. A nice start for sure, but who would figure that a French-tutored Fräulein from Stettin would one day reach Peter’s lofty status and earn the moniker ‘Great’.

More than just a court coquette, Catherine possessed keen political instincts and a strong appetite for power, attributes that had adverse effects on the men in her life. Her husband Tsar Peter III, as it turned out, was a bit of a flake and not terribly interested in ruling. In a plot hatched by aristocrat Prince Orlov, Catherine was complicit in a coup that landed her on the throne, lifted her conspiratorial consort to general-in-chief, and left her helpless husband face down at his country estate. She followed Peter I’s example of paranoid parenting. Indeed, she made her successor son, Grand Duke Paul, so insecure that when he finally took the throne he built a fortified castle in the middle of the city and locked himself in. Of course, just because you are paranoid does not mean that people are not out to get you: Paul’s reign was cut short when some disgruntled drunken officers strangled him to death with his bedroom curtains.

Catherine, by contrast, prospered. Despite the details of her unsavoury ascension, she reigned for a satisfying 34 years. Catherine presided over a golden age for St Petersburg. Relations between crown and aristocracy were never better. High society strolled through handsome parks, gabbed in smoky salons and waltzed across glittering ballrooms. The city benefited from her literary leanings, acquiring a splendid public library and the graceful Smolny Institute, for fine-tuning fair maidens. The Russian Empire, meanwhile, expanded to ever greater distances.

Empress Catherine was a charter member of a club of 18th-century monarchs known as the ‘enlightened despots’ – dictators who could hum Haydn. On the ‘enlightened’ side, Catherine corresponded with French philosophers, patronised the arts and sciences, promoted public education and introduced the potato to national cuisine. On the ‘despotic’ side, Catherine connived with fellow enlightened friends to carve up Poland, censored bad news and imprisoned the messengers, tightened serfs’ bonds of servitude to their lords, and introduced the potato to national cuisine.

And what of young Catherine’s coquettish charms? They matured into full-blown avaricious desires. She may have been conversant in several tongues, but she did not know the word ‘moderation’ in any of them. When it comes to Russian rulers, Catherine tops the list for most voracious, salacious and bodacious. The Hermitage is one of the world’s great art holdings because of her compulsion to collect and obsession to outbid. Her team of French chefs had Catherine looking like a subject in one of her prized Rubens. Nor was she shy about s-e-x. Her ladies-in-waiting were entreated to test the stamina of new palace guards to satisfy their mistress’ curiosity. She doted on a succession of rising officers – promoting them to high rank, rewarding them with luxury villas, and banishing them to frontier outposts when her fickle flame burnt out. It was good to be the tsarina.

Contrary to popular myth, Catherine did not die while getting off her horse. She suffered a stroke in the bath, and at age 67 was carried off by the Bronze Horseman through the steamy haze to the other side.

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1812 overture

The downside to becoming a great power in European politics is that you get drawn into European wars. Though, in fairness to the Hanovers and Hapsburgs, the Romanovs were pretty good at picking fights on their own. From the 19th century on, Russia was at war and St Petersburg was transformed.

It was Napoleon who coined the military maxim, ‘first we engage, then we will see’. That was probably not the best tactic to take with Russia. Tsar Alexander first clashed with Napoleon after joining an ill-fated anti-French alliance with Austria and Prussia. The resulting Treaty of Tilsit was not so bad for Russia – as long as Alexander cooperated with Napoleon’s designs against Britain. Alexander reneged; Napoleon avenged. The Little Corporal targeted Moscow, instead of the more heavily-armed Petersburg. His multinational, 600, 000-strong force got there just in time for winter and had little to show for the effort, besides vandalising the Kremlin. Hungry, cold and dispirited, they retreated westward, harried by Marshal Kutuzov’s troops. The Grande Armée was ground up: only 20, 000 survived. Napoleon was booked for an island vacation, while Russia became the continent’s most feared nation.

The War of 1812 was a defining event for Russia, stirring nationalist exaltation and orchestral inspiration. Catherine’s favourite grandson, Alexander I, presided over a period of prosperity and self-assuredness in the capital. His army’s exploits were immortalised in triumphal designs that recalled imperial Rome: Kazan Cathedral, Alexander Column and Narva Gates – shining symbols for a new Russian empire that stretched across half the globe.

More wars and more monuments bedecked the city throughout the 19th century. St Petersburg was a military capital. When Peter I died, one in six residents was a member of the armed forces; a hundred years later the ratio was one in four. It was a city of immense parade grounds, swaggering elite regiments, and epaulette-clad nobility. St Petersburg came to exhibit a patriotic culture that saw the capital as more than just European, the epicentre of a transcendent Russia whose greatness came from within. The Bronze Horseman looked on approvingly.

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God preserve thy people

War did more than confer Great Power status on Russia: it was also a stimulus for new ideas on political reform and social change. In the 19th century, the clash of ideas spilled out of salons and into its streets.

On a frosty December morning in 1825 more than a thousand soldiers amassed on Senate Sq (now Decembrists’ Sq), with the intention of upsetting the royal succession. When Alexander I died unexpectedly without a legitimate heir, the throne was supposed to pass to his liberal-minded brother Constantine, Viceroy of Poland, but he declined, preferring not to complicate his contented life. Instead, the new tsar would be Alexander’s youngest brother, Nicholas I, a cranky conservative with a fastidious obsession for barracks-style discipline. The Decembrists revolt was staged by a small cabal of officers, veterans of the Napoleonic Wars, who saw first-hand how people in other countries enjoyed greater freedom and prosperity. They demanded Constantine and a constitution, but instead got exile and execution. The ‘people’, however, were now part of the discussion.

Russia’s pathetic performance in another war prompted another reform attempt, this time initiated by the tsar. In the 1850s, better-equipped British and French armies really stuck it to Russia in a fight over the Crimean peninsula. The new emperor Alexander II concluded from the fiasco that Russia had to catch up with the West, or watch its empire unravel. A slew of reform decrees were issued, promoting public education, military reorganisation and economic modernisation. A sensitive sort, Alexander dropped the death penalty and curtailed corporal punishment. The Tsar Liberator abolished serfdom, kind of – his solution that serfs pay their masters redemptive fees in exchange for freedom pleased no one.

By now the ‘people’ were becoming less abstract. Political movements that claimed to better understand and represent them were sprouting up. On a Sunday morning in March 1881 several young student members of the Peoples’ Will radical sect waited nervously by the Griboedov Canal as the tsar’s procession passed. Their homemade bombs hardly dented the royal armoured coach, but badly wounded scores of spectators and fatally shredded the reforming monarch when he insisted on leaving his carriage to investigate. On the hallowed site, the magnificent and melancholy Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood was constructed, its twisting onion domes trying to steady St Petersburg’s uncertain present with Russia’s enduring past.

Great Power competition compelled a state-directed campaign of economic development. St Petersburg was the centre of a robust military-industrial economy, to fight the wars of the modern age. A ring of ugly sooty smokestacks grew up around the still handsome city centre. Tough times in the rural villages and job opportunities in the new factories hastened a human flood into the capital. By the 1880s, the population climbed past a million, with hundreds of thousands cramped into slummy suburban squalor. Public health was befouled, public manner was debased. The gap between high society and the lower depths had long been manageable, but now they kept running into each other. The people had arrived.

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God Save the Tsar

‘We, workers and inhabitants of the city of St Petersburg, our wives, children, and helpless old parents, have come to you, Sovereign, to seek justice and protection.’ So read the petition that a large group of workers intended to present to Tsar Nicholas II on a Sunday in January 1905.

Nicholas II ascended the throne in 1894, when his iron-fisted father, Alexander III, a real autocrat’s autocrat, died suddenly. Nicholas was of less steely stuff. Most contemporary accounts agree: he was a good guy and a lousy leader; possessive of his power to decide, except that he could never make up his mind. In 1904 Nicholas followed the foolish advice of a cynical minister, who said that what Russia needed most was a ‘small victorious war’ to get peoples’ minds off their troubles. Unfortunately, the Russo-Japanese War ended in humiliating defeat and the people were more agitated than ever.

By January 1905 the capital was a hotbed of political protest. As many as 100, 000 workers were on strike, the city had no electricity and all public facilities were closed. Nicholas and the royals departed for their palace retreat at Tsarskoe Selo. In this charged atmosphere, Father Georgy Gapon, an Orthodox priest who apparently lived a double life as holy man and police agent, organised a peaceful demonstration of workers and their families to protest the difficult conditions. Their petition called for eight-hour work days and better wages, an end to the war and universal suffrage.

Singing God Save the Tsar, the crowd solemnly approached the Winter Palace, hoping to present its requests to the tsar personally. Inside, the mood was jittery: panicky guardsmen fired on the demonstrators, at first as a warning and then directly into the crowd. More than 1000 people were killed by the gunshots or the trampling that followed. Although Nicholas was not even in the palace at the time, the events of Bloody Sunday shattered the myth of the Father Tsar. The Last Emperor was finally able to restore order by issuing the October Manifesto, which promised a constitutional monarchy and civil rights; in fact, not much really changed.

At the start of WWI, nationalist fervour led St Petersburg to change its name to the more Slavic, less German-sounding Petrograd. A hundred years earlier, war with France had made the Russian Empire a great power, but now yet another European war threatened its very survival. The empire was fraying at the seams as the old aristocratic order limped onward into battle. Only the strength of the Bronze Horseman could hold it all together. But Peter’s legacy rested on the shoulders of an imperial inheritor who was both half-hearted reformer and irresolute reactionary: the combination proved revolutionary.

Cradle Of Communism

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Act one: down with the autocracy

In 1917, 23 February began like most days in Petrograd since the outbreak of the war. The men went off to the metalworks and arms factories. The women went out to receive the daily bread ration. And the radical set went out to demonstrate, as it happened to be International Women’s Day. Although each left their abode an ordinary individual, by day’s end they would meld into the most infamous ‘mass’ in modern history: the Bronze Horseman’s heirs let go of the reigns; the Russian Revolution, a play in three acts, had begun.

After waiting long hours in the winter chill for a little food, the women were told that there would be none. This news coincided with the end of the day shift and a sweaty outpouring from the factory gates. Activist provocateurs joined the fray as the streets swelled with the tired, the hungry, and now the angry. The crowd assumed a political purpose. They marched to the river, intent on crossing to the palace side and expressing their discontent to somebody. But they were met at the bridge by gendarmes and guns.

Similar meetings had occurred already, in July and October, on which occasions the crowd retreated. But now it was February and one did not need a bridge to cross the frozen river. First a brave few, then emboldened small groups, finally a defiant horde of hundreds were traversing the ice-laden Neva toward the Winter Palace.

They congregated in the Palace Sq, demanding bread, peace and an end to autocracy. Inside, contemptuous counts stole glances at the unruly rabble, and waited for them to grow tired and disperse. But they did not go home. Instead, they went around the factories and spread the call for a general strike. By the next day a quarter of a million people were rampaging through the city centre. Overwhelmed local police took cover.

When word reached the tsar, he ordered military troops to restore order. But his troops were no longer hardened veterans: they were long dead at the front. Rather, freshly conscripted peasant youths in uniform were sent to put down the uprising. When commanded to fire on the demonstration, they instead broke rank, dropped their guns and joined the mob. At that moment, the 300-year-old Romanov dynasty and 500-year-old tsarist autocracy came to an end.

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Act two: all power to the Soviets

Perhaps the least likely political successor to the tsar in February 1917 was the radical socialist Bolshevik Party. The Bolsheviks were on the fringe of the fringe of Russia’s political left. Party membership numbered a few thousand, at best. Yet, in less than eight months, the Bolsheviks occupied the Winter Palace, proclaiming Petrograd the capital of a worldwide socialist revolution.

In the days that followed Nicholas’ abdication, a Provisional Government was established. It mainly comprised political liberals, representing reform-minded nobles, pragmatic civil servants, and professional and business interests. Simultaneously, a rival political force emerged, the Petrograd Soviet. The Soviet (the Russian word for council) was composed of more populist and radical elements, representing the interests of the workers, peasants, soldiers and sailors. Both political bodies were based at the Tauride Palace.

The Provisional Government saw itself as a temporary instrument, whose main task was to create some form of constitutional democracy. It argued over the details of organising an election and convention, rather than deal with the issues that had caused the revolution – bread and peace. At first, the Soviet deferred to the Provisional Government, but this soon changed.

On 3 April, Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin arrived at the Finland Station from exile in Switzerland. Lenin’s passage across enemy lines had been arranged by German generals, who hoped that he would stir things up at home, and thus distract Russia from their ongoing war. As expected, Lenin upset the political status quo as soon as he arrived. His rabid revolutionary rhetoric polarised Petrograd. In the Soviet, the Bolshevik faction went from cooperative to confrontational. But even his radical pals dismissed Lenin as a stinging gadfly, rather than a serious foe. By summer’s end, Lenin had proved them wrong.

The Provisional Government not only refused to withdraw from the war but, at the instigation of the allies, launched a new offensive – prompting mass desertion at the front. Meanwhile, the economic situation continued to deteriorate. The same anarchic anger that fuelled the February Revolution was felt on the streets again. Lenin’s Bolsheviks were the only political party in sync with the public mood. September elections in the Petrograd Soviet gave the Bolsheviks a majority.

Lenin had spent his entire adult life waiting for this moment. For 20 years he did little else than read about, write about, and rant about revolution. He enjoyed Beethoven, but avoided listening to his music from concern that the sentiment it evoked would make him lose his revolutionary edge. A successful revolution, Lenin observed, had two preconditions: first, the oppressed classes were politically mobilised and ready to act; and second, the ruling class was internally divided and questioned its will to continue. This politically explosive combination now existed. If the Bolsheviks waited any longer, he feared, the Provisional Government would get its act together and impose a new bourgeois political order, ending his dream of socialist revolution in Russia. On 25 October the Bolsheviks staged their coup. It was not exactly a secret, yet there was not much resistance. According to Lenin’s chief accomplice and coup organiser, Leon Trotsky, ‘power was lying in the streets, waiting for someone to pick it up.’ Bolshevik Red Guards seized a few buildings and strategic points. The Provisional Government was holed up in the tsar’s private dining room in the Winter Palace, protected by a few Cossacks, the Petrograd chapter of the Women’s Battalion of Death, and a one-legged commander of a bicycle regiment. Before dessert could be served, their dodgy defences cracked. Mutinous mariners fired a window-shattering salvo from the cruiser Aurora .

At the Tauride Palace the Soviet remained in emergency session late into the night, when Lenin finally announced that the Provisional Government had been arrested and the Soviet was now the supreme power in Russia. Half the deputies walked out in disgust. Never one to miss an opportunity, Lenin quickly called a vote to make it official. It passed. Incredibly, the Bolsheviks were now in charge.

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Act three: up with Bolsheviks, down with Communists

Nobody really believed the Bolsheviks would be around for long. Even Lenin said that, if they could hold on for just 100 days, their coup would be a success by providing future inspiration. It was one thing to occupy a few palaces in Petrograd, but across the empire’s far-flung regions Bolshevik-brand radicalism was not so popular. From 1918 to 1921 civil war raged in Russia: between monarchists and socialists, imperialists and nationalists, aristocrats and commoners, believers and atheists. When it was over, somehow Soviet power was still standing. In the final act of the Russian Revolution, the scene shifted from the Petrograd stage. The imperial capital would never be the same.

In December 1917, an armistice was arranged and peace talks began with the Axis Powers. The Bolsheviks demanded a return to prewar imperial borders, but Germany insisted on the liberation of Poland, where its army was squatting. Trotsky defiantly walked out of negotiations, declaring ‘neither war, nor peace’. The German high command was a bit confused and not at all amused – hostilities immediately resumed. Lenin had vowed never to abandon the capital, but that was before a German battle fleet cruised into the Gulf of Finland. Exit stage left. In 1918 the Bolsheviks vacated their new pastel digs in Petrograd and relocated behind the ancient red bricks of Moscow. It was supposed to be temporary (Lenin personally preferred St Petersburg). But Russia was turning inward, and Peter’s window to the West was closing.

Along with the loss of its capital political status, St Petersburg also lost its noble social status. The aristocratic soul gave up the proletarian body. The royal family had always set the standards for high society, but now the royals were on the run. No Romanov stepped forward to claim the once coveted throne. Nicholas II and his family meanwhile, were placed under house arrest in the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoe Selo, before leaving on a one-way trip to Siberia. The breakdown of the old order made the old elite vulnerable. The tsar’s favourite ballerina, Mathilda Kshesinskaya, pleaded in vain as her Style Moderne mansion was commandeered by the Bolsheviks as party headquarters. The more fortunate families fled with the few valuables they could carry; the less fortunate who stayed were harassed, dispossessed and disposed of eventually.

The revolution began in Petrograd and ended there, when in March 1921 Kronshtadt sailors staged a mutiny. These erstwhile Bolshevik boosters demanded the democracy they had been promised now that the civil war was won. But Lenin, who had since renamed his political party ‘the Communists’, was reluctant to relinquish political power. The sailors’ revolt was brutally suppressed in a full-scale military assault across the frozen bay, confirming the historical adage that revolutions consume their young.

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Soviet second city

Moscow finally reclaimed its coveted ancient title with the caveat that it was now the world’s first communist capital. Petrograd consoled itself as the Soviet second city.

In Russia, it has always been the case that status and wealth flow from political power. Thus, the redesignation of the capital prompted the departure of the bureaucracies: the government ministries, the military headquarters, the party apparatus, which took with them a host of loyal servants and servile lackeys. The population dropped by two-thirds from its prewar count. Economic exchange was reduced to begging and bartering. To make matters worse, the food shortages that first sparked the revolution during the war continued well after. Fuel was also in short supply, as homes went unheated, factory gates stayed shut and city services were stopped. Petrograd was left naked by the Neva.

The new regime needed a new identity. The old aristocratic labels would not do. The city underwent a name-changing mania – streets, squares and bridges were given more appropriate socialist sobriquets. Once known as Orlov Sq, the plaza fronting Smolny Institute was renamed after the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Znamenskaya Sq, named after a nearby church, became Uprising Sq (pl Vosstaniya). The city itself was rechristened Leningrad in 1924, to honour the scourge of the old empire. The change ran much deeper: make no mistake, the old aristocratic world was gone. ‘For centuries, our grandfathers and fathers have had to clean up their shit’, railed Trotsky, ‘now it is time they clean up ours.’ Noble pedigree became a marker for discrimination and exploitation. Family mansions were expropriated; art treasures were seized; churches were closed.

Leningrad was eventually revived with a proletarian transfusion. At the beginning of the 1930s the socialist state launched an intensive campaign of economic development, which reinvigorated the city’s industrial sector. New scientific and military research institutes were fitted upon the city’s strong higher-education foundations. On the eve of WWII, the population climbed to over three million. Public works projects for the people were undertaken – polished underground metro stations, colossal sports complexes and streamlined constructivist buildings muscled in next to the peeling pastels and cracked baroque of the misty past. Even the Bronze Horseman was seen around town in a commissar’s cloak.

Who Murdered Sergei Kirov?

Though no longer the capital, Leningrad still figured prominently in Soviet politics. The Leningrad party machine, headquartered in the Smolny Institute, was a plum post in the Communist Party. The First Secretary, head of the Leningrad organisation, was always accorded a seat on the Politburo, the executive board of Soviet power. In the early years Leningrad was a crucial battle front in the bloody intraparty competition to succeed Lenin.

Lenin died at the age of 53 from a stroke, without designating a successor. He was first replaced by a troika of veteran Old Bolsheviks, including Leningrad party head, Alexander Zinoviev. But their stay on top was brief, outmanoeuvred by the most unlikely successor to Lenin’s mantle, Josef Stalin, a crude disaffected bureaucrat of Georgian descent.

In 1926 Zinoviev was forced to relinquish his Leningrad seat to Sergei Kirov, a solid Stalin man. The transition reflected deeper changes in the Communist Party: Zinoviev was a haughty Jewish intellectual from the first generation of salon-frequenting socialist talkers, while Kirov was a humble Russian provincial from the second generation of socialist dirty-work doers. Stalin’s rise to the top was testimony to his personal appeal to these second-generation Bolsheviks.

In high-profile Leningrad, Kirov soon became one of the most popular party bosses. He was a zealous supporter of Stalin’s plans for rapid industrialisation, which meant heavy investment in the city. But the manic-paced economic campaign could not be sustained, causing famine and food shortages. Kirov emerged as a proponent of a more moderate course instead of the radical pace that Stalin still insisted on. The growing rift in the leadership was exposed at a 1934 Party congress, where a small cabal of regional governors secretly connived to remove Stalin in a bureaucratic coup and replace him with Kirov. It was an offer that Kirov flatly refused.

But it was hard to keep a secret from Stalin. Wary of Kirov’s rising appeal, Stalin ordered that he be transferred to party work in Moscow, where he could be watched more closely. Kirov found reasons to delay the appointment. He remained in Leningrad – but not for long. On 1 December 1934 as he left a late-afternoon meeting, Kirov was shot from behind and killed, in the corridor outside his Smolny office.

Who murdered Sergei Kirov? The trigger was pulled by Leonid Nikolaev, also a party member – hence his access to the building – and reportedly a disgruntled devotee of the displaced Zinoviev. But circumstantial evidence pointed the finger at Stalin. Kirov’s murder was the first act in a much larger drama. According to Stalin, it proved that the party was infiltrated by saboteurs and spies. The ensuing police campaign to uncover these hidden enemies became known as the Great Purges, which consumed nearly the entire postrevolutionary Soviet elite. Leningrad intellectuals were especially targeted. More than 50 Hermitage curators were imprisoned, including the Asian art specialist, accused of being an agent of Japanese imperialism, and the medieval armour specialist, accused of harbouring weapons. Successive waves of arrest, exile and execution effectively transformed the Leningrad elite, making it much younger, less assertive and more Soviet. When it was finally over, Stalin stood as personal dictator of unrivalled power – even by tsarist standards.

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The siege

On 22 June 1941 Leningraders were basking in the summer solstice when Foreign Minister Molotov interrupted state radio to announce an ‘unprecedented betrayal in the history of civilized nations’. That day, German Nazi forces launched a full-scale military offensive across the Soviet Union’s western borders. Stalin’s refusal to believe that Hitler would break their nonaggression pact left Leningrad unprepared and vulnerable.

The German codename for its assault on Leningrad was Operation Nordlicht (Operation Northern Lights). Der Fuhrer ordered his generals to raze the city to the ground, rather than incur the cost of feeding and heating its residents in winter. By July German troops had reached the suburbs, inflicting a daily barrage of artillery bombardment and aerial attacks. All Leningraders were mobilised around the clock to dig trenches, erect barricades, board up buildings. The city’s factories were dismantled brick by brick and shipped to the other side of the Urals. Hermitage staff crated up Catherine’s collection for a safer interior location; what they did not get out in time was buried on the grounds of the Summer Garden. The spires of the Admiralty and Peter & Paul Fortress were camouflaged in coloured netting, which was changed according to the weather and season. The youngest and oldest residents were evacuated; everybody else braced. The Bronze Horseman withdrew under a cover of sandbags.

At the end of August the Germans captured the east-bound railway: Leningrad was cut off. Instead of a bloody street fight, the Nazi command vowed to starve the city to death. Food stocks were low to begin with, but became almost nonexistent after napalm bombs burned down the warehouse district. Moscow dispatched tireless and resourceful Dmitry Pavlov to act as Chief of Food Supply. Pavlov’s teams ransacked cellars, broke into box cars, and tore up floorboards in search of leftover cans and crumbs. The city’s scientists were pressed to develop something edible out of yeast, glue and soap. As supplies dwindled, pets and pests disappeared. A strict ration system was imposed and violators were shot. Workers received 15 ounces (425g) of bread per day; everyone else got less. It was not enough. The hunger was relentless, causing delirium, disease and death. Hundreds of thousands succumbed to starvation, corpses were strewn atop snow-covered streets, mass graves were dug on the outskirts.

Relief finally arrived in January, when food supplies began to reach the city from across the frozen Lake Ladoga lifeline. Trucks made the perilous night-time trek on ice roads, fearing the Luftwaffe above and chilled water below. Soviet military advances enabled the supply route to stay open in the spring when the lake thawed. Leningrad survived the worst; still the siege continued. The city endured the enemy’s pounding guns for two more years. At last, in January 1944, the Red Army arrived in force. They pulverised the German front with more rockets and shells than were used at Stalingrad. Within days, Leningrad was liberated.

Composer Dmitry Shostakovich premiered his Seventh Symphony for a small circle of friends in his Leningrad flat in 1941. His performance was interrupted by a night raid of German bombers. He stopped and sent his family into the basement, then played on in anguish and defiance as sirens sounded and fires flashed outside. In spring 1942 the symphony was performed in Moscow and broadcast by radio to Leningrad, to whom it was dedicated.

The 900 days marked history’s longest military siege of a modern city. The city was badly battered – but not beaten. The Bronze Horseman arose from the rubble; the St Petersburg spirit was resilient.

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From dissent to democracy

Throughout the Soviet period, Moscow kept suspicious eyes trained on Leningrad. After WWII, Stalin launched the ‘Leningrad Affair’, a sinister purge of the Hero City’s youthful political and cultural elite, who were falsely accused of trying to create a rival capital. Several thousand were arrested, several hundred were executed. Kremlin commies were committed to forcing conformity onto the city’s free-thinking intellectuals and keeping closed the window to the West. They ultimately failed.

Leningrad’s culture club was irrepressible. Like in tsarist times, it teased, goaded, and defied its political masters. Stalin terrorised, Khrushchev cajoled and Brezhnev banished, yet the city still became a centre of dissent. As from Radishchev to Pushkin, so from Akhmatova to Brodsky. By the 1970s the city hosted a thriving independent underground of jazz and rock musicians, poets and painters, reformists and radicals. Like the Neva in spring, these cultural currents overflowed when Mikhail Gorbachev finally came to power and declared a new policy of openness and honesty. The Leningrad democratic movement was unleashed.

Gorbachev forced long-time Leningrad party boss Grigory Romanov (no relation to the royals) and his communist cronies into retirement. He held elections for local office that brought to power the liberal-minded Anatoly Sobchak, the darling of the progressive intelligentsia and the first popularly elected mayor in the city’s history. Leningrad was at the forefront of democratic change, as the old regime staggered toward the exit.

Where Gorbachev sought to breathe new life into Soviet socialism, his rival Boris Yeltsin was intent on killing it. Just two months after Sobchak’s historic election, a last gasp of reactionary hardliners staged a coup. While Yeltsin mollified Moscow, a hundred thousand protestors filled Palace Sq in Leningrad. The ambivalent soldiers sent to arrest Sobchak disobeyed orders, and instead escorted him to the local TV station, where the mayor denounced the coup and encouraged residents to do the same. Anxiously waiting atop flimsy barricades, anticommunist demonstrators spent the evening in fear of approaching tanks. But the inebriated coup plotters lost their nerve, and as the fog lifted, only the Bronze Horseman appeared.

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Local cop makes good

When St Petersburg native Vladimir Putin was elected president in 2000, speculation was rife that he would transfer the Russian capital back to his home town. When Lenin relocated the capital to Moscow rather hastily in 1918, it was supposed to be a temporary move. Furthermore, the new millennium brought a new regime: what better way to make a significant break with the past? Most importantly, Putin’s personal attachment to his home town was significant.

Born in 1952, Putin spent his childhood in the Smolny district. Little Vlad went to school in the neighbourhood and took a law degree at Leningrad State University, before working in Moscow and East Germany for the KGB. In 1990 he returned to his home town, where he was promptly promoted through the ranks of local politics. By 1994 he was deputy to St Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak. In his office in the Smolny Institute, Putin famously replaced the portrait of Lenin with one of Peter the Great.

As the city economy slowly recovered from collapse and shock, Sobchak was voted out of office in 1996. Putin was then recruited by fellow Leningrader, Anatoly Chubais, to join him in the capital in the Kremlin administration. After another rapid rise through the ranks, he took over the FSB (the postcommunist KGB). In 1999, after Yeltsin sacked two prime ministers in quick succession, politically unknown Putin was offered the inauspicious post. On New Year’s Eve, Yeltsin finally resigned and Putin was appointed acting president.

The rest is history. Since then he has won two presidential elections and enjoys immense popularity, despite his increasingly autocratic leanings. Putin will not go down in history as a liberal democrat, but will be seen as the leader that finally established a semblance of stability after more than a decade of political crisis. That, plus US$75 (€52) per barrel oil prices will get you 65% approval ratings. It looks like Putin and his police pals will be around for a few more years at least. Speculation had him serving as prime minister again or perhaps taking a different influential post after his presidential term expired in 2008.

Putin’s fondness for his home town is undiminished. Unlike Peter I, he apparently did not care to expend the political capital required to move the political capital. However, he did extend a gesture to that effect by relocating the Constitutional Court from Moscow to the old Imperial Senate. Who needs a bunch of judges nearby scrutinising presidential decrees anyway? Putin also renovated the Konstantinovsky Palace in Strelna for his personal use as a presidential palace. Now he – in the best tradition of his tsarist forebears – can host his friends and foreign leaders in St Petersburg style.

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Finding the future in the past

In 1991, by popular referendum, the citizens of Leningrad voted resoundingly to change their city’s name once more. They chose to restore its original name, the name of its founder, St Petersburg.

As reviled as the communist regime may have been, it still provided a sufficient standard of living, a predictable day at the office and a common target for discontent. The familiar ways of life suddenly changed. The communist collapse caused enormous personal hardship; economic security and social status were put in doubt. Mafia gangs and bureaucratic fangs dug into the emerging market economy, creating contemptible crony capitalism. The democratic movement splintered into petty rivalries and political insignificance. One of its shining stars, Galina Starovoitova – social scientist turned human rights advocate – was brazenly shot dead in her apartment stairwell in 1998. Out on the street, meanwhile, prudish reserve gave wave to outlandish exhibitionism. Uncertainty and unfairness found expression in an angry and sometimes xenophobic reaction.

With the old order vanquished, the battle to define the new one was on. The symbols of the contending parties were on display throughout the city. The nouveaux riches quickly claimed Nevsky pr for their Milano designer get-ups and Bavarian driving machines. (In Russia cars still have the right of way over pedestrians – even on the sidewalk.) The disaffected youth used faded pink courtyard walls to spray-paint Zenith football insignias, swastikas and the two English words they all seem to know. Every major intersection was adorned with gigantic billboard faces of prima ballerinas and pop singers sipping their favourite cups of coffee. And, like all their St Petersburg predecessors, the new ruling elite wants to leave its own distinctive mark on the city: the proposed Gazprom skyscraper. Nothing says ‘I own you’ quite like a 300m tower of glass and steel.

Hazy may be the future, but St Petersburg has found a steadying source of unity in its past. Its legacy as Peter’s grand imperial capital was never lost; it was just hidden under communist scaffolding. St Petersburg is a European city and it is Russia’s window on the West. In 2003 residents finally felt sure enough about their future to embrace their past with a summer-long tercentennial celebration. Decades of proletarian indifference were scrubbed off the city’s elegant Old World façade, restoring its dignified glow. Fireworks illuminated the city’s famous golden spires, gleaming anew. A parade of tall sailing ships from around the world gracefully skimmed down the Neva, to the delight of the large crowds along the embankment. All had come to celebrate Russia’s city by the sea, and pay homage to the Bronze Horseman, whose restless spirit still haunts its streets.

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