The history of St Petersburg (make that Petrograd and Leningrad, as well) is one of struggle, both for identity – is this a Russian or European city? – and for ideas, whether it be despotism versus reform, communism versus fascism, or simply democracy versus autocracy. The city, home to tsars and birthplace of Vladimir Putin, has been deeply marked by each of these struggles, making its three-century history one of the world’s most eventful over such a relatively short amount of time.

Precocious Prince

For three centuries, Moscow was the home of Russia’s tsars. The traditional, inward-looking capital was deep in the heart of Russia and terribly conservative. This was the place the future Peter the Great would be born into in 1672. Peter was the son of Tsar Alexey I and his second wife, Natalya Naryshkina, and was one of 16 siblings. He stood out as exceptional, however, both by his enormous height (he reached 203cm in adulthood) and by his insatiable curiosity for knowledge about the outside world. He spent long hours in the city quarter for foreign merchants, who regaled the young prince with tales of the modern age.

Once on the throne, Peter became the first tsar to venture beyond Russia's borders. Travelling in disguise, Peter and a raucous Russian entourage criss-crossed 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. Having seen Western Europe in the age of the Enlightenment, Peter was more than ever convinced that Russians were still living in the dark ages and became more determined than ever to replace superstition with science, backwardness with progress and East with West.

Peter abruptly ended his European expedition when news came of a Kremlin coup. The young tsar hurried back to Moscow where he vengefully punished the plotters, sending more than a thousand to their deaths and terrorising anyone who questioned his rule. He humiliated and subdued the old elite, forcing aristocrat elders to shave their beards and wear Western clothes, while he subordinated the Orthodox Church to earthly political authority, and sent the Old Believers, who cursed him as the Antichrist, into internal exile in Russia's icy north. Peter 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 Moscow, and was ready to start afresh.

The 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 and 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 future city. 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 tiny Hare Island (Zayachy Island) at the mouth of the Neva River, and used it as a base to rout a nearby Swedish garrison. This primitive outpost would become the kernel of 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, led a series of impressive battlefield victories, further extending Russian presence on the Baltic coast and causing his Scandinavian foe to flee and the Swedish empire to expire. The Great Northern War shifted the balance of power to the advantage of Peter’s Russia. Hostilities officially ended with the signing of the Treaty of Nystad (1721), which formally ceded Sweden’s extensive eastern possessions to Russia, including its new capital city, St Petersburg.

Creating Sankt Pieter Burkh

Peter did not wait for the war to end before he started building. The wooden palisade encampment on Hare Island became the red-brick Peter & Paul Fortress. In June 1703 Peter gave the site a name – Sankt Pieter Burkh, in his beloved Dutch tongue, and named 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 fishers 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 elk than people. 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, who intended the city to be his naval base.

Peter’s vision for the new capital was grandiose; so was the task ahead. To find enough dry ground for building, swamps were drained and wetlands filled. To protect the land from flooding, seawalls were built and canals dug. 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 to design the city’s intricate waterways, and craftspeople and masons to chisel 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, plus Russian convict labourers and Swedish prisoners of war. The work regimen was strict and living conditions were stark: more than 100,000 died. But those who survived could earn personal freedom and a small piece of land to call their own.

Peter's Paradise

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. A more impressive dwelling, the Menshikov Palace, put up by the territory’s first governor-general, Alexander Menshikov, soon adorned the Vasilyevsky Island embankment.

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 demanded the rest of Russia’s ruling elite join him, or else. The tsar’s royal court, the imperial senate and foreign embassies were all quickly relocated. Apprehension turned to horror when Moscow’s old aristocratic families reluctantly began to arrive; 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, complete with beardless faces and German dress, something that went against their conservative Orthodox beliefs.

When Peter died in 1725, at the age of 52, some thought they might get the chance to abandon his creation, 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.

Peter the Great’s Heirs

By the end of the 18th century St Petersburg would take its place among Europe’s great 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 eventually tortured to death during interrogation in the Peter & Paul Fortress in 1718. The evidence for treachery was flimsy, though it was clear to Peter that his son would never be fit to rule, and that he would undo many of Peter's reforms were he ever to ascend the throne. On his death bed in 1725, Peter tried to dictate a last will, but could not name an heir before his demise. His wife Catherine I assumed the throne, with Peter’s confidant and closest ally, Menshikov, acting as the power behind the throne. When Catherine died two years later, the simmering anti-Peter reaction started.

The St 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 heir. Delivering to his enabling patrons, the pliable Peter II returned the capital to Moscow. St Petersburg’s population halved and its public works came to rest.

Anna & Elizabeth's Contribution

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 Ioanovna, Peter the Great’s niece. But Anna was no pushover and she became the first in a line of tough women rulers. In 1732 Anna declared St Petersburg to be the capital once more, and bade everyone return 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 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. Her 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, multi-columned mansion. She loved the pomp as much as the power and her 20-year reign was a non-stop cabaret. The empress was a bit eccentric (she was certainly her father’s daughter in that respect), enjoying a hedonistic lifestyle that revolved around hunting, drinking and dancing. She most loved hosting 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.

Catherine the Great

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 he 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.

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 not terribly interested in ruling. In a plot hatched by her lover, Prince Orlov, Catherine was complicit in a coup that landed her on the throne, lifted Orlov to general-in-chief, and left her helpless husband under guard at a remote estate where he was assassinated shortly afterwards.

Despite the details of her unsavoury ascension, Catherine reigned for 34 years and presided over a golden age for St Petersburg. Relations between crown and aristocracy were never better. 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 potatoes to the national cuisine. On the ‘despotic’ side, Catherine connived with fellow enlightened friends to carve up Poland, censored bad news, tightened serfs’ bonds of servitude to their lords, and introduced potatoes to the national cuisine.

1812 Overture

The downside to becoming a great power in European politics is that you become 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, as Napoleon himself found out when he suffered his greatest military defeat during the doomed campaign of 1812. Tsar Alexander I, Catherine the Great's successor, first clashed with Napoleon after joining an ill-fated anti-French alliance with Austria and Prussia. The Little Corporal targeted Moscow, instead of the more heavily armed St Petersburg. However, by the time he got there his army had been reduced to 100,000 and he found the city deserted and burned to the ground. With winter coming and his supply lines overstretched, Napoleon was forced to retreat.

The War of 1812 was a defining event for Russia, stirring nationalist exaltation and orchestral inspiration. Alexander I, having defeated Napoleon and led victorious Russian soldiers into Paris, presided over a period of prosperity and self-assuredness in St Petersburg. His army’s exploits were immortalised in triumphal designs that recalled imperial Rome, while the Kazan Cathedral and the Alexander Column were shining symbols for a new Russian empire that stretched halfway across the globe.

St Petersburg now displayed all the features of an imperial capital: stately facade, 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. The immense Palace Square (Dvortsovaya pl) could host as many as 50 parading infantry battalions at once. Across the square an imposing semicircular structure housed the instruments of statecraft: General Staff, the Treasury and the Foreign Office. Its august archways led out to the city’s central artery, Nevsky pr. The commanding Admiralty stretched along nearly 400m of the south embankment, adorned with ancient heroes, including Alexander the Great, and the sea goddess Isis, and topped with golden spire.

Russia Starts to Reform

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 100 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 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 Decembrist 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 deeply disappointing performance in another war prompted another reform attempt, this time initiated by the tsar. In the 1850s, better-equipped British and French armies trounced 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 was issued, promoting public education, military reorganisation and economic modernisation. Alexander dropped the death penalty, curtailed corporal punishment and abolished serfdom, kind of – his solution that serfs pay their masters redemptive fees in exchange for freedom in fact pleased no one.

Assassination of a Tsar

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 Griboyedov 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 the Spilled Blood was constructed, its twisting onion domes trying to steady St Petersburg’s uncertain present with Russia’s enduring past.

Competition between Russia and Europe’s other great powers compelled a state-directed campaign of economic development. St Petersburg became the centre of a robust military–industrial economy, established 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 one million, with hundreds of thousands cramped into slummy suburban squalor. 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.

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 one Sunday in January 1905.

Nicholas II ascended the throne in 1894, when his iron-fisted autocratic father, Alexander III, 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, but 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 a police agent, organised a peaceful demonstration of workers and their families to protest against the difficult conditions. Their petition called for eight-hour work days and better wages, universal suffrage and an end to the war.

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 guards fired on the demonstrators, at first as a warning and then directly into the crowd. More than a thousand 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.

Down with the Autocracy

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.

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 previously, 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, and finally a defiant horde of hundreds were traversing the ice-laden Neva toward the Winter Palace.

They congregated in the Palace Square, 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.

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, the Russian 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 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 (Finlyandsky vokzal) 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 its participation in the 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 colleagues dismissed Lenin as a stinging gadfly, rather than a serious foe. By summer’s end, Lenin had proved them all wrong.

Lenin Takes Power

The Provisional Government not only refused to withdraw from the war but, at the instigation of the allies, launched a new offensive – prompting mass desertions 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, write 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 (7 November in the Gregorian calendar), the Bolsheviks staged their coup. 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 the 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 to signal the start of the assault; and the Red Guards – led by Lenin – moved in on the Winter Palace. Three shells struck the building, bullet holes riddled the square side of the palace and a window was shattered on the 3rd floor before the Provisional Government was arrested in the Small Dining Room behind the Malachite Hall. This largely bloodless battle would be celebrated for 70 years as the most glorious moment in history.

At the Tauride Palace the Soviet remained in emergency session late into the night when Lenin 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.

Consolidating Communism

Nobody 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 Germans. The Bolsheviks demanded a return to prewar imperial borders, but Germany insisted on the liberation of Poland, where its army was squatting. Leon Trotsky, the foreign affairs commissar, 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 had also lost its noble social status: the aristocratic soul lost its control of the proletarian body following the February Revolution. In March 1917 Nicholas II and his family were placed under house arrest in the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoe Selo, and were later imprisoned and executed in Yekaterinburg by the Bolsheviks. The more fortunate families fled with the few valuables they could carry; the less fortunate who stayed were harassed, dispossessed and killed.

The revolution began in Petrograd and ended there in March 1921 when 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 eat their children.

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.

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 afterwards. Fuel was also in short supply – homes went unheated, factory gates stayed shut and city services were stopped.

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 had 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.

The Leningrad Purges

Though no longer the capital, Leningrad still figured prominently in Soviet politics. A position in the 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 battlefront in the bloody intra-party competition to succeed Lenin.

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

In 1926 Zinoviev was forced to relinquish his Leningrad seat to Sergei Kirov, a solid Stalin man. 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 and remained in Leningrad. 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 – on orders from 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 and the ensuing police campaign to uncover these hidden enemies became known as the Great Purges, which consumed nearly the entire post-revolutionary 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 with unrivalled power – even by tsarist standards.

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 civilised 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 code-name for its assault on Leningrad was Operation Nordlicht (Operation Northern Lights). The Führer ordered his generals to raze the city 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 and 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 themselves.

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. The 900 days marked history’s longest military siege of a modern city. The city was badly battered but not beaten. The St Petersburg spirit was resilient.

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 apparatchiks 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 in 1985 and declared a new policy of openness and reform. The Leningrad democratic movement was unleashed.

Gorbachev forced long-time Leningrad party boss Grigory Romanov and his communist cronies into retirement. He held elections for local office that brought to power 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 towards the exit.

Whereas Gorbachev sought to reform Soviet socialism, his rival Boris Yeltsin was intent on killing it off for good. Just two months after Sobchak’s historic election, reactionary hardliners staged a coup. While Yeltsin mollified Moscow, a hundred thousand protestors filled Palace Square 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, thanks in large part to the people of Leningrad.

The Lawless 1990s

In 1991, by popular referendum, the citizens of Leningrad voted to change their city’s name once more, restoring its original name, 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 Starovoytova, social scientist turned human rights advocate, was brazenly shot dead in the foyer of her St Petersburg apartment in 1998. Out on the street, meanwhile, prudish reserve gave way 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. The disaffected youth used faded pink courtyard walls to spray-paint Zenit football insignias, swastikas and the two English words they all seemed 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 aimed to leave its own distinctive mark, as witnessed by a slew of ugly office blocks that were built in the city centre.

The Rise of Putin

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. That never happened, but with Putin in power – followed for four years in 2008 by another St Petersburg son Dmitry Medvedev – the city has certainly benefited.

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 Leningrad, 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. Rising rapidly through the ranks, he took over the FSB (the postcommunist KGB) in 1998 and was made prime minister the following year. On New Year’s Eve that same year, the ailing Yeltsin resigned and Putin was appointed acting president.

Putin went on to win two presidential elections, before resigning to become prime minister in 2008, due to constitutionally mandated term limits. Before the 2012 election changes were made to the consitution to allow Putin to be re-elected and for the presidential terms to be extended from four to six years; at the time of writing he is expected to stand once again for the presidency (and win, since there is no credible opposition) in 2018.

Reconstructing Piter

Under the appointed governorships of Putin loyalitsts Valentina Matvienko (2003–11) followed by current incumbent Georgy Poltavchenko, considerable and much-needed investment has been made in St Petersburg's infrastructure and cultural facilities.

Neglected and sidelined under the Soviets and then forced for the first two decades after the end of communism to concentrate on urgent conservation rather than development, St Petersburg has recently completed several huge engineering projects. These include the construction of a new ring road around the city, a flood barrier, the new M5 metro line and the Marine Facade cruise port on Vasilyevsky Island. Other recent important prestige projects include the opening of the Mariinsky II Theatre in 2013, and the transformation of the General Staff Building into a branch of the Hermitage.

All are significant, and herald the city's determination to be taken seriously as a business and tourism destination. To this end the city has hosted the prestigious St Petersburg International Economic Forum ( since 1997 and is one of the key venues for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.