St Petersburg, Russia

Reference work entry


St Petersburg, on the River Neva, is Russia’s second city after Moscow and was the national capital from 1712–1918. Created by Peter the Great to serve as a fitting capital and an entry to Europe, its location on the Gulf of Finland ensured its importance as a port and industrial centre. Having survived years under German siege during World War II, the city emerged as Moscow’s rival for artistic and cultural excellence.


The region around the Gulf of Finland was settled by Russians in the eighth and ninth centuries. It came under the control of Novgorod but fell to Muscovite princes along with Novgorod in the fifteenth century. The Swedes annexed the area in 1617 but Peter I (the Great) wrested it back in the second Northern War. The founding date of St Petersburg is 1703, when Peter I laid the foundation stone for the Peter-Paul fortress. This marked the beginning of construction for Peter’s new capital, designed to be a ‘window on Europe’.

The re-location of the capital from Moscow to St Petersburg took place in 1712. The eighteenth century witnessed a melding of Russian and European culture as the nobility and merchant classes were drawn to the city. Secular literature and art flourished as St Petersburg spearheaded Russia’s golden age of culture.

A range of architectural styles was employed in the creation of the new city. Italian architect Rastrelli was one of several designers of the colourful Russian Baroque style which can be seen in the Winter Palace and Smolny Convent. Catherine the Great preferred classicism, reflected in buildings such as the Pavlovsk Palace outside the city. This merged into a more individual Russian Empire style, monuments of which include the new Admiralty and the Kazan Cathedral.

Industry also thrived, with canals and a railway connection to Moscow feeding the city’s commercial growth. Along with industry, the proletariat grew rapidly, but a poor city infrastructure failed to meet their needs, leading to squalor and discontent. Revolutionary ideas spread as did epidemics, and uprisings were not uncommon.

These factors along with Russia’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese war sparked off a general strike in 1905. A march to the Winter Palace ended in ‘Bloody Sunday’, with troops firing on the protesters. Tsar Nicholas was forced to make concessions with the ‘October Manifesto’, establishing the Duma as a constitutional body and promising civil rights. At the onset of World War I, St Petersburg was renamed Petrograd. In Feb. 1917, rioting in the city led to the creation of a provisional government and Tsar Nicholas’ abdication. Lenin returned from exile the same year to lead the October Revolution and declare a new government of the Soviets.

Marking a break from the tsarist past, the Bolsheviks moved the capital from Petrograd to Moscow in 1918. By 1920 less than a third of the population remained in the city, the rest having been driven out by revolution and civil war. After Lenin’s death in 1924, the city was renamed Leningrad. In 1934 the assassination of Leningrad’s party leader Sergei Kirov marked the beginning of Stalin’s purges.

Hitler’s army reached the outskirts of Leningrad soon after Germany’s invasion of Russia on 22 June 1941. The city was shelled incessantly and besieged for 872 days, resulting in the deaths of over half a million civilians. Much of the infrastructure was destroyed. Reconstruction programmes started immediately after the war, and although Moscow was the heart of the USSR, Leningrad remained Russia’s cultural centre, leading in art, popular music and literature.

In 1990 Anatoly Sobchak was elected mayor. Under his leadership the city has slowly opened up to foreign investment and free-market development. In 1991 Leningraders voted to restore the name of St Petersburg.

Modern City

St Petersburg has Russia’s biggest port. Other important industries include engineering and chemicals processing, as well as light industry. There is a university with internationally renowned research facilities.

As well as being a vital port for vessels of all sizes, the city is an important road and rail hub. Transport within the city includes a metro system, buses, trams and trolleybuses.

Places of Interest

The main thoroughfare, Nevsky Prospekt, is home to many sights, including the tall-spired admiralty building and the gold domed Cathedral of St Isaac. The Winter Palace houses the Hermitage museum. The fortress of Peter and Paul is the city’s oldest building and formerly served as a political prison. Among the baroque buildings of the early eighteenth century are the Alexander Nevsky monastery, built in 1710, and the Cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paul from 1733. Neoclassical buildings include the Academy of Arts (1772), the Marble Palace (1785) and the Taurida Palace (1788). St Petersburg’s university was established in 1804 and there are many theatres (including the Kirov, home of the famous ballet), museums, scientific and medical institutes and libraries.

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© Springer Nature Limited 2019

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