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18th Century

St. Petersburg was founded in 1703 by Peter the Great as his "window on the west." It remained the capital of the Russian Empire until the Bolshevik government moved the capital back to Moscow in 1918, and has always kept its 18th century character at the center of the city. The original foundation of the city was Peter and Paul Fortress and Cathedral, on Hare Island. Soon after, early in the 18th Century, the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and Lavra were built, bringing the center of Russian spiritual life to the city. In a few years' time the Tsar's family, the entire Court, and many noble families were relocated to the new capital, and a plan was laid out for a European style city by Domenico Tresini. The preeminent Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Leblon was Peter's choice as architect. St. Petersburg soon developed into the center of Russian economic, industrial, political, and social life. During Peter's reign (1682-1725) the Summer Gardens, the Kunstkammer, and the Menshikov Palace were built, and many other public buildings and palaces were planned. Under Empress Anna in 1730 the city was divided into five parts, with the central focus shifting from Peter and Paul Fortress to the Admiralty on the opposite side of the Neva River. Three major streets radiated outward from the Admiralty: Nevsky Prospekt, Gorokhovaya Street, and Voznesensky Prospekt. But it was under Catherine II (the Great), 1762-1796) that St. Petersburg really flourished and Russia emerged as a great European power. Catherine was brilliant, well educated, and a patron of the arts. Many of St. Petersburg's great architectural masterpieces: the Winter Palace, Smolny Cathedral, St. Nicholas Cathedral, the Marble Palace, the Admiralty, and the Stock Exchange, were completed during her reign, as well as the world famous Bronze Horseman statue to Peter the Great. Under her son Paul the Mikhailovsky Palace was finished.


19th Century

The Nineteenth Century is remembered as the age both of the height of military power of Russia and its cultural emergence in literature, art, and music, all centered in St. Petersburg. Russia's victory over Napoleon in 1812 under Alexander I resulted in a new surge of architectural masterpieces: Kazan Cathedral, the Alexander Theatre, the buildings of the Senate and Synod, the General Staff of the Army headquarters, and the completion of Palace Square ensemble. St. Isaac's Cathedral was planned, and consecrated three decades later under Alexander's brother Nicholas I. During Nicholas's reign (1825-1855) not only did the great Russian geniuses Alexander Pushkin and Nikolai Gogol live and write their incomparable poetry and prose, but republican and revolutionary ideas took root after the Decembrist uprising. These were the years of great debates in Russia: the building of universities, the discussion of directions for Russia's future: Westernizers, Slavophiles, Populists and Marxists lived wrote and argued. Literary criticism, newspapers, journals, novels and epic poems vied for the St. Petersburg reading public. Russia's defeat in the Crimean War and the influx of ideas helped convince Alexander II (1855-1881) that change was needed and the Tsar-Emancipator freed the serfs, began the industrialization and modernization of Russia, and brought about judicial reform, the rule of law and local self-government to Russia's towns and countryside. Cultural and ideological ferment continued, with the great writers Ivan Turgenev, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Lev Tolstoy contributing masterpieces of world literature. An anarchist's bomb ended the life of Alexander II, and Alexander III (1881-1894) continued his modernization, militarization and industrialization while doing little to relieve the poverty of the countryside or the terrible conditions of the new industrial cities.


20th Century

On Alexander III's death in 1894 the Russian throne passed to Nicholas II, whose fate it was to see Russia explode in War, and Revolution. Despite the promise of a unified country demanding change in the Revolution of 1905, and the growth of a true middle and professional class, the resulting Constitutional settlement was never really accepted by Nicholas. The rights of the people and their representatives in the Duma, or Russian Parliament, were constantly undermined. Not only did Russia lose an ill-considered war with Japan (1904-05), but experienced several other foreign policy failures in the early 20th century before being drawn into perhaps its greatest disaster, Europe's Great War (World War I). Although this war began auspiciously, it soon turned into an engine of revolution. Bread riots, strikes, and the mutiny of the St. Petersburg garrison resulted in massive social upheaval in February-March, 1917 and the abdication of the tsar in favor of the Provisional Government of the Duma and the simultaneous organization of the workers, soldiers and peasants deputies into the Petrograd Soviet. V. I. Lenin and the Bolsheviks took full advantage of this instability with their slogans of "Peace, Land, and Bread", and easily took power in an almost bloodless coup in October, 1917, ushering in more than 70 years of Communist rule. The twentieth century in St. Petersburg/Petrograd/Leningrad has seen unbelievable tragedy but also great heroism, much of which is reflected in the historical monuments and buildings of this era. Construction and industry have flourished, despite war, siege, death and terror. The 900 Day siege of 1941-1945 immortalized Leningrad forever, and poet Anna Akhmatova and composer Dmitry Shostakovich will ever be remembered for their cultural courage in resisting Stalinist terror and Nazi siege. Most importantly, of course, the people of Leningrad built the road of life across Lake Ladoga and kept the city alive, to re-emerge in the 1970s and 1980s as an industrial, educational, and cultural ceter, and to take its rightful place again as St. Petersburg in 1991, ever proud of its heritage and natural role as Russia's gateway to the west.

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