St. Petersburg from 1703 to 1914, Petrograd from 1914 to 1924, Leningrad from 1924 to 1991, and St. Petersburg again since 1991, this city has long been referred to as the city of three revolutions. The first, in 1905, led to the creation of a democratic Duma that was short lived. The second, in February 1917, was a “bourgeois democratic” revolution that ousted the monarchy, and the third, in October 1917, was the “Great October Socialist Revolution,” more accurately known as the Bolshevik coup.
With this annotated photo feature, we look at the imprint that revolution and Soviet life has had on the city, offering a list of places to visit that may not figure on most tourist maps.
The February Revolution began on February 23, 1917 (March 8, new style), after demonstrations by women and workers angry about bread shortages (and encouraged by warmer than usual weather) began gathering and marching in the streets of St. Petersburg. The crowds of protesters grew daily to as many as 200,000.
Among the soldiers ordered to fire on them was a training detachment of the Volynsky Regiment. The killing of unarmed protesters by their detachment on February 26 greatly upset its members, and that night some of the noncommissioned officers resolved that they would no longer follow orders to shoot civilians. The next day, having received the support of their soldiers, they shot their commanding officer, raided weapons supplies, and went over to the side of the demonstrators. A few days later, on March 3, the tsar abdicated.
In 1918 Znamenskaya Square was renamed Ploshchad Vosstaniya – Uprising Square – because the Volynsky Regiment was quartered nearby. In 1941, the square’s Znamenskaya Church was demolished and one of the city’s first metro stations was built where it stood. The metro station is adorned with bas-reliefs depicting iconic revolutionary scenes. You can even spot Joseph Stalin in one, which is rather unusual. Most of the dictator’s images, ubiquitous during his rule, were removed from public places during de-Stalinization in the 1960s.
From 1906 to 1917 this palace was the seat of Russia’s first parliament, the Imperial State Duma. Nicholas II saw the Duma (not wrongly) as a center of revolutionary activities and issued an order for its dissolution on February 26. Its members decided to stay in the palace and the next day were surrounded (protected) by armed workers and soldiers.
Originally the palace of Prince Potemkin, a favorite of Catherine II, after the February revolution it became the focal point for the political divisions that doomed Russian democracy. Its right wing was the seat of the Provisional Committee of the State Duma; its left wing was the headquarters for the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies. Officially, the Provisional Government ruled “under agreement” with the Petrograd Soviet. But in practice the two structures frequently clashed and this dual system was destined to fail.
The head of the Bolshevik Party arrived here on April 3, 1917, after spending 17 years in exile. He was greeted by thousands of workers and gave a speech standing on an armored car, which is today exhibited in the Artillery Museum (though some historians doubts if this is the genuine article). The monument to Lenin erected here in 1926 was the very first of many of such statues unveiled to honor Lenin in St. Petersburg after his 1924 death.
This monument to victims of the February Revolution is one of the most impressive of the city’s landmarks. It contains mass graves and granite slabs engraved with commemorations extolling the fallen revolutionaries as heroes, not victims: “Your fate evokes not grief, but jealousy in the hearts of all thankful descendants.”
A funeral ceremony took place here on March 23, 1917. Some 184 revolutionaries were buried; half a million people participated, mourning those who were killed in street protests.
Originally, there were plans to bury the victims directly in front of the Winter Palace, on Palace Square, but this was deemed too provocative. Mars Field had previously been a place for military parades, and it was always a sandy place, earning it the nickname of St. Petersburg’s “Sahara desert.” Today it is the primary location for opposition protests and a good place to have a picnic, play Frisbee or just relax on the grass during the summer.
Right after his arrival to Petrograd, Vladimir Lenin headed to the Bolshevik Party headquarters, which was then located in the mansion of the famous ballerina Mathilde Kschessinska. Notably, Kschessinska had been a mistress of the future Tsar Nicholas II of Russia prior to his marriage, and later the wife of his cousin, Grand Duke Andrei Vladimirovich of Russia. Her Art Nouveau style mansion was once one of the most luxurious houses in Imperial St. Petersburg, but during the February Revolution it was occupied by soldiers. They allowed the Bolsheviks to establish their Central Committee and the editorial offices of their newspapers there.
Kschessinska sued to win back her property from the Bolsheviks and officially won a case, but never returned to Russia. In 1957 her palace was turned into The Museum of the Great October Socialist Revolution. In 1991 in was transformed into the State Museum of the Political History of Russia.
This ship was commissioned in 1900 for service in the Pacific. It survived the Russo-Japanese War (see Russian Life, May/June 2017) and at the end of 1916 was moved to Petrograd for major repairs. On the eve of the revolution, the night of October 25, 1917, the Aurora sailed up the Neva and was moored at Annunciation Bridge. From there, at 9:40 p.m., the cruiser fired a blank shot that was the signal for storming the Winter Palace. Many sailors from the crew participated in the assault on the palace.
Today the Aurora (which just went through another major renovation) is permanently anchored on the banks of Petrograd Side, close to the Nakhimov Naval School. It was used for training purposes before being turned into a museum in 1956.
The Fortress that stands on the spot where St. Petersburg was founded has never been utilized in the city’s defense. From soon after its construction was completed, it was instead used as the country’s most severe political prison. And it could well be said to be the place where the revolution was born, as many antimonarchist writers, philosophers and politicians were imprisoned here: Maxim Gorky, Leon Trotsky, and Lenin’s older brother Alexander.
After the February Revolution about 100 former tsarist ministers, generals, and courtiers were arrested and kept in cells at Trubetskoy. Then, after the October 1917 Revolution, members of the Provisional Government met the same fate, along with other opponents of the Bolsheviks.
Built in the beginning of the nineteenth century as a school for aristocratic girls, Smolny became a popular tourist stop in the Soviet era, because in August 1917 it was turned into the central locus of Soviet power: the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies and Bolshevik Central Committee moved there from Tauride Palace.
It was from here that Lenin and Trotsky orchestrated the October Revolution, and it was here on October 25 (November 7, new style) that the All-Russian Congress of Soviets conferred power on a Bolshevik Government led by Vladimir Lenin, which ran the country from this building until March 1918, when it moved to Moscow. Lenin lived in the institute building at that time, and the rooms where he lived and worked are still a memorial museum.
One of the most common mistakes Russian students make in history class is to assume that the Bolsheviks took the Winter Palace in October to arrest the tsar. No, Nicholas II had abdicated in March. But from July to October 1917, the Provisional Government had its headquarters in this opulent former imperial residence.
By 2:10 am on October 26, Bolshevik forces had entered the palace, and, after sporadic gunfire throughout the building, the cabinet of the Provisional Government surrendered. The storming was later dramatized in Eisenstein’s October: Ten Days That Shook the World (1928), with revolutionary soldiers clambering over palace fences. But in reality the situation was far less dramatic. Soldiers just entered the Western wing of the palace (today the entrance is called Oktyabrsky) without facing any serious resistance.
After the revolution, some 600,000 people moved from the city outskirts into the center. This led to overcrowding, in which four or five families had to share communal apartments. To solve the problem of such kommunalki, new mass housing was organized. The first buildings built in the Constructivist style appeared on Prospect Stachek (literally, “Strike Avenue”) and Traktornaya ulitsa in the 1920s (the Narvskaya metro station opened on Stachek Square in 1955).
The new workers’ buildings were practical, functional and completely lacking in architectural details. The School of the 10th Anniversary of the October Revolution on Prospect Stachek was built in the shape of a hammer and sickle. The Gorky Palace of Culture (Stachek Square) was a place for workers to attend concerts and performances, and also, of course, meetings. It also had special sections devoted to a library, movie theater, dance hall, and children’s clubs.
Another district that became home to several examples of Constructivist architecture in the 1920s and 1930s was the region of the city known as the Petrograd Side – located north of Peter and Paul Fortress.
The House of Political Prisoners was built in 1929-33 on the Revolution Square – the city’s oldest square and today renamed Trinity Square. It offered housing for revolutionaries who had survived tsarist penal colonies. Residents did not have kitchens in their flats, as the house was planned as a commune. Instead they could use the canteen and shop.
Other impressive examples of Constructivism in this part of the city are the Lensovet Palace of Culture and the First Lensovet House, near Petrogradskaya metro station. Some members of the Soviet elite lived here in two-story apartments – an unimaginable luxury for the USSR.
But the undisputed gem of industrial architecture is the Red Banner Textile Factory (Pionerskaya ulitsa 35). The factory’s power station (pictured, left) was designed in 1925 by the German architect Erich Mendelsohn – the first foreign architect to be asked to design in the USSR.
Those interested in Stalin era architecture should head to Moskovskaya metro station. In the late 1930s, Leningrad architects developed a city plan, according to which a new city center would be built here. A huge administrative building, the House of Soviets (pictured), was completed just before the outbreak of WWII. It is one of the few places where you still can spot the emblem of the Soviet Union on the façade and see marble, granite and precious woods in the vestibule.
Other buildings in the so-called Stalin Empire style appeared around Moskovskaya Square in the 1950s. Even today they are considered the best apartments in St. Petersburg, as they have high ceilings, spacious rooms, and green courtyards.
The section of Moskovsky Prospect between the Park Pobedy (“Victory Park”) and Moskovskiye Vorota (“Moscow Gates”) metro stations offers a sampling of several types of Soviet era architecture. The main avenue is bordered by Stalinist architecture, but look behind these giant buildings and you can see smaller Khrushchyovkas – the three- to five-story, concrete-panel or brick apartment buildings built under Nikita Khrushchev, in the early 1960s.
Start at Victory Park and you won’t miss the tower at 190 Moskovsky Prospect – it echoes Stalin’s “Seven Sisters” buildings in Moscow. Other must-see sights on Moskovsky are the district administrative office at 129 (pictured), which has elements of Art Deco, and the Constructivist Palace of Culture on the opposite side of the road.
The St. Petersburg Metro is the world’s deepest, so visiting its Red Line is essential for anyone who wants to travel into the Soviet Past. Start at Ploshchad Vosstaniya station and get off at Avtovo, which is an underground palace for peasants and workers. Opened in 1955, it is patterned after an ancient Roman temple, but with a cupola, and is richly decorated with marble columns and mosaics.
Try to find a sign with golden letters in the vestibule: “To the heroic defenders of Leningrad, who saved the hero-city in battles, glory over the centuries.” («Доблестным защитникам Ленинграда, в битвах отстоявшим город-герой, слава в веках».) During WWII, the district where this station now sits was one of the closest to the front lines of the blockade.
If you are interested in exploring another unusual district along the sea, head to the west part of Vasiliyvsky Island (Primorskaya metro station). The first halls at Lenexpo were constructed here in late 1960 in order to host an international exhibition dedicated to fishing and seafood processing. Pavilion 6 is a rare example of perestroika era architecture – completed in 1990, it now hosts a Russian-Chinese business center and the biggest Chinese restaurant in Europe.
From 1997 to 2015, Lenexpo hosted the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, which later was moved into a more modern exhibition space. While this is not normally on the average tourist’s checklist, it’s a perfect location to breathe the sea air, see an old port (opened in 1982 for cruise ships) and view a real motor torpedo boat, turned into a monument in 1973.
If you appreciate industrial decay and would like to see the seamier side of St. Petersburg, visit Kanonersky Island – the most isolated and forgotten district in the city. The only way to get there is via the road tunnel. Located west of St. Petersburg, it has long stretches of Gulf of Finland coastline. The landscape is truly surreal: port cranes, barges in the canal, a high speed motorway that goes over some buildings, locals out fishing, garbage, and weedy vacant lots.
Most Petersburgers have never visited the island, and ecology activists dream of turning it into a new recreation area. They organize education tours and cleanups, surprising Kanonersky locals while they are enjoying their beer and shashlyk on a dirty city beach.
In the Soviet Union, there were constant shortages of consumer goods. But visit Udelny Market (metro station Udelnaya) on the weekends, and you can find all the things that were missing back then. “Udelka” is a flea market with everything from vintage clothing to toys, suitcases, tableware, Pioneer banners, old clocks, and musical instruments (to name just a few). It is a gold mine for anyone wanting to take home a piece of the lost Soviet Empire. But take a Russian speaking guide or translator with you if you want to haggle successfully.
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