St. Petersburg: From Peter the Great to February 1917 Revolution

With two revolutions in St. Petersburg during 1917, Russia dominated news headlines that year. The February revolution (March in the Gregorian calendar) saw the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II bringing an end to several hundred years of rule by the House of Romanov. And whilst the political landscape of the city underwent vast subsequent change evidence of royal rule remains throughout.

Although Peter the Great was born in Moscow his years of travel convinced him to found a Baltic coastal city in 1703 inspired by what he saw in Amsterdam. He named his city after Saint Peter with the burg part coming from the Germanic name for a fort. A decade later he declared the city Russia’s capital and the Peter and Paul Fortress became its first major building.

Given St. Petersburg’s large size I’ve summarised the main royal sites and the monarch involved in each.

Peter the Great (1682-1725)

Peter and Paul Fortress St. Petersburg

Entrance to Peter and Paul Fortress from St John’s Bridge (Ioannovsky most). This defence fort was used as a prison. The fort’s cathedral is the burial place of all but two of Russia’s tsars.

Nevsky Prospekt St. Petersburg

Nevsky Prospekt – St. Petersburg’s main thoroughfare

Alexander Nevsky Monastery St. Petersburg

Alexander Nevsky Monastery

Grand Cascade Peterhof St. Petersburg

The Grand Cascade garden feature at Peterhof Palace, the elaborate and spectacular royal summer palace located approximately 20 miles west of St. Petersburg.

Elizabeth I (1741-1761)

Winter Palace St. Petersburg Russia

Winter Palace – Commissioned by Empress Elizabeth in 1754 the building was complete in 1762 where it became the official imperial residence until 1917

Smolny Cathedral

Smolny Cathedral

Catherine II better known as Catherine the Great (1762-1796)

Bronze Horseman Statue Peter the Great St. Petersburg

Bronze Horseman Statue – Unveiled in 1782 Catherine II commissioned this in honour of Peter the Great and it was re-named after Pushkin’s epic poem. The square in which it is situated was the site of the 1825 December uprising.

Alexander I (1801 – 1825)

Strelka Rostral Columns St. Petersburg

Rostral Columns – These lighthouses on the right of the picture are located on Vasilyevsky Island

General Staff Building Palace Square St. Petersburg

General Staff Building on Palace Square which is now part of the State Hermitage museum

Kazan Cathedral St. Petersburg

Kazan Cathedral – Although commissioned under Paul I construction and unveiling were during Alexander’s reign

Nicholas I (1825-1855)


St Isaac’s Cathedral – Although commissioned under Alexander I construction took place during the reign of Nicholas I. It opened in 1858 during the reign of Alexander II

Palace Square St. Petersburg

Alexander Column (right side of picture) – Located in Palace Square and built from 1829 – 1834, Nicholas I dedicated this to his older brother Alexander I for defeating Napoleon.

Alexander II (1855-1881)

Mariinsky Theatre St. Petersburg

Original Mariinsky Theatre with Mariinksky II to the right of the picture

Alexander III (1881-1894)

Church of the Saviour on spilled blood - Commissioned in 1883 by Alexander III as a memorial to his father Alexander II who was assassinated at this site in 1881

Church of the Saviour on spilled blood – Commissioned in 1883 by Alexander III as a memorial to his father Alexander II who was assassinated at this site in 1881

Whilst the Romanovs commissioned some of the most architecturally elaborate and aesthetically-pleasing buildings in the world construction involved a large amount of slave labour, labour which grew increasingly frustrated with the opulent lifestyles of the monarchy versus their own impoverished conditions. In January 1905 striking workers gathered in Palace Square to present a working conditions petition to Nicholas II but were met with force by the Winter Palace guards.

At the outbreak of World War I, St. Petersburg changed its name to the more Slavic-sounding Petrograd and found itself fighting the Austro-Hungarian & German empires. In February 1917 thousands once again gathered around the Winter Palace and Palace Square but this time the Tsar’s experienced troops were fighting on the Eastern Front and so the job of quelling protestors fell to a small number of inexperienced soldiers who eventually sided with the protestors.

A provisional government was set up in the Winter Palace and Tsar Nicholas II abdicated a number of days later. Russia ceased to be a monarchy but what followed later in 1917 would not only change St. Petersburg but would have repercussions throughout the world up to the present day.

Read about Russia’s communist era sites in my Red October 1917: From Petrograd to Leningrad blog post. Practical travel information can be found in my  Russia Travel Tips post.

St. Petersburg Peter the Great to February 1917 revolution

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