Saint Petersburg on the Baltic Sea
by Olivia Kroth
Saint Petersburg on the Baltic Sea, Russia’s window to the West, is worth visiting all year round. This water city, often called the “Venice of the North”, is beautiful in spring and summer, yet it develops its special charm in autumn and winter, when the ballet, concert, opera and theatre season begins. In the darker part of the year, cultural activities in Saint Petersburg turn from outdoors to indoors. Museums and palaces, concert halls and opera houses light up their crystal chandeliers to welcome and enchant visitors from around the world. The city is inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list because of its many outstanding monuments of architecture, culture and history. And yet it is also a busy seaport, as well as a centre of commerce and industry. The Russian President visits Saint Petersburg regularly for national and international conferences and meetings, exhibitions and sportive highlights.
All tourists know the famous “White Nights” in May, June and July, when magical twilight lasts all night due to Saint Petersburg’s position below the Arctic Circle. During the “White Nights”, the drawbridges spanning the Neva are drawn between two and four a.m., to let ships pass up and down the river. The Neva is a river loved by poets, a recurring theme in Alexander Pushkin’s poetry. He admired the Neva in all seasons, even in harsh winters, when it is “tossing and turning like a sick man in his troubled bed.” Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) expressed his unconditional love for the city in this poem: I love thee, city of Peter’s making; / I love thy harmonies austere, / And Neva’s sovereign waters breaking / Along the banks of granite sheer …
White Nights on the Neva River:
Saint Petersburg’s historical centre was the first Russian site to be inscribed in the UNESCO list of Cultural World Heritage, a city of wonders, in the literal and metaphorical sense. The “city of Peter’s making” owes much of its architectonic singularity to Tsar Peter the Great, who had it designed with canals, bridges and palaces. Alexander Pushkin pays homage to Peter the Great in his narrative poem, “The Bronze Horseman: A Petersburg Tale” (1833), evolving around the well-known equestrian statue of the Tsar.
In Nikolai Gogol’s “Saint Petersburg Tales”, Nevsky Prospect is described as a place of wonders, too, a street that undergoes many changes, from the bakers in the morning to the clerks who leave their offices in the evening. Nikolai Gogol inserts fantastic elements, strange things occur in his tales. In his literary Saint Petersburg, all is not as it seems, but “the devil himself lights the lamps only so as to show everything not as it really looks.” Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852) portrayed life in this city with a masterful mixture of absurdity, comedy and satire.
Palace Square at night:
Saint Petersburg is a musical city, presenting a myriad of musical highlights. The Music Conservatory was founded in 1862. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov joined the faculty in 1871 and later gave the institution his name. He was a master of orchestration and developed a national style of Russian music by blending Russian folk songs and folklore with harmonic, melodic and rhythmic elements. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) left a large oeuvre of original Russian compositions. Some of his best-known works are the “Russian Easter Festival Overture” and the symphonic suite “Scheherezade.” Today, the Saint Petersburg Conservatory is one of the most famous music academies in the world, with about 1.500 students, 250 of whom are foreigners. They are offered lectures in academic subjects, master classes and regular opportunities for public performances.
Another temple of music is the Mariinsky Theatre (Мариинский театр) for opera and ballet. Opened in 1860, it was the main music theatre of the late 19th century Russia. Today, the Mariinsky Theatre is home to the Mariinsky Ballet, Mariinsky Opera and Mariinsky Orchestra. The conductor Valery Gergiev serves as general director. From 1972 to 1977, Valery Abisalovich Gergiev studied at the Saint Petersburg Rimsky Korsakov Conservatory, where his conducting teacher was Professor Ilya Musin. In 1978, he became assistant conductor at the Mariinsky Opera, giving his conducting debut with Sergei Prokofiev’s “War and Peace.” In 1988, he became chief conductor of the Mariinsky Opera. Since 1996, Valery Abisalovich Gergiev has been working as the Mariinsky’s artistic director and manager. The Maestro has remained true to his mission, to transform the Mariinsky into the best opera and ballet company of the globe.
Valery Gergiev and Vladimir Putin (first and second from left):
In November and December 2015, the Mariinsky offers several highlights to visitors. The mix of well-known and innovative pieces is the Mariinsky’s key to success: tradition and innovative spirit form a harmonious alliance in the programme. The Mariinsky Ballet dances two ballets of timeless beauty to music of Pyotr Tchaikovsky, “Swan Lake”and “Nutcracker”, while the Mariinsky Opera stages Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s operas “Eugene Onegin” and “Pique Dame”, furthermore “Boris Godunov” by Modest Mussorgsky , “Prince Igor” by Alexander Borodin and “The Golden Cockerel” by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Some of the Mariinsky’s productions in November and December 2015 are based on famous Russian literary works. They combine dance, literature and music, presented in beautiful costumes and stage sets, inviting the audience to a feast for their ears, eyes and minds.
Valery Gergiev is directing the opera “Dead Souls”, after Nikolai Gogol’s novel, published in 1842. The ballet “Fountain of Bakhchisaray” draws its inspiration from Alexander Pushkin’s poem about a Tatar palace with fountain on the Russian peninsula of Crimea, written in 1823. The palace was built in the sixteenth century. Its fountain, which still stands in a courtyard, is called the Fountain of Tears. The ballet “Fountain of Bakhchisaray” (Бахчисарайский фонтан) was choreographed by Rostislav Zakharov to music by Boris Asafyev. Last but not least, the Mariinsky stages the modern ballet “Anna Karenina”, choreographed by Boris Eifman. It follows the plot of Leo Tolstoy’s novel, which first appeared as book in 1878. The première of Boris Eifman’s ballet took place in Saint Petersburg, in 2005. The music includes excerpts from Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s compositions.
Saint Petersburg is also the home of extensive, priceless art collections. The Russian Museum is the largest depository of art in Saint Petersburg, founded in 1895 by Tsar Nicholas II. The museum’s main showcase is the splendid Mikhailov Palace. Enjoying a prominent location on the Fontanka River Embankment between the Summer Garden and the Mikhailov Garden, it is one of Saint Petersburg’s most striking buildings. The Mikhailov palace was built from 1819 to 1825 for Prince Mikhail Pavlovich, the younger son of Tsar Paul I. Princess Elena Pavlovna owned the palace after Mikhail Pavlovich’s death. The palace was purchased by the state to establish the Russian museum, in 1895. The interiors of the palace were rebuilt by the architect V.F. Svinyin.
The Russian Museum offers regular and special exhibits, for example the show of Pavel Fedotov’s work in the Benois Wing, from October 2015 to January 2016. The exhibition, dedicated to the 200th anniversary of Pavel Fedotov (1815-1852), includes around 40 paintings and over 100 graphic works, presenting this Russian painter as a versatile master, the author of famous genre paintings and outstanding portraits. Pavel Fedotov is often called the “Gogol of painting”: his works expressively and truthfully describe the controversial and complicated period of the 19th century in Russia.
A very special jewel of Saint Petersburg is the Hermitage Museum. It belongs to the world’s ten best museums, ranking as number six on the 2015 list of the world’s best museums, published by the travel website TripAdvisor. The ranking is based on millions of reviews and opinions from TripAdvisor travellers (TASS, 15.09.2015). The State Hermitage (Госуда́рственный Эрмита́ж) is one of the largest and oldest museums in the world. It was founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great and has been open to the public since 1852. Its collections comprise over three million items, including the largest collection of paintings in the world. The collections occupy a large complex of six historic buildings along Palace Embankment, including the Winter Palace, a former residence of Russian tsars.
The Malachite Room of the Winter Palace, decorated by the Russian artist Alexander Briullov, in 1839, served as the state drawing-room of Empress Alexandra Fiodorovna, the wife of Tsar Nicholas I. The unique malachite decoration of the room and many of its furnishings were made in the Russian mosaic technique. The display features 19th century works of decorative and applied art. The St George Hall served as Throne Hall in the Winter Palace. It was created in the early 1840s by Vasily Stasov. The columned hall with two tiers of windows is finished with marble and ormolu. Above the throne dais there is a bas-relief of St George slaying the dragon. The great imperial throne was installed for Empress Anna Ioannovna, in 1732. The hall has a magnificent parquet floor made from 16 varieties of wood. The grand decor of the hall accords with its function as the setting for official ceremonies and receptions.
Staircase in the Hermitage Museum:
Saint Petersburg is a water city, situated along the shores of the Neva Bay, between islands of the Neva river delta. The largest are Vasilyevsky Island, Petrogradsky, Dekabristov and Krestovsky. Just like Yelagin and Kamenny, Krestovsky is covered by parks. The city is criss-crossed by canals and bridges, many of them are beautiful works of architecture. As Saint Petersburg is located on the shores of the Baltic Sea, a lot of its commerce and industry has to do with the sea: Admiralty Shipyard, Baltic Shipyard, Sovkomflot. Saint Petersburg has three large cargo seaports: Bolshoi Port Saint Petersburg, Kronstadt and Lomonosov. International cruise liners are served at the passenger port of Morskoy Vokzal on the south-west of Vasilevsky Island. Furthermore, an intricate system of riverports on both banks of the Neva is interconnected with the system of seaports, thus making Saint Petersburg the main link between the Baltic Sea and the rest of Russia through the Volga-Baltic Waterway.
Saint Petersburg is one of Russia’s major tourist destinations due to its rich architectural, cultural and historical treasures. The city is inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list with 36 historical architectural complexes and around 4000 outstanding individual monuments of architecture, history and culture. New tourist programmes and sightseeing tours have been developed for those wishing to see Saint Petersburg’s cultural heritage. Altogether, Saint Petersburg owns 221 museums, 2000 libraries, more than 80 theatres, 100 concert organizations, 45 galleries and exhibition halls, 62 cinemas and around 80 other cultural establishments. Every year, the city hosts around 100 festivals and various competitions of art and culture, including more than 50 international ones.
Neva river in Saint Petersburg:
Moreover Saint Petersburg is rapidly developing as a centre of conferences and events in Russia’s cultural, economic, geographic, political and sportive life. The Russian President visits the city regularly to participate in national and international meetings. To name just a few of these highlights: At the end of July 2015, Vladimir Putin attended the FIFA World Cup Preliminary Draw, which took place in the historical Constantine Palace of Saint Petersburg. When greeting the guests, the Russian President said: “The selection of Russia as the host of the 2018 FIFA World Cup will help enhance the popularity of this sport and broaden its geography. This will enhance interest in football not only here in Russia, but in many of our neighbouring countries. The 2018 tournament will take place in 11 cities located in regions with unique cultural traditions. Guests from all over the world will learn about the unique history of this country and its cultural diversity.”
In June 2015, President Vladimir Putin took part in the 19th Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum – SPIEF, which was attended by an international audience as well. In his opening speech, the Russian President reminded all guests that Saint Petersburg had always been and would always remain a city which welcomed foreigners and was open to the world: “It is a pleasure to welcome you all to this International Economic Forum in St Petersburg, a city which throughout its history has always been a symbol of Russia’s openness and desire to draw on the best of world practice, cooperate, and move forward together. First of all, I would like to thank all of the politicians and businesspeople attending this forum for their interest and confidence in our country. Ladies and gentlemen, friends, we see in you serious long-term partners, and it is for this reason that, as is tradition, we always speak with frankness and trust at the St Petersburg Forum about our achievements and new possibilities, and also, of course, about the problems and difficulties we encounter, and the tasks we are still working on.”
At the end of April 2015, President Vladimir Putin met with the Russian Geographical Society (Ру́сское географи́ческое о́бщество) Board of Trustees in Saint Petersburg to celebrate its 170th birthday: “Let me greet all participants in this meeting of the Russian Geographical Society, which this year is celebrating its 170th anniversary. It is logical that we should mark this anniversary at the RGS’ historical headquarters here in St Petersburg, which preserves the memory of many famous scientists, researchers and educators. This was the place where people returned to after going on expeditions. It was here that they spoke about the victories, problems, failures, and perhaps about new plans and ideas. This podium, which is now more than a century old, saw such celebrated speakers as Fedor Litke (Фёдор Петрович Граф Литке), Pyotr Semenov-Tyan-Shansky (Пётр Петрович Семёнов-Тян-Шанский), Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov (Никола́й Ива́нович Вави́лов) and Ivan Dmitrievich Papanin (Иван Дмитриевич Папанин)– legendary figures who dedicated their lives to serving Russia.”
On the 26th of January 2015, the Russian President visited two universities in Saint Petersburg: his own alma mater, the Petersburg (Leningrad) State University, and the Petersburg Mining University. One day before, on the 25th of January, all students had celebrated Saint Tatyana’s Day in Russia, which is dedicated to students and academic life. On this special occasion, Vladimir Putin spoke to the rector of the Petersburg State University: “Mr Kropachev, I want to congratulate you and the students of my own alma mater on the Students Day; I also want to congratulate you on your re-appointment. In recent years, while you were rector, the university has transformed noticeably. I want to wish you success and all the very best.”
Saint Petersburg State University:
The Saint Petersburg State University is one of the most successful academic institutions worldwide, with a number of splendid minds who won the Nobel Prize and other high awards. Founded in 1724, it is the oldest institution of higher education in Russia, with a rich history, modern large-scale research activities and innovations. Nowadays, more than 32.000 students receive specialized education in 24 faculties. Seven alumni were Nobel Prize winners: I.P. Pavlov (1904) and I.I. Mechnikov (1908) in Physiology and Medicine; N.N. Semyonov (1956) in Chemistry; L.D. Landau (1962) and A.M. Prokhorov (1964) in Physics; V.V. Leontyev (1973) and L.V. Kantorovich (1975) in Economics. Other alumni became famous statesmen and public figures, such as P.A. Stolypin and D.I. Mendeleev. The university has also given to the world renowned people in the fields of art, literature and music: I.S. Turgenev, P.A. Bryullov, V.D. Polenov, S.P. Diaghilev, M.A. Vrubel, I.Ya. Bilibin, N.K. Roerich, I.F. Stravinsky and many others. The university is furthermore the alma mater of two Russian Presidents: V.V. Putin and D.A. Medvedev.
President Vladimir Putin visited the Saint Petersburg Mining University, on the same day, and spoke to the students: “It is good to see that we have universities of this level in the engineering field. This is particularly important for Russia with its immense territory and mineral resources.” The Saint Petersburg Mining University is also very old, founded by the decree of Empress Catherine the Great, in 1773, as embodiment of the ideas of Tsar Peter I. and the scientist Lomonosov for the development of metallurgy. The Saint Petersburg Mining University owns a large research base and has successfully participated in a number of international, federal and cross-sectoral scientific and technical programmes in the fields of geology, mining, metallurgy, economics and ecology.
Saint Petersburg Mining University:
When Vladimir Putin visited the Saint Petersburg Mining University, on the 26th of January 2015, he was accompanied by the university’s rector, Vladimir Litvinenko. President Putin looked over the latest developments at the university’s laboratory and visited the main library, which has a collection of more than 1.2 million volumes, including rare books from the 15th to the 19th centuries. He also took a look at the Mining Museum’s exhibition. The Mining University holds the status of National Research University. It includes more than 10 research and educational centres and has 60 research laboratories.
Thus Saint Petersburg remains a city of yesterday and today, preserving its rich heritage and traditions. At the same time, this gorgeous city on the Baltic Sea is looking forward to the future, preparing well for the years to come.
Olivia Kroth: The journalist and author of four books lives in Moscow.