March 3, 2014
St. Petersburg, The Beautiful City Of Ghosts
Walking into the vast Palace Square that lies before the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg you are stepping into another world, one that changed the course of history. I have never, in all my travels, felt so strongly that I was standing in a living past, surrounded by the ghosts of those who died in a series of terrible struggles. It was here that hundreds of peaceful protesters were shot or trampled to death in the Bloody Sunday Massacre of 1905. Thousands had gathered to petition Tsar Nicholas II for better working conditions and fair treatment only to be met with gunfire from the Imperial Guard. The dramatic events of the Russian Revolution reached their climax here too, when Lenin and the Bolsheviks gathered the masses and fought the forces of an Imperial power that had seemed beyond challenge, one that was rich and powerful beyond belief. And in World War Two the square and the palace were silent witnesses in the heart of the city as the residents of St. Petersburg died in their thousands during one of the longest and deadliest sieges the world has ever seen.
For those visitors who have any sense of history, spending time in the Russian city of St. Petersburg is a powerful experience. In places like Rome or Athens the past is all around you. But it is an ancient and distant history that is preserved, however remarkably. The power of St. Petersburg is in its connection to more recent times, to a modern history that almost defines the world we live in. So strong are the memories of the events that shaped the city that the people of St. Petersburg still talk about them is if they happened yesterday.
Previously known as Leningrad, and before that Petrograd, St. Petersburg was once the opulent and ostentatious capital of Russia and it shows. The numerous palaces and wide boulevards with elegant buildings, the huge squares and parks, and the magnificent churches are all testament to the times when Russia’s Tsars and Tsarinas made this their home. This truly is a beautiful place but the darker side of its history is never far away.
Indeed, when Tsar Peter the Great decided to build a new capital at the start of the eighteenth century, he used slaves to create his vision of a new city to rival the splendor of other European capitals and thousands died in the process. By the time of the 1917 revolution the beautiful heart of the city was surrounded by foundries, factories and armament production as well as the low quality tenements that housed the workers, a contrast that symbolized the different worlds of worker and Tsar.
The Siege of Leningrad began in September 1941 and lasted until January 1944 – a total of 872 days. German troops circled the area and the decision was made, in order to avoid long drawn out street battles, that the city would literally be starved to death. So tight was Hitler’s grip on the place that those who could not escape suffered terrible deprivation. Estimates vary but it is thought that at least a million people died, mainly of starvation. Desperation drove the inhabitants to use anything they could find as alternative sources of food including glue, soap, leather and yeast as well as resorting to eating pets and pests. But Leningrad survived, albeit by paying a horrific price.
In a future article I will look at some of St. Petersburg’s best attractions as well as how the city faced new challenges after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Communist regime to become one of the world’s top tourist destinations.