St. Petersburg, Russia

Peter and Paul Fortress, St. Petersburg, Russia

The Peter and Paul Fortress is the heart of St. Petersburg and the place where it was first envisioned by Emperor Peter the Great in 1703. In May of that year Peter decided that the small island called ‘Hare Island’ would be the site for his fortification. He had just seized the area from a Swedish force who were garrisoned in a dilapidated old fortress.

Peter had big plans, not only for his Fortress, but also for a new City for the Russian Empire – one which faced Europe, looked European and would allow the Russian people access to a sea which wasn’t frozen for half the year. Peter knew that this new City he had in his head would need serious protection and so he ordered the architect Domenico Trezzini to design the six bastioned fortress in the best place to allow a view of all the City. Trezzini initially built from wood and earth, but as progress on the City continued (much of which he also designed) the Fortress was rebuilt in stone. By 1740 it was complete in much the form it has today.

As it happened there was never a counter-attack from Sweden. Indeed, the building of St. Petersburg seems to have marked a change in the Swedish psyche and their militant domination of the Baltic began to change to their cherish neutrality of today.

So from as early as 1720 the Peter and Paul Fortress was little more than a prison for high-ranking and political prisoners. The first person recorded to have escaped from imprisonment here was the anarchist Peter Kopotkin who did so in 1876. Amongst the other famous prisoners here are Tsarevich Alexei Petrovich, Tadeusz Kościusko, Dostoevsky, Gorky, Trotsky and, oddly, Josip Tito (future president of Yugoslavia).

The closest thing the Fortress ever saw to real action was during the Revolutions of 1917. In the abortive February Revolution it was attached by soldiers of the Pavlovskii regiment. A number of Tsarist officials found themselves imprisoned in the Fortress and briefly the Emperor himself was up to join them. In the end he was placed under house arrest in the Winter Palace (‘house arrest’ being something of an odd term for a building so large!). By July 6 the Revolution was done and those inside the Fortress were freed.

In October, though, it was a different matter. There was very little resistance now to the Bolshevik takeover. Nicholas II had continued to make a number of exceptionally poor decisions and the people had had enough. The Fortress fell to the Bolsheviks without a struggle and the blank salvo of the nearby Cruiser Aurora marked the beginning of the Revolution that would change Russia. The guns of the Fortress turned and fired for the only time in anger at the Winter Palace across the Neva. Only two shells hit and the following day the Winter Palace was in Revolutionary hands. Once again the Fortress became a prison for ousted government officials.

In 1924 the whole site became a Museum and despite some damage during the Siege of Leningrad in World War II it is now the second most famous Museum in St. Petersburg – after the Hermitage, of course.

Aside from the fortifications the Fortress also contains the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul – built between 1712 and 1733 and the last resting place for the majority of the Russian Emperors and Empresses, the still functioning Royal Mint, the prison cells of the Trubetskoy Bastion, the Grand Ducal Mansion of 1896 and the City Museum. At noon each day a cannon is fired and during the summer the beach which abuts the Fortress is often crowded with sun-worshippers.

A walk through the Peter and Paul Fortress is a walk through the history of Russia and is an essential part of any visit to this most beguiling of cities.

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