During its existence, Decembrist's Square has changed both its aspect and its names several times. In the beginning, it was called Senate Square (Senatskaya ploshchad) after the Senate moved in 1763 from the Twelve Colleges to one of the buildings in the square. After the statue of Peter the Great was unveiled in 1782, the square was renamed Peter's Square (Petrovskaya ploshchad). This name did not stick however, and after the new Senate building was completed the square was named Senate Square for quite an extended period of time. The square did not acquire its present-day name, Decembrist's Square, until after the Decembrist Uprising of 1825.
The Decembrist's square radiates out onto the beautiful Neva River, looking both "spacious and picturesque." The square took final shape after a garden was put in at the far side in 1874. The beautiful rose garden is guarded by saplings grown into giant trees over the passage of a century.
1. The Senate 2. The Synod 3. The Konnogvardejsky manezh (The Central Exihibition Hall)
4. The Mariinsky Palace 5. The Astoria Hotel 6. Monument of Nikolay I
7. The Cathedral of St.Isaac 8. The Senatskaya Square 9. Monument of Peter I
10. The Admiralty 11. The Hermitage 12. The Dvortsovaya Square
13. The Alexandrijskiy Stolp 14. The General Staff
On an overcast winter morning, December 14, 1825, the first Russian revolutionaries that came to be known as Decembrists marched into the square at the head of their regiments, with flying colors. The men who were marching on the square that morning were mostly heroes of the Patriotic War of 1812.
These men are described as highly-educated, gifted men, some of them being extremely talented, high-minded, noble and courageous. Inspired by radical ideas brought home from France during the Napoleonic campaigns, the young officers tried to depose the new emperor that was coming into power, Tsar Nicholas I.
Technically, Nicholas' older brother, Konstantin, should have taken the throne. However, a secret agreement made before Alexander I's death (Nicholas I and Konstantin's father) decreed that Konstantin had renounced power. After Alexander's unexpected death, Nicholas was in a very difficult situation as the decree had not been made public before his father's death. Nicholas therefore pledged allegiance to his brother Konstantin, but his brother steadfastly refused the throne. After a couple of weeks, Nicholas began to prepare for his coronation, but to the public it looked like he was usurping the throne from his brother.
Officers leading the revolt took advantage in the crisis that was taking place in the royal family and decided to push for the reforms that they desired. The revolutionaries sought a true republic. They wrote a manifesto which called for the abolition of serfdom as well as the monarchy, in addition to the convening of an assembly to draft a new constitution. Overall, the coup was not very well planned, and no attempt was even made to capture Nicholas himself. The Tsar simply had to round up some loyalist troops, which he had no problem doing, and order them to put down the revolt. This plan was made even easier due to the fact that Nicholas had been tipped off as to the plans of the revolutionaries the night before the revolt. The number of insurgents was around 3,000, but they were outnumbered by loyalist troops 3:1. After attempts made by Nicholas to peacefully put down the revolt, Nicholas' troops opened fire on the crowd.
By six o'clock that night, all was finished and police raids and arrests began. The revolutionaries involved in the uprising were punished very severely. One hundred twenty one of the men involved were sentenced to 30 years in prison, penal servitude and exile in Siberia. The private soldiers that had taken part in the revolutionary activities that December morning were given extremely tortuous penalties. Some were flogged to death, others sentenced to run the gauntlet of a thousand men twelve times, which amounted to 12,000 blows by rods. The five leaders of the revolt (Pavel Pestel, Petr Kakhovsky, Kondraty Ryleev, Sergei Muravev-Apostol, and Mikhail Bestuzhev-Riumin) were sentenced to death. During the hanging, however, three of the nooses slipped and the men fell down onto the scaffold. According to Russian tradition, their lives should have been spared, but Nicholas ordered that they be hung again.
Due to the Decembrist Uprising, Tsar Nicholas adopted a variety of very conservative policies. This left Russia in an economically backward bureaucratic state. Nicholas insisted on orderliness in every facet of society. Even educational institutions such as colleges were treated as military schools.
During the Socialist era, the Decembrists were glorified in communist propaganda as visionaries and the precursors of socialism. Lenin wrote that the Decembrist uprising was "a supreme patriotic feat arousing the pride and admiration of posterity." Looking back, however, we can easily see that this comparison is not at all historically sound.
In the beginning, the Decembrist's square was called Senatskaya ploshchad, or Senate Square, because of the 1763 move of the Senate from the 'Twelve Colleges' into one of the buildings in the square. The Senate and Synod buildings, which occupy the west side of the square, were designed by the architects Rossi and Stasov and erected in the days of Peter the Great. The Senate and Synod were the civil and religious governing bodies of pre-Revolutionary Russia. These two institutions took power from those in society who were in opposition to Peter's forward, modern thinking and reforms.
The Senate consisted of nine members to "manage affairs of the state in his absence"(Knopf). The group of senate members replaced the Duma of the Boyars in 1711. The Synod was established in order for Peter the Great to gain control over the Church and the Patriarchate. The Synod was given the power to settle all religious questions, and supported Peter's progressive reforms.
The Senate and Synod were the last major works of Carlo Rossi. The architect A. Staubert oersaw the construction of the buildings. The two imposing yellow-white buildings are connected by a resplendent triumphal arch stretching over Galernaya Street. Numerous angel statues decorate an entablature on heavy stone columns. "A frieze in bas-relief emphasized the attic, in the center of which is a sculpted group featuring allegories of Piety and Justice." The two connected buildings of the Senate and Synod symbolize the unity of temporal and church authority. In the direction of the Neva, the Senate building is distinguished by a colonnade which curves round to meet the embankment" (Knopf 195). "The Baroque arch exceeding 18m has four sets of widely spaced paired columns, an attic, and an abundance of sculpture. Broad steps lead up to the entrances of the buildings. "Eight-column Corinthian loggias that unite the upper floors and are topped by low attics. The curving corner of the building at the river is also marked by eight columns" (Ward 88).
Since 1955, the Senate and Synod buildings house a branch of the Central Historical Archives.
St. Isaac's Cathedral is one of the finest cathedrals built in Europe in the 19th century. It is a dominant figure in the St. Petersburg skyline, as well as a very unique phenomenon in Russian architecture. The overall unity of the cathedral is remarkable in light of the fact its decoration utilizes various forms of monumental art- sculpture, painting, mosaics, and stained-glass which combined have a very powerful effect. The present day St. Isaac's is the fourth cathedral to be in the square of that name. Historically, the building of each of the previous churches and the present cathedral reflected the "different architectural, artistic, and town-planning trends of the periods in which they were built" (Butikov 5).
The first cathedral was built in 1710, 7 years after Peter the Great founded the city of St. Petersburg. Peter wanted to erect a cathedral to St. Isaac the Dalmatian because the feast day for this patron saint was the same day as his birthday. The first St. Isaac's was a small wooden church near the Admiralty building, and close to the present day site of the cathedral. Peter the Great publicly married his second wife Catherine in the church on February 19th, 1712. The aggrandized scale of the new city of St. Petersburg made the small, unassuming and plainly decorated church seem out of place.
To solve this "little" problem, the orders were sent out to lay the foundations for a second church of St. Isaac. In 1717, a stone St. Isaac's was built on the spot now occupied by the Bronze Horseman. The second church was designed by Johann Matternovi. The design of the architecture as well as the interior decoration was strikingly similar to that of the Peter and Paul Cathedral, which was designed by Domenico Trezzini.
In the 1760's, Catherine I decided that she wanted a huge marble St. Isaac's, and construction began on the third St. Isaac's in 1768. The project dragged on for a number of years, was constructed poorly, and hastily finished in 1802. The result was not built according to the original plan and was not visually attractive or well constructed.
After having rotten ceiling plaster fall from the ceiling of the church during an Easter service in 1816, Alexander I decided to finish the cathedral once and for all. Everything was done on a magnificent scale. It took the great architect Auguste Montferrand 40 years to build. The portico columns, cut from red granite, are 17m high; the mosaic inside has 12,000 shades and colors; the walls are 5m thick; the cupola is coated with 100 kilos of gold; and the whole thing weighs over 300,000 tons. There are also large collections of paintings, sculptures, and mosaic masterpieces by 19th century artists. St. Isaac's has a huge fresco on the inside of the cupola by Karl Bryullov and a bust of Montferrand made of different colored marbles and other minerals. The cathedral also has beautiful, intricately sculpted bronze doors, a white marble central iconostasis with columns of malachite and lazurite, as well as a rare stained-glass Jesus in Catholic colors (Orthodoxy has Christ wearing blue).
The Bronze Horseman stands facing the Neva river, surrounded by the Admiralty, St. Isaac's Cathedral, and the former Senate and Synod buildings. Catherine II commissioned this equestrian statue in 1768 as a tribute to her predecessor, Peter the Great. Erecting a statue in Peter's name was very beneficial for her, as it established a line of contiguity between herself and earlier Russian monarchs. Catherine was a German princess by birth, so the bronze statue helped her to win the hearts of her people. Catherine hired the French master Etienne Falconet to sculpt the statue in Peter's likeness. Falconet was at work for more than 12 years. He was given the use of any of the resources that he needed, not to mention the best horses in the royal stables and the most expert riders in the country to have on hand. Two of the best horses, named Brilliante and Caprice, were ridden up a ramp that was built outside the window of Falconet's studio. The riders would take them at a full gallop and make to rear up on their hind legs in order to perfect his sketches. The entire work was almost lost, however, when the mold broke during the casting of the statue. The workshop went up in flames, but a foundryman named Yemelian Khailov was able to save the work by fixing the crack with clay. The casting was salvaged, but unfortunately Khailov was seriously injured.
Instead of a common pedestal, Falconet decided to mount the statue on a natural stone. A stone suitable for such an important monument was difficult to find however. Finally, a peasant named Semyon Vishnyakov, found it deep in a forest in the village of Lahta on the Gulf of Finland- more than 10 km from the city. The rock was known among the people as the "Thunder-Stone" as it had been split by lightning. This 1,600 ton piece of granite is said to have been a favorite of Peter the Great and from it Peter was said to have observed his surroundings. Interestingly, the rock was moved to St. Petersburg by way of hoisting it up on a platform and hauling it along chutes lined with smooth copper on 30 copper balls over a distance of more than 5 miles to the Gulf of Finland. After that, Thunder was put on a barge made specifically for the purpose of moving the future pedestal for the equestrian statue of Peter the Great.
The cliff-like pedestal for the statue, designed by Yuri Felten, bears the Latin inscription "To Peter the First From Catherine the Second Year 1782." 1782 signifies the year that the statue was unveiled. From the top of this "cliff" Peter shows the way for Russia, arm outstretched in front of him, his rearing horse crushing a snake beneath its hooves. "Peter the Great is depicted as a rider crowned with a laurel wreath; he has halted his galloping steed, forcing it to obey his iron will. The rock is symbol of the impediments removed and the crushed snake of defeated evil" (Levin). The snake that is being crushed by Peter's horse is seen as symbolic of many things. Some see the snake as representative of the Swedes, or believe that the snake represents the enemies of Peter and his reforms. Others describe it as the "snake of treason." It has been mentioned by some, however, that the snake although described as "evil" is ironically the third point of support for the statue.
The monument is now universally known as the Bronze Horseman because of Pushkin's mini-epic poem The Bronze Horseman (1833). In this haunting story about the Great Flood of 1824, the hero of the story is chased through misty St. Petersburg streets by the enraged bronze statue. Pushkin's verse from the poem well described the iron will of Tsar Peter the Great:"How terrible he was in the surrounding gloom!...what strength was in him! And in that steed, what fire!" The Bronze Horseman was also a main character in the symbolist Andrei Bely's surreal novel Petersburg.
This monument has over time come to be a striking symbol of St. Petersburg. It is said to capture the spirit of the city's uncompromising and willful founder, Peter the Great. A final interesting note on the Bronze Horseman is that newlyweds often pose for photographs together under the statue and this is said to bring them good luck in the future.
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Gnedin, Oleg Y. St. Peterburg: The Jewel of the World. May 1997. 17 April 1999
Butikov, Gregory. David & Judith Andrews, trans. St. Isaac's Cathedral: Leningrad. Leningrad: Aurora Art Publishers, 1980.
Doroshinskaya, Y. and V. Kruchina-Bogdanov. I. Rakhmanina, trans. Leningrad and Its Environs: A Guide. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977.
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Eyewitness Travel Guide: St. Petersburg. DK Publishing, Inc. 1998
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Publish date 5/7/99