"There is a legend that Peter borrowed the musket of one of his soldiers and with the bayonet cut two strips of sod from the ground of Hare Island. Laying them in the form of a cross, he said, 'Here shall be a town.' His soldiers dug a trench in which Peter placed a box containing relics of the apostle Andrew, Russia's patron saint. At this moment so the story goes, an eagle dipped in flight over Peter's head and alighted on top of two birch trees which had been tied together to form an arch. This arch became the position of the formal East of Peter Gateway of the future fortress" (Massie 356).
The Peter and Paul Fortress has a fascinating history beginning in the early 1700's. Under the orders of Peter the Great, the Peter and Paul Fortress was started during the Northern War against Sweden, to help regain lands on the Neva banks and the Baltic shore. The work on the fortress proceeded quickly because Peter the Great expected an attack from the Swedish Navy from the Gulf of Finland (Kann 70). However, the Swedes were defeated before the fortress was finished. The date the fort was started, May 27, 1703, became known in history as the day St. Petersburg was founded ("Peter and Paul" 1). The Peter and Paul Fortress was the first major building in the city of St. Petersburg. It forms the historical core of Petersburg and is "initially the nucleus of the city" (Kann 68). The fortress occupies the whole of Zayatchy (Hare) island which was extremely important because there was no way an enemy could get to the island without passing the fortress. This was the last island of the delta and no ships could enter without passing first by the fortress (St. Petersburg 146).
Peter the Great wanted the fortress to be large so that it covered the island and would be surrounded by the Neva and its tributaries. The workers had to bring in earth to raise the level of the island, a swamp, above the water's reach. This was very difficult because the workers did not have the proper equipment, but Peter forced Russians and Swedish prisoners to build it anyway. This meant, for example, that they shoveled dirt into their shirts and carried it with their hands. Amazingly, "within five months the fortress began to take shape" (Massie 356). However, it still took from 1703 to 1728 to complete the basic form of this magnificent fortress. In 1706 work began to replace earth walls with stone walls. It took thirty-five years to erect the twelve-meter high brick walls. In 1740 fortification was doubled around each gate by a curtain wall that was surrounded by moats. In 1779 Catherine II added a granite fašade when she built up the Neva embankment. Then in 1780 the brick walls were replaced with granite slabs ("Peter and Paul" 1).
Peter, who was in Western Europe from 1696 to 1698, may have been inspired by the forts he saw there. Peter's fortress has bastions, copied from what he had seen in the West when he was there (St. Petersburg 144). Each of the six bastions at the fort's six corners was constructed under the personal supervision of one of the Tsar's closest friends, and each was named for its overseer: Menshikov, Folovin, Zotov, Trubetskoy, Naryshin and Peter, of course (Massie 356).
The main entrance to the fortress is the Ioanovskie Vorota (John Gate) which is the only part of the fortress that is still in its 1717 form. The other main gate is the Nevski Vorota (Neva Gate) through which prisoners were taken.
Interestingly, the fortress was never actually used for defense. As Alexander Dumas noted, "The fortress of St. Petersburg was built, like all fortresses, to be a visible symbol of the antagonism between the people and its sovereign. No doubt it defends the city, but it threatens it to a far greater extent; no doubt it was built to repel the Swedes, but in practice it has been a prison for Russians," (St. Petersburg 145). In 1718 the fortress became a state political prison when Peter's 28 year-old rebellious son was imprisoned in the Trubetskoy Bastion and beaten to death there. Alexei was the first political prisoner to be tortured to death and buried in the fortress. Some other famous prisoners were the writers Dostoyevsky, Chernyshevsky and Gorky. It was here that Chernyshevsky wrote his novel What Is to Be Done? and Gorky finished his play Children of the Sun. In 1887 Lenin's brother was imprisoned here for attempting to kill Alexander III and was later executed. No prisoners have ever escaped the fortress. The cells contained only a bed, table, and stool and were heated by a stove kept in the hall. There was a sauna outside the prison for prisoners to use once a week, and one corner of the prison was known as the "Dance Floor" because the torturing of feet that took place there made the prisoners "dance" from foot to foot (St. Petersburg 149). The fortress rarely held more than thirty to forty prisoners (Billy 187).
As opponents to autocracy increased, so did the size of the prison. A modern prison was built in the 1870's to supplement the old dungeons (Billy 188). The Civil War years were the bloodiest in the history of the Peter and Paul Fortress (Mawdsley 308). In 1917 the fortress was put to semi military use when, after the failure of the July Days, the Bolshevik demonstrators took refuge there. In October 1917 the fortress was important strategically for the attack on the Winter Palace, located right across the river. It is ironic that the first time it was used for military purposes it was used against the Tsar.
Other buildings in the fortress include the Engineer's Building, the Commandant's House, The Boat House, The Arsenal and the Mint. The Engineer's Building was constructed in 1740 for the team of engineers building the fortress. The Commandant's House was built in the 1740's. The Boat House contains Peter's boat, nicknamed the "Grandfather of the Russian Fleet," which was put there in 1761. The Old Arsenal, 1705-1708, protected the fortress on the Petrograd side. The execution of the Decembrists occurred at the Arsenal. The Mint stands in the center of the fortress, having been moved there, on Peter's orders, from Moscow in 1719. Since 1724 the Mint, the city's oldest enterprise, has operated in the Peter and Paul Fortress, and coins, medals and orders are made there.
Located in the center of the fortress, the Peter and Paul Cathedral was built from 1712 to 1733 on the site of the first wooden church built there June 29,1703, in honor of the Apostles Peter and Paul. The cathedral is one of the principal monuments of the city and was the first church in the city to be built of stone. Cathedral construction began on the feast day of St. Peter and St. Paul. The cabin of Peter the Great stands to the east of the cathedral on the northern mainland; this is where Peter lived while the fortress was being built (Billy 187). The only people to live in the Peter and Paul Fortress were the garrison and the cathedral clergy. Since the 18th Century, banners, keys to defeated cities and trophies were kept in the cathedral ("Travels In Russia" 1). In 1859 the jurisdiction of the cathedral was turned over to the Building Office of the Ministry of the Imperial Court. The commandant closed the doors of the cathedral and vault, and he sealed the doors in 1919. Supposedly to help the starving, in 1922 the church treasures were confiscated and sold. Later, in 1927 the cathedral became the Museum of the Revolution.
Peter the Great wanted to make the bell tower of the cathedral taller than the Ivan the Great Bell Tower in the Kremlin in Moscow (Mawdsley 307). In fact, the cathedral bell tower was built first, and after the ground settled, Peter the Great ordered the cathedral itself to be built. At 122.5 meters the cathedral spire was the tallest structure in St. Petersburg until recent times when the 316-meter TV tower was built ("Peter and Paul" 2). The cathedral belfry was damaged by a fire in 1756 but reconstructed. Then, in 1830 the spire was struck by lightning and wind tilted the angel. In 1858 the wooden spire was replaced by a metal one which slightly increased the cathedral's height. In 1724 the cathedral got a Dutch clock, which is on the belfry, presented by the Tsar. It chimed every six hours and originally played the "Hymn to the Tsar" at noon. Since 1954 the cathedral has been under the authority of the State Museum of the History of Leningrad.
The Peter and Paul Cathedral is the symbolic center of the Russian empire because it is the burial site of many of the imperial family. Furthermore, it is ranked high above all the St. Petersburg churches not only because it was the burial place of the Romanovs, but also because it is the main cathedral of the city ("Within" 2). Prior to this, princes and tsars were buried in Moscow in the Cathedral of the Archangel Michael, but when St. Petersburg became Russia's capital in 1712, the Peter and Paul Cathedral became the official burial spot. This tradition of burying rulers in a church was based on the idea of divine rule, which was widespread in all Christian countries. It started with Constantinople in the 4th Century. Baptisms and weddings were never performed in the cathedral. For two hundred years all Russian rulers from Peter I to Alexander III (except Peter II and Ivan VI) and their families were buried here ("Within" 3).
Burial service rites were performed here for the imperial families alone. There were no exceptions. Catherine, Peter I's daughter who died in 1708 at the age of 18 months, was the first to be buried here, followed by Peter's son's wife, and then Peter's own son Alexei ("Within" 3). Peter the Great devised his own burial plans and chose his own gravesite in the cathedral (Billy 187). Interestingly, Peter's tomb is the only one that still gets flowers placed on it (Mawdsley 307). On March 10, 1725 Peter I and his daughter Natalia were buried here, and in 1727 Catherine I, Peter's wife, was buried here also, next to them. With each burial a salute of 51 shots was fired from the fortress wall. Originally, only reigning monarchs were buried in the cathedral, but from 1831 on, by order of Nicholas I, grand dukes and their families were also buried there. Admission to the cathedral was free after a burial so everybody could see the elaborate funeral decorations. In 1930 all graves were opened to move the remains to another place, but no exhumation ever occurred. Some speculate that the tsars' crypts were opened to steal any treasures buried there, but there's no evidence of that. The ashes of the last imperial family (Nicholas II, Alexandra and their children), who were murdered in 1918, were transferred and buried in the cathedral. The last Romanov, who died in 1992 in France, is buried there as well (St. Petersburg 148).
By the end of the 19th Century, there were forty-six graves in the cathedral and there was not much more room, so a new vault, the Grand-Ducal Vault, was built as an addition; it was consecrated on November 5, 1908. The vault had no tombs, but there were gravestones of white marble placed at floor level with a person's title, name and important dates. The first burial was Alexander II's son ("Within" 6). By 1916 this vault had thirteen graves, eight of which were transferred from the cathedral. In 1926 the bronze ornaments of the Grand-Ducal Vault were melted down. After World War II the Grand-Ducal Vault was used as a storehouse.
Beyond its historical importance, the cathedral, "the most valuable architectural monument," is architecturally noteworthy for several reasons (Kann 70). First, it is one of Domenico "Trezzini's best work" ("Peter and Paul" 2). He signed a contract on April 1, 1703 to be the Tsar's Master of Buildings (Massie 360). He brought Dutch, Protestant, and Northern Baroque design to the Cathedral and it is said to "rank among the most remarkable monuments of Baroque architecture" ("Within" 1).
The cathedral is rectangular, elongated from east to west. The dome on the eastern end has a cupola, and at the western entrance, you can spot the bell tower with its golden spire. Most notable is the spire because it is different from the onion shaped domes of the other Russian Orthodox churches. The golden spire, which dominates the cathedral, has a weathervane at the top, a flying angel holding a cross. The thin gilded spire is reminiscent of Copenhagen's Exchange, built a century earlier (Kann 70).
To the visitor the interior is striking because of its huge church hall that is "divided into four marble piers with gilded capitals into three aisles topped with cross vaults" ("Within" 1). With its long principal area and massive columns and pillars, it is foreign to the Russian tradition (Kann 68). Artists will appreciate the Baroque Iconostasis, designed by Ivan Zarudny and carved by Moscow craftsmen in the 1720's. It is gilded and dominated by figures of the Archangels Gabriel and Michael. Near the iconostasis are a pulpit to the left, and the Tsar's throne to the right. A special spot, the Royal Place, is where the emperor stood when there was a service. The cathedral interior is painted plaster, with rich gold work and large chandeliers. It is decorated as richly as you would expect for a tsar's burial place. The upper parts of the walls are decorated with eighteen large panels on subjects from the Bible. Seven of these were done by artists Andrei Matveyev, V. Ignatyev and Georg Gsell.
Visitors will not want to miss the gravestones of Alexander II and his wife which "are particularly remarkable" (Kann 72). Amazingly, they took seventeen years to carve from whole slabs at the Peterhof workshop. Architect Auguste Poirot designed fifteen tombs from white marble. The tombstones' shapes are a quadrangular prism. The lid has a large bronze cross coated in pure gold. A bronze plaque on side of tomb lists other information. Tombs of emperors and empresses have four bronze coats of arms at four corners, while the dates they ruled are included on the plaque. In the first half of the 18th Century, tombstones were made of white alabaster. In 1770 marble tombstones started being made. Interestingly, the tombs were covered by golden fabric trimmed with ermine with the coat of arms sewn on top. Slipcovers covered tombs on ordinary days. As for the architecture of the Grand-Ducal Vault at the Peter and Paul Cathedral, it was built by Leonty Benois and Anton Tomishko from 1896 to 1908. The architect was David Grimm. The Grand-Ducal Vault holds sixty graves and was repaired in the 1960's.
Trezzini, St. Petersburg's first architect, is also responsible for the design of the fortress. The bastions and curtains at the Peter and Paul Fortress were certainly strong, as they were ten to twelve meters high and twenty meters wide. There were two walls, the outer one being eight meters thick and the inner being two meters thick, and between these walls were windows for soldiers. The shape was like an irregular hexagon with six bastions at the corners. Trezzini supervised the building of the stone wall.
The gates of the fortress are interesting also. For example, St. Peter's Gate is an "extremely interesting old structure" (Kann 68). Built by Trezzini in 1717 and 1718, it is the only part in the fortress that has remained unchanged since then. This gate was the main entrance until 1740. The wooden sculpture on this gate of armour and the god of Sabaoth in the clouds by sculptor Niccolo Pineau still survives (Kann 70). There is also a wooden sculpture of a pagan priest overcome by the power of the prayer of St. Peter. Konrad Osner sculpted this around 1708. The purpose of this was to show the strength of Peter the Great against Charles XII, King of Sweden. Below this there is a lead effigy (1720) of a two-headed eagle, the Russian Empire's coat of arms. It guards the archway of the gate. Statues of Roman gods are in the corners. Bellona, goddess of war, stands on the right, and on the left are the patronness of crafts and arts, and Minerva, patroness of teachers and doctors. Again, these all glorified the success of Peter the Great. The St. Peter Gate is "the only example of a triumphal structure" in St. Petersburg dating from the 18th Century (Kann 70).
Another gate of particular interest is the Neva Gate. It is "one of the best architectural structures of the Fortress" (Kann 73). The top of the granite gate is triangular with two groups of twin columns on either side joined by two blocks of stone. The architect was Nikolai Lvov (1787). This gate leads to the fortress' only deep-water landing stage. The image of St. Nicholas guards this gate, which is the fortress' exit toward Vasilyevsky Island.
As for the architecture of the other buildings, the Artillery Museum is brick with pillars and carriage gateways. The Boat House was built by Alexander Wist (1761-1765) in Baroque style and has a sculpture of navigation at the top which was sculpted by David Jensen in 1891. There is also a statue of Peter I by Mikhail Shemyakin, which is very controversial because it does not flatter him as the famous Bronze Horseman does. In fact, this statue shows him, sitting, out of proportion with a very tiny head and long, skinny, creepy fingers (Tishler).
Amazingly, the Peter Paul Fortress and Cathedral have something for everyone. Tourists can learn a great deal about all aspects of Russian history and architecture by visiting the museums. Historians can learn valuable information about Peter the Great, his city and his country. Without a doubt architects will appreciate the beautiful artwork and construction of both the fortress and cathedral. The religious will enjoy the history and beauty of the cathedral. As for the locals, they can discover more of their city's rich history.
Visitors of all kinds take the Metro to get to the fortress. It is a five hundred meter walk from Gorkovskaya Metro Station through Lenin Park to Revolution Place and then across the pedestrian bridge to the Ivan Gate. There is another entrance to the fortress from behind the zoo at the west end. Today, the whole fortress is a museum, as decreed in 1924 by the Soviet government. It certainly has changed over time. The Boat House is now a souvenir shop for visitors. The Engineer's Building is now a museum of the history of St. Petersburg. It holds collections that illustrate daily life in the city. Now the Kronverk holds a military collection (St. Petersburg 149). The Mint just makes military medals. There is nothing left of the Old Arsenal except the ruins of it. The Artillery Museum now holds a collection of swords, military souvenirs, uniforms and battle paintings. Cannons are in front of the courtyard (St. Petersburg 149). The Commandant's House has an exhibit on the history of the fortress, including the naval aspect that was so important to Peter I. Several of the cells of the Trubetskoy Bastion have been restored to their 19th Century appearance, and visitors can get an impression of what conditions were like for political prisoners in Imperial Russia.
While many local people probably visit the museum to appreciate its history and architecture, some locals sunbathe on the strip of beach between the fortress walls and the Neva. They stand against the walls to shelter themselves from the wind. Furthermore, local people can still hear the cannon being fired at noon, and during the holidays they can see the lit torches on the fortress walls.
The fortress, as well as the cathedral, is under the authority of the State Museum of the History of St. Petersburg. The Grand-Ducal Vault has an exhibit on The History of the Construction of the Peter and Paul Fortress. The chiming clock is now silent because they cannot decide what anthem to play, "God save the Tsar" or a song by Glinka. Interesting, though, the tradition of burying the imperial family in the cathedral was revived.
Hare Island, with the main components being the fortress and cathedral, holds much of the history of the city of St. Petersburg and of Russia. The fortress itself is a monument to the power of Peter the Great, but its history shows how hard it was for the laborers to build. The cathedral shows Peter's interest in the West and determination to bring the West to Russia. Beyond that, the cathedral is evidence of the Russians' appreciation for art and architecture as well as the importance of religion throughout their history. The fortress and cathedral fit with the myth of St. Petersburg because they exemplify the exquisite beauty and majesty of the city as well as the dark struggles of the city's past. It was indeed a miracle that such magnificent structures could be built on such unstable land with so few common tools. This captures the essence of the miracles and the myths that depict the city of St. Petersburg.
last update: May 16, 2002