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Monday, 16 May 2016
On This Day: Society for Education of Noble Maidens (Smolny Institute) Established in St. Petersburg
Topic: St. Petersburg

Note: this article has been amended from its original by Paul Gilbert @ Royal Russia

On 16 May (O.S. 5 May), 1764 the Empress Catherine II established the first Russian privileged closed institution of secondary education for daughters of gentlemen by birth – ‘Society for Education of Noble Maidens’ (Smolny Institute for Noble Maidens) in St. Petersburg 

The full name of the decree was ‘On the education of noble maidens in St. Petersburg under the Resurrection Monastery; including the Regulations and personnel of the Educational Society’. The document consisted of an introductory part and two chapters. The first chapter contained 6 sections: On positions of wardens and acceptance of noble maidens to the institute; On division of the accepted maidens into four age classes, on personnel and education; On the lady superior; On lady ruler; On ladies supervisors; On ladies teachers and masters. The second chapter covered the education in general.

The initiator of the Society’s creation and the author of its Regulations was Ivan Ivanovich Betskoy. The closeness of the institution was the major condition and idea of Betskoy who was planning to educate a ‘new generation’ of young women. According to the decree the objective of this educational institution was to ‘… provide for the state educated women, good mothers, useful family and society members’.

The Smolny Institute of Noble Maidens was housed next to the Smolny Resurrection Convent; in 1809 it was given a new building constructed in accordance with a design by the famed architect Giacomo Quarenghi (1744-1817).

The educational society took care of 200 noble maidens. Their education lasted for 12 years and was divided into 4 age classes of 3 years each. The first admission of girls aged 4 to 6 took place in August of 1764.

Girls of each age class wore dresses of a particular colour: the first class wore coffee-coloured dresses so that its pupils were often called coffee-girls; the second class wore blue dresses, the third one – gray ones and the older girls wore white dresses. Later, the white being easily soiled, were replaced by green ones but the tradition to call the class ‘white’ remained.

Pupils’ began their day at 6:00 a.m. After the morning prayer and breakfast the classes started. Intellectual work alternated with physical exercises, daily walks, outdoor games. The girls were taught reading, writing, history, geography, foreign languages, fundamentals of mathematics, physics, chemistry as well as needlework, dancing, music, and social manner of conduct.

Their knowledge was evaluated in accordance with a 12-point system: 1-2 points – ‘bad’; 3-4 – ‘poor’; 5-6 – ‘satisfactory’, 7-8 – ‘good’, 9-10 – ‘very good’, 11-12 – ‘excellent’.

The major event in the girls’ life was a public exam attended by the members of the Imperial family. At the graduation the pupils received certificates. During the reign of Catherine II  – a golden cipher bearing the Empress’ monogram – was granted to six best pupils; during the reign of Maria Feodorovna – to ten. The best girls received positions in the service of the Russian Court.

In summer of 1917 the pupils of the Institute were transferred to other educational institutions.

© Presidential Library / Paul Gilbert @ Royal Russia. 16 May, 2016


Posted by Paul Gilbert at 4:16 PM EDT
Updated: Monday, 16 May 2016 5:12 PM EDT
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Thursday, 13 November 2014
Historic Clock to Chime Again in St. Petersburg
Topic: St. Petersburg

The Duma Clock, seen here in a pre-Revolutionary postcard, is one of the defining vertical
features of Nevsky Prospekt and will once again toll the hour following restoration.
The historic mechanism of the clock on the city’s Duma Tower on the corner of Nevsky Prospekt and Dumskaya Ulitsa will be unveiled today, Sberbank announced. The clock, which was one of the first and most accurate in the city, was placed on the building of the St. Petersburg City Duma in 1804. In 1884, the mechanism of the clock was repaired by the St. Petersburg firm Friedrich Winter, but later the mechanism deteriorated and the clock was equipped with an electric gear system. The Duma Tower’s clock will also renew its tradition of bell chimes to inform city residents of the time. Sberbank has occupied the building of the City Duma and the Tower since 1998 on a long-term lease and has been gradually restoring the premises since then. 
© St. Petersburg Times. 13 November, 2014


Posted by Paul Gilbert at 1:57 PM EST
Updated: Thursday, 13 November 2014 2:02 PM EST
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Wednesday, 5 November 2014
The Iron Steeds of the Fontanka
Topic: St. Petersburg

A vintage photo of the Anichkov Bridge, circa 1870. The Beloselsky-Belozersky Palace can be seen to the left.
Copyright Notice: The following article was originally published in the November 5th, 2014 edition of The St. Petersburg Times. The author Gus Peters, owns the copyright of the work presented below.

In a city defined by the hundreds of bridges that span the numerous canals and rivers, the Anichkov Bridge on Nevsky Prospekt is one of the most recognizable. While it is not the largest bridge, since it is only 54.6 meters long and 37.9 meters wide, it is one of the oldest and most distinctive.

The first bridge on the spot of the modern-day central thoroughfare was erected in 1715 and acted as a checkpoint. At the time of its construction, it was the edge of the city, the river acting as a natural frontier and the bridge offering a narrow roadway to the outskirts. The name of the bridge honors its builder, Lieutenant Colonel Mikhail Anichkov, the bridge’s engineer.

After going drastic redesigns in 1726 and 1742, architect Simon Volkov built a new wooden bridge in 1749 that far exceeded its predecessor in structural strength. According to one account, the reason for this upgrade was so that the bridge could accommodate the weight of elephants, which were to be given to the Shah of Iran as a gift.

As the city expanded, the other side of the river morphed into suburbs, and stone bridges were commissioned in order to make it easier for the city’s residents to travel back and forth easily from one side to the other. By the 1840s, Nevsky Prospekt was wider than the Anichkov Bridge and a new bridge made of stone was erected.

Today’s bridge rests on three arches that provide a sturdy base of granite. The railings, which feature designs honoring the city’s close relationship with the Baltic Sea, were modeled after the railings bordering Berlin’s Palace Bridge.

What makes the bridge striking is not its location but the four statues, one of each that stand sentinel on the bridge’s corners. The statues are known as the Horse Tamers and they are a tribute to the workers in the royal stables. Sculpted by Baron Peter Klodt von Jurgensburg, an artillery officer of Baltic German descent, he originally built two for the embankment in front of the Academy of Fine Arts but the sphinxes that remain there to this day were chosen instead in 1834.

Yet the horse tamer statues were such masterpieces that the city did not want them to languish. They were instead sent as a gift to King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia and another pair of the statues was cast and sent to Sicilian king Ferdinand II. Ferdinand’s pair can still be seen outside Naples’ Royal Palace to this day.

Von Jurgensburg’s plaster copies were used to good effect in 1851 when they and two more were sculpted for the four corners of the bridge. The statues were modeled after Amalatbek, an Arabian stallion that the Lieutenant Colonel’s daughter made prance about while he sketched.

The statues were removed during the Siege of Leningrad and although they survived the war, the bridge itself was damaged during the ceaseless warfare. After the siege was lifted, the statues were placed back in their usual location.

An endearing symbol of not only the city’s transformation over the years but its reputation as one of the world’s most scenic urban centers, the Anichkov Bridge remains an integral part of St. Petersburg’s most famous road. 
© Gus Peters / St. Petersburg Times. 05 November, 2014


Posted by Paul Gilbert at 6:34 AM EST
Updated: Wednesday, 5 November 2014 6:45 AM EST
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Thursday, 11 September 2014
Haunted St. Petersburg: Intrigue, Ghosts and Murder
Topic: St. Petersburg

Copyright Notice: The following article was originally published under it's original title: 5 most haunting places in St Petersburg in the September 6th, 2013 edition of Russia Beyond the Headlines. The author Dmitry Sevastianov, owns the copyright of the condensed version presented below.
The draw of Russia's northern capital lies as much in its tales of intrigue, ghosts and murder as in the architectural marvels on Nevsky Prospekt.

Every day hundreds of tourists visit the Yusupov museum to see the famous rooms of Felix Yusupov, where the murder of Rasputin took place. But the sombre history of the Northern Capital began long before the murder of Grigory Rasputin.

Mikhailovsky Castle. 1801. The Murder of Emperor Paul I

One of the most ominous palaces in the centre of St. Petersburg is without question Mikhailovsky Castle, also known as the Engineers Castle. Paul I built it for himself as an impenetrable sanctuary, but from the moment it was built it was doomed to become the place he would spend his final moments. Subsequent modifications to the space in front of the castle make it difficult to conceive just how serious the fortifications once were. Back in the reign of Paul I, Connetable Square, the area where the monument of Peter I now stands, was completely surrounded by a moat and bailey with cannons standing sentinel on drawbridges.

Despite the moats, ramparts and guards, there was never any doubt about Paul’s fate – even the castle guards were in on the plot. The chief guard, a man called Argamakov, led the conspirators directly to Paul’s bedroom. The conspirators claimed they merely acting out of concern for the country’s fate, given that the emperor was insane, and they were in fact a group of high dignitaries: among them were general governor of St. Petersburg Peter Pahlen, Vice-Chancellor Nikita Panin, the Zubov brothers (one of whom was Platon Zubov - the last favourite of Catherine II), commanders of four guard troops, and a number of high ranking officers. It is generally thought that the son of the victim, future emperor Alexander I, knew of the plot and had given his approval, either voluntary or under duress. Alexander’s part in his father’s murder was something that haunted him for the rest of his life.

It was never the plotters intention to kill the tsar, they just wanted to remove him from power. But, as memoirists recall, “the fateful catastrophe happened unexpectedly”. Paul hid himself, but the perpetrators found him and tried to arrest him. A struggle ensued before Nikolai Zubov issued the first blow with a golden tobacco box. One version claims Pavel was immediately killed by this blow to the temple, but others say he was beaten to a pulp before being strangled with a silk scarf. Officially it was announced that the tsar had “died of a stroke”.

Paul only managed to live forty days in the Mikhailovsky Castle. Several times before he died he claimed he saw himself reflected in a mirror, strangled with a collapsed neck, and in these moments he would experience an unexplainable shortness of breath.

Cathedral of the Spilled Blood. 1881. Murder of Emperor Alexander II

The grand, elegant structure of the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood - built in traditional Russian style to emulate St. Basil's Cathedral at Red Square –stands in sharp contrast to the sad event it was built to commemorate.

There were no obvious motives for the tsar’s assassination. Alexander II was neither a tyrant, like his father and his grandfather, nor was he a weak ruler, like his son and grandson. His official title as ‘the giver of freedom’ was well deserved – he was the ruler who finally abolished serfdom in Russia. But the assassins were brutally determined; first they attempted shooting him while he was out walking, then they attempted to blow him up in his own palace and on a train, without a seconds thought about the collateral victims.

On 1 March Alexander II was on his way back to the Winter Palace. The first explosion did nothing more than damage his carriage. When the tsar got out to confront Nikolai Rusakov, who had thrown the bomb, a second terrorist, Ignaty Grinevetsky, hurled another bomb at the tsar’s feet.

The exact place where the tsar was mortally wounded – part of the railings and the cobble stone pavement – has been preserved inside the cathedral, under the western cupola. For a long time the neighbouring streets (now Malaya and Bolshaya Konyushennaya Streets) were named after the main participants in the plot - Sofia Perovskaya and Andrei Zhelyabov.

Yusupov Palace. 1916. The Murder of Rasputin

This infamous Petersburg crime happened on 17 (29) December 1916 at the Yusupov residence on the Moika river . It actually began inside the historic palace in the lavish rooms of Felix Yusupov. The conspirators acted to save the country and protect the tsar and his family from the influence of this mysterious peasant-monk.

The circumstances surrounding his death are well known: Rasputin was invited to the Yusupovs’ house on the pretext of meeting Felix’s wife. Here he was fed almond cakes laced with potassium cyanide. When this didn’t work the plotters sprayed him with dozens of bullets, but the seemingly invincible Grigory Rasputin still managed to run across the yard and climb over the fence. After this he was finally caught, seized and drowned in the icy Malaya Nevka River near Kamenny Island.

His body was found shortly after due to the trail of blood leading from the bridge, and divers retrieved him from beneath the ice. His embalmed corpse was secretly buried in the private Aleksandrovsky Park at Tsarkoe Selo, on the site of the Seraphim Sarovsky Cathedral that was then under construction. Just one year later revolutionary soldiers found the grave and his body was destroyed - incinerated in the furnace of a boiler at the Polytechnic Institute. His ashes were scattered to the wind.

In 2005 an inscribed cross was placed at Rasputin’s first burial location at Tsarskoe Selo.

The Yusupov Palace hosts a permanent exhibition entitled “Rasputin. Myth and Reality”, and in the painstakingly-restored reception rooms it is possible to attend concerts and dances where, dressed in tails or a floor-length dress, you can feel like a real member of pre-revolutionary high-society. Alternatively there are hourly tours of the palace every day from 11am. One of the tours will take you through every stage of Rasputin’s murder. 
© Dmitry Sevastianov / Russia Beyond the Headlines. 11 September, 2014


Posted by Paul Gilbert at 6:49 AM EDT
Updated: Thursday, 11 September 2014 7:49 AM EDT
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Wednesday, 3 September 2014
The Admiralty, St. Petersburg
Topic: St. Petersburg

The gilded spire of the Admiralty dominates this 19th century photochrome. The Winter Palace can be seen in the background, painted in its original pre-Revolutionary red colour
Copyright Notice: The following article was originally published in the August 27th, 2014 edition of The St. Petersburg Times. The author Jonathan Melvin, owns the copyright of the work presented below.

One of St. Petersburg most oldest and, arguably, most historically important buildings, the Admiralty building serves as the focal point of Nevsky Prospekt, Gorokhovaya Ulitsa, and Voznesenskiy Prospekt. While its location at the convergence of some of St. Petersburg’s most epochal streets embodied Peter’s emphasis and, some would say, obsession with the importance of northern capital’s maritime might, it served a far more important and realistic purpose during St. Petersburg’s early years. Those familiar with their Russian military history will remember that during the Great Northern War against a Swedish empire under the young Charles XII, the Admiralty shipyards served as the backbone of the Russian Navy, cementing Russia’s expansion north and, more importantly, its access to the Baltic Sea.

The original yards themselves were built within range of the cannons fortifying the Peter and Paul Fortress, so as to allow the yards to be assaulted should they fall into enemy hands. The oldest construction in St. Petersburg, the Admiralty was initially a heavily fortified shipyard surrounded by a moat and four tower bastions at the corners of each fortification. The first commissioned warship built by the Admiralty yard was lowered into the Neva in 1706. It is said that Peter, a master shipbuilder himself, was often seen toiling in the yards along with thousands of tradesmen, workers and merchants.

By the 1840s, most of St. Petersburg shipbuilding had moved downstream. At this point, the shipyard was no longer of any practical use and the Admiralty was put under the administration of the Russian Navy. In 1870, the Navy had filled in or decommissioned most of the Admiralty’s internal docks and canals. This newly formed land was then occupied by a number of administrative buildings, private mansions and palaces that remain to this day. The Admiralty continued to house the Ministry of the Navy and the Naval Museum up to the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution, when the former shipyard served as a final rallying point for Tsarist forces.

The iconic spire adorning the originally wooden gate was built in 1711 by architect Ivan Korobov, after the tower had been added to the center of the foremost façade. The Admiralty building itself was rebuilt between 1806 and 1823 during the reign of Alexander I, in the style of “High Classicism.” Andreyan Zakharov, one of St. Petersburg’s most accomplished architects and a professor at the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts, was responsible for the design of the reconstruction. Some of Zakharov’s work remains today, including the depiction of Neptune, the Roman god of the sea, handing his trident of power to Peter the Great. Unfortunately, the intricacies of this and other depictions were ruthlessly destroyed in 1860 under the rule of Alexander II, when the clergy began attempts to purge the northern capital of all things pagan.

The Admiralty of today, home to the Naval College and boasting an enormous 400-meter-long façade, anchoring the complex within the heavily wooded Alexandrovsky Garden, remains one of the most iconic and historically significant buildings in St. Petersburg. 
© Jonathan Melvin / The St. Petersburg Times. 03 September, 2014


Posted by Paul Gilbert at 11:16 AM EDT
Updated: Thursday, 4 September 2014 11:21 AM EDT
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Sunday, 31 August 2014
From St. Petersburg to Petrograd
Topic: St. Petersburg

One hundred years ago, on 31st August  [O.S. 18th August] 1914, the name of St. Petersburg disappeared from the map of the Russian Empire.  Emperor Nicholas II ordered the renaming the city during the First World War, for political and ideological reasons, on a wave of anti-German sentiment. It’s German name was considered irrelevant and alien due to the conditions of the war with Germany, so a decision was made to remove the German words Sankt and Burg from the city name.

The renaming of the Russian capital, however, was to turn into stormy public debate. Not every one in St. Petersburg considered changing the name as the right step. Many treated it with irony and bitterness. Emperor Nicholas II, who signed this manifesto on August 31st,  listened to much ridicule on the matter, even from his mother. "Soon, we shall call Peterhof,  Petrushkin yard"- feared the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna.

Petrograd, meaning "Peter's City",  - the new name of the then Russian capital corresponded with the political sentiment of the time, and in line with the Slavic spirit of the people, who inspired their fellow Slavs in the Balkans. The city wanted that the capital should reflect a Russian name, and St. Petersburg was about to become Holy Petrograd. But in the end it was shortened to Petrograd. The city lived with this name for the next 10 years, a period which became one of the most complex and dramatic periods in its history.

The headline of a special edition of the newspaper Commercial News announced: "We went to bed at St. Petersburg, and woke up in Petrograd!". 
After 10 years, the city was renamed Leningrad. And in 1991, returned to it’s original historic name - St. Petersburg. 
© Paul Gilbert @ Royal Russia. 31 August, 2014


Posted by Paul Gilbert at 7:00 AM EDT
Updated: Thursday, 4 September 2014 7:05 AM EDT
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Wednesday, 6 August 2014
The Alexander Column, Palace Square in St. Petersburg
Topic: St. Petersburg

View of Palace Square with the Alexander Column and the General Staff Building taken from a window of the State Hermitage Museum (Winter Palace)
Copyright Notice: The following article was originally published in the August 6th, 2014 edition of The St. Petersburg Times. The author Jonathan Melvin, owns the copyright of the work presented below.

Named after Alexander I, who ruled Russia from 1801 to 1825, the Alexander Column (Aleksandrovskaya Kolonna) is one of the most iconic monuments of the northern capital. Anchoring the surrounding Palace Square, the column is indeed the focal point of the open area outside the Winter Palace. Designed by French-born architect Auguste de Montferrand, who also designed St. Isaac’s Cathedral, and built between 1830 and 1834 under the direction of Swiss architect Antonio Adamini, the monolith — the tallest of its kind in the world — was built at the behest of Nicholas I in dedication to his brother’s and Russia’s military victory over Napoleon during the French conquest of Europe, known as the Napoleonic Wars, which lasted from 1803 to 1815, or in Russia as the Patriotic War of 1812.

Standing at 47.5 meters, the column itself is a masterpiece of craftsmanship and, at the time of construction, a significant feat of engineering. The main part of the column features a single piece of red granite, nearly 25.5 meters tall and around 3.5 meters in diameter. The gargantuan granite monolith — weighing in at just over 600 tons — was transported by sea from Virolahti, Finland, to St. Petersburg in 1832. Remarkably, the column was so finely set that the base of the column remains unfastened.

The column’s pedestal features bas-relief decorative illustrations that exemplify Russia’s military glory. The side of the pedestal facing the Winter Palace features winged, angelic-like figures holding a plaque with the translated inscription, “To Alexander I from a grateful Russia.” Depictions of iconic Russian military arms and wear — including the shield of Prince Oleg of Novgorod, the helmet of Alexander Nevsky, and the breastplate of Emperor Alexander I, amongst others — serve as reminders of those military heroes who brought glory and victory to Russia. Just as impressive are the other three sides of the pedestal, which feature the metaphorical figures of Wisdom and Abundance, Justice and Mercy, and Peace and Victory.

Arguably the most iconic piece of the Alexander Column is the statue of an angel bearing a cross at its very top. Designed by Russian sculptor Boris Orlovsky, it is said that the face of the angel was modeled after the face of Emperor Alexander I.

Taking place exactly two years after the column was placed upon its pedestal, the column was officially inaugurated with a military ceremony on Aug. 30, 1834. Poet Vasily Zhukovsky wrote on his recollections of the event: “No pen can describe the grandeur of that moment when, at the sound of three cannon shots, from all the streets there suddenly appeared, as if springing out from the earth, huge, shapely columns of Russian troops moving to the thunder of drums and the sound of the Parisian March.”

Allegedly, Soviet authorities sought to secretly replace the angel atop Alexander Column in 1952 with a statue of Joseph Stalin. Though the Soviets apparently did not undertake such a measure, a historic cast-iron railing around the column was removed for some time, though it was eventually restored in 2002. Nonetheless, the original, nearly 200-year-old monolith survived the Soviet era and stands today as a gigantic, solitary guardian at the gates of the Winter Palace. 
© Jonathan Melvin / The St. Petersburg Times. 06 August, 2014


Posted by Paul Gilbert at 5:37 AM EDT
Updated: Friday, 8 August 2014 5:46 AM EDT
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Sunday, 25 May 2014
The Rise and Fall of the Eliseev Family
Topic: St. Petersburg

Copyright Notice: The following article was originally published in the May 25th, 2014 edition of The St. Petersburg Times. The author Peter Campbell owns the copyright presented below.

St. Petersburg has always been a city of trade. Throughout the centuries, royalty and nobility have attracted merchants who have made their fortunes importing fine goods to the best families and exporting raw materials throughout Europe. Among these merchant families there are few better known or have had a more visible presence in the city than the Eliseev family.
Click on the link below to read the full article at Royal Russia News:

The Rise and Fall of the Eliseev Family 

© Peter Campbell and The St. Petersburg Times. 25 May, 2014


Posted by Paul Gilbert at 2:36 PM EDT
Updated: Sunday, 25 May 2014 2:55 PM EDT
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Wednesday, 14 May 2014
Museum Night Returns to St. Petersburg
Topic: St. Petersburg

Once a year in St. Petersburg, the public has a chance to discover what really goes on in a museum at night after the doors are closed.

On Saturday, May 17, 96 museums in the city, as well as the Leningrad Zoo, will keep their doors open until the early morning hours as part of the annual Museum Night. Each will have a special program prepared for visitors, including one-off exhibitions, performances and concerts.

The annual event, which celebrates International Museum Day, is held across 42 European countries. Up to 2,000 museums around the world are estimated to participate in the event this year.

First held in Berlin in 1997, St. Petersburg first joined the annual event in 2008. Every year the event has a new theme as a way of uniting the museums, with this year’s theme being “Light and Color.”

Twenty-one St. Petersburg museums will be participating in the event for the first time. Among these is the Baltiisky Dom Theater, which promises to reveal the secrets of the backstage as well as show visitors how the performances are created.

Stroganovsky Palace, regarded as one of the most romantic palaces in St. Petersburg, will also be joining the event for the first time, giving guests a chance to uncover the secrets of the building’s architecture.

Having just celebrated Victory Day, many locals may also be in the mood to visit the Museum of the Defense and the Siege of Leningrad, where military cars and Red Army weapons will be exhibited along with other memorabilia from the siege.

One of the most interesting events of the night will actually happen just outside the city, at the Priory Palace in Gatchina. Built in the late 18th century as a prior of the Maltese Order by Russian Emperor Paul I, its program on Museum Night will include a reenactment of a military drill around the palace by knights from Malta.

Special performances on the night include a concert at St. Isaac’s Cathedral, with an orchestra playing in front at 9 p.m.

To help people plan their evening, the Museum Night website helps visitors to map out their best route as they pick their museums, as well as displaying the most popular choices so far. Currently, top museum choices include the St. Petersburg botanical gardens and the planetarium, where films will be screened on the building’s facade and, if weather permits, will allow visitors the chance to get up close to the stars above with telescope viewings.

Those interested in taking part in the event can buy a Museum Night ticket for 350 rubles ($10), which will give them entry to all museums. Children seven and under have free entry. Visitors can also buy single entry tickets at each museum.

To help with public transport for the night, special city night buses will be operating from midnight until 6 a.m. There will also be five Museum Night buses operating with routes between major museums, which will be free for those with a Museum Night ticket. 
© St. Petersburg Times. 14 May, 2014


Posted by Paul Gilbert at 8:56 AM EDT
Updated: Thursday, 15 May 2014 9:04 AM EDT
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Tuesday, 18 February 2014
St. Petersburg Before the Great War: The Point of No Return
Topic: St. Petersburg

St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg before the Great War, 1914
The following article was originally published in the February 2nd, 2014 edition of the Russian publication, Ogonek Magazine. The author of this article, Lev Lurye owns the copyright presented below.
The first six months of 1914 were a kind of calm before the storm, but when the imperial capital of St. Petersburg exploded in July, the results were swift and catastrophic.

The year 1914 began without any particular sense of foreboding. Russia’s attention was fixed on sports rather than politics. Berlin was hosting the world skating championship and Vasily Ippolitov was among the medalists.
There was also a men’s figure skating event in the Finnish capital, then known as Helsingfors; and a women’s skating competition in St. Moritz, Switzerland. The Russian soccer team played friendly matches against Norway and Sweden.

The political situation in Russia seemed calm on the surface. The economy was growing at an unprecedented rate of between 10-20 percent. According to British journalist Maurice Baring, who was reporting on the situation at the time, Russia was going through an unprecedented period of prosperity, and there had never been a time when the vast majority of Russia’s citizens had fewer reasons to complain.

There was, however, a strict class system in the Russian Empire that severely restricted social mobility. The workers had no hope of breaking out of the ranks of the proletariat; farmers craved ownership of the land they had worked for centuries, but belonged to a few wealthy landlords. Ordinary people seemed ready to riot at the slightest provocation.
According to the diary of Russian Emperor Nicholas II, the year 1914 began much like any other. Nicholas wrote that on many occasions he had “joyful opportunities" to see Grigory Rasputin. On the day of German Kaiser Wilhelm's birthday the emperor had a breakfast with the German ambassador.

Nicholas II met the New Year in the town of Tsarskoe Selo outside St. Petersburg before heading for the Crimea. “We have inspected large herds of livestock, cows and horses,” the emperor wrote. “We also saw aurochs and bison, as well as zebras.

I had my head spinning from so many impressions and such an astonishing variety of animals.” After the trip to the Crimea, the Russian royal family visited Romania before returning to their palace at Peterhof and sailing to Finland aboard the royal yacht.

According to his diary, the emperor worked a lot, and took great pleasure from his leisure time. "We assembled puzzles from wooden bits, and then played dominoes and dice," he wrote. He and Crown Prince Alexei built a snow tower on their frozen pond at Tsarskoe Selo.

When winter turned to spring, they bathed an elephant in that same pond. Other warm-weather entertainments included canoeing, swimming, and playing tennis. The emperor diligently recorded the results of his royal hunts: “Pheasants - 33; partridges – 22; rabbits – 56 in total”. After sunset the royal family would often watch “funny and interesting cinematography.”

Cockfighting was all the rage among the St. Petersburg merchant class at the time. “The cocks square off, then throw themselves against each other, furiously pecking and striking with their legs and wings, until one of them falls to the ground, all bloodied, or saves itself by means of shameful retreat. The owner of the winning cockerel can make 10-15 rubles a day,” the emperor wrote.

In the 200 years since Peter the Great ascended to the Russian throne, the country had become one of Europe’s cultural powerhouses. During the reign of Alexander II, the West recognized Russian music and literature.

The great actor Konstantin Stanislavsky was the envy of every theater in the Western world. Serge Diaghilev gave the world the Ballets Russes. In 1914, Russia’s artistic achievements appeared to reach their zenith. The country’s artists and poets were famous all over the world.

Although the country even had its own equivalent of Pussy Riot. Many public readings of poetry would end in scandal.

“What if I, an uncultured barbarian, refuse to play entertaining antics before you tonight? What if I break into laughter and spit right in your face? I am a wastrel of precious words,” wrote the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky.

The past in retrospect

After 1917, many began to look for – and to find – the harbingers of the later catastrophe during the seemingly peaceful first half of 1914. To many, it seemed obvious that the calm and orderly streets of St. Petersburg in July 1914 were like a thin crust on top of a boiling lava flow that would eventually break free.

Peter Durnov, the tsar’s perceptive former interior minister, gave this warning to Nicholas II: “The peasant dreams of getting ownership of somebody else’s land for free. The worker wants to grab the factory owner's entire capital and profits. They have no dreams beyond these purposes. If we allow these slogans to gain popularity among the masses, if the government allows the hotheads to agitate with impunity, Russia will be plunged into anarchy.”

On July 7, 10,000 workers in St Petersburg went on strike. By July 10 that number reached 135,000. Workers in Baku soon joined the protest. The main demand of the protesters was the abolition of the monarchy; the strike soon degenerated into violent rioting.

Protestors (described by Vladimir Lenin as “young workers”) stopped all trams in St. Petersburg. One tram driver was stoned to death. Some 200 of the city's 600 tram cars were damaged. Most people commuted via tram, and without the tram lines, there was no transport cheap enough for workers to use. The city’s plants and factories shut down.
The police were unable to control the situation. Fights often broke out between police officers and rioters. The strike ended only when World War I began.

Some historians believe that had the Duma members supported the strike, the political transformations in Russia would not have been as bloody and catastrophic as they turned out to be in 1917. Some also argue that Russia would not even have entered World War I.

On July 25, Nicholas II wrote in his diary: “On Thursday afternoon, Austria put an ultimatum to Serbia; it made several demands, including eight that are unacceptable to any independent state. The deadline for Serbia to comply expired today at 18:00 hours. All the talk everywhere is about what happens next."

The emperor hesitated for a while, but then made a fateful decision. As a long-standing ally of Serbia, Russia put its own ultimatum to Austria. Berlin threw its weight behind Vienna. A week later Germany declared war on Russia; in 10 days’ time the conflict had spiraled into a world war.
© Ogonek Magazine. 18 February, 2014


Posted by Paul Gilbert at 6:49 AM EST
Updated: Tuesday, 18 February 2014 6:58 AM EST
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