City of Saint Petersburg: History and heritage (3/4)

The heart of St. Petersburg was not going to be Vasili Island, as Peter the Great had imagined, nor the Peter and Paul Fortress where the city's foundation stone was laid. In fact, the city center is on the south bank of the Neva. The reason is essentially practical: in an absolute and highly centralized monarchy, it ultimately made sense that the palace of the tsar and autocrat of all the Russias became the nerve center of the imperial capital.

Over the Neva

Two bridges allow you to cross from Vassili Island to the left bank of the Neva: that of the Palace, already mentioned, and the bridge of Lieutenant Schmidt (Most Leytenanta Schmita, sometimes also called Blagoveshchenskyy Most, the Annunciation Bridge). Let's borrow the latter. The uninformed visitor will notice sort of sentry boxes in the middle of the bridge. These are the command posts, for the simple reason that this bridge rises, like all the other bridges on the Neva - which explains in part why there are so few of them, compared to French cities like Lyon or Paris. , and relatively to the city scale.

This is because the Neva connects the Baltic Sea with Lake Ladoga, which is itself connected by various canals to the rest of the Russian waterways, notably the Volga basin. It is therefore an important axis of communication, with the passage of heavy tonnage ships. Blocked by ice for almost half of the year, navigation is reopened as soon as the river thaws. Obviously, bridges cannot be raised piecemeal, given the impact this would have on traffic.

There are therefore time slots during which the bridges are raised at night, generally between one and five in the morning. This can be problematic for getting around the city, as the metro is closed from midnight to 7 a.m., so there is no way to get from one bank to the other. The party animal who, for example, wants to leave his hotel on Vassili Island to have fun in one of the many nightclubs on the south shore will only have to wait to return.

In the worst case, if it is June, he will always be able to console himself by contemplating the magical spectacle of the raised bridges standing out in the milky and humid light of the famous "white nights": the period of the summer solstice when , the latitude helping, the sun hardly sets, and where the night is limited to two or three hours of twilight. Obviously, around the winter solstice in December, it's the other way around: "dark days" when you can't see the sun.

Fortunately for the night owl, Russia is not France: there is no closure by prefectural order at one in the morning and most of the nightlife in Petersburg close much later. The same is true of cafes or restaurants, even certain stores, frequently open at times that we would consider perfectly incongruous. St Petersburg is a city that never really stops: you can eat a chicken there at six in the morning - which won't necessarily be superfluous if you've drunk too much of the excellent local beer (piva in Russian), a drink much more widely consumed in Russia than vodka.

The Bronze Horseman

While they are also important, let’s leave these few thoughts on what makes St. Petersburg so soulful - what its inhabitants call more simply Piter - and continue on our way. Turn left after the bridge, going up the Quai des Anglais (Naberezhnaya Anglisky), we soon pass an imposing yellow building: it is the old Senate. In the days of the tsars, it was not strictly speaking a legislative body, but simply the place where the sovereign's closest advisers met. Today it houses the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation, the highest judicial body in the country, recently transferred from Moscow to St Petersburg.

Immediately after the Senate, we come face to face with one of the most famous symbols of St Petersburg, the monumental equestrian statue of Peter the Great. Perched on a pink granite monolith weighing more than a thousand tons, the Tsar stretches his arm towards the newly conquered lands in an imperious posture, while his rearing horse tramples the Swedish serpent. The whole was designed by a French artist, Falconet, but the base bears a simple dedication (in Russian and Latin) for any legend: " To Peter Ier, Catherine II ". The work was inaugurated in 1782, and the townspeople simply call him "the Bronze Horseman".

It owes this nickname to the eponymous poem by Alexander Pushkin, written in 1833, which generations of Russian schoolchildren have learned by heart - Russian pedagogy is based on this type of learning, essentially. The poet sings there his love for his city, and in fact, St Petersburg is a city with which one easily falls in love. He also recalls the murderous floods of 1827, which devastated a large part of the city. Pushkin and the statue have become, in Russian culture, inseparable from the city and, at the same time, are considered by the people of Petersburg themselves as emblematic figures.

The large square which hosts the statue is called "Place des Décembristes". It was here that in December 1825, a group of army officers attempted a liberal coup, after the death of Alexander Ier. Instead of his legitimate successor, his brother Nicolas Ier, the putschists placed on the throne another brother of Alexander, Constantine. Their soldiers gathered in what was then Senate Square, now planted with trees, but which at the time was bare. However, their maneuver failed and their supporters were crushed in blood in the same square. Some leaders were condemned to death and executed, others deported to Siberia with their families. Under Soviet rule, the place was renamed Place des Décembristes (Plochchad ’Dekabristov), although their coup was not a popular revolution.


On the other side of the square, you come to Saint Isaac's Cathedral (Isaakievskyy Sobor - pronounce this last word "sabor" because the first "o" is not accentuated: a recurring characteristic, and quite confusing, of the Russian language), quite representative of an excess, as much in the luxury as in the size, typical of St. Petersburg. Its large golden dome rises more than a hundred meters above the ground, and each of the four arms of its Greek cross plan is flanked by columns of pink granite - ubiquitous in St. Petersburg because it was the most rapidly available rock. , the quarries in Finland - 17 meters high. We will pass through the heavy bronze doors, in front of which the visitor feels very small.

To prevent his colossal creation from sinking into the loose soil of the ancient swamp, the French architect - again - Auguste de Montferrand stabilized it by inserting thousands of stakes, each several meters deep. The construction took place over forty years and was completed in 1858. Besides the museum which is there, the main interest of St-Isaac is the staircase of some 200 steps which, for less than 200 rubles, allows to climb to the colonnade which supports the dome. This is where you get the best view of a city center that is otherwise uniformly flat, and where buildings rarely exceed five or six stories.

We will be able to discover on this occasion ... yet another place, with another equestrian statue, opposite the Bronze Horseman: that of Nicolas Ier, the slayer of the Decembrists. The latter had a palace built opposite it for his daughter Marie, hence the name of the Mariinsky Palace. This now houses the St Petersburg City Hall. Its facade proudly displays, as a soldier would on its chest, the decorations won during the Second World War: Order of the Red Flag, Order of Lenin, city-heroine of the Soviet Union ...

From the Admiralty Gardens to Palace Square

Now let's leave the town hall, turn around and head back to the Neva. East of the Place des Décembristes lie the Admiralty and its gardens. The Admiralty building, also painted yellow, was not only intended as a headquarters (a function it still fulfills today for the Baltic fleet), but also as a shipyard. It thus takes the shape of an incomplete rectangle, with the fourth side open to the Neva. In the space thus delimited, the buildings of the Russian navy were built, until the increasing sophistication of naval engineering in the 19th century led to the installation of the shipyards closer to the Gulf of Finland, where they are located. still presently. We took the opportunity to build buildings in the space thus left free between the Admiralty and the river.

The entrance to the building (obviously closed to the public because of its military function) is surmounted by a golden spire, on top of which is the effigy of the first ship made here, the frigate Standart. Below extend pleasant gardens, which provide the walker with a haven of relative tranquility in the heart of a hyperactive city: a fountain, flower beds, the busts of men of letters, and that of the explorer. from Siberia and Central Asia, Prjewalski. Directly below him was represented the most faithful companion of his journeys, a camel. A great Petersburg classic is to be photographed alongside the camelid, as evidenced by the bronze, polished and devoid of patina, from the top of the statue.

While continuing east, we will leave aside (at least for now) the nascent Nevsky Prospect, to come out on the immense Palace Square. In the center sits the Alexander column, dedicated as its name suggests to Alexander Ier whose reign lasted from 1801 to 1825. The angel and the cross which sit at the top sums up its content well: grandeur and suffering. Marked by the wars waged by this fierce adversary of Napoleon Ier and the victory over the French, it opened in violence with the murder of Paul Ier and similarly ended with the revolt of the Decembrists.

The south face of the square is occupied by the imposing building built to house, under the old regime, the staff of the Imperial Guard - which in 1914 represented the equivalent of an entire army corps and several tens of thousands of men, all the same - and whose main characteristics are a semicircular shape and the arch which stands in the center of the facade. A street, which passes below, leads to Nevsky prospect. However, the most prominent building in Palace Square is ... the Palace itself, or rather the palaces since one must distinguish the Winter Palace from that of the Hermitage.

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