Anastasia Shteinert, Communications and Engagement Manager 

Founded by Peter the Great in 1703, Saint Petersburg stands as a testament to Russia’s rich history. This northern city has played a pivotal role in shaping the cultural and political landscapes not only of Russia but also the entire Europe. A recently-donated album, depicting early 19th-century Petersburg, offers a new perspective on the city’s historic landmarks.

The album was donated to the Russian History Museum in 2022 along with other materials relating to the aristocratic Fersen family. Judged by a French inscription on the album’s flyleaf, dated 23 April/ 7 May, 1838, St. Petersburg, it was a gift to Elise von Rauch (1820-1908) from a certain Vasily Trubetskoy (possibly General Vasily Sergeevich Trubetskoy, a participant of campaigns against Napoleon). Elise was the daughter of Lieutenant General Friedrich Wilhelm von Rauch (1790–1850), Prussia’s military attaché at the Russian court of Emperor Nicholas I. In 1855 she married Count Paul Fersen and became a lady-in-waiting to Nicolas I’s wife, Empress Alexandra Feodorovna (former Princess Charlotte of Prussia).

We chose five hand-tinted etchings from the album, depicting iconic Saint Petersburg spots. Some of these landmarks remain largely unchanged since the 19th century, while others have undergone significant metamorphoses or even been demolished.

Winter Palace

Winter Palace, Fersen Family Papers, Russian History Museum collection

For much of its existence, the Winter Palace palace served as the official residence of the House of Romanov, the dynasty that reigned over Russia from 1613 to 1917. The building that still stands on the Palace Square today was designed by Italian architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli (1700–1771) and constructed between 1754 and 1762. Interestingly, it was only in 1947 that the red—and originally ochre—building was repainted to the turquoise shade accented by white windows that we know today.

Under Catherine the Great, the Winter Palace became home to many works of art, leading to the founding of the Hermitage Museum. Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, which led to the overthrow of the monarchy, the palace and its contents were nationalized. Today, the palace serves as the main building of the State Hermitage Museum, one of the world’s largest art museums, housing almost three million art objects and cultural artifacts.

Read our recent article about one of the most extravagant pre-revolutionary balls in the Winter Palace hosted by Nicholas II and his wife.

Winter Palace, modern view. Source: public domain

Savior Church on Sennaya Square

Savior Church on Sennaya Square, Fersen Family Papers, Russian History Museum collection

This architectural masterpiece has not survived to this day. The Savior Church on Sennaya Square was blown up in 1961 at the height of Nikita Khrushchev’s anti-religious campaign. It was a church with five cupolas in late Baroque style. 

The church’s construction was initiated by Orthodox merchants who traded at the nearby Sennaya Square market. The first church, consecrated in 1753, was wooden. Merchants purchased it in the northeast of Saint Petersburg and transported the entire building to Sennaya Square. Soon after, Archbishop Sylvester (Kulyabka) laid the foundation for a stone church, whose construction was chiefly sponsored by the wealthy merchant Savva Yakovlev. It was likely the architect Andrey Kvasov (ca. 1720–1770) who designed the new stone church. In subsequent years, it was modified multiple times. The church became famous for its tall gilded iconostasis (icon screen), considered one of the finest in the city.

The church’s property was confiscated in the 1920s, and in April 1938 it was permanently closed. In 1961, it was deemed inconsistent with the master plan for the city’s development and blown up. In later years, Saint Petersburg residents developed multiple plans for its rebuilding, none of which were realized. In 2011, however, experts discovered the foundation of the former building, and it was officially recognized as a cultural heritage site of regional significance.

Savior Church on Sennaya Square, early 20th-century. Source: Wikipedia

Imperial Academy of Arts

Imperial Academy of Arts, Fersen Family Papers, Russian History Museum collection

In 1757, Ivan Shuvalov—statesman, art patron, and favorite of Empress Elizaveta Petrovna—founded a new educational institution, calling it the Academy of the Three Noblest Arts. It was located in the Shuvalov Mansion on Sadovaya Street. In 1764, Catherine the Great renamed it the Imperial Academy of Arts and approved the construction of a new building for the institution on Vasilievsky Island by the Neva River. The building, designed by French architect Jean-Baptiste Vallin de la Mothe (1729–1800), opened 25 years later. 

The Academy of Arts was one of the most prestigious higher educational institutions in pre-revolutionary Russia that trained professionals in the visual arts. Its professors and students actively participated in the construction and decoration of major architectural projects, including the Kazan Cathedral and the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood in Saint Petersburg, and the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow.

The historic building on the Neva River in Saint Petersburg now houses the Repin Art Institute, named after one of the academy’s famous alumni, the painter Ilya Repin (1844–1930). Other notable alumni include Vasily Surikov, Mikhail Vrubel, Valentin Serov, and Viktor Vasnetsov. Currently, more than 1,500 students from Russia and abroad are enrolled in the academy. 

Academy of Arts, modern view. Source: Wikipedia

Bronze Horseman

Bronze Horseman, Fersen Family Papers, Russian History Museum collection

The Bronze Horseman remains one of the main symbols of Saint Petersburg. It stands on the Senate Square by the Neva River. Commissioned by Catherine the Great in 1766 and designed by the French sculptor Étienne Maurice Falconet (1716–1791), the monument portrays the first Russian emperor and the founder of Saint Petersburg, Peter the Great, astride a rearing steed. Interestingly, Catherine the Great discussed the concept for the monument with French philosophers Denis Diderot and Voltaire. 

It took nearly a year and 400 men to transport the massive boulder for the monument’s pedestal, known as the “thunder stone,” from the excavation site on the city’s outskirts to its destination. First it was pushed inch by inch on an immense sled, then on a specially constructed barge supported by two warships. Nowadays, one can cover this distance in about half an hour by car. According to a local legend, the stone acquired its unique shape as a result of a lightning strike that fractured the granite. The stone weighed approximately 1,500 tons and was 1,5 billion years old.

Peter the Great’s monument was inaugurated on August 7, 1782. Though the monument is made of bronze, in Russia it became commonly known as the Copper Horseman (медный всадник). This name is derived from the famous poem of the same name by Russian poet Alexander Pushkin. 

Bronze Horseman, modern view. Source: Wikipedia

Peter and Paul Fortress

Peter and Paul Fortress, Fersen Family Papers, Russian History Museum collection

Peter the Great established the Peter and Paul Fortress on the small Hare Island in the Neva River. It is the historical heart of Saint Petersburg. The date of its foundation, 16 (27) May 1703 [1], is considered the official date of the city’s founding. Swiss architect Domenico Trezzini (1670–1734) designed the citadel as a star-shaped fortress.

Hare Island was a strategic location because the Peter and Paul Fortress artillery could control the movement of vessels along the Neva, with the ability to fire on enemy ships almost point-blank. Although it was constructed during the Great Northern War (1700-1721), primarily fought between the Swedish Empire and an alliance of the Tsardom of Russia, Denmark–Norway, and the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, the fortress never saw military action. Instead, it served as a prison from the early 18th century until the 1920s. In 1924 it was converted into a museum.

Another symbol of Petersburg, the Peter and Paul Cathedral, is located within fortress walls. Also designed by Trezzini, it continues to function as an Orthodox cathedral and is the resting place of Russia’s emperors. It is the first and oldest landmark in the city. The church’s 404-foot spire is gilded and is surmounted by an angel holding a cross.

A cannon fires a blank shot from the Naryshkin Bastion of the Peter and Paul Fortress every day at noon. This tradition is enshrined in the charter of Saint Petersburg.

Peter and Paul Fortress, modern view. Source: public domain

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[1] The date in the parentheses reflects the historical difference in calendar systems. The Old style, Julian calendar, was prevalent in Russia at the time, and the New Style, Gregorian calendar, was introduced in 1918 to correct discrepancies. Nowadays, City Day in Saint Petersburg is celebrated according to the New Style on May 27.