To Go or Not to Go: The Peter and Paul Fortress
The Peter and Paul Fortress is undoubtedly one of the most popular tourist destinations in St Petersburg. It makes almost no difference which website or guidebook you look at or who you ask, you’ll almost never see a list of recommended attractions which doesn’t feature the Peter and Paul Fortress near to the top. It’s no surprise then that the Derzhavin Institute’s cultural programme so frequently features excursions around the site. In this blog post we’ll be taking a look at the history of the fortress, explaining what you can expect to see on a tour though the Derzhavin institute, as well as going into the details of a few of the less-well-known aspects of the museums for those who’ve already been there before.
The History of the Fortress
The history of the Peter and Paul Fortress is as old as St. Petersburg itself. Before Peter the Great recaptured the territory of modern day St Petersburg from the Swedish Empire during the Great Northern War, the main settlement in the area was the Swedish town of Nyen and its accompanying fortress, Nyenskans, which was home to some 2500 people and was located where the River Okhta joins the River Neva (across the river from the Smolnii Cathedral). About 5 miles further down the Neva was a small island known as Hare Island, which is where the Peter and Paul Fortress now stands. At that time however, the only thing on Hare Island was a few fishing huts; the ground there was too prone to flooding for anyone to consider building anything more permanent. Nevertheless, when Peter took Nyenskans from the Swedes in May 1703, it was there that he decided to lay the first stones of the first building in St Petersburg, the Peter and Paul Fortress.
Peter had Nyen and its fortress torn down, and ordered that the material be sent downstream to be used in the construction of the new fortifications. The fortress, named after the apostles, Peter and Paul, fills the whole of Hare Island island and has six bastions, one named after Peter himself and 5 named after close friends and advisors who helped oversee the construction on the fortress. Despite its large size and the later addition of yet more defensive structures, the Peter and Paul Fortress never had to be used for its intended purpose of defending Saint Petersburg from seaborne attack. It was rather the fortress of Kronshtadt, located further out into the Gulf of Finland, that served as the city’s gatekeeper. Instead the Peter and Paul Fortress served other purposes, being used to house troops, as a burial ground for the Tsars, and as a prison for political opponents of the monarchy.
The Main Sights on the Derzhavin Tour
If you come to the Peter and Paul Fortress on one of the Derzhavin Institute’s excursions, then you get a more detailed explanation of the fortress’ history and you’ll be given a detailed tour around its grounds. Besides this there are two other main places you’ll get to see. The first of these is the Peter and Paul Cathedral and its adjoining Chapel, located right at the heart of the fortress. Inside this marvellous spired church, you will find the burial ground of the Romanov Tsars. The remains of all of the Tsars and Tsarinas, from Peter I right up to Alexander III, are held here in identical white marble caskets. The only exceptions to these uniform burial practices are Tsar Alexander II and his wife, who are entombed within unique caskets carved from colourful semi-precious stone, and the last Tsar, Nicholas II, and his family, whose remains are all held together in one casket in a small shrine within the cathedral. The adjoining chapel holds the bodies of those members of the Romanov dynasty who did not rule as Tsars. The room is modestly decorated in comparison to the golden altar, crystal chandeliers, and faux-marble pillars of the main cathedral but it is nevertheless beautiful in its own right.
After a walk around the cathedral and a recounting of the stories of the different Emperors and Empresses of Russia you will head to the Trubetskoy Prison. This prison was used by not only the Russian monarchy but also by the provisional government and the Bolsheviks as a place to detain political prisoners, and has played host such notable figures as Lenin’s older brother, Alexander Ulianov, Leon Trotsky, and Mikhail Gorkii, as well as the Kronshtadt sailors who rebelled against Bolshevik rule after the revolution. Here you will find out about the conditions that prisoners lived in and how they changed over the prisons history. You’ll also find out a little bit about the prisoners themselves, about who they were, what they did, and how they dealt with prison life.
Beyond these two main historic sites, the Peter and Paul Fortress also contains a range of different museums and other sights which are definitely worth visiting for.
There are three main permanent museum exhibitions. The first of these highlights the history of the Fortress. In this exhibition you’ll be able to see various architectural plans of the fortress and artefacts from throughout its history which show how it has developed over time. There is also a permanent exhibition on the History of St Petersburg. In this exhibition you’ll be able to get more details on the history the Saint-Petersburg area before the city was founded as well as explore the history of the city from its founding in 1703 to the 1918 revolution. The third permanent museum also highlights St Petersburg’s place in Russian history but the topic it covers is much different. The Museum of Cosmonautics and Rocket Technology explores the history of the Russian/Soviet space programme with a specific focus on the role played by scientists from St. Petersburg/Leningrad.
You can also find several more eccentric museums on the territory of the fortress, including a Da Vinci museum, a museum of torture, an Egyptian museum, and a museum of wax figures. In addition there are also two temporary exhibitions covering St Petersburg art nouveau and festive decorations used on the anniversaries of the October Revolution in Leningrad, which will run to August 14th and to August 26th respectively.
The Walls and The Noon Gun
Although it’s good to visit the Peter and Paul Fortress during the week to avoid the crowds, there is at least one reason why you should go there at the weekend, the noon gun.
As the name suggests the Noon Gun is a cannon which is fired every day at precisely midday. It was originally intended to give residents of St Petersburg and captains of docked vessels something to set their clock by or to warn of flooding, but now it has become just a city tradition. Unfortunately the fact that it fires at noon means you wont be able to see it during the week (unless you’re willing to skip lessons), but there’s a nice little ceremony before the cannon fires that is worth watching.
The best place to see the noon gun is from up on the fortress’ walls, where you’ll not only be able to see the gun fire, but also get a fantastic views of the Neva river. Just be aware that you’ll need a separate ticket to get up on the wall and, unfortunately, it’s not a free one.
The Docks and The Beach
Another place to visit while you’re at the fortress is its docks. If you step outside the fortress’ outer walls through the Neva gate you find a small stone dock. From here you’ll have a great view over the Neva and its southern bank. The docks are still in use; if you sign up for a river cruise in the fortress then your boat will depart from there. In addition, from the docks you can access the small strip of beach around the fortress. This encircling ribbon of sand is an incredibly popular spot for local sun bathers. They’re out there in all weather (even if it’s only 5 degrees outside, they’ll still come out) so if you want to engage in a bit of sun seeking and you’re looking for a place where you’ll fit in, then check it out, the beach is free after all.
Rabbits and Hares
As mentioned earlier the Peter and Paul Fortress is located on Hare Island, or Заячий Остров in Russian. The reason for this name seems obvious, surely a bunch of hares live there, right? Well in reality things aren’t that simple. The name of the island is really the result of a mistranslation. When Peter I decided to build the fortress on the island his assistants asked the local, Finnish speaking population what the island was called. The name they brought back to Peter was “Jänis-saari”, which really did translate as rabbit island. The problem was that the assistants had misheard the locals. The locals really called the Island “Jääninsaari”, the Island of the Summer Solstice, an easy mistake to make I’m sure you’ll agree. Despite the revelation of the true origin of the island’s name, the idea of a connection between the Peter and Paul Fortress and rabbits has become embedded in local culture. Near to the main bridge on the western side of the fortress there is a small rabbit statue that grants wishes if you can land a thrown coin on its base, and you’ll find plenty of rabbit related monuments as you walk your way around the fortress. There are even some real live rabbits on the island. It wouldn’t be very fun if I just told you were to find them straight away though, better that you hunt for them yourself. All I’ll say is this: if you see the stone rabbits, you’re close.
Hopefully you should now have plenty of reasons to visit the Peter and Paul fortress. If you’ve already been there and are planning on going again, then don’t forget that the nearest metro station is Gorkovskaya. If you’re interested in participating in an excursion through the Derzhavin Institute, talk to the cultural programme coordinator, Maria, in the students’ room