The History of St. Petersburg Is a Part of Russian History
The ruler of St.Petersburg, Peter the Great, wanted a northern harbor with free access to the Baltic Sea. Therefore he founded the city of St. Petersburg onto a marshy delta on May 25, 1703. St.Petersburg became the capital of Russia in 1712, and the city had 40,000 inhabitants by the time of Peter's death in 1725.

After Peter's reign, Russia was ruled mainly by empresses in the 18th century. Elisabeth and Catharine II held the throne the longest. Many well-known buildings were constructed during their rule.

Catherine's grandson, Alexander I, helped Russia become one of Europe's superpowers in the early 19th century. Russia had some grave problems, the most acute of them being serfdom. Alexander was expected to confront domestic issues during his rule, but Napoleon's invasion of Russia took priority over other matters.

Dissatisfaction Increases

Russian army officers were disappointed by Alexander, and when his brother, Nicholas I, was made emperor, the officers rose against the ruler on December 14, 1825. The revolutionaries, who were called Decembrists, wanted a constitutional monarchy. The first Russian revolution was ended brutally: five of its leaders were hanged, and over a hundred rebels were exiled to Siberia. The scene of the mutiny in St.Petersburg has been named the Decembrist Square.

St.Petersburg was a city distinctly divided between the rich and the poor in the 19th century. Among the city dwellers were drunkards, beggars, and prostitutes as well as noblemen and city administrators.

The wealthy spent more than they could afford: they had to take loans against their serfs and property to fund their luxurious life styles. At the same time, city officials could not support their families with their wages. Dissatisfaction grew in the countryside as well. People started to demand political reforms.

Ruling Family in the Doghouse

Alexander II ended serfdom in 1861, but the peasants were forced to buy their land on unreasonable terms. Industrialization began. Masses of people moved from the countryside to the cities, where the living conditions were even worse.

The revolutionaries murdered Alexander II in 1881, and the reactionary era of Alexander III began. However, workers started to organize, and the opposition to the Czar increased. When Nicholas II came in power, the country was falling apart despite its rapid industrialization in the 1890's.

On January 9, 1905, a day which was later named Bloody Sunday, soldiers opened fire on a religious procession that was delivering an appeal to the Czar. The bloodbath was followed by riots and strikes all over Russia. Consequently, Nicholas II promised the people some basic civil rights and a parliament (the Duma). Still, Nicholas dissolved the parliament whenever it acted against his will. The autocracy of Nicholas and the influence which the peasant Rasputin had over the court were disapproved by the people.


When the First World War broke out, St. Petersburg was renamed Petrograd. The city was the scene of the Russian revolution. February Revolution of 1917 caused the abdication of the Czar. His family was put under house arrest, and an interim government was constituted.

Revolutionaries who had been in exile, including V.I. Lenin, returned to the city. In the armed uprising of October, the Bolshevists took over power. Russia was taken out of the war in 1918, but in the same year the Civil War started. Moscow became the capital, and the Czar's family was executed. The last rightists resigned the war in 1920.

The Days of Stalin

Lenin died in 1924, and Petrograd became Leningrad. Joseph Stalin was made the Secretary General of the Communist Party, and thereupon he became a dictator. Stalin collectivized farms: peasants were forced to give away their cattle, machinery, and land. In addition, they were forced to work on collective farms (kolkhoz). About 10 million Russians died during these years and the famine of 1931-1932.

In 1934, a popular and charismatic Leningrad party leader, Sergei Kirov, was murdered. Most historians agree that Stalin, who thought of Kirov as his competitor, was behind the murder. Kirov became a martyr, and dozens of buildings and places were named after him. The Kirov murder marked the beginning of Stalin's purges, which lasted five years and resulted in the deaths of over a million and the arrests of about 15 million Russians.

The purges backfired on Stalin in World War II, for three quarters of the officers had been killed. Germany attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, and Leningrad was held under siege for 900 days. About 670,000 inhabitants, mostly civilians, died during the siege. Stalin himself died in March 1953.

The Downfall of the System

After Stalin, Nikita Khruschev led the Communist Party during the so-called thaw period. Khruschev condemned Stalin's crimes and freed political prisoners. But in 1964, Leonid Brezhnev came into power and a period of stagnation began, when nonconformists were once again persecuted. Black market trade and corruption flourished. Brezhnev died in 1982, and he was succeeded by Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko.

Mikhail Gorbachev took over in 1985. He brought about changes in the country, the period of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) began. In 1991, the Soviet Union ceased to exist, and Russia and the Baltic countries, among others, declared themselves independent. Boris Yeltsin was made the president of Russia, and in the same year Leningrad took back its old name, Sankt-Peterburg.

Today, St. Petersburg is economically unstable, and the society is plagued by problems like drug abuse, crime, and terrorism. Still, many prefer freedom of speech to economic security, and the spiritual life of the city has recovered once more.

Catharine Phillips: Eyewitness Travel Guides: St. Petersburg
Sami Hyrskylahti: Sosialistista realismia. Venäjän Aika 1/2003. Only in Finnish
Aleksanteri Ahola-Valon verkkosivu: Verisunnuntai muutti Alin elämän. Only in Finnish

Text:   Marita Korpela
Translation:   Paula Keltto
Photos: Tampere Film Festival

Read more:
The Sights of St. Petersburg (FN 05.03.2003)

More on the Web:
In Finnish: Aleksanteri Ahola-Valo: Verisunnuntai muutti Alin elämän

The siege of Leningrad
Leningrad was held under siege for 900 days.