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

Covering the entire north side of the eponymous square, the Winter Palace displays its green facade clad in gilding, statues and white colonnades. The gigantic edifice is on the scale of its city and its country, and it takes a good quarter of an hour of sustained walking to completely circle it, the palace also overlooking the Neva. This is not too much to house one of the largest and most beautiful museums on the planet, the Hermitage. Before getting into it, let's first walk around it.

Hermitage and Winter Palace

The first home of Peter the Great in St. Petersburg was a modest wooden cabin with rather spartan comfort, built on the model of the isbas of the Russian countryside. The Tsar was hardly inconvenienced by this type of expedient and lived there for eight years - although he spent most of his time elsewhere, directing his military campaigns against the Swedes. Piously preserved to this day, his cabin is located elsewhere in the city and can still be visited.

It was in 1711 that the first palace was built on the current site. Several others followed, and it was only after the death of Peter Ier that they were brought together to form the basis of what would become the Palace in its present form. Meanwhile, St. Petersburg had known the procrastination linked to court intrigues. When Peter the Great died in 1725, it was his widow, Catherine Itime, who succeeded him. She survived him for two years, leaving her place to the grandson of the late Tsar, Peter II. A minor, placed under the tutelage of conservative princes and opposed to the Westernization policy desired by his grandfather, he returned the Court to Moscow, where he died prematurely in 1730.

Tsarina Anne, who succeeded him, backed down and reestablished St. Petersburg as the capital of the empire. It is she who will raze the various palaces established on the south bank of the Neva to form a single one. She will entrust the construction to the Italian architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli, whose father had already been one of the city's main architects under Peter the Great. The death of Anne in 1740 and the coup d'état which placed on the throne the following year (after the brief reign of Ivan VI), the daughter of Peter the Great, Elizabeth, did not call into question the status capital of St. Petersburg, nor that of the Winter Palace.

It was essentially during the reign of Elizabeth that it will be completed. Later, Catherine II had an annex to the palace built, with the avowed aim of withdrawing there when the obligations of the state became too heavy for her. A great art lover - and almost compulsive collector, this is where she began to store the works she acquired. This collection was to form the nucleus of the future Hermitage museum, which today occupies the entire palace - so much so that no distinction is made between the two and that "the Hermitage" refers to the Winter Palace. , and vice versa.

The Palace was to remain the official residence of the Tsars until 1917, except for a brief episode during the reign of Paul Ier. It was devastated by a fire in 1837; the reconstruction that followed gave it its present configuration. The collection of works of art by the sovereigns had reached such a scale that the Hermitage was now open to the public by the end of the 19th century. The Palace, for its part, still played a prominent political role in 1917. When Nicholas II was forced to abdicate as a result of the February Revolution, the provisional government that succeeded him moved there. It was therefore quite naturally the main target of the Bolsheviks in the next revolution, that of October, during which it was taken by storm.

Once in power, the Bolshevik regime left for Moscow, and set about installing the Hermitage Museum in the complex of the former imperial palace. The latter was going to suffer greatly during World War II. Placed under almost constant German artillery fire from September 1941, it suffered considerable damage during the 900 days of the blockade. It took many years of restoration after the war was over for tourists to admire its splendor today.

Pushkin Museum

Recalling these tragic events is the occasion for a brief digression on the various names of the city. We have seen that Peter deliberately chose a foreign-sounding name - in this case, Germanic - to mark its opening to the West. Fact, Sankt-Peterburg is a completely exotic name for a Russian. While there are many cities in Russia dedicated to one or more saints, the epithet "Saint" is never used there and anyway, this word is said in Russian. sviatoi and no sankt, which is a typical German word.

For this reason, the nationalist and Germanophobic push which accompanied in Russia the beginning of the First World War, pushed Tsar Nicolas II to rename his capital Petrograd in 1914. It was neither more nor less than the literal translation of Saint Petersburg in Russian, grad being an alteration of gorod ("City"), a word that originally referred to a fortified city or castle - just like burg in German. On Lenin's death in 1924, the city was renamed Leningrad to pay homage to him, and kept this name throughout the Soviet period. It was in 1991 that it regained its original name, following a referendum.

Let’s leave the museum for now - we will have an opportunity to come back to it at length. After having skirted the facade of the Hermitage itself, and the colonnade of Atlanteans which marks the old entrance, you reach the Moïka quay. Contrary to what happened on Vassili Island, the south bank of the Neva was indeed endowed with a network of canals. The city center of St Petersburg is bounded by three concentric canals, called (going from the center to the outskirts) Moïka, Griboïedov and Fontanka, the latter being the widest.

The district located around the upper course of the Moïka is home to many consulates, including that of France. So it is over there, fellow tourists, that you will have to go if, unfortunately, you have a serious enough problem. Among the mansions stretching along the banks of the Moika is the last apartment occupied by the poet Alexander Pushkin. Furnished with objects that belonged to the man of letters, or reconstructed using the available documentation, it has become a museum which is entirely dedicated to him.

It is no exaggeration to say that Pushkin is revered as a saint in Petersburg - we were even given to see, with astonishment, an old lady signing herself before entering the courtyard leading to her apartment-museum. Indeed, the capital of the tsars was the poet’s main source of inspiration, and the townspeople admit that he described and praised St. Petersburg better than anyone. His tragic death, at the age of 37, further helped to establish his legend.

It turns out that Alexander Pushkin was killed in a duel by a Frenchman in 1837. Legitimist officer self-exiled in Russia in 1830, Georges d'Anthès had been admitted to the elite of the Russian Imperial Guard, the regiment of the Chevaliers-Gardes. He had had the bad taste to woo Pushkin's wife while marrying her sister and the two men, with insulting insults, ended up fighting a duel with a pistol, Pushkin receiving a fatal wound. to the stomach. As for Anthès, he was expelled to France, ending his career as a senator under the Second Empire.

These events are recounted by multilingual audio guides which are automatically handed over to visitors to the museum apartment by very friendly staff - Russians are generally very proud of their culture, and even more proud of sharing it. Given the relative smallness of the place, it is sometimes necessary to wait before starting the visit or moving from one room to another. Wearing felt slippers is compulsory in order to preserve the parquet, which already bears too many brands of stiletto heels, a feminine accessory par excellence in Russia.

The Engineers Castle

Before continuing his journey east, the visitor will have the opportunity to stop for a tea and a snack, which will often be welcome given the distances to be covered, and even more in the event of rain or snow. . A tea room Stolle, a very fashionable store, is located a few hundred meters from the Pushkin Museum. The Stolle are specialized in pirogi (singular pirog), delicious pies that can be stuffed with anything from cabbage and cranberries to mushrooms or tvorog.

By continuing to go up the Moïka canal, you end up at the Champ de Mars (Marsovo pole), which, like in all other European cities at the same time, initially served as a field of military maneuvers. While it obviously no longer has this function, this vast open space now houses a monument dedicated to the dead of the Bolshevik revolution. It is a particularly busy place in winter, for a very simple reason: a flame - similar to those of other war memorials around the world - burns there permanently, allowing passers-by to come and warm up for a few moments. .

A little further on is the Château des Ingénieurs. Its construction was decided by Paul Ier as soon as he had succeeded his mother, Catherine II, in 1795. Indeed, the young Tsar did not like the Winter Palace, where he did not feel safe. His paranoia was fueled by the fact that he had ascended to the throne against the wishes of Catherine - who preferred her grandson, Alexander - and most of the Court. Mistrust towards him will quickly be aggravated by an incoherent policy, in particular towards revolutionary France: initially a fierce enemy of the latter, Paul will change sides to make her his ally.

The fear of assassination prompted the sovereign to make his new palace a building specially dedicated to his own security, including a moat, cannon, loopholes ... At the beginning of 1801, construction was sufficiently advanced for Paul Ier move in. However, he was assassinated there a few weeks later, on March 23, by officers in his retinue, who strangled him (or beat him to death, depending on the version) after having unsuccessfully tried to get him to sign an act of abdication. His son and successor Alexander Ier would return to the Winter Palace, and the abandoned castle would later house the School of Military Engineers, hence its name.

(To be continued)

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