One of the highlights of our trip to St. Petersburg was the Winter Palace. The Winter Palace is situated directly on the Neva River, and is the largest palace in Europe. Built by Rastrelli in the same baroque style as the Smolnyi Institute and the Summer Palace, the palace represents the extravagance of the Russian royalty. The Winter Palace currently houses the Hermitage Museum, which along with 5 other buildings that were built alongside it hold the massive collection of art accumulated by the Russian Tsars and aristocrats.
A few historical notes: The Winter Palace was originally built in 1711 by Peter the Great and expanded upon for the next 100 years by each successive tsar until it was burned down by a fire in 1837. It was rebuilt that year to be an exact replica of the previous palace, but with more modern and stable engineering. The Winter Palace was the official residence of the tsars and symbolized authoritarian power, and then was the home of the Provisional Government following the February Revolution in 1917. The most famous event that took place in the Winter Palace was the storming of the Winter Palace by the Bolsheviks in 1917, which marked the beginning of the October Revolution. It was then converted into the Hermitage Museum, which is one of the largest art museums in the world.
Catherine the Great was one of the world's greatest collectors of European art. She even had the "Old Hermitage building" built to house her collection, which included paintings by DaVinci, Raphael, Rembrant, and an unfinished sculpture by Michelangelo. The collection was expanded following the Bolshevik Revolution, when the property of many wealthy aristocrats and merchants was confiscated. The primary addition was French Impressionist art, including paintings by Renoir, Monet, Gaugaine, Pissaro, Van Gogh, and Picasso. The Hermitage collection is rivaled only by the Louvre in Paris and the Prado Museum in Madrid.
Standing inside the Winter Palace after all of our studies about its history was quite surreal. To see the square where the 1905 Revolution occurred, stand where the Bolsheviks claimed power, and view art in galleries that were originally exclusive to the royal family and their closest friends was awe-inspiring. In addition to the history of the building, it was amazing that we were able to stand inches away from paintings by Da Vinci and Raphael. The combination of the Russian history of the building and the European significance of the artwork within it make the Hermitage a symbol of St. Petersburg's position as Russia's Window to the West.