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A Cathedral, A Bronze Horseman, and a Maritime Feel

May 11, 2009 at 1:40 am
By Andy, Kevin, Shane

In this post, whose length represents our true adoration of St. Petersburg, we’ll discuss St. Isaac’s Cathedral, the historic center with its bronze horseman, and then the city’s maritime feel. We figure that writing longer posts makes Diane spend more time grading said posts and gives her less time to write quizzes and other assessments. And with that, we begin:

During our trip to St. Petersburg we stayed in a hotel just a stone’s throw away from St. Isaac’s Cathedral.  Our hotel, like the cathedral, was located on the banks of the Moika River, about a half mile west of the Nevskii Prospekt and a bit further from the Neva River. 

Walking St. Petersburg’s streets is fascinating because of the diverse architectural styles that have accumulated in the city over three centuries.  Nonetheless, notwithstanding the 123 meter high, yet razor thin Peter and Paul Cathedral, most city buildings are no more than five stories high.  Even the Winter Palace or University buildings are impressive not for their height, but for their sheer bulk.  Thus, the profile of the colossal St. Isaac’s Cathedral, 101 meters high and solidly built all the way to the top of its golden dome, shocks on first sight.  Moreover, the church, built from 1818-1858, primarily by czar Nicholas I, has little in common with traditional Russian cathedrals. Adorned on the outside with statues and reliefs of apostles and saints in the classical style, St. Isaac’s stands apart from Smolensky Convent, the Spas-na-Krovi  Church and St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow with its single dominant cupola, classical façade and more than 100 granite columns surrounding the first and second levels of the cathedral. Even Kazan Cathedral on Nevskii Prospekt failed to impact us in the same way, perhaps because its Parthenonesque structure is so different from traditional church structures, and also because it size does not overwhelm like St. Isaac’s (

St. Isaacs Cathedral, St. Petersburg, Russia

St. Isaac’s does, however, fit the spirit of St. Petersburg.  Beginning with the Peter and Paul Cathedral built during Peter the Great’s time, which ignored many of the conventions of Russian Orthodoxy in the church’s frescoes and iconostasis to the secular Kazan Cathedral, St. Petersburg was known for integrating European styles into its churches in order to declare the city’s and Russia’s Enlightenment and equal status with the other European powers of the day.  All the same, looking at St. Isaac’s and the statue of Nicholas I facing it, we were constantly reminded of that czar’s tyrannical rule and the contradictions in such power and beauty that St. Isaac’s and St. Petersburg represents.

The historic center of St. Petersburg radiates out from a cluster of buildings surrounding the Admiralty, a ten minute walk to the northeast of St. Isaacs. Peter the Great’s vision for the city – and Russia – was as a maritime as well as military power, and he put the new naval headquarters at the heart of the city where its spire could be seen along all of its major streets. Near this building is Decembrists square, where in 1825 a group of young military officers attempted to force Peter’s great-great-grandson Nicholas I to accept a constitution limiting the power Peter had used to forge his vision of a new Russia.

The Bronze Horseman, St. Petersburg, Russia

Ironically enough, the square itself is dominated by an unusual monument to Peter himself. Made famous by one of Pushkin’s poems, the Bronze Horseman depicts the first Russian Emperor mounted and overlooking the River Neva and its opposite bank. Pushkin transformed the statue into a menacing, overwhelming force pursuing the protagonist of his story. The statue itself is not quite so imposing, thankfully, and never moved an inch when we visited it (though this might have been because the weather was spectacular – Pushkin’ Horseman raced in the worst flood of the city’s history).

The monument itself has an intriguing history. The granite base of the statue was brought whole from the Gulf of Finland in a specially designed barge, then shaped on-site. And while the sculptor, Falconet, quite quickly cast the majority of the statue, he had such trouble with the head that after three failed attempts he turned the task over to his assistant, Maria Collot. The inscriptions along the sides of the monument are also worth noting.

Incription of Bronze Horseman, St. Petersburg, Russia

The Eastern side is inscribed in abbreviated Russian: “[To] Peter the First, [a gift from] Catherine the Second.” However, the Western side is inscribed in Latin, reading: “Peter the First, Catherine the Second.” The difference is slight, but telling. Seeing as Catherine II was neither Romanov nor Russian by blood, she did her best to tie herself to Peter’s legacy, and the Bronze Horseman was, at the time, quite a handy rope.

Today Peter’s statue looks out over a changed Petersburg, but it will forever mark the Imperial ambitions of its two most visionary leaders. It might be telling that foreigners have yet to give the appellation of “the Great” to Russia’s leaders, but the two that did earn it are forever remembered by this creation of stone and metal in the heart of one of Russia’s great cities.

As we mentioned above, another of St. Petersburg’s defining characteristics is its maritime atmosphere. Indeed, Peter the Great specifically chose St. Petersburg’s location, on land that had been “liberated” from the Swedes (as the Russians insist), because of its access to the Gulf of Finland. St. Petersburg has often been referred to as the “Window to the West”. Peter had lived and studied shipbuilding and sailing in the Netherlands and traveled all over Europe. St. Petersburg was to be everything that he adored of the West and specifically modeled on Venice, whatever the cost may be. St. Petersburg’s maritime history is still very apparent today.

Perhaps the first thing to strike the nose of the first-time visitor to St. Petersburg is the smell of the air. Walking down Nevskii Prospect the morning of our arrival, we could smell the moisture in the air. This moisture leads to thick blankets of fog that often blanket the city, and to especially unpleasant winters of cold wet winds that penetrate the body; and, judging by some of St. Petersburg’s heavy literature, the soul. Nevskii Prospect crosses several canals/rivers on its way to the largest river, the Neva, which is approximately 1600 feet wide. The Neva, which was calm and truly glowing under the bright sunshine while we were there, is not always so docile. Its largest flood was in 1824, perfectly timed to allow perhaps Russia’s greatest poet, Pushkin, to describe it in his famous poem “The Bronze Horseman”. Here is a part of the Arendt translation:

The waves still seethed angrily,

As if beneath them fire were glowing,

Still foam covered them,

And heavily Neva was breathing,

Like a charger that has galloped up from battle.

The river rose to 13.5 feet over its normal level and completely destroyed parts of the city. In 1924, the Neva celebrated the anniversary of its 1824 flood with the city’s second worst flood, rising over 12 feet higher than its normal level. While these were the worst two floods, the river consistently flooded during the city’s construction and only Peter’s sheer insistence, and willingness to sacrifice countless resources and lives to the cause, resisted nature’s attacks. The statue mentioned above, of Peter on his rearing horse, trampling a serpent, impressively represents Peter’s battle with nature.

The first bridge over the Neva wasn’t built until 1850. Before that time, the main way to cross the river was by ferries and pontoon bridges, which were apparently designed to aid the rather corpulent Catherine I in her crossing of the river – she was displeased after falling several times when trying to climb in and out of the small ferry boats.

But the Neva was not the only maritime challenge that St. Petersburg offered; even St. Petersburg’s land is soggy and swampy. Tall buildings were made impossible by the impossibility of firm foundations and even the eventual construction of the St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) metro was exceedingly expensive, and had to be built deep underground, because of the swampy earth close to the surface.

For all of the problems St. Petersburg’s water has caused – there are indeed others that I haven’t mentioned yet, like the diseases caused by the drinking of the Neva’s water – it was easy to forgive and forget all of this during the gorgeous spring days that we spent there. It was a nice 60 degrees with a warm sun and the reflection of the sun on the water had us squinting. Not even the thick, moist Petersburg air could trouble us as we sat, wrapped in bright-colored blankets, on one of the cities infinite tour boats, cruising past the Hermitage and winding our way through the city on the Moika canal.

Russian Men Wear Pink


  • June 4 2009 at 1:25 pm
    Kev's mom
    Fantastic essay on the alluring St. Pete! That city has more jewels than any other in the world - architecturally, artistically and culturally! The interior of St. Isaac's Cathedral is a stunning use of precious stones. The picture of you on the boat is super!