As our vessel steamed along the gulf of Finland, and long before reaching St. Petersburg, our attention was drawn from all other objects by the more exciting view of the "Palmyra of the North." Its broad domes, glittering with silver stars, and tall spires piercing the sky like pyramids of gold, seeming many miles away, make the stranger fancy that he is approaching an Oriental, rather than a European city. But fair as the sight in some respects is, the sea-view of St. Petersburg is, on the whole, a disappointment: it is too flat, and presents no imposing "masses" of architecture to the gulf. The domes are scattered wide away from each other, and no houses are to be seen uniting them; they are like the churches of so many separate villages, rather than the ornaments of one capital. You long wonder where the great St. Petersburg can have hid itself behind these mud islands, these wide straggling wood yards, and these red, barrack-looking structures, that lie so desolate on the fiats. The metropolis of a great empire should stand boldly out on the water; but this one seems to steal away among reeds and bulrushes, sending up a few blazing sky-rockets, more like signals of distress than proofs of splendor.

Patience! patience! The shade of Peter the Great will be amply avenged when you get in to his capital, and see what it is. But remember, it is only when you have entered that St. Petersburg fills you with astonishment. Other places make all their show without; here it is all within. The city cannot help its position. It would look better if there were some heights in or near it; there is not one as high as a candlestick in the whole region. The islands and shores about the mouth of the Neva are perfectly level. They can do wonderfull things in Russia; but they have not been able to raise mountains where Nature, for miles and miles around, placed only duckponds and ague-marshes.

St. Petersburg is anything but a picturesque city. Everything is there arranged orderly and conveniently; the streets are broad, the open spaces regular, the houses roomy; all is airy and light. There is no shade about the picture, no variety of tone. Everything is so convenient, so good-looking, so sensibly arranged, and so very modern, that Canaletto would have found it hard to have obtained for his canvas a single poetical tableau, such as would have presented itself to him at every corner in old French, German, or English cities, so rich in contrasts, recollection, and variegated life. The streets in St. Petersburg are so broad, the open places so vast, the arms of the river so mighty, that, large as the houses are in themselves, they are made to appear small by the gigantic plan of the whole. This effect is increased by the extreme flatness of the site on which the city stands. No building is raised above the other. Masses of architecture, worthy of mountains for their pedestals, are ranged side by side, in endless lines. Nowhere gratified, either by elevation or grouping, the eye wanders over a monotonous sea of undulating palaces.

This sameness of aspect is at no time more striking than in winter, when the streets, the river, and the houses are all covered with one white. The white walls of the buildings seem to have no hold upon the ground, and the Palmyra of the North, under her leaden sky, looks rather like the shadow than the substance of a city. There are things in Nature pleasing to look upon and gratifying to think of, and yet anything but picturesque, and one of these is St. Petersburg.

No other place, however, undergoes a more interesting change in spring, when the sky clears up, and the sun removes the pale shroud from the roofs and the waters. The houses seem to recover a firm footing on the ground, the lively green of the painted roofs, and the azure star-spangled cupolas of the churches, with their gilt spires, throw off their monotonous icy covering ; the eye revels again in the long untasted enjoyment of color, and the river, divested of its wintry garment, flows agan in unrobed majesty, and gayly mirrors the palaces ranged along its banks.

As the city presents no elevated point, the spectator, to see it, must elevate himself, and for this purpose there is no place better suited than the Tower of the Admiralty, from which the principal streets diverge, and near which the great arms of the river seem to meet. At the foot of the tower the inner yards of the admiralty present themselves. There the timber from the forests of Vologda and Kostroma lies piled in huge heaps, and mighty ships of war are growing into life under the busy hands of swarms of workmen. On the other side lie the splendid squares of the Admiralty, of Peter, and of the Court, along the sides of which are grouped the chief buildings of the city. The Hotel de l’Etat Major, whence Russia’s million of soldiers receive their orders, the Senate House, and the Palace of the Holy Synod, in which the "meum" and "tuum," the believing and rejecting, the temporal and the spiritual concerns of a hundred nations are discussed, and determined; St. Isaac’s Church, with its profusion of columns, in which each stone is of colossal magnitude; the War Office, where a thousand pens ply their peaceful labors in the service of Mars; and the mighty Winter Palace, in a corner of which dwells the great man, to whom one tenth of the human race look up with hope or anxiety, and whose name is prized or dreaded, beyond any other, over one half the surface of the globe.

To the south of the Admiralty the most important part of the city unfolds itself — the Bolshaia Storona, or Great Side. Towards the west lies Vasiliefskoi Ostrof; or Basilius Island, with its beautiful Exchange, its Academy of Sciences, and its University. To the north is seen the Petersburghskaia Storona, or Petersburg Side Island, with its Citadel stretching out into the Neva, and towards the east arise the factories and barracks of the Viborg Side. These are the four principal divisions of the city, formed by the Great and Little Neva, and by the Great Nefka. The Great Side comprises by far the most important portion of the capital, with the court, the nobility, and more than half the population. Commerce appears to have selected Basilius Island for her especial residence, and the Muses have raised their temple by the side of Mercury’s. The Petersburg side, a low and marshy island, remarkable chiefly for its fortress or citadel, whose enceinte drives the houses from the river side, is inhabited by the poorer classes of the population, and has already assumed much of the character of a metropolitan faubourg.

Every country has a style of architecture, or, if that word be too high, of building, peculiar to itself; and no where is the style of each more conspicuous than in its Capital. Russia also has a style of its own, but there is little of it seen in St. Petersburg. He who comes here expecting to find something national and characteristic in the general appearance of the houses, will be completely disappointed. Except for the churches, a stranger, in walking through it, might suppose himself in some new city of Italy, of France, or of Germany; for it has a little of the manners of each of these countries. Little wonder that it has not a Russian look; for, until lately, no Russian had a share in adorning it; not only the palaces, but all the streets were built by foreign, chiefly Italian, architects.

The Neva, the noblest of city rivers, serves to carry off the surplus waters of the Ladoga Lake. In this large reservoir the water has had full leisure to deposit all its impurities, and has not had time to collect any fresh ones, between the few leagues that intervene between the lake and the city. The water of the Neva, therefore, at St. Petersburg, is as clear as crystal, and reminds the traveller of the appearance of the Rhine, when it first issues from among the icy grottos of the Alpine glaciers. About a league from its mouth the Neva divides into several arms, forming thus a little archipelago of islands, which are either included within the City of St. Petersburg, or contribute to its embellishment by their gardens and plantations. Over the large arms of the river, the communication by means of bridges is still in a most unsatisfactory condition. The two most important portions of the city, for instance, the Vassili Ostrof and the Great Side, are connected only by one bridge, the Isaac’s Bridge, which merely consists of boarded carriage ways resting on pontoons. The first permanent bridge built over the Great Neva is here represented. This gigantic and splendid specimen of naval architecture, constructed of iron and stone piers, was begun by the Emperor Nicholas I., in 1843, and finished in 1858.

Among, the various surprises excited by St. Petersburg, the greatest of any felt by the stranger is, that it should have been built here at all. Whatever the city may have gained in strength against an enemy, by being placed in this position, it has lost in security from inundations, as well as in beauty. The object of its founder in placing it among inaccessible swamps, was to render it more safe from his active foes; but the ground is so low that the Neva at times sweeps irresistibly over a great part of the city. The inundations have often risen so high as to threaten the complete submersion of the finest quarters, and the sufferings and calamities by the disastrous inundations of 1824 are still unforgotten.

A stranger, accustomed to the crowds of Paris, London, or New York, is struck, on his arrival at St. Petersburg, by the emptiness of the streets. He finds vast open squares, in which at times he beholds nothing but a solitary droshki, that winds its way along like a boat drifting over the open sea. The spacious streets bordered by rows of mute palaces, with only here and there a human figure hovering about like a lurking freebooter among a waste of rocks. The vastness of the plan on which the city is laid out, shows that its founder speculated on a distant future. Rapidly as the population has been increasing, it is still insufficient to fill the frame allotted to it, or to give to the streets that life and movement which we look for in the capital of a great empire.

The population of St. Petersburg is the most varied and motley that mind can imagine. The garrison of the Russian capital seldom amounts to less than sixty thousand men, and constitutes, therefore, about one tenth of the population. Neither officer nor private must ever appear in public otherwise than in full uniform, and this may suffice to give some idea of the preponderance of the military over the civil costumes that one encounters in the streets. Of all the endless variety of uniform that belong to the great Russian army, a few specimens are always to be seen in the capital. There are the Parlor Guards, the Semeonor Guards, and the Parlogradski Guards (see page 126), the Sum hussards, the chasseurs à cheval, and sharpshooters on foot: the cuirassiers, grenadiers, pioneers, engineers, horse artillery, and foot artillery; to say nothing of dragoons, lancers, and those military plebeians, the troops of the line and the veterans (see page 127). All these, in their various uniforms, marching to parade, returning to their barracks, mounting guard, and passing through the other multifarious duties of a garrison life, are in themselves enough to give life and diversity to the streets.

If, then, we turn to the more pacific part of the population, devoted to the less brilliant, but certainly more useful pursuit of commerce, we find every nation of Europe, and almost every nation of Asia, represented in the streets of St. Petersburg. French, Spaniards and Italians, Americans and English, Greeks and Scandinavians, may be seen mingling together; nor will the silken garments of the Persian and the Bokharian be wanting to the picture, nor the dangling tail of the Chinese, nor the pearly teeth of the Arabian. The "infima plebs" bears an outside as motley as the more arstocratic part of the community. The German "Bauer" may be seen lounging among the noisy bearded Russian; the slim Pole elbows the diminutive Finlander; the Esthonians, Lettes, and Jews are running up against each other, while the Mussulman studiously avoids all contact with the Jew. Yankee sailors and dwarfish Kamtschadales, Caucasians, Moors, and Mongolians, all sects, races, and colors, contribute to make up the populace of the Russian capital.

Nowhere does the street life of St. Petersburg display itself to better effect than in the Nevskoi Prospect (see page 125). This magnificent street extends from the Alexander Nevskoi Monastery to the Admiralty, a distance of four versts. Towards the end it makes a slight bend, but through the greater part of its length it is perfectly straight. It intersects all the rings of the city; the suburbs of the poor, the showy regions of commerce, and the sumptuous quarters of the aristocracy. From the Anitshkof Bridge to the Admiralty (see page 129), is what may be called the fashionable part of the Prospect. There we feel that we are in a mighty city, and as we advance, the bustle and the throng become greater and greater. Carriages-and-four at every step; generals and princes elbowing through the crowd; sumptuous shops, imperial palaces, cathedrals and churches of all the various religions and sects of St. Petersburg.

The scene in this portion of the street, from twelve till two o’clock when the ladies go shopping and the men go to look at the fair purchasers, may challenge comparison with any street in the world. Towards two or three o’clock, the purchases have been made, the parade is over, the merchants are leaving the Exchange, the world of promenaders wend their way to the English Quay, and the real promenade for the day begins, — the Imperial Family equally mingling with the rest of the loungers. This magnificent Quay, constructed, like all the Quays of St. Petersburg, of huge blocks of granite, runs along the Neva, from the New to the Old Admiralty, and was built during the reign of the Empress Catherine, who caused the canals and rivers of her Capital, to the length of not less than twenty-four miles, to be enclosed in granite. The houses along the English Quay are deservedly called Palaces. They were originally, for the most part, built by Englishmen, but are now, nearly all of them, the property of wealthy Russians.

Another promenade, much frequented, is the Summer Garden, which lies on the Neva, close to the Trinity Bridge. It is laid out in a number of long avenues, interspersed with flower-beds, somewhat in the ancient style of gardening, with an abundance of marble statues of Springs and Summers, Floras and Faunas, and other divinities belonging to the same coterie. This Garden is attended to as carefully almost as those of Zarskoye Selo, where a policeman is said to run after every leaf that falls, that it may instantly be removed out of sight. In autumn all the statues are eased in wooden boxes, to protect them against the rain and snow of winter, and all the tender trees and shrubs are at the same time packed up in straw and matting, in which they remain till the return of spring, when statues, trees, and men lay their winter garments aside nearly at one and the same time.

next back

Back to Legacy
© 2001, by Lynn Waterman