Seeing St. Petersburg

Peter the Great’s ‘Window to Europe’ has included a Jewish presence in the city since its founding.

St. Petersburg 521 (photo credit: Irving Spitz)
St. Petersburg 521
(photo credit: Irving Spitz)
After Tsar Peter the Great returned from a tour of Europe in 1698, he realized that Russia needed to import European technology and culture to catch up to the West. In 1703 he founded the city of St. Petersburg on the Baltic Sea as an outlet to Europe. It was built on marshy ground on the banks of the River Neva by conscripted peasants and prisoners of war. Thousands perished in this endeavor.
Peter brought in architects from Europe and compelled all his dignitaries to build a home there. Within 20 years, he had constructed a major city. No buildings except for churches were allowed to stand higher than the tsar’s Winter Palace, a tradition which is still maintained today.
The initial architectural style was baroque. This was succeeded by rococo, which then gave way to neoclassicism.
This 18th- and 19th-century architecture is still preserved. Because of its palaces and churches on the canals, St. Petersburg is often called the Venice of the North. To me it was also reminiscent of Amsterdam, since both have a similar system of canals.
In 1712, St. Petersburg became the capital of Russia and the seat of the Romanov dynasty. It was here that the struggle against the ruling class began, culminating in the 1917 Bolshevist revolution which led to the abdication of the last tsar and the establishment of the Soviet regime. The capital reverted to Moscow and, after Lenin’s death in 1924, the city was renamed Leningrad. The city was blockaded by the Germans for 900 days during the World War II in one of the most destructive and lethal sieges in history.
Over 600,000 of its citizens were killed or starved to death. With the advent of perestroika (reconstruction), the Soviet Empire collapsed peacefully in 1991 and was replaced by the Russian Federation.
Leningrad reverted to its original name. Today, St. Petersburg is Russia’s second-largest city with almost five million inhabitants.
On my first trip to Leningrad, in 1984 under the repressive communist regime, I visited the refuseniks – those Jews who were refused permission to emigrate.
The city was drab and the people depressed.
My latest visit was like landing on another planet.
Nevsky Prospect, the main thoroughfare and the center of the city, is now bustling with well-dressed people and lined with elegant hotels, restaurants, European fashion houses and boutiques stocked with exclusive brand names.
With its numerous bridges, canals, churches and palaces, St. Petersburg is without a doubt one of the most beautiful cities in the world. The most magical time to visit is between May and August, during the White Nights. The sun never really sets and there is a persistent twilight. During this period, an hour or two after midnight, the bridges across the Neva and main canals are raised to allow the passage of ships.
ONE OF the key tourist sites is the Peter and Paul Fortress. Situated on a small island in the Neva River, it is from here that Peter commenced building his new city. The island is dominated by the St. Peter and St. Paul Cathedral. Its architecture represented a complete break with traditional Russian churches and its single gold spire, attaining a height of over 120 meters, makes it the tallest building in the city.
All the tsars and their families are buried in this church.
For much of its history, the Peter and Paul Fortress functioned as a prison.
Opponents to the various regimes were interred here, including Peter’s son, Alexei, who was tortured to death. The prison also housed the writers Dostoyevsky and Gorky, as well as politicians including Trotsky and Lenin’s brother.
Vasilievsky Island, where the Neva branches, is the oldest part of the city.
The tip of the island, known as the Strelka, commands a magnificent view of the city’s major landmarks. Here are the two rostral columns modeled on similar prototypes from ancient Rome depicting prows of ships. Between them is the old stock exchange, which today houses the naval museum. Other prominent landmarks on the island dating from the 18th century include the Kunstkamera (museum of anthropology), the Russian Academy of Sciences and one of the campuses of St. Petersburg University. Also situated here is Menshikov’s palace, the first stone building in the city. Alexander Menshikov, a thief and profiteer, rose from humble beginnings to become the most powerful man in the country and the tsar’s right-hand man.
Palace Square has been the scene of many dramatic moments in Russian history. In the center is the Alexander Column, cut from a single block of granite. On the pinnacle is an angel trampling a snake. The main entry to the square is from Nevsky Prospect through a triumphal arch crowned by six horses and a chariot driven by the Roman goddess of victory. Both the arch and the column were built to commemorate Russia’s defeat of Napoleon. On each side of this arch are two large curved buildings, formerly occupied by the army and the Foreign Ministry. The other sides of the square are dominated by the tsar’s Winter Palace and the Admiralty with its golden spire, one of the main city landmarks.
The Winter Palace is a mixture of baroque, rococo and neoclassical styles. Its magnificent salons, decorated in jasper, malachite and other precious materials, were the private apartments of the Romanov family. Within the Winter Palace is the Hermitage, one of the greatest repositories of art in the world and the main tourist attraction of the city. Catherine the Great began the enterprise by buying outright many European collections. Today the inventory contains over two and a half million objects. Some notable items include Scythian and Sarmatian gold objects and an unparalleled collection of Western art. The Dutch section alone boasts 25 paintings by Rembrandt and 40 by Rubens. The Hermitage is also very strong in French, Spanish and Italian paintings.
The Hermitage was considerably augmented following the Bolshevist revolution when the private collections of Impressionist and post-Impressionist art of the industrialists Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov were nationalized.
Whereas many items from this unparalleled trove of paintings traveled in the early days after perestroika, this is less likely to occur today since there is a possibility that these artworks may be claimed by surviving family members from whom the collections were expropriated.
Located on the other side of the Admiralty on the bank of the Neva is the Bronze Horseman, the famous statue of Peter the Great by the French sculptor Etienne Maurice Falconet. It depicts Peter crowned with a laurel wreath astride a horse overlooking the Neva and trampling a snake. Commissioned by Catherine the Great, the simple inscription in Russian and Latin reads: “To Peter the First from Catherine the Second, 1782.”
A stone’s throw from the statue is St. Isaac’s Cathedral, the third-largest Church in the world. Its gold-plated dome dominates the skyline. From the colonnade there is a magnificent panoramic view over the city. Another notable landmark in Nevsky Prospect is the neoclassical Kazan Cathedral, which was commissioned by Tsar Paul I after a visit to Rome.
Equally impressive is the colorful Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, with its multiple onion domes, stone carvings and gilded spires. Intricate colored mosaics cover both the outside and the interior. It was built in the classical Russian style by Alexander III on the site of his father’s assassination.
During the Soviet era, most churches were either closed down or functioned as museums, but have now reverted to their original purpose.
A short distance from the city are the Romanovs’ great summer palaces. Pride of place goes to Peterhof Palace, which was begun by Peter the Great, greatly expanded by his daughter Elizabeth and subsequently by Catherine the Great. It represented the Romanovs’ answer to Versailles. Most prominent is the Great Cascade with its three tiers of waterfalls with over 60 spouting fountains and gilded statues of mythological figures, Greek gods and nymphs. The center piece is the statue of Samson opening the jaws of a lion. The main palace has a great ceremonial staircase and lavishly decorated rooms, the most notable being the throne room. Scattered over the gardens are other royal residences, including Monplaisir, which was Peter’s preferred residence.
The town of Pushkin is named after the great Russian author Alexander Pushkin, who studied there. Here is another sumptuous summer residence of the tsars. In the magnificent baroque masterpiece, Catherine Palace, is the recently restored Amber Room and the incomparable Great Hall, used for grand balls. Both Peterhof and Pushkin were almost completely destroyed by German troops in World War II and have been painstakingly and carefully restored.
THERE HAS been a Jewish presence in the city since its founding. Many tsars, however, expelled Jews and prohibited them from settling in the city. Exceptions were Catherine II and Alexander I and II, who permitted wealthy Jewish merchants, industrialists, scientists and physicians to settle in the city. The hard times endured by Jews in the Soviet period are over. Today, St. Petersburg has a vibrant Jewish community with some 80,000 Jews residing in the city. There is a full range of religious and educational facilities, centered in the Grand Choral Synagogue. The original building permit for this synagogue was obtained from Alexander II and it was consecrated in 1893. It is the second-largest synagogue in Europe and its architecture is based on the Moorish style.
The National Library of Russia has 20 million items in its collection. The Jewish Karaite leader, traveler, merchant and archeologist Avraham Firkovich (1786–1874) amassed an enormous number of Hebrew, Arabic and Samaritan manuscripts during his many travels.
He was even at the Cairo Geniza before Solomon Schechter. The library purchased Firkovich’s large collection, which today forms the core of its unparalleled trove of Hebrew manuscripts, one of the largest in the world.
This was made available to researchers after the beginning of perestroika.
Of the 18 known dated hand-written Hebrew manuscripts published before 1020, 12 are in the possession of this library. The most celebrated is the Leningrad Codex, which is the oldest complete manuscript of the Hebrew Bible using the masoretic text and is dated to 1009. The Aleppo Codex, compiled between 930 and 950 and now housed in the Israel Museum, is older but, unlike the Leningrad Codex, it is incomplete. However, in quality, the Aleppo Codex surpasses all other biblical texts.
The erudite librarian Boris Zaykovsky showed us the Codex Babilonicus Petropolitanus, a compilation of the Latter Prophets from the year 916. Written on parchment, this is the oldest dated Hebrew manuscript in existence and the first known manuscript with the Babylonian system of vowels.
We also saw an incomplete Hebrew Bible from the year 930. The same scribe, Shlomo Ben Buya’a, who compiled the Aleppo Codex, also contributed to this Bible, aided by his brother, Rafael. Yet a further fascinating Hebrew Bible in the collection dates from the 11th century and contains an Arabic translation of the Bible written in Hebrew characters copied from the great Babylonian author and scholar Sa’adia Gaon.
TCHAIKOVSKY, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Borodin and Shostakovich, as well as other composers, lived and worked in the city and many are also buried here.
There are three resident opera companies.
The most well-known is the Mariinsky, directed by the indefatigable conductor Valery Gergiev. When the set workshops of the Mariinsky were destroyed in a disastrous fire, Gergiev spearheaded the effort to establish a new concert hall on the site.
This hall has some of the best acoustics that I have ever encountered. Currently the Mariinsky is in the process of building a new opera house.
From May to July, the Mariinsky hosts the White Night Festival with participation of local as well as prominent international orchestras and soloists. In the productions I attended, almost all the principal singers were from the Mariinsky’s own roster of soloists, which attests to the very high standard of the company.
Ballet has a rich tradition in Russia in general and in St. Petersburg in particular, where it occupies a special place in the cultural life of the city. It is in fact more popular than opera. It was here that the great choreographers Petipa and later Diaghilev worked with dancers like Pavlova and Nijinsky.
Philharmonic Hall in St. Petersburg was the venue where Tchaikovsky himself conducted the premiere of his sixth symphony only a few days before his death. It was also here, in 1942 during the Nazi siege of Leningrad, that Shostakovich’s seventh symphony, “The Leningrad,” had its premier. I was privileged to attend a most memorable performance of this same symphony in the same hall on the 70th anniversary of its first performance by the St. Petersburg Academic Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Alexander Dmitriev.
Unlike at similar events in the West, there were many young people and even children in the audiences. The rich musical tradition of Russia has been maintained.
It was difficult for me to gauge with any accuracy what the Russian people thought of the current situation in their country. There was, of course, the language barrier. I was surprised by how few Russians, even in the younger generation, speak English. People in general seemed reluctant to discuss politics, but I did detect much disenchantment with the present regime. Perhaps the most telling remark came from someone high up in the tourist ministry: “Not everything was bad under the Soviet regime,” she remarked wistfully to me.
The author is grateful to Dr. Rafael Zer, editorial coordinator of the Hebrew University Bible Project, for his helpful comments.

The author, an emeritus professor of medicine, writes, reviews and lectures on medical topics, music, art, history and travel ( Additional pictures from this and other trips can be seen at Irving Spitz blogs at