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St-Petersburg: 20th Century

Emperor Alexander III, the “Pacifier”, a mighty man of enviable health, died on 20 October 1894 from a kidney disease at the age of 49. The heir, Tsesarvich Nicholas, a man of average abilities, was not ready to take control of the huge country. Infantile, timid and shy at 26, when he had to inherit the throne, Nicholas was completely lost, and moreover, the political situation was rather difficult indeed when he succeeded the crown. On 14 November 1894 he urgently married Princess Alice of Hesse-Darmstadt, who took the name of Alexandra Fiodorovna after accepting the Orthodox faith. The luxurious and majestic wedding in the church of the Winter Palace was not accompanied by any especial merry-making and their honeymoon passed against the background of funeral visits. The reign of the last Russian Emperor began in a tragic atmosphere – during the coronation of Nicholas II many people were crushed by the jostling crowd. But except for the Khodynka tragedy, the course of life in Russia was still rather steady and quiet in the first years of his reign.

Ilya Repin. The Marriage of Nicolas II and Grend Duchess Alexandra Feodorovna in the Winter Palase. 1894

The Marriage of Nicolas II and Grend Duchess Alexandra Feodorovna

Meanwhile serious changes were ripening. From the second half of the nineteenth century Russia was rapidly catching up with Europe в its industry had an accelerated development. At the turn of the centuries St Petersburg turned into an immense industrial centre. Changes in everyday life were unusually swift: many aristocrats replaced horse-drawn vehicles by cars; telephones, electricity, water supply lines and other modern conveniences were introduced. Modern trends in the design of clothes, hair-styles and a mode of conduct were changing as short-lived fancies. A new type of businessmen – bankers and entrepreneurs who owned large fortunes – have emerged. It was in this period that the last grand style, Art Nouveau, rapidly broke into the city’s architectural silhouette. New buildings at the Petrograd Side and Vasilyevsky Island were so unusual in design that they seemed to implement the early Romanticists’ dream of changing the world by means of beauty. Not only dwelling houses were then designed in the “Northern Art Nouveau” style – sometimes combined with Neo-Classicism – many banks and shops reminiscent of palaces by their richly decorated facades were also erected. The 1910s saw a rise, within this new stylistic movement, of a more experimental trend, Constructivism, that became especially widespread in industrial architecture.

A short period dominated by the Art Nouveau style – merely some three decades – was a crucial era in the history of St Petersburg and entire Russia. That was a contradictory time marked by an upsurge of creative activities of the Russian intelligentsia and a presentiment of an imminent catastrophe. The turn of the nineteenth and twentieth century coincided with a decline of old thinking and it was the northern capital that became the focus of intense spiritual quests and the main arena of the so-called Silver Age of Russian culture. The creative destinies of artists, actors, poets and musicians were interwoven no less whimsically than the lines of Art Nouveau itself. The atmosphere of the capital was permeated with mysticism and poetry. Disputes, lectures and editorial tea-drinking parties where writers and poets could meet with their readers were then popular; various ideas connected with the most profound and vital problems of the age were put forward.

Nathan Altman. Portrait of Anna Akhmatova, 1914. Russian Museum

Anna Akhmatova

The uncrowned queen of this bohemian world was the poet Anna Akhmatova who held supreme authority in the Wandering Dog cabaret and became its symbol of a sort. The most notable phenomenon in the artistic life of the capital was the World of Art society, with the artist Alexander Benois as one of its founders. The World of Art members arranged exhibitions, issued a magazine of the same name and eventually formed a new artistic movement. They succeeded to show to their contemporaries the fleeting, phantasmal charm of St Petersburg, despite the then prevailing opinion about its exceedingly official character. Sergei Diaghilev played a special role in this circle. Energetic and enterprising, he organized the “Russian Seasons”, a festival of Russian opera and ballet performances
which enjoyed a great success in Paris from 1907 onwards. The turn of the century saw a growing passion for the theatre, although the inhabitants of St Petersburg had been inveterate theatre-goers since time immemorial. With the appearance of folk theatres all layers of population could acquaint themselves with this kind of art. Small theatres, cabarets with performing actors and private stages emerged in the capital. Worthy of special note among them was the theatre headed by the actress Vera Kommissarzhevskaya. It was she who invited the now famous Vsevolod Meyerhold from Moscow in 1906. Meyerhold, a creator of an avant-garde theatrical theory, believed that “secret doors to the Wonderland” were open to him as an artistic director, although many people regarded him as a mere “scenic juggler”

Alexander Gerasimov. Lenin at the Rostrum. 1930

Lenin

The age of Art Nouveau, seeking to innovate life and to tie it with art, suddenly had to face the terrible bloody revolution on 9 January 1905, when peaceful people were attacked by armed cavalrymen. The atrocities of the troops continued throughout the day, people were dying in the streets and it seemed that the capital was given for ravage to conquerors. The Tsar, scaring an attempt at his life, sat out at Tsarskoye Selo having relegated his duties to the subordinates. The circumstances resulted in an undeclared state of emergency.
This first Russian revolution, however, soon began to decline. Life in the brilliant St Petersburg went along the routine lines again, but not for a very long time. In less than a decade the events grew threatening again. In the summer of 1914 the capital of the Empire was shocked by the news that the First World War broke out. The city was soon seized with patriotic fervour and destruction attacks of all German companies began, In August 1914 St Petersburg was renamed Petrograd – the “German” name was replaced with a “Slavic” version, The giant state machine was collapsing;
the Empire, like its capital, was in a turbulent state. In 1913 a luxurious celebration of the Tercentenary of the Romanov House was held, but four years later, in 1917, Nicholas II, the last Russian Emperor, unable to control the country any longer, signed his abdication. The Revolution of 1917 resulted in the fall of monarchy in Russia. In July 1918 Nicholas II and members of his family were shot by the Bolsheviks in the Urais. In February 1917 the state power went to the Provisional Government and later to the Bolsheviks headed by Lenin.

An inspired orator with a keen insight into a mob’s psychology, Lenin often spoke in public promising peace and prosperity at once after the elimination of the bourgeois power. It was he who became the head of the new government after the Bolsheviks had arrested the Provisional Government having its session in the Winter Palace. A signal for the attack of the former imperial residence was a blank shot from the cruiser Aurora.

The Cruiser Aurora. Built in 1897-1903. Put at the permanent berth near the Petrogradskaya Embankment

The Cruiser Aurora
 
The radical Bolsheviks succeeded in quickly establishing their cruel regime in the capital. Troublesome rumours spread around the city; life was getting increasingly chaotic. In March 1918 the Bolsheviks shifted the capital of the newly formed state, the country of the Soviets, to Moscow. The loss of the status of the capital city greatly affected Petrograd – it lost its former glitter, money and power. Unemployment, devastation, famine, frosts and other disasters came down upon the city. Everything was frozen, from water supply lines to lavatories; people were dying on
ice-bound pavements; they burnt furniture and books and demolished wooden houses for use as firewood. In January 1924, after Lenin’s death, the city was renamed Leningrad and the authorities did their best to obliterate every trace of the brilliant past of St Petersburg from one’s mind.

Triumphal return of Russian soldiers after the Victory in the War of 1941-1945

Russian soldiers

The twentieth century brought to the “granite city of glory and disasters” new unheard-of cataclysms, such as mass arrests and executions in the years of Stalin’s “Great Terror”, the War of 1941-45 (known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War) and the siege, unparalleled in the world’s history.
Hitler’s armies formed a deathly ring around the city that did not come loose from September 1941 to January 1944. These “900 Days” mark the most tragic period throughout the city’s history. Sometimes up to 30,000 people died of starvation in a single day. Not only all poultry and home animals were eaten up, but hungry people boiled leather belts, scraped glue off the wallpaper and ate peat. The former capital was on the verge of complete destruction, but it did not surrender. The people believed that once the enemy’s feet had not stepped on its land before, it would not
happen this time, too. The city withstood the trial, won a victory and repaired the ravage wrought by the war.

Festive parade in honour of Victory Day. War veterans on Nevsky Prospekt

Veterans

However, the stately and brilliant St Petersburg, as it had been in Pushkin’s era, was gradually turning into a dull and featureless Soviet metropolis, Leningrad. “A window onto Europe” was closed, and now only rare ships from the West could be seen in the port. The residents of the once glorious northern capital began to call it bitterly “a great city with the destiny of a regional centre”. One can hardly say now what would come out of it, where it not for Gorbachev’s perestroika. Among the most positive changes it brought was a decision to give the city its historical name again:
on 1 October 1991 it was officially declared St Petersburg.

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