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St Petersburg is one of the most visited cities in Russia, attracting tourists for many reasons. Some come for the architecture, some for the history and others to experience the rich culture. Whatever the reason, here are the most interesting facts about St Petersburg that will help you better understand the city.
St Petersburg was founded by Tsar Peter I. It is widely believed that the name was chosen to honour himself. But in actual fact, the city was named after the tsar’s patron saint, the apostle Saint Peter. After World War I, there was widespread anti-German sentiment, and so the city’s name was changed to Petrograd, which sounded less Germanic than Sankt Peterburg. Following the socialist revolution, the city was renamed again to Leningrad, to honour the communist revolutionary, Vladimir Lenin. The city’s name finally reverted back to St Petersburg after the fall of the Soviet Union. Colloquially, the city is often referred to as just Piter.
Vladimir Putin was born in 1952 in Leningrad (now known as St Petersburg). He grew up in a communal apartment, studied at local schools, before graduating with a law degree from Leningrad State University (now St Petersburg State University). He is on the list of honorary citizens of St Petersburg, an award handed out to no more than two people annually.
Just 10 years after the city was founded, St Petersburg became Russia’s new capital city in 1712. Except for a brief four-year hiatus, the city would remain the country’s capital for the next 200 years. It was only during the Revolution of 1917, when the country started to cut itself off from its imperial history, that Moscow regained its title as Russia’s capital city.
During the Second World War, while St Petersburg was still known as Leningrad, German forces surrounded the city, cutting off entry and exit points. Hitler had planned to hold a celebratory banquet at the Astoria Hotel once he conquered the city. Despite the odds, he never succeeded. People were starving and surviving freezing temperatures without access to water or electricity, for almost 900 days. Millions of civilians died, but they were determined to protect their city until the end. Local radio stations played the sound of a ticking metronome so that locals knew that their city’s heart was still beating. Beneath The Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad you can still hear the city’s beating heart.
One reason why Tsar Peter I wanted to build St Petersburg was to connect Russia to the rest of Europe via shipping routes. Before St Petersburg existed, the area was an inhospitable marshland that was prone to harsh weather. The tsar ordered the yearly conscription of 40,000 serfs to come build the city from scratch. They were expected to bring their own tools and make their own journeys to the marshland. Some walked for hundreds of kilometres, on foot, and a great number died on the way. According to some estimates, the city’s construction resulted in an estimated 100,000 deaths.
A number of the city’s cats were sacrificed to avoid starvation during the famine that ravaged St Petersburg during WWII. But soon after, the city underwent a public health crisis. Rodents were crawling into food stores, eating the city’s rations and leaving droppings behind. They also brought deadly diseases to the local population. To bring the situation under control 5,000 cats were drafted in to deal with the problem. In celebration of the cats’ heroic services, you’ll find a bronze cat, Yelisei, sitting in the eaves of the Eliseyev Emporium on Malaya Sadovaya street and its friend, Vasilisa, on the other side of the street. According to local superstition, you should make a wish and throw money at Yelisei’s feet.
From mid June to early July St Petersburg experiences a phenomenon called White Nights. The city remains lit up by sunlight practically throughout the whole day, making cultural events and late-night walks very popular. That time of year is also the time for the White Nights Festival, a series of ballet, opera and orchestral performances at the renowned Mariinsky Theatre.
As the country’s cultural capital, St Petersburg has over 8,000 landmarks. One of the most notable is the historic State Hermitage Museum. It houses over 3 million pieces of art and cultural artefacts. With around 400 rooms spread across three floors throughout five interlinked buildings, it could take months, even years, to familiarise yourself with every piece of artwork on exhibition. According to one estimate, if you were to look at each artwork for one minute for 8 hours a day, you would need 25 years to properly see everything in the Hermitage.
Although St Petersburg is a city located on islands and closely connected to water, the first bridges did not appear straight away. Tsar Peter I envisioned the city to be like Venice, where its citizens would move around by boat. The city’s first bridges appeared shortly after his death, and now St Petersburg has 342 bridges.
According to the average depth of all the city’s metro stations, St Petersburg has one of the deepest metro stations in the world. The primary reason is due to the city’s unique geology, which has hampered numerous attempts to build a metro system. On one occasion, construction workers had accidentally tunnelled into an underground cavity of the Neva River, a section of which later became flooded. The city’s deepest metro station is Admiralteyskaya, which is 86 metres below ground.
In August, 2013, Amway Russia prepared the world’s longest ravioli (not to be confused with the world’s largest, a title held by an Italian restaurant in Volgograd). It was 29.28 metres (96 feet) long, 6 centimetres wide and filled with chicken and onion. It remains unclear why a Russian company decided to create the world’s longest pasta parcel.