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St Petersburg: the city of three revolutions

Instigated by an unequal and divided populace, St Petersburg was pivotal in a succession of momentous revolutionary upheavals 

The city variously known through history as St Petersburg, Petrograd or Leningrad used to be called ‘the Cradle of Three Revolutions’. It was central to a succession of massive upheavals: the eventually failed Empire-wide uprising of 1905, the February Revolution of 1917 that overthrew the Tsar, and the October Revolution of the same year that began an experiment in total social transformation. Over recent decades, it has become something of a forgotten city, though it is the fourth largest metropolis in Europe, after Moscow, Istanbul and London. Its 18th-century canal-side streets look to the untrained eye like a tougher Copenhagen, yet rather than being lined by bicycles, they’re choked with traffic. A Petersburg ‘clan’ dominates Russian politics, but the city seems to have benefited little in terms of investment. Its piercing beauty coexists with a sharp carelessness.

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Supporters of the provisional government inside the Winter Palace in November 1917. Photograph courtesy of World History Archive / Alamy

Aside from its revolutions, Petersburg is best known for a beauty that predates the uprisings. The place that erupted three times in strikes, factory occupations and insurrections was not defined by perfectly calculated Enlightenment classicism, but by 19th-century suburbs of tall, crowded tenements, wooden slums, red brick mills and heavy metal engineering works. Petersburg’s industry was monolithic, defined by a few enormous complexes employing thousands of people, staffed by workers whose grandparents were serfs. This made it an ideal city of what Bolshevik theorists called ‘uneven and combined development’. Yet Petersburg is extremely ‘even’ in its planned structure. A centre like an ideal Renaissance town plan come to life is surrounded successively by equally homogeneous quarters of the 19th century, the avant-garde 1920s, the Stalinist 1930s to ’50s, the prefabricated 1960s to ’80s. It is these last decades where new development is concentrated, because of the most influential Soviet legacy – the historical preservation of the entire city centre, which is sometimes circumvented, but never quite defeated, by property developers and their friends in government. Instead, developers cram ultra-high-density complexes of Postmodernist ‘luxury’ flats – quickly built by brutally treated Central Asian migrant workers – into tight plots in former industrial districts. It is an unpleasant side effect of conservation that the city government seems prepared to accept.

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Winter Palace, Palace Square. The events of 1917 are largely ignored by the Kremlin in this centenary year. Photograph by AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky, courtesy of Rex/Shutterstock

There are many traces of the revolution in the centre if you know where to find them. The cruiser Aurora, a volley from which was the signal for insurrection in October 1917, still stands on the river Neva, and was recently restored, although it currently downplays its revolutionary use. Plaques are sometimes to be found on the buildings occupied by the various revolutionary governments, such as the Tauride Palace or the Smolny Institute. There are monuments, like the exceptionally moving Field of Mars, a burial ground for victims of the February Revolution, later completed with poetic inscriptions by the Bolshevik Commissar of Enlightenment, Anatoly Lunacharsky. There are the streets and squares where protest and insurrection happened. Nevsky Prospect, where demonstrators were shot in the suppression of the violent protests of July 1917. The unforgettable dream-space of Palace Square, where the Winter Palace was stormed, and where the storming would be re-enacted by avant-garde theatre groups and Constructivist film directors. 

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The cruiser Aurora signalled insurrection in October 1917. Photograph courtesy of Interfoto / Alamy

The most interesting and enduring legacy is more invisible – the Kommunalka. This hugely unequal and divided city’s apartments were audited and split up during the bloody Civil War that followed the Bolshevik seizure of power, with one result being extreme subdivision – several families in one huge, high-ceilinged imperial flat. Few outside Russia realise that many of the opulent apartment blocks in the centre are actually still Kommunalki, with a tangle of doorbell switches to each door. This has two results today. The neglect of these lush tenements is obvious, but inner-city districts have mostly not been fully gentrified, as the complexity of who owns what often deters investors. Defying conservation laws, some developers find it easier to just knock down and build replicas instead, dispersing the residents and owners in one fell swoop rather than negotiating with them. It’s hardly utopian, but the persistence of the Kommunalka is nonetheless a definite revolutionary legacy in 2017.

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Profusion of doorbells on the main door of a Kommunalka. Photograph by Sergey Kozmin Photography 

The earliest legacy in terms of new space is Narvskaya Zastava, ‘the Narva district’, which stretches roughly from the Narva Gate, a flamboyant victory arch for the Napoleonic Wars, to the Putilov engineering works, the largest and most important factory in 1917, whose support was crucial for the Bolshevik insurrection of October. This was one of the first districts to have been built in the USSR – given that the Putilov workers began to rebel against Bolshevik statism as early as 1920, satisfying their demands for a better quality of life was important for the revolutionary regime’s legitimacy. The earliest part, from 1926, is Tractor Street, designed by Aleksandr Gegello, Aleksandr Nikolsky and Grigory Simonov, a very attractive Neoclassical estate that subtly distorts the limpid classicism that defines St Petersburg, with half-arches and unexpected vistas. On the oversized Square of Strikes, a collection of public buildings face each other. Some – like Noi Trotsky’s early 1930s Town Hall, and ASNOVA architects’ dramatic Factory Kitchen – are ambitiously Constructivist, with asymmetrical towers and ribbon windows, while others, such as the 10th Anniversary School and the Gorky Palace of Culture (both 1927), are in a Perret-like Rationalist style. Few are in a good state of repair, and the townscape is marred by the hideous mirrorglass-Classical 1812 Shopping Centre, but a few years ago, a Walter Benjamin-like tour of the district formed the basis of a project by the contemporary avant-garde group Chto Delat (What is To Be Done?), which was published as an issue of their intriguing newspaper. Square of Strikes was also the setting for their film Angry Sandwich People, where the text of a Brecht poem about the fading of revolutionary hope is carried on sandwich boards by a group of Petersburgers.

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A room shared by a family of three and a dog in a Kommunalka, or communal apartment. Photograph by Sergey Kozmin Photography

If this is the only entire district in the city where you can still just about feel the pulse of post-revolutionary ambition, there are Constructivist factory kitchens and workers’ clubs dotted around the inner suburbs. In Vasilevsky Island, next to surviving shipyards and docks, there is a factory with an abstracted tower by Iakov Chernikhov, best known for his 1933 book Architectural Fantasies; a couple of miles north is Erich Mendelsohn’s Red Banner Textile Factory, an Expressionist battleship marooned among disused 19th-century mills and warehouses. These two buildings are among the monuments of an era when the USSR was, briefly, the centre of European Modernism; but most of the buildings that directly invoke the revolution in imagery and rhetoric are from the Stalinist years. The city’s palatial Metro is studded with bronze, steel, porphyry and glass monuments to unnamed insurgents and their named leaders. It works almost as a narrative, going from Lenin speaking to workers on a giant relief in the entrance to Narvskaya, to the central Uprising Square, where state power is seized in ceramic medallions. A statue of Lenin commands the classic totalitarian urbanism of the Moskovsky (Moscow) District, with its huge squares and castellated apartment buildings for the Soviet elite. 

With exceptions, such as Catriona Kelly’s admirable Shadows of the Past, St Petersburg after the end of the Second World War – during which the city was blockaded and starved nearly to death – is ignored in histories. It was only really between the ’60s and ’80s that the housing problem inherited in 1917 was seriously solved, with the mass building of prefabricated housing – most of the results are nondescript, save the memorable Brutalist enfilades that line the canals in the north of Vasilievsky Island. Perestroika Leningrad saw a late artistic flowering as a city of the post-punk avant-garde, via musicians such as Sergey Kuryokhin and Viktor Tsoi. It is also the home of Vladimir Putin, and his coterie of former secret servicemen. Its city government has been proudly reactionary – the recent law against ‘homosexual propaganda’ was first tested out in St Petersburg. The vote to rename the city in 1991 was narrow, and many institutions just had their names changed rather than being abolished. One such was the Museum of the Revolution, which became the Museum of Political History.

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Kirovsky, former Putilovsky factory, site of workers’ strike, taken in 1917. Photograph by AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky, courtesy of Rex / Shutterstock

This was once Ksheshinskaya’s Palace, built for a ballerina, to the designs of Aleksandr Von Gogen in 1904. The Palace was a sprawling home for one fortunate person, a short walk from the overcrowded tenements of the proletarian Vyborg district. In 1917, the Bolsheviks requisitioned it as their HQ; in the ’50s, it became a museum. When I visited in 2010, you still had to wear plastic slippers and photos were strictly forbidden. The collection of revolutionary memorabilia had, at some point in the ’90s, been supplied with new captions telling you how awful the Bolsheviks really were. Now, these rooms coexist with a more nuanced but still schizophrenic depiction of revolutionary events, after a recent expansion and restoration. One room will tell you about Ksheshinskaya, another replicates the Bolshevik Central Committee’s offices, another gives a potted history of Soviet housing in the city. Most pertinent of all is a permanent exhibition on the Duma, the rigged parliament that Tsar Nicholas II conceded after the first of the ‘three revolutions’ in 1905. It is aptly placed alongside the equally powerless current Russian parliament of the same name. You might miss the most important thing – the expropriation of the rich, their luxuries transformed into a base for plotting out the parameters of a new and better kind of society. The streets of Petersburg have abundant evidence of how that ended up; but they also show why people believed it possible.