Saint Petersburg is Russia's pearl on the Baltic Sea. This magnificent city lies on the Neva River in continental Europe. It carries layers of Russian and European history, having been at the frontline of many important wars and battles in the past several centuries.
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The name Saint Petersburg refers to Saint Peter, one of the early teachers of Christianity, and Peter the Great, a former ruler of Russia. When World War I started in 1914, the city was renamed Petrograd (meaning "Peter's City").
Five days after Vladimir Lenin, the first non-imperial leader of Russia died in 1924, the city was called Leningrad (meaning "Lenin's City). In 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, the city again adopted its old name Saint Petersburg.
One of the largest and most visited museums in the world, the Hermitage, is housed in the palace the Russian royal family used as their winter residence. It was established in 1764 by Catherine the Great, a Russian Empress who owned an extraordinarily large collection of paintings.
At the moment, there are more than three million items which belong to the Hermitage; however, only a small part of them is on permanent display. Visitors can enjoy a wide range of artifacts from all periods of history, from Egyptian antiquities and prehistoric art to famous paintings by 19th-century artists such as Van Gogh and Degas.
This large complex consists of six buildings, five of which are open to the public. This is very different from how things were in the past. The museum was initially very exclusive which means only very few people were allowed to visit it. This is why the museum was given the name Hermitage which derives from Old French hermit, meaning "a person who lives alone."
Orthodox Christianity presents an important part of Russian identity, so there is a high number of churches all over Saint Petersburg. The most visited is the Kazan Cathedral, dedicated to Our Lady of Kazan, a very holy icon for the Russian Orthodox Church.
The construction of this church was completed in 1811. It was modeled on Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome, the largest cathedral in the world. The interior of the church is decorated with many icons and sculptures made by famous Russian artists.
The cathedral is also admired for its huge bronze doors which are a copy of the doors found in the Baptistery, an 11th-century church in Florence, Italy. The history of this cathedral is fascinating because the building did not serve for religious purposes for 60 years.
Under the communist rule, the church was closed down in 1932 and reopened as the Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism. The service only resumed in 1992, and since then the Kazan Cathedral has become the main cathedral in Saint Petersburg.
One of the earliest buildings in Saint Petersburg is the Saint Alexander Nevsky Monastery. Founded in 1710 by Peter the Great, this monastery was built on the site of the Neva Battle which took place in 1240. In this battle, a famous warrior and Prince Alexander Nevsky defeated Swedish forces.
The complex contains three churches of different architectural styles built in different periods in the 18th century. By the monastery, you can also find the Tikhvin Cemetery. This place is famous because many figures important for Russian history and culture, such as the author Fyodor Dostoevsky and the composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, were buried there.
At the Alexander Nevsky Square right by the monastery, visitors can buy bread which the monks living in the monastery bake to support themselves.
Peter and Paul Fortress was the first structure built in Peter the Great's new town of Saint Petersburg. Located on the Hare Island on the north bank of the Neva River, this fortress had the purpose of protecting the city from any potential attacks by the Swedish forces.
However, the fortress did not serve for military purposes at all, but it was instead turned into a prison for political prisoners used by different governments. Under the Imperial rule, those who were suspected revolutionaries were put in the fortress.
After the Russian Revolution, hundreds of Emperor's officials were kept imprisoned. Today, visitors can see the Peter and Paul Cathedral which is where nearly all Russian tsars were buried. The fortress is also the site of several sandy beaches where the residents of Saint Petersburg like to relax in the summer.
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