St Petersburg’s past is chequered with the unyielding rule of the Romanovs, a smattering of dramatic revolutions and nearly a century of communism, and nowhere is its history more beautifully articulated than in the city’s changing identity. From Sankt-Peterburg to Petrograd to Leningrad and back again, St Petersburg’s names through the centuries reveal as much about the city as its wildly juxtaposed architecture.
St Petersburg was named Sankt-Peterburg at the end of the 17th century by Peter the Great, who conscripted peasants from across Russia to construct a great port city on the Baltic Sea that would fling open the doors of trade to Europe. The emperor, who had a fondness for the Continent (hence the city’s Germanic ‘Sankt/burg’ christening), envisioned Russia as a window to the West, and Sankt-Petersburg was to form the country’s pearly gates.
The tsar appointed Swiss Italian architect Domenico Trezzini to develop the city across the Neva Delta’s islands, ribboning it with canals and accessorising its grand boulevards with even grander Petrine Baroque palaces. Peter then relocated the capital from Moscow, and Sankt-Peterburg rose to fame as the imperial capital of Russia.
The star of Sankt-Peterburg continued to rise for a couple of centuries following Peter’s death in 1725, entertaining the extravagant tastes of the ruling Romanov dynasty. However, following the outbreak of the First World War centuries later, the Germanic undertones implicit in the city’s ‘Sankt’ and ‘Burg’ quickly lost their original appeal. On 1st September 1914, the imperial government smartly brushed off any Teutonic influences by rebranding the cosmopolitan city with a distinctly Russian flavour. Sankt-Peterburg became Petrograd, meaning Peter’s City.
Petrograd was throne to the Romanov tsars for a few years, until the communist revolution of 1917 shook Russia free from its imperial stronghold and slammed a fist down on more than three centuries of dynastic rule. In the dramatic events of the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks, under Vladimir Lenin, stormed the Winter Palace to mark the end of the post-tsarist provisional government and the rise of the Soviets.
The capital shifted 625km southeast to Moscow, and Petrograd was left to reinvent itself during a challenging era of communist rule. Lenin’s role in the city’s history was posthumously celebrated. On 26th January 1924, five days after the death of the leader, the city was renamed Leningrad, or Lenin’s City. As communism infused Russia, Leningrad’s Baroque wedding-cake palaces and Classical frothy façades were replaced by bleak constructivist blocks and the imposing Stalinist architecture that peppers the Moskovsky district.
Following a referendum on 12th June 1991 that coincided with the first Russian presidential elections to mark the fall of the Soviet Union, Sankt-Peterburg’s original name was restored. Looking remarkably different to its eponymous ancestor, the city’s jigsawed architecture and collection of names echoes St Petersburg’s intriguing role in Russian history. However, despite its numerous political and social reinventions, the capital of culture continues to be affectionately known by its residents as, simply, Piter.