The Peter and Paul Fortress is one of the most fascinating historical sites in St. Petersburg, because its intricate history spans several centuries. Tsar Peter the Great founded the city of St. Petersburg in the early 1700s and supervised the construction of the Peter and Paul Fortress (IA 2008). In 1703, this fortress was the first structure built in the city of St. Petersburg (IA 2008). This historical fortress has six bastions named after prominent individuals who supervised its construction and there is even a bastion named after Peter the Great (IA 2008). Within this enormous fortress are two very important sites: The Peter and Paul Cathedral and the Trubetskoy Prison, which are both awe-inspiring masterpieces.
Beyond the Peter and Paul Fortress
When I first saw the exterior of the Peter and Paul Fortress, I was extremely impressed by its size and structure. The lengthy walls are made of brick and the fortress is located next to the Neva River. The most noticeable exterior aspect of the Peter and Paul Fortress is the Peter and Paul Cathedral. The clocktower of the cathedral is quite tall and can be seen from at least a mile away. This massive fortress is quite stunning and beautiful even when observed from a great distance.
During the eighteenth century, the Peter and Paul Fortress played a significant role in daily civilian lives in St. Petersburg, because the twelve-o-clock cannon shot helped the civilians keep track of time and blank cannon shots were also fired to warn of flooding (IA 2008). Peter the Great was the first to introduce the twelve-o-clock cannon shot tradition, although it was rarely kept during the nineteenth century and the cannon use dwindled (IA 2008). It was not until 1957 that the twelve-o-clock cannon shot was revived for historical purposes and this tradition still continues today (IA 2008). While living in St. Petersburg, I heard the cannon fire every day at noon, from my classroom at the Herzen State Pedagogical University. The cannon shot was so powerful that even a mile away from the fortress, it was loudly audible.
Entering the Peter and Paul Fortress
The Peter and Paul Fortress has a famous entrance known as the Petrovsky (Peter’s) Gate, which was built between 1717 and 1718 by Domenico Trezzini, St. Petersburg’s first architect. This gate has a Biblical storyline known as the “Apostle Peter striking down Simon the Wise.” The gate was also built to commemorate the Russian victory over Sweden in the Northern War. Additionally, there is a double-headed eagle and a Russian coat of arms above each arch (IA 2008). The Petrovsky Gate was particularly fascinating due to its intricate artwork. The double-headed eagle wears a crown on each head, holds a scepter in the left claw, and an orthodox orb in the right claw. Above the double headed eagle is a third crown and the Russian coat of arms is attached to the front of the eagle. Additionally, there are metal plaques located above the eagle, on which relief figures of people are carved. These figures are gesturing at an angel in the center of the plaque.
The Peter and Paul Cathedral
Construction of the Peter and Paul Cathedral began in 1712. By 1720, the majority of the cathedral had been constructed, and was named in honor of the apostles Saint Peter and Saint Paul. The cathedral’s bell tower was the first structure built in the fortress, but it was not completed until 1725 (Price 1964). The bell tower and the spire are the focal point of the fortress, due to their immense height. This bell tower, which is about 400 feet high, was the tallest building in St. Petersburg for many years (IA 2008). It was not until 1773 that the construction of the cathedral was completely finished. Peter the Great was never able to see the finished construction of the cathedral, because he died eight years prior to its completion. Additionally, this cathedral became Peter the Great’s burial site, after his death. Today, all of the Russian Tsars, with the exception of Peter II and Ivan, are buried in the Peter and Paul Cathedral (IA 2008).
The most visually fascinating part of this cathedral is the interior because it is in immaculate condition and the coffins of the tsars are organized in neat rows. The ceiling and walls of the cathedral are decorated in hues of green and blue, while golden accents and figurines are used as artistic decorations. The religious icons are located at the front of the cathedral and are also surrounded by golden decorative framing. The two most popular graves in this cathedral are Peter The Great and Nicholas II, because of their historical roles. As a result, both of these graves tend to attract large groups of tourists. Peter the Great’s coffin is located at the front right corner of the cathedral. It has seven antique coins attached to it, which makes his coffin unique from the others. Tsar Nicholas II, the last tsar of Russia, is buried in his own chamber with his family. The camber contains eight white and gold wall plaques, a chandelier, a red and blue carpet, a religious pedestal, white flowers, and Tsar Nicholas’ gravestone. Despite the room being visually interesting, no one is allowed to enter the room, out of respect for the Romanov family and their tragic deaths.
The Clocktower of the Cathedral
The cathedral’s clocktower has an intricate history. In the eighteenth century, the cathedral’s clocktower was built with a complex carillon with thirty-five bells connected to a keyboard. The carillon had a chiming mechanism, with two hammers on the outside of each bell, and the keyboard moved a clapper that struck the bells. This mechanism made the clock chime every hour. During the eighteenth century, there was also a daily keyboard player, named Johann Christian Forster, who played the clock-tower keyboard every day at noon. Unfortunately, at midnight on April 30, 1756, lightning struck the top spire of the cathedral. Fire crept down the shaft and burned down the spire. Additionally, the entire first bastion and the carillon were left in ashes. As a result, a contract was signed in 1757 to have the first bastion and the carillon repaired. This repair plan included thirty-seven bells and a new keyboard with thirty-seven keys. The repair process of the carillon was delayed due to several complications and two more decades passed before the carillon was restored to its full glory.
In 1776, a contract was signed with a man named Ridiger to install the rest of the equipment in the carillon. Ridiger’s contract also included playing the keyboard every day and looking after the carillon for the rest of his life. By the end of the year, the carillon was repaired, and music was once again heard from the clocktower. Unfortunately, in 1840, the carillon was damaged again, which stopped the bells from chiming. However, in the twentieth century, the clock tower was again restored (Price 1964). After exiting the cathedral, I examined the beautiful clock tower and its carillon. The clocktower has four archways, one on each of the four sides of the tower, and the large bells are hung behind each archway. There is also a black and gold clock on each of the four sides of the clock tower located above each archway. The carillon still chimes every hour and is audible for those near the fortress.
The Trubetskoy Prison
The Trubetskoy Bastion was built under Peter the Great between 1870 and 1872 (IA 2008). The Trubetskoy Prison was constructed to be a new high security political prison, located inside of the Peter and Paul Fortress (IA 2008). After the bastion’s construction, a commandant was responsible for reporting each prisoner in the Trubetskoy Bastion to the tsar (Slavnitskiy 2017). Political prisoners were usually government officials or rebels, who defied tsarist rule and law (Slavnitskiy 2017). This historical fortress was never involved in any direct fighting, but it did house hundreds of prisoners over the centuries, including Peter the Great’s rebellious son Alexei, who was the prison’s first inmate (IA 2008). One of the best-known political prisoners of the Trubetskoy Prison was Alexander Ulyanov, Vladimir Lenin’s eldest brother. Ulyanov was arrested in 1866 because he and other terrorists planned an assassination of Tsar Alexander III. Ulyanov was also a leader of the Narodnaya Volya, ‘The People’s Will Party’, which was a terrorist organization. Ulyanov was arrested and imprisoned in the Trubetskoy Prison for twenty-one years, after which he was hanged on May 8th, 1887 in the Schlisselburg Fortress (Trubetskoy Prison 2019).
The fortress is quite a maze and the Trubetskoy Prison is tucked away in the back corner of the fortress. The prison is tall and wide, is three floors high, and has three very long corridors, with one on each floor. All of the walls and floors were made of concrete, which made the prison sturdy and utilitarian. During its usage, the Trubetskoy Prison housed over a thousand prisoners, spanning from its construction during Peter the Great, to the time that it became a museum in the 20th century. Over one hundred prisoners were executed while imprisoned at Trubetskoy (Trubetskoy Prison 2019). Today, it is now possible to push a button next to the iron cot in some of the cells and hear the memoirs of the inmates housed in the prison. Hearing the reminiscences of the previous inmates is an eye-opening experience, because they tell their life stories and their political views. In the late 1800’s, the Trubetskoy cells contained an iron bed, simple bedding, and a small wooden table with a small wooden stool, a wooden sink, and a wooden toilet. The prisoners would also usually have an oil lamp and a book. The cells were small to medium-sized rooms, which housed the political prisoners individually. Furthermore, each cell was sealed by a heavy wooden door, with a small hatch in its center, which was opened to give the prisoners food (Trubetskoy Prison 2019).
The prison kitchen was built in the late 1800’s and was located next to the Trubetskoy prison. The kitchen was designed to be strictly utilitarian and it was not large and fancy, because fancy meals were not prepared for prisoners. There was a stove and the kitchen sink looked very similar to the prison sinks used in the cells (Trubetskoy Prison 2019). The inmates were only allowed to bathe twice a month. During this time, the inmates were escorted to the bathhouse, usually on a Friday or a Saturday, where they were monitored while bathing to ensure that they did not attempt to harm or kill themselves. Inside the bathhouse there are four smaller rooms: an entrance room, a changing room, a washroom, and a steam room. An oil lamp was located inside of each room and was used for lighting until electricity was installed in 1904. According to the testimony of inmates, the bathhouse was also used as the location where political prisoners were placed in irons before being transferred to another prison or before execution (Trubetskoy Prison 2019)
The Provisional Government Seizes the Fortress
During World War I, St. Petersburg was renamed Petrograd and Tsar Nicolas II decreed that the entire city be placed under martial law. The masses were outraged because of the rising of prices and the disappearance of basic necessities. Food was scarce and public transit stopped running. Looting began and demonstrators held up signs with slogans such as “Bread! Down with war!”. An uprising began in Petrograd, shortly after the war had ended and the Imperial Government announced that the city was under siege. The Imperial Government was eventually overthrown by the Provisional Government, and the Peter and Paul Fortress was then captured. When the Provisional Government overthrew the Imperial Government, monarchists and senior officials of the Imperial Government were imprisoned in the Trubetskoy Prison, where they were interrogated (Ivanova 2014). The first general arrested was A.A. Manikovsky, who was the acting War Minister in the Imperial Government. Many more generals and state officials were soon captured and sent to the Trubetskoy Prison (Slavnitskiy 2017).
The Bolsheviks Seize the Fortress
Later that year, during the October Revolution, the government and the Peter and Paul Fortress were toppled by the Bolsheviks (IA 2008). On October 26, 1917, members of the Provisional Government were arrested at the Winter Palace and imprisoned in the Trubetskoy Prison (IA 2008). The rest of the ministers from the Provisional Government were then also imprisoned in Trubetskoy (Slavnitskiy 2017). The Provisional Government officials were the last inmates of the Trubetskoy Prison (IA 2008). While examining the Trubetskoy Prison, it appeared to me that the spartan accommodations of the 1900’s cells were far more utilitarian than the accommodations in the 1800’s. This seems to be true, because the nicer items from the 1800’s were replaced with more utilitarian equivalents in the early 1900’s (Trubetskoy Prison 2019). For example, the wooden desk was replaced with an iron table that was attached to the wall (Trubetskoy Prison 2019). Additionally, the large sinks from the 1800’s were replaced with smaller sinks (Trubetskoy Prison 2019). Furthermore, the simplistic wooden toilets from the 1800’s were also replaced with holes in the floor, which were used instead of toilets (Trubetskoy Prison 2019).
The punishment cells in the Trubetskoy Prison starkly illustrate the cruelty of the guards toward the prisoners. Each floor of the prison had a punishment cell, which was a small isolation cell. The punishment cell had an iron bed, an iron desk, and a hole in the floor that was used as a toilet. There was a window in the punishment cell, however it was bolted shut with metal blinds to keep the convict in darkness. The punishment room lacked many things, including a sink, lighting, and heating, which made the convict’s life cold and miserable. The wintertime was the worst time to be locked in the punishment cell, because the walls were frozen through, which would make the cell freeze. Dampness often caused tuberculosis among the prisoners. For severe punishment, the guards would take away the bedding of the convict and leave the convict to freeze on the iron cot in the cell. A convict could remain in the punishment cell from one to seven days (Trubetskoy Prison 2019).
The Fortress as Museum
After the Bolsheviks seized power, most of the Peter and Paul Fortress was converted into a museum, in order to showcase the horrors of the previous Imperial Government. In 1932 the Gas Dynamics Laboratory was built in the fortress. This laboratory held the first Soviet rocket engines and displayed the Soviet regime’s achievements in rocket engine and missile building. There was also a tremendous amount of research carried out within the walls of the Peter and Paul Fortress. From 1941 to 1944, during the blockade and bombing of Leningrad during the Great Patriotic War, the city and the Peter and Paul Fortress suffered great damage. The Peter and Paul Fortress underwent major reconstruction after the war (IA 2008).
Today, the Peter and Paul Fortress is a major historical site in St. Petersburg. In modern times, there are now are several museums inside of the Peter and Paul Fortress that display the extensive timeline of Russian history. As previously discussed, The Peter and Paul Cathedral now displays the legacy of the Russian Tsars, and the Trubetskoy Prison now showcases the living conditions for past political prisoners and the reminiscences of the historical enemies of the state. In addition to the Peter and Paul Cathedral and the Trubetskoy Prison, there are several other museums that display different aspects of the extensive length of Russian history. Some of the different museums that exist today inside of the fortress include: The Commandant’s House (a museum of Russian history from the 1703 to 1918), The Museum of Science and Technology, The Museum of Space Exploration and Rocket Technology, The Mint and the Museum of the History of Money, and The Museum of Architectural Ceramics. These museums showcase Russian history, art, and scientific advancements spanning several hundred years, to millions of people from all over the world. Therefore, the Peter and Paul Fortress is not only a fascinating historical sight, but it is also an effective historical sight for demonstrating the complexity and length of Russian history.