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  • Saint Petersburg
    St. Petersburg, is the second largest city of Russia and it is usually considered the most European as well as the cultural capital city in Russia. Saint Petersburg was founded by Tsar Peter The Great on 27th of May 1703 and celebrated its 300th anniversary in 2003, which is the date when the foundation of the Peter and Paul Fortress was laid. Peter the Great chose to have the fortress located on a small island (with an area of 750 by 360 meters or 2,500 by 1,200 feet) among the Neva channels, in the widest part of the river. The name of the place was Hare's Island in Finnish or Joyful Land in Swedish. Ever since, the fortress has protected both the way from the Baltic Sea inland and the new city itself against any invaders. Since 1736, the Peter and Paul Fortress cannon fires a volley every day at 12:00 p. m., and residents of St. Petersburg use this event to set their watches by.

    Peter the Great (1682-1725) is one of the key figures in Russian history. A true reformer, a smart but merciless man of strong will and great energy, not only did he know how to rule the country, but also how to handle oars and shipping gear. He was skilled as a blacksmith and could even build wharves. It was he who managed to transform patriarchal Muscovy into the Russian Empire, a state based on the European standards of the day. The tsar was unwavering and strict in the implementation of his reforms: under threat of severe punishment, he forced the boyars to shave off their beards, wear European clothes, and drink coffee. He was the first leader to have New Year fir-trees decorated everywhere in the country. Even his imposing height of 204 centimeters (over 6.5 feet) was in harmony with his numerous talents.

    On the St. Petersburg coat of arms, a river and a sea anchor intersect. Tsar Peter the Great considered anchors to be the keys to Paradise and used this notion to plan the name of his new capital. Other various unofficial names for the second largest city in Russia included Northern Venice, Northern Palmyra, the City of White Nights, and Petropolis. Still, the majority of Russians affectionately call it simply Peter. During 1914-1924, the city was called Petrograd and then, up until 1991, its name was Leningrad (in honour of Vladimir Lenin, the first communist leader and founder of the USSR). The city's immediate destiny was to become Russia's new capital. After winning back the northern lands from the Swedes, gaining access to the Baltic shore and, thereby, as Russian poet Alexander Pushkin wrote, "cutting a window through to Europe" Peter the Great decided to model his city on Amsterdam.

    One of the small islands on the Neva, where the Admiralty Wharf used to be, is still called New Holland. Thousands of peasants and craftsmen were brought to the swampy Neva estuary to dig canals and build bridges, and over 100,000 workers died in the first decade of the city's construction. The best architects, sculptors, painters, and engineers were invited from the Netherlands, Italy, France, and Germany. Nevertheless, Russia's northern capital took on its own unique style and appearance. Like Venice, this city is divided up among numerous islands; due to the activities of town-planners who continue trying to keep to a minimum the canals of the Neva which hamper city life, the number of islands is being reduced. There were about 150 at the beginning of the 19th century, 101 island a hundred years ago, and only 42 remain today.

    Ninety-three natural and artificial canals (which form the Neva Delta) flow through the city, and there are over a hundred lakes and ponds in the city today. Abundance of water enhances the appearance of any City; however, for St. Petersburg it is also a source of constant worries. Gales from the Bay of Finland often blow the Neva's water back into its estuary, creating flooding in the residential districts on the outskirts of the city. The most catastrophic occurrences of this kind happened in 1777, 1824 and 1924. The Neva waves flowed over the city again in 1955, but fortunately no one was killed. Around this time, there was a trail-blazing project introduced to construct a giant dam that would protect Leningrad from the forces of the sea. Though only a part of the project has been completed so far, mainly because of shortages in funding and the objections of environmentalists, the flooding has been notably reduced.

    There is no consensus on what should be considered the symbol of St. Petersburg. Some people think that it should be the Bronze Horseman, a monument to the city's founder Peter the Great that stands on Senate Square. Others prefer the Alexander Pillar on Palace Square, built in honour of the victory over Napoleon Bonaparte in the War of 1812, or the "needle' with a golden ship that decorates the Admiralty Tower. Yet others name the rostral columns at the Vassilievsky Island Junction, the thin spire of the Peter and Paul Fortress, or the famous Mariinsky Theatre ballet troupe.

    The White Nights also should be mentioned as another special feature of the city. Those who manage to visit St. Petersburg from June 11th through July 2nd, when the sun practically never sets, can enjoy the fabulous city panorama while walking along numerous stone quays during the White Nights. However, one should remember that 21 out of the 342 bridges in St. Petersburg are separated during the night. The longest one is the Alexander Nevsky Bridge (905.7 meters or 2,971 feet); the widest one is the Blue Bridge across the Moika River (97.3 meters or 319 feet). Trinity Bridge, one of the most beautiful bridges crossing the Neva, was built in 1903 as a project of the French engineer Gustave Eiffel, famous for building the Eiffel Tower in Paris. One cannot help admiring the delicate chain suspension Bank Bridge, decorated with figures of griffins with gilded wings, or the horse statues by the sculptor Peter Klodt on Anichkov Bridge.

    The most difficult period of the city's history came when Leningrad was blockaded by Nazi troops for 900 days. The terribly cold and hungry winters of 1941-1942, together with incessant bombing and shelling, took the lives of 640,000 civilians. Movingly majestic memorials to the victims of the Siege of Leningrad are erected at the Piskarevskoe and Seraphimovskoe cemeteries. The older residents of St. Petersburg, survivors of the siege, remember the following story: when the sandbags that had been used to protect the Bronze Horseman were taken away after the siege was finally over, someone had drawn the image of a medal for the Defence of Leningrad in chalk on Peter the Great's chest.

    The city's main road is the fashionable and elegant Nevsky Prospekt, which is 4.5 kilometers (2.8 miles) long. For many residents of St. Petersburg, a promenade along this central street is a kind of ritual. The Hermitage is one of the world's largest museums. Visiting it is a must for anyone who comes to St. Petersburg. Other sites not to be missed include the Russian Museum and the giant St. Isaac Cathedral (101.5 meters or 333 feet in height), the Summer Garden with its famous openwork gate, or the Peter and Paul Fortress which is the burial place of Russian emperors.

    The most exotic museum in the city is undoubtedly the Kunstkammer (meaning "Chamber of Rarities" in German) where one can see specimens of malformed and diseased foetuses that have been preserved in alcohol since the time of Peter the Great. The tsar said: "I want my people to see all and to learn." In the first years after its opening, the Kunstkammer was free to all visitors. In fact, incentives for visitors were provided with funds specifically allotted from the city coffer.
    There are over 14,000 exhibits in the Bread Museum, located across from the Arctic and Antarctic Museum. Of course, those who love Russian literature know that St. Petersburg is the city of Pushkin and Dostoevsky. Joseph Brodsky, a Nobel prize-winning poet, was a resident of St. Petersburg, as were the composers Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich.
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