St Petersburg

St Petersburg

The 17 episodes in our St Petersburg series take in all the main sights and delve into the city’s dramatic history. Each episode is linked to buildings you can visit today – The Hermitage, the Catherine Palace, the Church on the Spilled Blood – and illustrated by extracts from history books, diary entries and literature. There is also coverage of the city’s links to music, ballet, art and literature, given in the context of sights like the Dostoyevsky Museum and the Mariinsky Theatre. And there’s a chance to learn more about its most famous – and infamous! – citizens, including Rasputin, the last Romanovs and Rudolf Nureyev.


St Petersburg Episode 01 Introduction

Dobro pozhalovat! Welcome!

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Dobro pozhalovat! Welcome to episode 1 of City Breaks St Petersburg. This opening podcast will give you an overview of the city, historically, geographically and culturally and an idea of the material to be covered in each of the remaining 16 episodes. We hope that after listening to it, you’ll be looking forward to the rest of the series and maybe also keen get down to planning a visit, knowing that what you have learned will help you get the most out of your city break. Or perhaps you have already been to St Petersburg and will enjoy reminiscing. Whatever your knowledge of the city, and whether you have travel plans or not, we hope you will love the ‘virtual visit’ anyway!

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St Petersburg Episode 02 Peter the Great

The man who built his city out of nothing

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The building of the beautiful city of St Petersburg at the dawn of the 18th century was all down to the willpower of one man: Peter the Great. Hear how he drove tens of thousands of serfs and prisoners of war to dig into marshland on the banks of the River Neva and plant the foundations of his dream city: an elegant array of palaces and cathedrals set to rival anything he had seen on his travels to Amsterdam and London. Find out about the man who dreamed of sophistication, yet watched his henchman torture his own son to death for opposing him.

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St Petersburg Episode 03 The Peter and Paul Fortress, Peterhof

Peter’s legacy: the terror of his fortress and the grandeur of his palace

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Peter the Great’s legacy is, of course, the whole of the city of St Petersburg. But this episode focuses on some of the buildings most closely associated with him, such as the Peter and Paul Fortress, begun as a citadel, and later the site of the city’s most feared prison. Also within the walls is the beautiful Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, whose foundation stone was laid by Peter himself and whose interior is the final resting place for him and almost all his direct Romanov descendants. Finally, hear about Peter’s grandiose summer residence, the Peterhof Palace, designed by him to dazzle and delight and still doing both today.

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St Petersburg Episode 04 The Catherine Palace

A dazzling summer palace and the empresses who made it their own

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Just as splendid as Peterhof, the Catherine Palace is St Petersburg’s other glittering summer residence, built as a surprise for Peter the Great by his wife Catherine on land he had gifted to her. This episode tells the story of the two great empresses who made it their own, starting with Elizabeth, daughter of Peter and Catherine and moving on to her niece-in-law, another Catherine, who succeeded to the Russian throne after the timely, not to say highly convenient, sudden death of her husband Peter III. She ruled for over thirty years as Catherine the Great. Learn something of the lives both empresses lived in the Catherine Palace, and then hear a few pointers on what to look out for on a visit.

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St Petersburg Episode 05 Nevsky Prospekt

A walk along St Petersburg’s grandest street

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Nevsky Prospekt ‘is Petersburg’ according to the Gogol, writing in the 1830s, and this long road is still today the backbone of the city. We explore it, stopping off at three of its best-known buildings, starting with the Alexander Nevsky Monastery, burial ground of Dostoyevsky and Tchaikovsky. Then it’s on to the Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan, scene of so many imperial funerals and of the Te Deum held to celebrate the delivery of Moscow from the Emperor Napoleon. And finally, we take in the onion-domed, riotously colourful Church on the Spilled Blood, built on the exact spot where Alexander II was assassinated in 1881 and hear the story behind that.

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St Petersburg Episode 06 The Palace Embankment

Canals, bridges and a glorious riverside stroll past the Summer and Winter Palaces

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This episode tours the many waterways of St Petersburg, looking first at some of the canals and bridges and then taking a stroll along the Neva, up the Palace Embankment, starting at St Isaac’s Cathedral, whose gleaming dome soars above the city ‘like a shining mitre’. The walk continues past the Winter Palace whose 1000+ rooms were once the home of imperial families, but which is now better known as one of the world’s best art galleries and we finish at the Summer Gardens and Summer Palace, the idyllic riverside refuge designed by Peter the Great as a venue for summer parties and outdoor frolics.

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St Petersburg Episode 07 Alexander Palace and the last Romanovs

The family home of the last Romanovs, Nicholas, Alexandra and their five children

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The Alexander Palace was the family home of choice for a number of Tsars, even if they hosted big public events in the swankier Catherine Palace across the park. Nicholas II, the last Emperor, was born here, and made it a comfortable family home for his wife, four daughters and son, the Tsarevich Alexei, until they were taken away in the middle of the night in July 1917 and sent to their deaths in Siberia. There are reminders of them throughout the building, from the paintings and photographs they collected, to rooms like the Lilac Study, daytime retreat of the Empress Alexandra, where the family gathered to take tea every afternoon at five o’clock.

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St Petersburg Episode 08 Faberge and Rasputin

Fabulous Faberge eggs and the murder of a religious imposter

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The two city-centre palaces featured in this episode both tell us more about the end of the Romanov dynasty, albeit in very different ways. The Shuvalov Palace, a former glittering hub for St Petersburg’s aristocracy, is today the home of a museum housing many artistic treasures, including a collection of Fabergé eggs, which remind the visitor of the luxury enjoyed by the last Imperial Romanov family. By contrast, an exhibition at the Yusupov Palace tells the story of Rasputin, the spiritual adviser, or ‘mad monk’, who exerted such an influence on Nicholas II and Alexandra that he was eventually lured here by Prince Felix Yusupov and his accomplices and murdered.

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St Petersburg Episode 09 Revolutions

Murders, massacres and the end of a dynasty

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First, some ideas on the increasing demands for reform which played out through the 18th and 19th centuries in St Petersburg, including the Decembrist Revolt of 1825 and the assassination of Emperor Alexander II in 1881. Then, a look at end-of-an-era St Petersburg in the early years of the 20th century, especially the Bloody Sunday Massacre of 1905 and the uprising in February 2017, which led to the abdication and, ultimately, the death of the last Romanov, Tsar Nicholas II. And finally, of course, the revolution of October 2017. A mix of facts and eye-witness accounts will leave you understanding these turbulent times – and therefore St Petersburg itself – a little better.

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St Petersburg Episode 10 The Soviet Era

History from Lenin to Gorbachev, plus where to enjoy Stalin-era doughnuts

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What happened in St Petersburg after the 1917 Revolution and where can you find traces of the Soviet era in the city today? After a little history, we visit three sites with much to tell: the terrifying Trubetskoy Bastion Prison, the State Museum of Political History and the former home of the dissident poet Anna Akhmatova. After a tour of metro stations designed in the 1950s as ‘Palaces of the People’, find out where you can experience Soviet culture today, whether you wish to play 1970s arcade games like Morskoi Boi (battleships!), dine in a Soviet-style restaurant on, say, borscht or draniki (beetroot soup or potato pancakes) or seek out the Donut Café where the atmosphere today still feels like ‘Stalin-era Russia’.

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St Petersburg Episode 11 The Siege of St Petersburg

St Petersburg’s darkest times

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St Petersburg’s haunting Memorial to the Defenders of Leningrad recalls the dreadful 900 day long blockade of the city by German troops during the Second World War. Supplies to the city were so ruthlessly cut off that the population was starved and 800,000 people lost their lives. This episode provides a little history, some extracts from the diary of teenager Lena Mukhina who lived through it and – against all odds – survived, and an account of the day in August 1942 when the defiant remaining musicians from what had been the Leningrad Radio Orchestra staged an outdoor concert which was broadcast across the city. Finally, there are some details about the monument itself.

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St Petersburg Episode 12 Music and Theatre

A city proud of its musical heritage

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Hear about some of St Petersburg’s many musical connections, with potted biographies of composers from Glinka, often known as the father of Russian music, to Shostakovich, via, of course, Tchaikovsky. And not forgetting Rubinstein, whose Russian Musical Society did so much to put St Petersburg on the musical map, or Stravinsky, whose ‘Rite of Spring’ delighted and outraged audiences in equal measure. Find out too about some of the city’s best-known musical and theatrical venues, from the jewel-like little theatres built for the Empresses Elizabeth and Catherine the Great to the ever-popular Mariinsky and the two Shostakovich Philarmonia Halls. Learn which museums and cemeteries have most to tell you about the city’s musical heritage.

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St Petersburg Episode 13 World Capital of Ballet

The schools, companies and dancers who have made St Petersburg’s ballet world famous

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Surely ballet is one of the first things you think of when it comes to St Petersburg. Hear a brief history, beginning with the ‘twelve little girls’ invited in 1738 by the Empress Anna to join the city’s first ballet school, held in the Winter Palace attic. Find out more about 19th and early 20th centuries, when many of the great Russian ballets were first seen and dancers like Vaslav Nijinsky and Anna Pavlova graced the stage. Hear too what happened to ballet in the Soviet era and how Rudolf Nureyev brought such exciting new ballet techniques from St Petersburg to the west, then find out what it’s like to see a ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre today.

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St Petersburg Episode 14 Art and Architecture

Architecture from baroque to skyscrapers, art from icons to the 21st century

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Art lovers flock to St Petersburg’s wonderful and extensive collections in the Hermitage and of course we will look at some of the highlights to be found there. But first, a nod to the glorious architectural styles to be found in the city, from the baroque palaces of 18th century St Petersburg, via the much more Russian-influenced Church on the Spilled Blood, to the designs favoured in the Stalinist era. Then, a visit to the Russian Museum, where thousands of exhibits tell the story of Russian art from the earliest icons to the twentieth century and lastly, some pointers for those wanting to see modern art Russian-style.

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St Petersburg Episode 15 Pushkin

Poetry, debauchery and where to find Pushkin today

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The Father of Russian Literature, Alexander Pushkin, grew up in St Petersburg and, while leading a colourful life of semi-debauchery, wrote many of his best-loved works about the city. This episode looks first at the man himself, from his schooldays at the elite Lycée opened by Alexander I to his dramatic demise in a duel at the age of only 37. Then we look briefly at two of his best known poems, both of which focus closely on St Petersburg and at his short story ‘The Shot’, a tale of pride, revenge and pistols which eerily previews his own death a few years later. Finally, we outline four places in the city today where you can go in search of Pushkin.

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St Petersburg Episode 16 Gogol, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky

Get to know the city through novels which are set there

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A look at 19th century St Petersburg thought the eyes of 3 authors: Gogol, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. Hear how a long-desired new overcoat caused the demise of the humble clerk Akaky Akakievich, then wander the streets of the city following an escaped body part in another Gogol story, the absurdist The Nose. Learn of St Petersburg’s glittering social life, described in War and Peace, and find out why the author preferred Moscow. And finally, experience the seamy side of the city in the company of Raskolnikov, the student-murderer ‘hero’ of Crime and Punishment. To round off the episode, a visit to the Dostoyevsky Museum in the heart of the Sennaya Ploshchad district, the setting for many works by Gogol and by Dostoyevsky himself.

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St Petersburg Episode 17 Finding Leningrad in Literature

What the works of Russian and British authors tells us about Soviet-era Leningrad

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For the final episode in the series, we are ‘leaving’ St Petersburg for Leningrad, as the city became during the Soviet era, and discovering it through the work of three very different authors. First, the poet Anna Akhmatova whose writing was largely banned from the 1917 revolution onwards, but whose very Russian, free-spirited poetry means she is remembered as a symbol of opposition to the state. Then Helen Dunmore, whose two novels The Siege and Betrayal are set in 1940s and 50s Leningrad. Their heart-rending plots are set against the difficulties of life in Soviet times, when the moral choices to be made were so consequential. And finally, Sergei Dovlatov, whose short story collection ‘The Suitcase’ casts a wry, critical, yet amusing look at the trials of being a Leningrad citizen in the 1960s.

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A Virtual Visit to St Petersburg

A bonus episode to whet your appetite

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Enjoy a virtual visit to St Petersburg, a tour which refers to websites, YouTube videos and books to tell you about the cultural and historical aspects of the city. Fly by drone over St Petersburg, both in winter splendour and during the White Nights, pay virtual visits to the Hermitage and the Memorial to the defenders of Leningrad ‘meet’ Catherine the Great and Pushkin, find out how to make Russian pancake fritters. All this and more is possible in this episode and will be useful whether you are planning a trip, enjoying reminiscing or just want to find out more.

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