Stories of revolution in Russia's St. Petersburg
A former imperial capital and the home of the czars, St. Petersburg is Russia's most tourist-worthy city. Pastel palaces, bucolic gardens, commanding statues and graceful waterways evoke romantic images of Peter the Great and the Romanov dynasty.
But travelers can also find memories of St. Petersburg's darker history: In 1917, the Russian Revolution started in the streets, ultimately doing away with the czars and ushering in the Soviet era.
In February of that year, Czar Nicholas II was ousted and a provisional government took over. Just months later, in what's now called the "October Revolution," Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks grabbed power. Not long after, the Bolsheviks executed Nicholas and his family.
In today's Russia, there's little official recognition of the centenary of these turbulent events. Still, St. Petersburg's Museum of Russian Political History http://www.polithistory.ru tells the story in detail, and you'll find other revolutionary sights around the city.
Start with the battleship "Aurora," docked on the Neva River (and now a museum). According to popular history, this ship had a key role in the revolution: It was a shot fired from the Aurora that signaled the start of the October uprising.
On that fateful day, the anarchists' first move was to storm the czars' Winter Palace (now the Hermitage Museum), where members of the provisional government had holed up. Imagine them worriedly looking out over the huge Palace Square as it filled with masses of angry workers, inspired to action by the promise of a better life under Bolshevism.
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The seeds of this discontent had been planted a half-century earlier, in 1861. Nicholas' grandfather, Alexander II, freed Russia's serfs. Suddenly free but with no land and no livelihood, the dumbfounded peasants rioted. Meanwhile, extremists, dissatisfied with the pace of reform, began plotting. In the end, an assassin tossed a bomb at Alexander, killing him on a St. Petersburg street in 1881.
The Romanovs built the onion-domed Church on Spilled Blood to commemorate the very spot where the czar fell (even preserving the bloodied cobbles). With its gilded domes and dazzling mosaics, it's a fairy-tale image of Russian tradition and history, and one of the city's most popular sights.
But the very theme of the church -- honoring an assassinated czar -- was an insult to the Bolsheviks. They looted it with gusto during the 1917 revolution. In the communist era, the church was used for storing potatoes, and the streets around it were named for Alexander's assassins.
Other churches suffered similar degradations. Mobs overran the Peter and Paul Fortress, ransacked its cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul, and desecrated the Romanov tombs there. Some churches were made into ice-hockey rinks, swimming pools, and so on. The Kazan Cathedral, repository of the treasured icon of Our Lady of Kazan, for years functioned as a Museum of Atheism.