Travels to St. Petersburg: The Peter and Paul Fortress

by Dr. Denise R. Ames

Next stop on a whirlwind tour of St. Petersburg was the grand Peter and Paul Fortress hugging the Neva River. Tsar Peter the Great (r. 1682-1725) commissioned the building of the fortress to protect his newly found city from attack, particularly by the nearby aggressive Swedes.

Peter and Paul Fortress, St. Petersburg, Russia
Beach in front of Peter and Paul Fortress, photo, Denise Ames

Although the fortress is imposing, as I passed by I saw that the thick walls overlook sandy beaches that are very popular in summertime. Even though it was August and a chill swept in from the river, the beach was crowded and gave a light frivolous spirit juxtaposed with the bleak fortress.

I would have liked to wander around the fortress but our tour guide made a mad dash for the Peter and Paul Cathedral that dominated the center of the fortress. Judging by the long queue of tourists patiently waiting, we weren’t the only people intent on seeing the treasures inside of this somewhat plain-looking cathedral.

The Russian Orthodox cathedral is the first and oldest landmark in St. Petersburg, built between 1712 and 1733 on Hare Island along the Neva River. Although the cathedral is not imposing—by stupendous cathedral standards—it has the distinction of having the world’s tallest Orthodox bell tower. Its gold-painted spire stretches to a height of 404 feet and is crowned at the top by an angel holding a cross, an important symbol of St. Petersburg. I noticed its grandeur when my gaze followed the slender spire tower upward as it disappeared into the gray, overcast sky.

Final resting place of Tsar Nicholas II and family (killed by Bolsheviks)

The cathedral is dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul, the patron saints of the fortress (Saint Peter is the patron saint of the city). Whatever architectural features the cathedral lacked on the outside, planners made up for it by designing a lavish interior. The cathedral is a fitting burial place for the remains of almost all the Russian emperors and empresses from Peter the Great to Nicolas II and his family, the last tsar of Russia killed by the Bolsheviks. Nicolas II was finally laid to rest in July 1998. Even the tomb of the famous Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia for 34 years is found here. It gave me a chill as I realized I was witnessing the timeline of Russia’s tumultuous history in this very spot.

Inside the Peter and Paul Cathedral, photo, Denise Ames

I was mesmerized by the gleaming marble, the exquisitely designed lighting, and ornate gold-gild splashing the room with wealth and splendor. The bluish/greenish lighting from the opulent chandeliers cast me under their spell. It was soothing, eerie, and ephemeral all at the same time. I wondered what was the point of this very expensive lighting display. 

The autocratic Russian czars were known through history for their harsh treatment of the peasants, who made up the bulk of their empire’s population and provided the elites with their vast wealth. Here I was standing in the cathedral with dead czars and their families but instead of feeling contempt and disgust towards them, the comforting light soothed away my ill feelings to that of calm, wonder, and even reverence.

Cathedral interior, photo, Denise Ames

I wasn’t the only one that the lights affected. I looked around and people walked around in states of veneration and awe, a few even wiped away tears. Quite an accomplishment for just a few well-designed lights.

But on a deeper note, the respect to Russia’s rulers displayed in the cathedral, I imagine, must have been a source of comfort and meaning to the Russian people who have borne the brunt of their country’s violent history and rulers’ indifference. As I saw it, the cathedral was a visible reminder to the Russian people and foreign visitors that all in the past was not violent and debauched, there is also a sense of grandeur. As Russia struggles to enter the globalized world, a portrayal of a glorified past is a way to give hope and well-being to its people. I thought the cathedral had done this job well.

About the Author: Dr. Denise R. Ames

Dr. Denise R. Ames’ varied life experiences—teaching, scholarly research, personal experiences, extensive travels, and thoughtful reflections—have contributed to her balanced views and global perspectives. Earning a doctorate in world history education, she has taught secondary schools, universities, a community college, professional development, and lifelong learners. In 2003, Dr. Ames founded Center for Global Awareness, an educational non-profit that develops globally-focused books and educational resources for educators and students grade 9-university. She has written eight books, plus numerous blogs, lesson plans, articles, newsletters, teaching units.

Along with CGA’s Gather program, Global Awareness Through Engaged Reflection, a study and conversation program for self-organizing groups of lifelong learners and, Global Awareness for Educators, Dr. Ames is developing a new program: Turn, Transformation, Understanding, & Reflection Network. Turn encourages life-long learners to see with new eyes, learn from the past, understand others, and recognize the relationship of all things. She teaches workshops/classes and writes about Turn’s five topics: learning from the past, cross-cultural awareness, five worldviews, elder wisdom, and transformative travel.

Dr. Ames has written 8 books for the Center for Global Awareness, check out their offerings! Global Awareness Books 

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