Saint Petersburg is one of the two ‘big cities’ in Russia which you’ll likely be touching during your visit to this great Country, and probably among the most tourist-friendly in this part of the world. There are tons of sights to see for anyone with an interest in art, architecture, history, fashion, shopping, dining, nightlife, etc. The city is very large, with a population of about 5 millions, and touring just the most famous places – like the Winter Palace, St. Isaac and the central area along the Nevsky Prospekt, as well as the Peter and Paul Fortress – will take already at least a few days.
What people from abroad – unlike Russians – are sometimes less aware of is that the Revolution in 1917 started and evolved in Saint Petersburg, which at that time was still the capital city of the Russian Empire, where the Tzar and the government resided. Here Lenin and the Bolsheviks worked in the tumultuous moments preceding and after the abdication of Nicholas II, the last of the Tzars, and here the communist-led organization of the ‘Soviet’ imposed its rule, before the governmental body moved its headquarters to Moscow, the ancient capital of Russia, soon in 1918. The prominent role the city had in the Revolution was acknowledged changing its name to Leningrad, the ‘City of Lenin’, which would stay until 1991.
So, besides the countless sites of great historical and artistic value connected with the city’s founder Peter the Great and the Tzars who succeeded to him, there are in Saint Petersburg countless places recalling the Communist Revolution and the Soviet period.
Furthermore, as this city used to be a frontline destination for people traveling for cultural interest from both within the USSR and abroad much before the end of Communism, many interesting museums were established here. Some of them still retain a typical Soviet flavor, in the choice of artifacts, exhibition style and in the management policies – you will be left unscrupulously in a queue in a freezing -20°C winter evening outside of a museum, waiting just for more hangers to be available in the cloakroom, if the rules say so!
This post is about some places in todays Saint Petersburg connected with the Revolution and the Communist era, and some museums still retaining their Soviet style. All photographs, both the good and the bad, are from mine and were taken in early 2017.
Here is a map of the sites described below. The city is huge, and the coverage of the subway system is by far less developed than that of Moscow, with stops quite afar from each other – so expect to walk really much in Saint Petersburg! You may also elect to take a taxi when needed, for you pay the distance, not the time, and it is much less expensive than in other big cities in Europe.
All attractions in this post – except perhaps the House of Soviets – are fairly central, so even when you need to walk for reaching them, you will never need to be in an unpleasant or dangerous area of the town.
Kirov’s Apartment Museum
This museum, located ten minutes north of the Peter and Paul fortress, is rather deceptive – it is located on the two top floors of a formerly luxurious apartments building from the late 19th or early 20th century, where all other apartments are privately owned today. You will need to go through the foyer of the building, where the stately and elegant appearance of the façade is soon lost to the incredibly shabby, purely Soviet style of the inside, with a small and poorly looking elevator to ease you climbing to the top of the building.
Before the Revolution these apartments, exceptionally large and modern for the time, were property of wealthy businessmen and professionals. Soon after the Revolution, when property was abolished and housing was reassigned, the second floor from the top was given to Sergey Kirov, a top ranking communist leader successfully enforcing Soviet power in Azerbaijan, a great supporter and a close friend of Stalin during his struggle for power after the death of Lenin in 1924, and later to become the leader of the Communist Party in Leningrad and supervisor of industrial production – a prominent figure in his times. Stalin ended up ordering him killed in the early Thirties – although not officially – coincidentally marking the beginning of the harshest period of communist dictatorship in Russia.
The apartment of Kirov has been preserved very well to this day. You can see a studio and living room, with hunting trophies including a polar bear, bookcases and photographs of Stalin and Lenin. The aura of the early years of Stalin has been integrally preserved, and the apartment looks like comrade Kirov had just gone out for a Party meeting! Stalin himself reportedly visited Kirov here more than once.
Other rooms in the living quarters include a dining room, a small living room, a library and a nice bedroom for children. A kitchen – with a General Electric refrigerator! -, a junk room and bathroom complete the main part of the private apartment. Two very large rooms include Kirov’s study and a sort of waiting room today turned into an exhibit of soviet-themed paintings and sculptures, mainly about Kirov. You can easily imagine Kirov receiving delegates from the factories around the smoky Leningrad of the late Twenties in this room, with the portraits of Marx, Lenin and Stalin always carefully listening to the talk!
On the top floor, the museum offers a two-rooms reconstruction of a school, a meeting room of a youth organization, a shared apartment and a children bedroom from the years of Kirov, from the late Twenties to the early Thirties. Many interesting everyday items, as well as communist-themed flags, banners, memorabilia, some paintings and sculptures and much more can be found here.
All in all, this is one of the most evocative exhibitions on communist personalities I’ve ever seen! Visiting in a freezing winter evening also helped to relive the old Soviet atmosphere. Visit is recommended for everybody with an interest in Soviet history, and for those with a thing for living architecture, for this is a good occasion to get an insight on the standard of life of the wealthy class immediately before and after the Revolution in this region. You can take a self-guided tour, and you are given a detailed booklet in English to help yourself along the visit. Visiting may take from 45 minutes to 1.5 hours, depending on your level of interest.
Arctic and Antarctic Museum
This nice little museum is interesting both for the pretty unusual subject – polar explorations carried out by Russian and then Soviet expeditions – and for the setting and style of the exhibition. It is hosted in a former church building in a neoclassical style from the 19th century.
The exhibition maybe pretty outdated for modern standards, but it may appeal to you if you are interested in the topic more than in cheesy presentations, and if you want to experience how a Soviet-style museum looks like! The small setting is cluttered with dioramas with stuffed animals, including a polar bear, dim lighted showcases with artifacts and memorabilia from expeditions, plus ship models and some larger artifacts, like tents, polar shelters and instruments for taking measurements.
There are also very interesting frescoes and large paintings, both on the walls and ceiling, all about moments in the history of Soviet polar expeditions. Models, photographs and much more complete the exhibition.
The ground floor is about arctic exploration, which was started in the early history of Russia thanks to the proximity of the Country with the arctic region. The top floor is on antarctic missions, and here the accent is more on international collaboration and permanent missions. Some very nice paintings, rather rare to find elsewhere, can be found here.
All in all, an unusual museum with much to tell on a very specific and not often well-covered chapter of explorations. The place is very popular among Russians, and the exhibition is totally in Russian. There are audio-guides, but I wasn’t offered one during my visit, so maybe there is no chance to get explanations in English – but I’m not sure about this. Of course, you may decide to go with a local guide on a private tour, able to translate the explanations for you. Visiting alone if you are interested in the topic and you have a basic knowledge of the matter may take about 1 hour – even without a guide and with no knowledge of Russian… this is the time needed for looking at the many photographs, paintings and artifacts!
This ship, preserved in perfect conditions on the river Neva, has an incredible story. The hull was manufactured under Nicholas II in Britain, but the ship took service under the communist rule. She used to be a steam power ship at that time. She was involved in explorations and arctic missions, including the rescue of the Italian explorer Umberto Nobile, who went down with his airship over the Arctic after reaching the North Pole by air in the late Twenties. Krassin was deployed after the most famous polar explorer from Norway, Roald Amundsen, was lost while on an ill-fated rescue mission by plane.
Later on, the ship was sent to the US during WWII, where she was modified to receive structural reinforcements and defensive weapons in Bremerton, WA. She worked as an escort ship traveling back to Europe via Panama during the Battle of the Atlantic against Nazi Germany, and spent the rest of the war patrolling the northern shores of the USSR, reportedly grounding some German aircraft.
After the war, being part of the arctic fleet and having had a history so glorious, it was refurbished and upgraded with more modern equipment and propulsion system in Germany. It was then constantly improved while in service as a scientific platform, until a few years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, when it was permanently moored where you find her today.
The restoration work was carried out very well, and the vessel looks like it could sail away at any time! You can visit on guided tours in small groups. The visit includes the living quarters of the captain and crew and of the scientific staff – rather much above the military standard! – a room with technical stuff and the commanding deck. You are offered also a quick intro video in Russian.
I don’t know whether they’re offering tours except in Russian, but there are some explanations in English along the visit. Visiting in winter may add to your photos from the outside if the Neva is covered with ice, but the tour is shorter – about 40 min -, for you can’t see the power plant, as heating is probably absent in that part of the ship.
Absolutely recommended for everybody with an interest in ships, polar explorations, engineering and scientific expeditions! This is good for the kids as well. Be warned, the distance from the closest metro station is about 1 mile, but you may choose to walk along the bank of the river, with a nice view of the Winter Palace and the central district, with many photo opportunities. Rather close to the Krassin there is also the WWII submarine C-189, which I had not the time to visit. This is another entity from the icebreaker, with a separate ticket.
Museum of Artillery
This huge State-owned museum hosts a world-class collection of Russian and Soviet weapons from the middle ages to our days. The building is that of a former large artillery depot from the mid-19th century, in the immediate vicinity of the Peter and Paul Fortress, from which it can be reached in a few minutes. The museum is really a temple of Russian nationalism, and it’s very popular among Russians, whose military battles and victories are celebrated also with banners, uniforms, paintings, and several memorabilia.
There are two main branches inside the U-shaped building, placed in the two wings. In the first there is a collection of ancient swords and armors from the middle ages to roughly the early 18th century and Peter the Great. Next come many cannons and rifles from the 19th century, and more modern weapons, including what appear to be naval cannons from the years of WWI. The collection is really immense, and I had not purchased a photo permit – I had not enough cash! – so unfortunately the quality of the pictures is not very good.
The second branch covers from WWII to the Cold War. In this section there are cannons, howitzers, armored vehicles, and, much incredibly, full-scale tactical and early strategic missiles – which seem really big in the small rooms of a museum! There are also pieces of communication equipment and engineering tools, for the museum is namely also dedicated to the Engineering and Signal Corps.
Two small but interesting separate rooms are dedicated to the guard of Peter the Great and to Mikhail Kalashnikov, the man behind the world-famous attack rifle, who really existed and passed away in 2013 aged 94. Some technical drawings and some exemplars of the rifle – including some special designs – are showcased in this room, together with portraits of the man in various ages, in Soviet and later Russian colors. Unique and extremely interesting.
A good third of the museum’s collections are on the outside, in the front courtyard and to both sides of the building. Most of the items preserved on the outside are too big for being stored inside the building, meaning they are really big! You can find cannons, armored vehicles, SAMs, strategic missiles and their transportation and launch vehicles, special vehicles for snow removal, and much more – all stuff you might spot in the historic video recordings of the countless parades on the Red Square, deep in the years of the Cold War!
To the northern side of the building a battery of older cannons, possibly from the war against Napoleon, is preserved, whereas on the southern side a strategic missile of incomparable size is sitting in his canister on the launching vehicle.
Especially for war historians and military technology enthusiast this museum alone is a good reason for coming to Saint Petersburg! As I wrote, the atmosphere is nostalgic, so go prepared to a very old-style, traditional Soviet exhibition. There is not a word in the whole museum except in Russian. Payment is not possible except cash. I was asked about American citizenship at the cloakroom – not unexpected in the hostile Russia of the closing days of the Obama administration – but did not undergo any special treatment. Great for the kids, visiting the outside may be tough in winter, but surely worth the effort. A visit may easily take 1.5 to 2 hours for an interested person or an expert of the matter.
Museum of the Political History of Russia
Again in the vicinity of the Peter and Paul Fortress, this modern museum is mainly dedicated to a detailed description of the causes and to the timeline of the revolutions of 1905 and 1917, and to the history of the Soviet system.
The main exhibition about the characteristics of the soviet system soon after its inception is rather short in size, but with many details and artifacts, as well as explanatory panels and reconstructions of rooms from various ages of the Soviet era – including shared houses.
Besides the main exhibition there is a constellation of some smaller exhibitions. It is not always easy to put things in the right chronological order, but surely among the most interesting there is one about the timeline of the Revolution of 1917 – extremely complicated – and the ensuing civil war.
The building, once belonging to a famous dancer who fled the country following the early-1917 turmoil, is most notably where Lenin resided from the abdication of the Tzar to the summer of 1917, before the fateful Red October and the Bolsheviks conquering power. The study where Lenin worked and the very balcony from where he addressed the crowds of the Bolsheviks are preserved, and you can see them both for real and in a painting from Soviet times – really impressive!
Another part of the exhibition is about Stalin’s purges and the use he made of the gulag’s system for ‘re-education’. The museum is not nostalgic with respect to soviet times, but rather objective and duly critical concerning Soviet dictatorship. It is well designed to western standards, with many explanations in English, but more popular among Russians. Due to the historical significance of the building in the 1917 revolution, visiting is surely recommended for people with an interest in that part of Russian history. Visiting may take about 1.5-2 hours for an average interested person.
Museum of Cosmonautics and Rocket Technology
The museum is located right inside the Peter and Paul Fortress, but due to its peripheral position it is often overlooked by mainstream visitors. The location, apparently clashing with the historical significance of the surroundings, is instead appropriate, for the State institute responsible for studying and experimenting with rocketry was placed in the very part of the fortress where the museum is in the years preceding WWII.
The museum is rather small. In an introductory part, scientists from all over the world and from all ages contributing to the history of rocketry are mentioned. In a second part the early designs from the institute are presented, including some real items from the time, like rocket models and engines.
In a final part, more modern big rocket engines from the Vostok and Soyuz missions and a reentry capsule are presented, together with some other artifacts. These include some space-themed Christmas decorations – note the sunny smile of the small Soviet astronauts in the pictures…
Visiting won’t take much time, about 0.5 hours, and is surely recommended especially for the kids if you are already in the fortress.
Cruiser Aurora and Finlandia Station
The very famous Aurora cruiser, marginally involved in the initial phase of the 1917 revolution, is preserved on the bank of the Neva, not far north from the Peter and Paul Fortress. I missed the last entry, so I could see it only from the outside. The ship is very well preserved and constitutes a very good photographic subject.
About 15 minutes walking to the north of the ship you can find the Finlandia railway station, where Lenin arrived in town ready to put his efforts in the 1917 revolution. The station is still in business, and the building has been modernized since the Twenties. The square ahead of it is where one of the surviving statues of Lenin can be found in Saint Petersburg.
On the southern side of the square there is a branch of the Academy of the Russian Army.
This area to the east of the city center has its focus in the majestic building of the Smolny Cathedral. What is possibly less known is that the building to the south of the cathedral, hosting the Smolny educational institute until 1917, was chosen for the headquarters of the Bolsheviks soon before the October Revolution. From here Lenin directed the moves against the other revolutionary factions, and the government of the First Soviet was established in this palace in the closing months of 1917 and early 1918, marking the beginning of the Soviet era, before leaving for Moscow.
Today the building still retains an institutional role and cannot be approached freely. In a small building to the opposite of the perspective leading to the façade of the palace you can find plaques and friezes with quotes from Lenin. The British Consulate is located nearby.
A huge area moving from Smolny to the west and the city center is occupied by enormous palaces built mainly in a Soviet brutalist style, now largely unused – up for sale or rent. I don’t know much details about their former function, but this was probably connected with Soviet government or administrative functions. The area features a rather grim aura, with few people around and oversized spaces.
House of Soviets
The area along Moskovsky Prospekt was developed under Stalin’s rule in a style which is more typical to Moscow than Saint Petersburg. Among the highlights, the huge Moscow Square is where the stately building of the House of Soviets was built in the late Thirties. Due to the Nazi attack in 1941 and the siege of Leningrad, the building was converted to a military headquarters of the Red Army. After the war it was handed over to scientific institutions, and now it is a multi-functional executive building.
The frieze with the triumphs of Socialism culminating in the gigantic hammer and sickle emblem on top really recall the Soviet times. Right at the center of the square, very popular among the locals as a gathering place and a hub for public transport services, a very big statue of Lenin still dominates the scene.
The place is very convenient to reach, thanks to a metro station in Moscow Square. The monument commemorating the heroes of the siege is located about 5 minutes south of the square.