The heart of old St. Petersburg is the Peter and Paul Fortress, built in 1703 on an island in the Neva by Peter the Great. It was intended as a fort to defend the nascent city against the Swedes, but was never used for that purpose. It served instead as a prison (housing, among others, Dostoyevsky, who underwent a “mock execution” there), a garrison, and it houses a mint and the famous Peter and Paul cathedral, the burial place of all the tsars from Peter the Great to Nicholas II. Nicholas was the last tsar, who was executed (along with his entire family) by the Bolsheviks in 1918.
Here’s an aerial view of the fortress (not my photo); the cathedral with its enormous spire, the tallest structure in old St. Petersburg, is clearly visible:
I went there for one reason: to see the tombs of the tsars, especially those of Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra, and their children. Their murder by the Bolsheviks is one of the horrors of the Russian Revolution, and one of the earliest murders engineered by Lenin. It’s always intrigued me, especially because of the now-debunked story that one child (Anastasia) had survived the execution, and because the bones of the family, buried in haste by the Bolsheviks, were rediscovered, identified by their DNA, and interred in the Cathedral during the presidency of Boris Yeltsin.
With its high steeple, the Cathedral is an imposing sight, visible from many places in the city.
Inside are the graves; this is the biggie: Peter the Great (Peter I). I can’t make out the rest of the Cyrillic, but I’m sure one of my readers can:
Half of the floor is covered with tombs of the tsars and tsarinas; here are some more:
I was there, however, mainly to see Nicholas and his family. Here they are in a photo from 1913. The whole lot (along with their doctor and maids) were shot by the Bolsheviks in Yekaterinberg on the night of July 16, 1918. Wikipedia labels the photo below as: “left to right: Olga, Maria, Nicholas II, Alexandra, Anastasia, Alexei, and Tatiana.
Alexandra, of course, was Nicholas’s wife, the tsarina; the rest were the daughters (with Anastasia being the one who, in legend, survived), and Alexei, the young son, a hemophiliac who was ill at the time of the execution. The daughters all carried the title of “Grand Duchess,” and Alexei was both “Tsesarevich” (heir apparent) and a Grand Duke.
Here are their photos in one of the corridors of the cathedral. The story of Nicholas and Alexandra was the subject of a best-selling book by Robert Massie, and was made into a film that won several Academy Awards.
The execution of the family is described graphically by Wikipedia and other places, though accounts differ somewhat. What is clear is that it was a grisly and brutal business, carried out with handguns and bayonets (it’s said that some of the daughters weren’t killed by bullets because they had diamonds sewn into their clothes). They were killed because of fears that the White Army was approaching Yekaterinburg and might rescue the family, but also because, if left alive, Nicholas instead of the Bolsheviks could be regarded by other European powers as the legitimate head of state. It’s beyond me, however, how anyone could, in the name of politics, coldly murder an entire family, including the wife and young daughters and sons.
I’ve watched several videos about the execution itself. The family was roused around midnight, taken to a room in the basement, and told that they were going to be transported elsewhere. But then a sentence of death was read out, and almost immediately a group of men began firing at the family with handguns. If you want an idea of what that was like, watch the following video, but WARNING—it’s bloody and you might find it disturbing.
The bodies of the family and retainers were buried in the forest, but most of them were found by an amateur archaeologist in 1998 and identified by DNA analysis. These bodies were interred in the Peter and Paul Cathedral in 1998; a photograph of the ceremony is below. You can make out Boris Yeltsin (I think) between the second and third priest from the left (click twice to enlarge):
Two other bodies, those of Alexei and Maria, were found and identified in 2007; they are now interred with the others. Here is the alcove in the church where the Romanovs lie. Nicholas is to the left of center, Alexandra to the right, and the children around them. Even if you don’t read Cyrillic, you can make out the names (click to enlarge). I find this ineffably sad.
The area on an adjacent island, which has a view of the Fortress in the background, is a popular place for Russian wedding parties to have their photographs taken. I saw at least four such parties on the two days I visited the area. Here’s one of them, with the bride and a bridesmaid (?, wearing a sash) looking jaunty.
I have at least one more post on St. Petersburg, involving the art and interiors of the Hermitage and Russian Museum. I’ll try to put that up this week.