For thousands of travelers, Peter-and-Paul Fortress remains one of the main points of interest in St. Petersburg. However, blinded by the magnificent cathedrals (pictured) and glowing golden spires, they often overlook a little museum, tucked away in the Commandant’s House. So, I decided to remedy
this injustice and visit the Museum of the History of St. Petersburg myself.
The permanent display actually consists of two sections. The first one explores the ancient history of the Neva banks and the earliest decades of the city’s existence. When poets and local guides alike compare it to Venice, they usually mean the beauty of its palaces or proliferation of its theatres. But St. Petersburg shares another, less glamorous aspect with that famous Italian city: both were founded in swampy, marshy, very inhospitable environment. Both, in the end, managed to survive, prosper and develop bustling trade with half a world (…thus getting the funds to pay for the aforesaid palaces, beauty and theatres).
The second section of the permanent exhibition, then, deals with that period of flourishing, which dawned upon the city after Napoleonic Wars. The first rooms are less than inspiring: they constitute an unending hymn to the imperial glory. Troops on parade, palaces on display and a neat timeline on the wall (it includes the abolition of slavery in 1861). Later parts of the exhibition are much better: they allow us, finally, to catch a glimpse of the everyday life of people, who lived beyond the splendid classical buildings (that is, 99% of the population). The room, dedicated to the dawn of railway travel, is especially interesting. I know, I know – trains do not sound particularly exciting (if your name isn’t Sheldon Cooper, in which case I apologize). But this place allows you to sense the sheer extent of significance, which new railways bore in their time. For millenniums, since the first civilizations were born, travel by water was the safest and the fastest way to travel. And, if we are talking about transportation of large goods, it was practically the default way to travel. Access to sea was the factor, which allowed the greatest states in the world to prosper – from Ancient Greece to the already mentioned Venetian Republic. And now, with the onset of the railway, the tables were turned. The game was changed irrevocably – or, at least, it started to change. And nowhere was it felt as keen, as in Russian Empire, of which St. Petersburg was the capital. For the first time in history, these mind-warping expanses of land were made… if not exactly accessible, then, at least, theoretically traversable. (It will still take you at least two weeks to cross the country by train, by the way. Day trips are out of question).
Needless to say, travel became more affordable and more frequent. And, of course, the industries didn’t fail to take advantage of it. On display we can see all kinds of portable sets, sold to keen travelers – little cases for toiletries, writing sets, First Aid kits and even one miniature iron!
You can also read the original rules for the first train passengers. One, for example, explicitly forbids bringing wine with you (however, no other spirits are mentioned). Another rule prohibits travelling with any kind of dogs, cats, or birds. If any Harry Potter fans are reading this – do you have any theories on how did the Durmstrang students outmaneuver these regulations?…
Later rooms in the exhibition show us some 19th century fashions and examples from contemporary cookbooks. They also allow us to peek into the flats of fin-de-siècle residential development. This is all supremely interesting, and I say it without a trace of irony. However, this listing of achievements (new department stores, new commercial banks, first Women’s University, first Cycling Society…) still suffers from over-glossing. By the end of the exhibition one cannot help but ask: if everything was so flourishing, prosperous and great, then why did this story end as it had?…
Despite these disadvantages, I’d still recommend you to visit the Museum of the History of St. Petersburg, should you find yourself in the vicinity. The museum opens at 11 a.m. and closes at 18 p.m., so you wouldn’t have to set an alarm clock!