It was a dark, cloudy, rainy day. The slippery cobblestones were difficult to walk. Everyone in our ExpresstoRussia/In tourist group was enthusiastic about seeing the Peter and Paul Fortress of St. Petersburg, Russia. Everyone, but me. So off we went and learned some exceptional facts. Knowledge about the prisoners gave me an insight in the rise and fall of an empire from within. I just hope it doesn’t happen to my country in 2016.
The first structure to be built in St. Petersburg, and thus the birthplace of the city, it never served its intended defensive function. Instead it has had a rich, hugely varied, and sometimes sinister history as a military base, a home of government departments, the burial ground of the Russian Imperial family, the site of groundbreaking scientific experiments, and a forbidding jail that held some of Russia’s most prominent political prisoners.1
In Russian folklore, Peter and Paul Fortress was portrayed as a hellish, torturous place, where thousands of prisoners suffered endlessly in filthy, cramped, and grossly overcrowded dungeons amid frequent torture and malnutrition. Such legends had the effect of turning the prison into a symbol of government oppression in the minds of the common folk. In reality, conditions in the fortress were far less brutal than believed; no more than one hundred prisoners were ever kept in the prison at a time, and most prisoners had access to such luxuries as tobacco, writing paper, and literature (including subversive books such as Karl Marx’s Das Kapital). When the fortress was liberated during the early stages of the revolution in February 1917, the prison was holding only nineteen recently-incarcerated prisoners.
Despite their ultimate falsehood, stories about the prison were vital to the spread of revolutionary sentiment. The legends served to portray the government as cruel and indiscriminate in the administration of justice, helping to turn the common mind against Tsarist rule. Many inmates, after being released, wrote chilling and increasingly exaggerated accounts of life there that solidified the structure’s horrible image in the public mind and pushed the people further towards dissent. Writers often purposely exaggerated their experiences to garner more hatred for the government; as writer and former Peter and Paul inmate Gorky would later state, “Every Russian who [had] ever sat in jail…as a ‘political’ [prisoner]…[considered] it his holy duty to bestow on Russia his memoirs of how he [had] suffered.”2
St. Petersburg is on the same latitude as Alaska. The winters are harsh and dark. This added to the gloom of the Fortress. The founders of the Russian Revolution were political prisoners in the dark cells. Our guide was emotionally moved pointing out the prison cell’s interior. “Tapping was the only way of communicating between prisoners in single cells. They called it the ‘prison alphabet’. Letters in alphabetical order were accumulated in a table of sic lines and five columns. Each letter was tapped in two steps: first, number of a line and then number of column. Prisoners ‘spoke’ tapping the floor, walls or legs of a bedstead,” said the museum poster.
One prisoner was Lenin’s brother who was hanged for attempting to kill the Tsar. Our guide said many of the political prisoners were from wealthy families that wanted a new order. Years later, Lenin got his revenge. He played a role in the assassination of the entire royal family. Some people never forget. Torture and hangings did not stop the revolution, due to a corrupt establishment. People wanted a change. Obviously, an atheistic society did not last. Today the Russians revere their past through the renovation and upkeep of the Tsar’s Fortress.
The center piece of the Peter and Paul Fortress is the magnificent Ss. Peter and Paul Cathedral. It is one of the finest baroque buildings in St. Petersburg. The Cathedral was the tallest building in the city until the 20th century. Built 1712-1733, it was arguably the greatest work of architect Domenico Trezzini. It was a bold statement of Peter the Great’s desire to adopt Western European styles in architecture and in religion.3
The Ss. Peter and Paul Cathedral houses the tombs of all Imperial Russia’s rulers, including Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, and the last Russian monarch Nicholas II. The Grand Ducal Mausoleum, next to the cathedral, was built in 1896 to hold the tombs of the lesser Romanovs, as well as the Beauharnais family (Dukes of Leuchtenberg), who had married into the Romanov family.
After the October Revolution, the fates of the cathedral and the mausoleum were very different. The Ss. Peter and Paul Cathedral was immediately recognized as a monument of architecture and preserved. The Grand Ducal Mausoleum, however, was looted and its marble tombstones were smashed. For many years the mausoleum was used as a warehouse. Only in the 1980s did it undergo large-scale restoration. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the restored mausoleum was used in 1992 to bury the body of the great-grandson of Emperor Alexander II, Grand Duke Vladimir Romanov, and then in 2010 his wife Leonida.
Inside the Cathedral is a Chapel of St. Catherine the Martyr. It was constructed in the late 18th century. When restoration was carried out in the interior after the fire of 1756, an additional wall was erected. The altar was consecrated on November 14, 1779 in the name of Catherine the Great. Tsar Nicholas II and his family were buried in the chapel in 1998. This is the Catherine Chapel where the members of the imperial family, as well as their servants and doctor, shot in Ekaterinburg, were buried on 17 July 1998. The tombstone is made of white Carrara marble.
There was a myth circulated in a Hollywood movie of Princess Anastasia being alive. Her remains were buried in the cathedral too. The choir sang hymns. The tombs of the tsars were elegant. I was glad I went.
In 2006, the Ss. Peter and Paul Cathedral welcomed the remains of Empress Maria Feodorovna, wife of Alexander III and the mother of Nicholas II. She died in 1928 and was buried in her homeland of Denmark. She expressed in her will that she wished to be buried next to her husband. So the imperial Romanov dynasty was reunited posthumously. Today, all the graves of Peter and Paul Fortress are exhibits of the Museum of the History of St. Petersburg.4
Russia is undergoing a reconstruction of Orthodox churches. In the Middle East, Early Christian, Greek, Roman and Assyrian sites have been destroyed. Further East in Russia, a strong Byzantine and Russian Orthodox revival is underway after total annihilation under communism. That is life in 2016.
The Tsar’s tombs have flowers. A tsarina’s tomb has a portrait of her as a bride. A gold icon of the “Panagia and Child” was shown in front of altar. An international project known as “Sounds of Mechelen” was inscribed on the following gold wall plague: “The carillon in this tower is a historic gift from Flanders (Belgium). It is a contribution to the revival of the musical traditions that were founded by Peter the Great in the Peter and Paul fortress. The instrument counts 51 bells and came into being under the direction of the ‘Jet Denyn’ Royal Carillon School in Mechelen (Malines) with support from 353 patrons from different countries. May the chiming of these bells enchant the inhabitants and the visitors of St. Petersburg for many years as a token of friendship and harmony between all nations.” A carillon is a musical instrument composed of at least 23 carillon bells, arranged in chromatic sequence, so tuned as to produce concordant harmony when many bells are sounded together. It is played from a keyboard that allows expression through variation of touch. The keys are struck with the half-closed hand.5
“The tradition of laying medals at the tomb of Peter I dates back to 1803 when alexander I ordered to place a gold medal which was presented to the Emperor by a delegation of St. Petersburg citizens on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the city,” reads an inscription. “Later five more medals on anniversaries were presented on the tomb of the City’s founder. After 1917, all medals and valuable relics of the imperial burial place were removed. In 1972, St. Andrew’s flag, bust of Emperor and copies of medals were set at the tomb, dedicated to the 300th anniversary of Peter I in 2003.”
The Russian people are dedicated in restoring their Russian Orthodox past. Few of us in the West know. I am totally astonished by the Media’s picture painted of the Russian people. These are poor people sacrificing to rebuild their lost churches. Everyone has a Greek name like Galina (dawn), Demetri, Alexander Ekaterina and other names.They have the old European values of our grandparents and great grandparents. Politics and governments are another story. Hopefully, through cultural exchanges, we will understand a Christian nation, building, not destroying, their Byzantine civilization through Russian Orthodoxy. This article is dedicated to my late cousin, Mrs. Daisy Lainis, formerly of College Point, the daughter of Asia Minor refugees, who opened my eyes to “the Greeks of the North”.