A brief tour of ‘German’ St Petersburg

In the 19th century, Germans made up over 10% of St Petersburg's population. Even the city's name was chosen for its Germanic ring. So what traces left by generations of industrious burghers – the city's original middle class, who contributed to all aspects of St Petersburg's culture, commerce and governance – can we still see today?

The original German communities were located on Vasilevsky Island, in one of the city's oldest neighbourhoods, and around Millionaya Ulitsa near Palace Square and the Winter Palace, so you’ll find the imprint of these communities in almost any street in the historic centre.

Vasilyevsky Island was where the first Germans who came to St Petersburg on the invitation of Peter the Great settled. Here, they worked for generations as architects and engineers, scientists and teachers, doctors and craftsmen. The Russian writer Nikolay Leskov even wrote a story called The Islanders, about German life on Vasilyevsky Island.

The Spit of Vasilyevsky Island is the main historic square on the island. Universitetskaya Naberezhnaya (University Embankment) runs along the river from here, where you’ll find the Zoology Museum, whose founder and director was the Saxon doctor and naturalist Johann Friedrich von Brandt. Further along are the Kunstkammer (No 3), the Academy of Sciences (No 5), and St Petersburg State University (No 11), where German scientists made a huge contribution to the development of Russian science, technology and academia.

At No 15 stands the beautiful baroque Menshikov Palace, built for Prince Alexander Menshikov in part by the German architect Gottfried Johann Schadel. The building later housed the First Cadet Corps, Russia's first military higher education institution, whose director in the 1780s was the great German Romantic playwright Friedrich Maximilian von Klinger.

Past the Menshikov Palace, if you turn right up 1-ya Liniya, about 400m up the street you’ll find two houses where the famous German entrepreneur and archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann lived. Schliemann, the discoverer of Troy, lived at No 24 in the 1840s, when he was an agent for a German trade firm, and at No 28 in the late 1850s, when he returned to Russia with a fortune made in the California Gold Rush.

Bolshoy Prospekt is the main avenue of Vasilyevsky Island. Its Lutheran Church of St Catherine is a fine neoclassical edifice built by the great Russo-German architect Yury Felten for the German parishioners, who had established the first Lutheran church here in 1728.

Bolshoy Prospekt is also home to the former building of the elite pre-Revolutionary school for girls founded in 1858 by Emilia Schaffe, a teacher from a local German family. Just off Bolshoy Prospekt, on 7-ya Liniya, is the Pharmacy of Alexander Poehl. Poehl's father was a pharmacist from Brandenburg who supplied the Imperial Court with medicines. There’s still a pharmacy on the premises, with beautifully restored interiors – well worth a visit!


There are two notable German-built hospitals in the area – the maternity hospital at 49-51 Bolshoy Prospekt, the work of Karl Scmidt constructed in 1897, and the Alexandrovskaya Men's Hospital founded in 1881 by a group of wealthy German citizens as a memorial to the recently assassinated Alexander II. Like the maternity hospital, it offered many of its services free to the poor.

Also worth a look are the various apartment buildings found in the area designed by the prolific late fin de siècle architect Wilhelm Schaub, known as "the poet of plaster", and the mansion he built on 21-ya Liniya (No 8) for the Prussian Frank brothers. And across the Smolenka River stands the Smolenskoye Lutheran Cemetery, which was the final resting place for the German community on Vasilyevsky Island, as well as many other protestant citizens from St Petersburg.

There’s plenty more to see right across this fascinating city. So whether you’re in search of the German connection or just wish to get acquainted with Russia’s ‘cultural capital’ for yourself, there’s only one place to go - RNTO. Give us a call today!