The changing face of St Petersburg: Nicholas II … the last of the tsars

There are so many reasons to visit St Petersburg. Some people come in search of culture, others seek inspiration from its literary associations. For some, it’s the architecture that’s top of their list, while others simply come to experience a different way of life.

One thing that’s certainly not in short supply in St Petersburg is history. The city may only have been founded in 1703, but the last 300 or so years provide a fascinating insight into the changes which have shaped this incredible city.

Here, we look at the legacy left behind by Nicholas II (1894-1917)…


By the time Russia’s final Tsar came to power, St Petersburg was one of the most modern, cultured and cosmopolitan cities in the world. The final days of the Russian Empire saw a surge in technological advancements and cultural achievements.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, St Petersburg experienced an extraordinary building boom, due to the economic growth in the country as well as developments in construction technology and improvements in communications between city districts.

The Petrograd Side was opened up for real estate development with the construction of Trinity Bridge, built by Nicholas II in memory of his father Alexander III and decorated with Alexander's monogram and that of the Empress Maria Fyodorovna. The bridge opened in 1903 in the presence of the Imperial family during celebrations for the 200th anniversary of St Petersburg.

Not far from the bridge, an elegant mansion was built for the famous ballerina Mathilde Kschessinska, who had an affair with Nicholas when he was still heir apparent. In Alexander Park, a People's Cultural Centre was built in honour of Nicholas II with a concert and a theatre hall and other entertainment facilities. Renowned entertainers performed on its stage (such as the bass Fyodor Chalyapin), lectures were held with demonstrations of ‘hazy pictures’ (slides), and films were shown.

It was presumed that the Romanov dynasty would rule Russia indefinitely so, next to the Cathedral in the Peter and Paul Fortress, the Grand Ducal Burial Vault was constructed. Nearby, on the Petrovsky Embankment, Russia’s last Grand Ducal palace was constructed: the Palace of Grand Duke Nikolay Nikolaevich the Younger. As railway transport grew, the Finland Railway Bridge was built across the Neva, and construction began on Palace Bridge near the Winter Palace.

Along Nevsky Prospekt, the splendid Singer Building, the Yeliseev Emporium and the Wawelberg Bank Building sprang up. The turn of the 20th century saw the brief flowering of Art Nouveau, although this soon changed to Russian Neoclassicism (eg the Azov-Don Bank Building next to Palace Square, and the Residential Building of the First Russian Insurance Company on the Petrograd Side).

By 1897, the population of Petersburg had reached 1 265 000 people, making it the third largest European capital after London and Paris. The city’s population was both ethnically and religiously very diverse. This was reflected in the first years of the 20th century with the construction of the St Petersburg Mosque (not completed until 1920) and the Buddhist Datsan Gunzechoinei. In 1907, electric trams finally started running in the city.

As the First World War approached, St Petersburg was riding high on a wave of prosperity and patriotic sentiment, celebrating 300 years of the Romanov dynasty. Within five years, however, the city would be plunged into hunger, deprivation and revolution…