The Changing Face of St Petersburg: Paul I and Alexander I – Shaping St Petersburg We Know and Love Today

Photo of the dome of St. Isaac's Cathedral, the Admiralty and the Neva River
The dome of St. Isaac’s Cathedral, the Admiralty, and the Neva River

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 Paul I (1796-1801) and Alexander I (1801-1825)…
Although Paul’s reign was short, this eccentric monarch left an architectural record of his passions and obsessions, most prominently in the form of the Mikhailovsky Castle, the unusual palace in which he was assassinated.

Once on the throne, Paul, who was fond of knights and chivalry, invited to Russia those members of the Maltese Order who had been driven out of Malta by Napoleon and awarded himself the title of Grand Master of the Order of Malta. The Vorontsov Palace in the center of St Petersburg was granted by Paul to the Order, and the Maltese Chapel was constructed in one wing by Giacomo Quarenghi. Unfortunately, the Chapel, which has been preserved until the present day, is located within a military college and can only rarely be seen by purchasing a ticket to one of the concerts occasionally held within its walls.

Photo of Paul I
Paul I – an emperor in Russia
Photo of Alexander I
Alexander I as an emperor in Russia
Photo of the Vorontsov Palace
The Vorontsov Palace as one of the oldest and largest palaces in Crimea, and one of the most popular tourist attractions on Crimea’s southern coast

The palaces of Pavlovsk and Gatchina, both located a short distance outside St Petersburg, are inextricably linked with Paul I. His mother, Catherine the Great, gave Pavlovsk to Paul in 1777, which became the private residence of the heir to the throne and his family.

Photo of Pavlovsk Palace in St Petersburg
Pavlovsk Palace in St Petersburg as an 18th-century Russian Imperial residence built by the order of Catherine the Great for her son Grand Duke Paul

When construction started on the palace in Gatchina, it was originally intended for one of Catherine’s favorites, Grigory Orlov, but it was only finished after Catherine’s death and Paul’s ascension to the throne. In the last years of his mother’s reign, as heir to the throne, Paul used the enormous square in front of the palace to drill his troops in military maneuvers, which later became the model for his military reforms.

Photo of St Michael's Castle as a Russian Museum
St Michael’s Castle as a Russian Museum with the restored rooms and halls of the imperial residence

Paul disliked the vast Winter Palace and feared assassination, so he decided to build an impregnable castle surrounded by a moat, today known as Mikhailovsky (or Engineer’s) Castle. Despite the moat and other protective measures, Paul was assassinated by his own Guard, having moved into the castle only 40 days earlier.

Paul’s memory is honored with three monuments: older statues in front of Gatchina and Pavlovsk, and a new statue erected in the courtyard of Mikhailovsky Castle in 2003.

St Petersburg in the era of Paul’s successor, Alexander I, was marked above all by grand construction projects, not just of individual buildings but of whole streets and squares, which helped shape the city as we know it today. As Alexander’s reign saw the defeat of Napoleon, during which Russia moved to center stage in European power struggles and Alexander himself became the continent’s most powerful monarch, it is fitting that his era should coincide with the pinnacle of High Classicism in architecture, the so-called ‘Empire’ style. St Petersburg had its own master of the style, the Italian-born Carlo Rossi, whose career gained momentum through the latter years of Alexander’s reign.

The earliest of these grand projects was the ensemble on the Spit of Vasilievsky Island, with the Stock Exchange at its center.

Photo of the Stock Exchange
The Stock Exchange in St Petersburg with the rostral columns to be erected on either side of the Stock Exchange and to be completed in 1811

Then, the Admiralty was rebuilt, its new majestic appearance now suitable not only for the pragmatic tasks of a shipyard but also as an iconic image of the capital city of the vast Russian Empire. Grand edifices like Kazan Cathedral on Nevsky Prospekt and the Mining Institute on Vasilevky Island were constructed.

Photo of Yelagin Palace in Saint Petersburg
Yelagin Palace as a Palladian villa on Yelagin Island in Saint Petersburg, which served as a royal summer palace during the reign of Alexander I
Photo of the Mikhailovsky Palace
The Mikhailovsky Palace as an example of Empire-style neoclassicism with the main building of the Russian Museum and its collections of early, folk, eighteenth, and nineteenth-century art

Work began on the General Staff building which would complete the Palace Square ensemble. The Yelagin Palace on Yelagin Island was built for Alexander’s mother, Empress Maria Fyodorovna, and the Mikhailovsky Palace (today the headquarters of the State Russian Museum) for his brother, Grand Duke Mikhail Pavlovich. At the time of Alexander’s death, Rossi was completing work on the surroundings of the Mikhailovsky Palace, which became Ploshchad Iskusstv (Arts Square), the first of several grand formal squares by the architect in the city center.

Photo of Ploshchad Iskusstv - Arts Square
Ploshchad Iskusstv – Arts Square

Alexander I also ordered the construction of St Isaac’s Cathedral, which would take forty years to complete, spanning the reigns of three emperors.

There is no separate monument to Alexander I in St Petersburg. However, his memory is honored in the Alexander Column that stands in the center of Palace Square, across from the Winter Palace. This column, which celebrates Russia’s victory in the Napoleonic Wars, is named in honor of Alexander and, according to legend, the angel holding the cross atop the column bears the facial features of the Emperor.

Photo of the Alexander Column
The Alexander Column to reflect Russia’s victory in the Napoleonic Wars