The Changing Face of St Petersburg: Peter III and Catherine the Great – the Differing Fortunes of Husband and Wife

Photo of the beautiful night view of St Petersburg
The beautiful night view of St Petersburg

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 Peter III (1762) and Catherine the Great (1762-1796)…

Peter III (the grandson of Peter the Great) reigned for a matter of just a few months. His most enduring monuments can be found at the suburban estate of Oranienbaum, where he quartered troops from his native Holstein in the model fort of Peterstadt. His modest palace still stands there. Within the city itself, virtually nothing remains to remind us of Peter’s short reign.

Photo of Oranienbaum as a Russian royal residence
Oranienbaum as a Russian royal residence, located on the Gulf of Finland in Lomonosov town. The Palace ensemble and the city center are UNESCO World Heritage Sites

He was removed from power in a coup led by supporters of his wife and successor, Catherine the Great. His grave can now be seen in the Cathedral of the Peter and Paul Fortress next to Catherine’s tomb.

Catherine reigned from 1762 to 1796. Although German by birth, she made St Petersburg her own, leaving an indelible mark on the city in the form of several major construction projects in neoclassical style, and by establishing a number of eminent institutions such as the National Library.

Photo of the National Library
The National Library

It was during Catherine’s time in power that St Petersburg definitively attained the status of a great European capital. Catherine continued the long tradition of inviting the best foreign artists, architects, and other cultural figures to work in Russia. For example, she commissioned the French sculptor Etienne Maurice Falconet to create what later became known as the Bronze Horseman, that magnificent monument to Peter the Great on the banks of the Neva.

She turned the banks of the river into roadways paved with granite, had the elegant wrought-iron fence built around the Summer Garden, and the southern walls of the Peter and Paul Fortress lined with deep reddish granite. Catherine also ordered the construction of the majestic Marble Palace for her favorite, Grigory Orlov, who played a key role in the coup which brought her to power. In return, Orlov ordered the construction of the Grand Palace in Gatchina.

Under Catherine, an educational residence was founded for girls, which later grew into the Institute for Noble Girls – one of the earliest progressive educational organizations for young women. Today it is known as the Smolny Institute. The Public Library was also founded (now the Russian National Library) at the corner of Nevsky Prospekt and Sadovaya Ulitsa. At about the same time, the Central Gostiny Dvor on the opposite side of Sadovaya Ulitsa was built, providing the city with its main trading post.

Photo of the Central Gostiny Dvor
The Central Gostiny Dvor

Catherine’s long reign also saw construction gather pace at the royal residences of Tsarskoye Selo and Peterhof. At Tsarskoye Selo, the Cameron Gallery was added to the Catherine Palace, and the Agate Room Pavilion was built. In Peterhof, the Catherine Corpus (living quarters) was built next to Mon Plaisir and many of the palatial interiors were redecorated.

The memory of Catherine the Great is honored with the grand monument built on the square between Nevsky Prospekt and the Alexandrinsky Theatre, christened Ekaterininsky Sad or Catherine’s Garden. This monument depicts the wise, benevolent Empress towering above the most eminent dignitaries, military personages, and literary figures of her time.

Photo of Monument to Catherine II
Monument to Catherine II