Peter and Paul Fortress: North Kremlin and “Russian Bastille”

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If the Kremlin is undoubtedly the most iconic and status building in Moscow, then in St. Petersburg two architectural complexes can compete for the title of the most famous buildings that had a huge impact on the history of the city – the Winter Palace, which for many years was the residence of Russian emperors, and the Peter and Paul fortress.

Peter-Pavel's Fortress
Bortsov Sergey. Peter April. 2011

It seems that in this dispute, despite all the undisputed merits of the Winter Palace, Peter and Paul would have won, since the history of the Northern capital dates back to the construction of this structure, it is the Peter and Paul Fortress that can compete with the Moscow Kremlin in importance, scale, and it is her history that is also full of secrets, legends and mysteries, like the history of the ancient residence of the Moscow princes.

Foundation of the Peter and Paul Fortress

The first riddles associated with the Peter and Paul Fortress appeared at the stage of its foundation. Even about the choice of the site for its construction, there is still no single, dominant version. Everyone knows the story of how Peter the Great wandered along the banks of the Neva, choosing a suitable site and his words “There will be a city here!” However, it is not known exactly why Hare Island became the emperor’s choice (and whether he did it himself)..

According to one version, Peter opted for the Hare Island at the direction of the elder who lived as a hermit in the Solovetsky Monastery, also on the Zayatsky Island and predicted the fate of the emperor. When Peter the Great came to choose a place for the founding of the Northern Capital, the coincidence of the names of the two islands seemed to him sufficient reason for the foundation of the Peter and Paul Fortress here..

According to other versions, the signs that influenced the decision of the emperor were either a hare that escaped the flood and jumped right on Peter’s boot, or eagles, which made two circles in front of the eyes of the Russian ruler over the place where the walls of the fortress were later erected.

Another version says that on the basis of the fortress, Peter was not present at all, as evidenced by the magazine of the bombardier company, in which the emperor was listed in the status of captain. However, it is unlikely that Peter could entrust such an important matter as the choice of the location of his future capital to someone else..

Be that as it may, the place was generally chosen quite well and on May 16, 1703, the day of the laying of the first stone of the Peter and Paul Fortress is also considered the day of the founding of St. Petersburg.

By the way, do not think that Peter the Great decided to name the new city in his honor, no, Petersburg (at the very beginning, in the Dutch manner of Zancht-Peter-Burkh) received the name of the emperor’s heavenly patron Saint Peter.


Many myths are also associated with the construction of the Peter and Paul Fortress, the first of which speaks of the impenetrable swamps and desert located at the site of its construction. In fact, at the beginning of the 18th century, several villages and settlements were already located on the territory of the future St. Petersburg, and Zayachiy Island in the written testimonies of that time is called a place “extremely convenient and dry”.

Of course, the difficulties in erecting the Peter and Paul Fortress were quite enough, and human sacrifices really became an integral part of the hard work carried out by the captured Swedes and serfs. The Finns, who often visited these places and were amazed at the speed of construction, said that the giant first built the city in the sky, and then lowered it to the ground in his palm..

Already on June 29, on the day of Peter and Paul, a small chapel was built on the site of the future Peter and Paul Cathedral, and if May 16 is considered the founding day of St. Petersburg, then this day became the day of his baptism. It was then that the fortress, named after two revered saints, found its name.

The ramparts of the structure, originally built from the ground, were destroyed due to regular floods on the Neva, therefore, a year after the start of construction, it was decided to remodel the Peter and Paul Fortress and erect its main structures of stone.

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On the plans, the fortress was an irregular hexagon, which basically repeated the outlines of the Hare Island. At the corners of the complex there were 6 bastions connected by curtains – fortress walls. There is a legend that this shape was not chosen by chance and represents a pentagram, which was supposed to protect the future city from attacks and disasters..

Foundation of the Peter and Paul Fortress
Aerial view of the Peter and Paul Fortress

One of the bastions, the construction of which was personally supervised by Peter, began to be called “The Tsar’s Bastion”, and then “The Bastion of Peter the Great”, the rest were named after the Tsar’s associates – “Naryshkinsky”, “Zotov”, “Trubetskoy”, “Golovkinsky” and “Menshikov”. Later, some of them were renamed in honor of the heavenly patrons of the new Russian autocrats..

First of all, it was decided to strengthen the northern part of the Peter and Paul Fortress, as the weakest. The construction technologies used in the Northern capital were completely new for Russia. The thickness of the walls of the “fortification” was about 20 meters, the width of the brick wall was 5-6 meters, and the middle of the layer was filled with earth and crushed brick. The walls of “Petropavlovka” are raised by 12 meters in height, on each of them it was planned to place 50-60 artillery pieces.

Foundation of the Peter and Paul Fortress
Walls of the Peter and Paul Fortress – Alekseevsky Ravelin

Not without secret passages, the existence of which only trusted officers knew. Their remains were later found more than once during reconstruction..

In the history of the construction of the Peter and Paul Fortress, it is also interesting that for some time the great-grandfather A.S. Pushkin – A.P. Hannibal, who was the godson of Peter the Great. Under him, the facing of individual fortifications with a stone slab or brick was carried out.

The fortress was completely ready only in 1740, even after the death of Peter and the change on the throne of Catherine the First, Peter the Second and Anna Ioannovna, the construction did not stop.

Panorama of the Peter and Paul Fortress
Panorama of the Peter and Paul Fortress

It was in the Peter and Paul Fortress that the mint of the Russian Empire was also located – the complex of the St. Petersburg Mint was erected in 1796-1805 by the architect A. Porto.

It is interesting that the Peter and Paul Cathedral, which became the center of the fortress, is a vivid example of a new style in architecture – the so-called “Peter’s Baroque”, oriented to the samples of German and Dutch architecture, but it also has distinctive features: clarity of images, restraint of decoration, and most importantly – architectural techniques traditional for Moscow. Peter wanted to see his Northern capital completely different from the “white stone” hated by the emperor and he succeeded quite well. Domenico Trezzini became the architect of the Peter and Paul Cathedral.

In St. Petersburg there are other buildings that have become an example of the “Peter’s Baroque” – the Menshikov Palace, the Kunstkamera, the Kikina Chambers.

Peter and Paul Cathedral
Peter and Paul Cathedral

As a result, according to experts, a complex arose on the Zayachy Island, which cannot be compared with the Moscow Kremlin, although such analogies often occur: the Peter and Paul Fortress was never a city and a residence of tsars, like the ancient Kremlin, the purpose of its construction and history are more similar to its purpose the famous Roman Capitol – a separate place where the main temple of the city and the prison are located, created to protect the city.

“Russian Bastille”

The Peter and Paul Fortress did not fulfill its original purpose – to defend the Northern capital from the Swedes and other aggressors – its thick walls were never attacked. But the prison “Petropavlovka” immediately became and remained it for centuries. And this appointment of the fortress overshadowed all the others, as evidenced by the name “Russian Bastille”, given to the Peter and Paul Fortress by the French envoy in 1717, when the Secret Chancellery moved here and an investigatory prison was opened.

Before the opening of the casemates and “well chambers”, the inhabitants of the northern part of Russia, who were guilty before the authorities, were imprisoned in log cabins without a floor and a roof, nicknamed very indicatively “misfortune” or “poverty”, so the appearance of a more “civilized” prison came in handy.

The first prisoners of the Peter and Paul Fortress were 22 sailors from the ship “Revel” that sank under strange circumstances in 1717, and the first political prisoner was the nephew of Hetman Mazepa, Andrei Voinarovsky, who spent more than 5 years in “Peter and Paul Fortress” and then perished in the Siberian expanses.

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One of the most famous (and sadly) prisoners of the Peter and Paul Fortress was Tsarevich Alexei, the son of Peter the Great, accused of high treason, tortured and mysteriously died before his execution..

Peter the Great interrogates Tsarevich Alexei
Peter the Great interrogates Tsarevich Alexei, artist Nikolai Ge

The most terrible prison of the “fortification” – the Secret House – was located in the Alekseevsky ravelin (an auxiliary fortress in the shape of a triangle, the top of which was facing the enemy), and in general, the Peter and Paul Fortress rightfully earned the reputation of the most famous and gloomy casemate in the country.

At various times, the Decembrists, Narodnaya Volya, Petrashevists, anarchists and Social Democrats became prisoners of the “Petropavlovka”. I happened to become a prisoner of the fortress A.N. Radishchev, P.A. Kropotkin, A. Lestok, S.G. Nechaev, F.M. Dostoevsky, D.I. Pisarev, N.G. Chernyshevsky, M. Gorky. Not only the Alekseevsky ravelin, but also casemates, fortress walls, and the Trubetskoy and Zotov bastions were used as prison premises..

One of the most famous prisoners of the fortress was Princess Tarakanova, who called herself the daughter of Elizaveta Petrovna and ended up in the Trubetskoy bastion in 1775. A legend is connected with it that during the next Neva flood in 1777, more than 300 prisoners drowned in the fortress died, but the princess died much earlier from consumption, and the flooding of the forts occurred on Vasilyevsky Island, without affecting the casemates of the Petropavlovka. The legend about the ghost of the princess, still wandering around the bastion, most often in rainy weather, still exists.

The prisoners of the Peter and Paul Fortress describe the premises of the casemates as an ideal place for psychological pressure on the prisoner – low ceilings, damp walls, eternal twilight. It is worth adding to this the constant presence of soldiers, stocks, the lack of basic amenities, and one can imagine the horror of the new “prisoners”, especially of noble birth, who find themselves in such conditions. By the way, corporal punishment for nobles was abolished only in 1762..

Casemates of the Peter and Paul Fortress
Casemates of the Peter and Paul Fortress

However, for the most part in the Peter and Paul Fortress there were still ordinary, quite comfortable cells, with a window and an oven, dry and warm enough.

After the coup of 1917, the garrison of “Petropavlovka” went over to the side of the Bolsheviks and political prisoners became the new prisoners of the fortress, and executions were carried out on its territory. So, four grand dukes: Nikolai Mikhailovich, Pavel Alexandrovich, Georgy Mikhailovich and Dmitry Konstantinovich were executed here.

Tomb of the Romanovs

Peter and Paul Cathedral is not only the tallest church in Russia (the height of the building together with the spire and the angel is 122.5 meters), but also the tomb of the Romanov family. The first autocrat buried in the Peter and Paul Fortress was Peter the Great himself, and after that all the other Russian emperors, except for Peter the Great (the grandson of Peter the Great was buried in the Archangel Cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin) and John Antonovich (Ivan Shestoy), who was stripped of the throne and killed in Shlisselburg.

Interestingly, in the Peter and Paul Cathedral, there are also Catherine the Second, with whose tacit consent Emperor Peter the Third was killed, and Alexander the First, indirectly guilty of the murder of his father Paul the First, and the tragically dead autocrats themselves.

Tomb of the Romanovs
Tomb of the Romanovs in the Peter and Paul Cathedral

In 1865, all the tombstones were replaced with the same type of white marble sarcophagi with gilded bronze crosses, and the imperial sarcophagi were decorated with double-headed eagles.

Over time, the necropolis of the Romanovs grew so much that at the end of the 19th century, the construction of a separate building began – the Grand Duke’s tomb, the construction of which was completed in 1908.

Grand Ducal Tomb
Grand Ducal Tomb

In 1915, the Grand Duke Konstantin Romanov was buried in the tomb, then in connection with the coming to power of the Bolsheviks until 1992, burials in the Peter and Paul Cathedral were not carried out.

At the end of the 20th century, many members of the Romanov family who had died abroad were reburied in the tomb. So, in 2006, the reburial ceremony of Empress Maria Feodorovna, who died in Copenhagen in 1928, took place in the tomb..

Another legend of the Peter and Paul Fortress is connected with the tomb of the Romanovs – the historian Prince Dmitry Shakhovskoy expressed the opinion that all the sarcophagi of the members of the imperial family are empty. This version arose due to the fact that Emperor Alexander the First did not want to be buried next to his father, Paul the First, and in his will ordered that his grave be in the village of Gruzino. However, this version has no confirmation and, most likely, is another of the many myths of the Peter and Paul Fortress. In addition, in 1994, the grave of the brother of Nicholas II, Grand Duke Grigory Alexandrovich was opened (a comparative analysis of the remains found near Yekaterinburg was carried out) – the ashes were in their place.

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Another mystery is the reburial of the remains of the family of the last emperor of Russia, which took place in the Peter and Paul Cathedral in July 1998. There are still disputes about the authenticity of the remains, and the Orthodox Church notes that, although the family of Nicholas II was numbered among the holy martyrs, no miraculous healings have yet occurred on their graves..

Tomb of the Imperial Family
Tomb of the Imperial Family in the Peter and Paul Cathedral

But the sarcophagus of Emperor Paul the First is considered miraculous – touching it with your cheek can heal from a toothache.

Legends and facts of “Petropavlovka”

Since it was not necessary to repel the attacks of the enemies of the Peter and Paul Fortress, even during the First and Second World Wars, the complex received a different status immediately after the construction – it was here that fireworks were held in honor of the victories of Russian weapons, and various celebrations were widely celebrated. For some time, the Peter and Paul Fortress was also the seat of the Senate, the offices of the War Ministry and other state institutions were located here..

The only time the fortress was in real danger was on November 8, 1925, when the Leningrad Soviet decided to completely destroy the “Petropavlovka” and build an ordinary stadium in its place. Fortunately, this regulation was soon overturned..

An interesting story and another legend is also associated with the tallest building of the Peter and Paul Fortress – the cathedral, the angel on the spire of which has long become a symbol of St. Petersburg. The time of the appearance of an angel with a height of 3.2 meters and a wingspan of 3.8 meters has not been precisely established – during the reign of Empress Catherine II or still under Peter the Great.

Initially, the angel was firmly attached to the spire, did not serve as a weather vane, and often suffered from strong winds. In 1830, after a storm, the figure tilted so much that it could just fall. Petr Telushkin, a roofing master, managed to climb to the top of the spire with the help of a rope, without scaffolding, and fix the angel. According to legend, for such a feat he was granted 5 thousand rubles and the right to a free glass of vodka in all taverns of the Northern capital. At first, he used a letter for this purpose, but since the document was often lost, in the end, the authorities stamped Telushkin on the right side of his chin. Entering the tavern, the roofing master simply snapped his fingers at the indelible sign, from where the well-known gesture, inviting to drink, came from. However, such an award did not go to his advantage – after a few years Telushkin simply drank himself and died..

Angel on the spire of the Peter and Paul Cathedral
Angel on the spire of the Peter and Paul Cathedral

By the way, the ship on the spire of the Admiralty was also repaired by Pyotr Telushkin.

The Peter and Paul Cathedral also houses the world’s largest collection of bells, mostly of Dutch and Russian work. In 1725, a Russian belfry was erected in the second tier of the cathedral’s bell tower, the bell tower of which served as the beginning of the service for all churches in St. Petersburg. In 1937, the authorities tried to tune the carillon of the belfry to perform the Internationale, and from 1952 to 1989, the Russian bells of the former belfry rang the first bars of the USSR anthem.

The belfry of the Peter and Paul Cathedral
The belfry of the Peter and Paul Cathedral

In April 1993, the Peter and Paul Fortress was given the status of a state reserve – from now on, it is forbidden to make any significant changes, build new buildings or move historical and architectural monuments on its territory..

Today, “Petropavlovka” remains a popular venue for various festive events and fireworks, the complex is visited by many tourists every year, and services are regularly held in the cathedral..

The well-known Petrine tradition is also preserved – every day at noon, a shot is fired from the Naryshkin signal cannon of the bastion of the Peter and Paul Fortress.

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