Peter and Paul Fortress

Near me, on the right, rose the fortress, the cradle of St. Petersburg, moored like a vessel, by two slight bridges, to the island of Aptekarskoi; above its walls shot up the gilded steeple of the church of SS. Peter and Paul, in which the Czars are buried, and the green roof of the Mint.

Alexandre Dumas, Eighteen Months at St. Petersburg

Peter began his war with Sweden over access to the Baltic in 1700 and in November suffered a humiliating defeat. But the Tsar did not give up. He formed new regiments and confiscated monastery bells to make new cannons. Having created by heroic efforts in one year a strong artillery and an important army, Peter began the campaign. Two years later, his reorganized army outflanked the Swedes encamped along the River Neva and launched a surprise attack on them. By early May 1703 the whole river from source to mouth was in Russian hands. The exultant Peter wetted his jackboots with water from the Baltic.

The foundation-stone was laid on 27 May, 1703

It was decided to build an earthen fortress on the small island where the Neva divides into two channels, the Greater and the Lesser Neva, before flowing into the sea. The foundation-stone was laid on 27 May, 1703, the date now regarded as the city’s birthday.

Rebuilt in stone by Domenico Trezzini

In 1706, however, the Tsar ordered Domenico Trezzini to rebuild it in stone. The architect worked on this powerful, unassailable fortification right up to his death. A brick wall up to 15 meters thick enclosed the barracks, powder cellar, commandant’s house, large cathedral, mint and domestic buildings. As a result a small independent town grew up on the island. Until the 1740s the fortress was referred to as the “town” in official papers. And the town itself as St. Petersburg. In his letters the Tsar called his beloved creation “Paradise”.

A huge spider with six thick bastion-legs

Like a huge spider with six thick bastion-legs, the fortress at first had only one entrance on the east side, the Peter Gate. Trezzino embellished the brick walls with pilasters, volutes and niches. A sharply protruding cornice divides the gate into two parts. The massive lower section has an entrance arch and double pilasters on either side. Then come niches with a statue of the wise Minerva in one and Bellona, the goddess of war, in the other. The upper section is adorned with a large bas-relief The Casting Down of Simon Magus by the Apostle Peter, which symbolizes Peter’s victory over the Swedes. Thus the fortress gate became a kind of triumphal arch. Gates were added later on the northwest and south sides. The latter was called the Commandant Gate because the commandant used to sail up to it in his boat. In 1787 the south side was faced with granite. Legend has it that Catherine the Great did not like looking at the blood-red walls from her palace windows and had them faced with dark stone.

In 1712 Trezzini began construction of a large stone Cathedral of SS Peter and Paul in the fortress. Following the Tsar’s instructions he ignored the time-hallowed traditions and canons of Russian architecture. For seven centuries Russian churches had taken the form of a cross inscribed in a circle with five domes. Trezzini built an elongated basilica with a single octagonal drum and dome. The north and south walls have large windows separated by pilasters. A design more suited for a palace than a church. To the west the cathedral is adjoined by a three-tiered bell-tower with a tall slender spire topped by an angel with a cross. The bell-tower measured 112 meters from top to bottom at first, but gained another 10 meters after the fire of 1756. On the tsar’s instructions the architect erected the tower before the cathedral. Peter wanted to hear the bells as soon as possible. When they first chimed the hour in 1720, the sound echoing along the river, the Tsar was delighted.

Peter and Paul Cathedral

Entering the fortress through the Peter Gate, you see the flat east wall of the cathedral. Here too Trezzini was breaking with tradition, which demanded three or five circular apses on the east wall. The composition of the cathedral wall repeats that of the gate. The carved and gilded iconostasis also reminds one of a sumptuous triumphal arch. The themes of war and peace can easily be detected in its numerous carved figures. Thus the fortress’s triumphal gate and the large cathedral form a memorial to Russian military prowess.  

The Cathedral, in its current state, is an oblong building 210 feet long and 98 feet wideA small dome, painted white, rises above the altar. The western end is surmounted by a square tower 112 feet high, above which rises the pyramidal spire, very remarkable for its elegance among the many domes and cupolas in St. Petersburg. The single arrow is 128 feet tall, the ball is 5 feet and the cross is 21 feet. The top of the cross is 387 feet above ground level - 26 feet higher than St. Pauls in London. It is the tallest spire in Russia, with the exception of the tower of Revel.

The iconostasis, perfectly sculpted, was made in Moscow by Russian workers and artists who worked on it for four years. 

The walls are lined with military trophies -darts, flags, fortress keys, battle-axes and shields taken from the Swedes, Turks, Persians, Poles and French.

St Petersburg Guide, Jean Bastin, 1874

A prison for important state criminals

This powerful and well-armed fortress created to protect the town never actually fired a single military shot. In 1712 the practical Peter turned it into a prison for important state criminals. The first person to be imprisoned here was the Tsar’s own son Alexei. He died here after being tortured or, as some say, was suffocated to death by Peter’s close associates. Peter is reputed to have said that the people must not see royal blood being shed. The prison existed right up to 1918. Its last inmates were ministers of the Provisional Government and some members of the house of Romanov.

The Peter and Paul Fortress was a terrifying place. The dungeon in which the Decembrists were held was the same in which, one hundred ninety years before, Peter the Great had his own son imprisoned and tortured to death; it later held Dostoevsky. It was like a watery grave, surrounded by the river on all side, Stygian-dark, dripping wet, cells hewn out of rock like prehistoric caves, with iron rings for chains fastened to the walls. In those cells the conspirators - fastidious, highly civilized men - spent nights and days without end, in complete darkness and silence, without a book, or tobacco, without sanitary facilites or outdoor exercise, with only the bitter realization of the hopelessness of their dream and totality of their defeat.

The Princess of Siberia, Christine Sutherland

A mausoleum for the members of the Romanov dynasty

In 1725 Emperor Peter the Great was buried in the cathedral before it was completed. After all him all Russian rulers up to Alexander III found eternal rest here. The prison inmates could hear the tolling of bells and chanting at their enemies’ funerals. These sounds did not herald their release, however. In 1865 Emperor Alexander II had tombs of white Carrara marble placed over all the graves. The grave of Alexander himself, killed by terrorist revolutionaries, and his wife have tombs of greenish jasper weighing 13 tons and pink rhodonite weighing 11 tons ordered by their son, Emperor Alexander III.

In 1896 Emperor Nicholas II decided to build a mausoleum for the members of the reigning dynasty, the grand dukes and grand duchesses. At first he wanted a three-tiered burial vault for 300 burials, but in the end it was reduced to 70. By 1907 the impressive building was erected on the north side of the cathedral with a rest room for the royal family and a passageway into the cathedral. The first to be buried there was Alexander II’s son Alexei in 1908. In 1998 the burial of the remains of Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra, the grand duchesses and loyal servants shot by the Bolsheviks together with them tool place in the presence of members of the house of Romanov and the Russian president.

The fortress was opened to the public at the beginning of the 19th century under Alexander I. Today it houses the Museum of the History of St. Petersburg.


Saint Petersburg (Russian: Санкт-Петербург) is the second largest city in Russia. It is located on the Neva River at the head of the Gulf of Finland on the Baltic Sea. St Petersburg is often described as the most westernized city of Russia, as well as its cultural capital.It is the northernmost city in the world with a population of over one million.

Population: 5 197 114 (2015)
Founded : 1703
Time zone : UTC+4
Federal District : Northwest
Area code : (00 7) 812
Postal code : 190000-199406
Former name : Petrograd (1914-1924)
Former name : Leningrad (1924-1991)