The Birth Place of the Iron Curtain
A fascinating mixture of grandeur and dilapidated, St Petersburg and the events that took place in this city shaped the life of the Iron Curtain and the political system behind it
Article by Justine Gosling
Russia is the world’s largest country that is bigger than the planet of Pluto and I’m only visiting one city, for the 72 hours my visa will allow on my Bringing Down the Iron Curtain expedition. St Petersburg was the imperial capital of Russia from 1713–1728 and 1732–1918. It was world renowned for its grandeur and the lavish lifestyle of it aristocrats. At the turn of the century St Petersburg was an overwhelming display of imperial Russia’s growing status in the world. Nothing was beyond the greatest of indulgences of its tsars and tsarinas. Art, jewels and palaces are all still here in sparkling abundance.
As the formal home of the Russian tsars, the Winter Palace was the setting for frequent and lavish entertaining. The balls held here were said to be the most decadent in the world. The dining table could seat 1,000 guests, whilst the state rooms, connected by 13 miles of corridors, could contain up to 10,000 people. There is so much gold leaf on the ﬂoors, ceiling, walls and furnishings I considered putting my sun glasses on whilst touring it. The opulence here is so overwhelming.
St Petersburg is arguably the most important city in the story of the Iron Curtain. The then Russian capital was the lavish death bed of imperial Russia and the birth place of the communist Soviet Union. The foundations for the Soviet Union were laid during the February revolution of 1917 when Tsar Nicholas II, cousin of the then British King George V, abdicated for himself and on behalf of his son, ending the Russian monarchy and over three centuries of Romanov dynastic rule. The iron curtain was hung later that year following the October revolution the whereby the Bolsheviks communist political party, lead by Vladimir Lenin, stormed the Winter Palace. This led to the end of the post-Tsarist provisional government and the transfer of all political power to the soviet communist party.
The Tsar and his family were subsequently brutally murdered in 1918. Their bodies were dosed in acid and buried on a roadside until amateur royalist enthusiasts found them in 1979 and hid them until the fall of communism and the Soviet Union in 1991. After their identities were conﬁrmed via DNA analysis the bodies were laid to rest with state honours in the Peter and Paul Cathedral in St Petersburg. It’s an incredible tragic story, especially coming from the UK with such a loved Royal family. I felt that their chapel was rather humble for royals, especially when compared to others in the city. The fact that two of tsar’s children’s bodies have never been recovered has led to endless conspiracy theories that there may have been survivors from the Romanov massacre.
After Lenin’s death in 1924 the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, abbreviated to USSR or shortened to the Soviet Union, was formed and lead by Joseph Stalin and the capital was moved from St Petersburg to Moscow. In the beginning of World War II, Stalin signed the Molotov– Ribbentrop Pact non-aggression pact with Hitler, the Nazi German leader. Hitler then invaded the Soviet Union and broke that pact in June 1941 in operation Barbarossa. The Siege of Leningrad, present day St Petersburg, lasted two years, four months, two weeks and five days. The eastern front was to be the bloodiest in history and turned the tide of the war with the Soviet Union joining the allies in the ﬁght against the Nazi’s.
Soviet forces eventually captured Berlin in 1945. The Soviet Union emerged from World War II considerably stronger than it had been before the war. Although the country suffered enormous devastation and lost more than twenty million lives, it had gained considerable territory. With an area of 22,402,200 square kilometres spanning 11 time zones, the Soviet Union was the world’s largest country, a status that is retained by the Russian Federation today.
The territory overtaken by the Red Army in the war became satellite states of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union existed between 1922 and 1991 as a union of multiple subnational Soviet republics, now independent countries I’m currently cycling through on my expedition. Its government and economy were highly centralized by the capital Moscow. In this single political party state, all land, natural resources, and industry were conﬁscated and nationalised.
“Soviet” is considered a derogatory term used to describe very large, grey, usually concrete structures so classic of the old Soviet Union style. There really wasn’t many of these harsh, imposing structures in central St Petersburg I’m pleased to say. Instead huge cathedrals with their golden domes sit on almost every street corner brightening up the otherwise drab lines of large mansion blocks in need of a lot of maintenance. The Neva canal is hardly comparable to Venetian standards but provides a mellowness to the bustling streets ﬁlled with busy people. Walking around I often stumble on broken paving stones or misjudge my step onto the melted, ridged road. The trafﬁc is horrendous and the car fumes strong. The six lane roads are chaotic but provide a sense of space and openness to a city formally anything but. The subsequent smog ensures a beautifully orange, hazed sunset interrupted only by spires. There’s an army of pigeons present instead of soldiers now but no trees or bushes to soften the landscape.
This is an exciting city with a roughness about it; its style and brutal history hidden behind its grand architecture. It has been witness to actions whose consequences have been felt all over the world. This is the ultimate city for the history loving urban explorer. I want to open every ceiling high door I walk past, touch the peeling paint on the walls and chipped marble pillars and smell the dampness of the neglected, once beautiful, old buildings. I want to hear the stories the walls have to tell.
It was a very rushed 72 hours exploring St Petersburg, which, after the walk through Finland has left me shattered. There is no rest, next I’m getting on my bike and cycling through those “satellite Soviet republics”, now happily independent countries. I’m excited to be getting the ferry over to the ﬁrst one, Estonia. I’m curious to see how different and similar the countries are, to learn about the challenges they’ve faced and to hear about what independence means to them and how their lives have changed as a result.