Peter & Paul Fortress

   - darkometer rating: 5 -
The very kernel from which St Petersburg developed, the first part that Peter the Great had built at this site which was later to grow into the grand capital city of Imperial Russia. Today the fortress is a major mainstream tourist site, but it is also covered here for two reasons: a) the old prison part, in which many a revolutionary had been incarcerated before the revolution, and b) the modern Cosmonautics exhibition (which does include the odd dark aspect too).   
More background info: This is where it all began for St Petersburg, the fortress was the first permanent structure to be built at this marshy location, on the orders of Tsar Peter the Great, from 1703, and it was finished in 1740.
It was designed as a military citadel, with six massive bastions with extra bulwarks. That was because at the time attacks from Russia's north-western neighbour and then competitor kingdom Sweden were feared, so the fortress was supposed to provide protection for the future capital city. In the end, no such attack ever came and thus the fortress never really had to prove its military purpose.
Yet even without war, it has had its dark parts in its history. For starters, the cathedral at the centre of the fortress served as the burial place for almost all tsars since Peter the Great.
From today's dark-tourism perspective, however, the fortress is primarily of interest for one of the other functions this seat of power also had, namely as a special prison. From as early as 1720, the fortress held political prisoners. In the second half of the 19th century one of the bastions was rebuilt as the main prison block, the infamous Trubetskoy Bastion.
Amongst the inmates that this prison saw in the final decades of tsarist rule were lots of famous names, such as writers Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Maxim Gorky, the influential anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, communist revolutionary Leon Trotsky as well as Lenin's elder brother Alexander Ulyanov, and for a few weeks shortly before the October Revolution of 1917 even the young Josip Broz, later to be become better known to the world as Yugoslavia's leader Tito.
During the Revolution, the Peter & Paul Fortress quickly fell into the hands of the Bolsheviks. And after the storming of the Winter Palace, the toppled government's ministers were captured and taken to the Trubetskoy Bastion prison.
Later, yet more political prisoners from the “other side” were brought here by the new communist rulers, yet now it was primarily aristocrats, clergy or generally “non-proletariat” members of society. Many dozens of these were also executed at this site.
However, the prison closed in 1921 and as early as 1924 was already turned into a museum – obviously back then with a propagandistic purpose: to show the people how cruel the tsars' rule was. Of course they exaggerated this quite a bit – in actual fact inmates such as Gorky didn't have it anywhere near as bad as it was claimed and, for example, were allowed books and tobacco and other such “luxuries”; plus the prison had amenities such as modern heating and eventually even electricity that were quite advanced for the time, really. Yet the grim reputation of the place somehow manges to survive to this day and is also kept alive, to a somewhat lesser degree, in today's exhibition commodification.
The whole fortress is now run as part of the St Petersburg Museum of History, whose other branches include the Kirov Museum and the museum at the Monument to the Defenders of Leningrad.
There are several separate parts within the fortress complex, including a range of exhibitions. One of these is the Cosmonautics exhibition, or, to give it its full official name: “Museum of Cosmonautics and Rocket Technology V.P. Glushko”.
Vladimir Glushko was an engineer and designer of rocket engines who had worked on earlier propulsion system designs in Leningrad before becoming one of the key members of the Soviet space programme alongside Sergei Korolev, eventually succeeding him as head of the space bureau until his death in 1989. The museum at the Peter & Paul Fortress is also sometimes referred to as the “Museum of Space Exploration and Rocket Technology”. It's an odd juxtaposition to all the older historical aspects of the fortress, but (for me at least) a welcome one.
One really old tradition still kept going at the fortress is the cannon firing a salute shot over the Neva River every day at noon from the Naryshkin Bastion.
What there is to see: The fortress is one of the main sights of St Petersburg. You cannot miss it. The slender golden spire of the Peter & Paul Cathedral that stands in the centre of it dominates the skyline north of the Hermitage on the northern bank of the river. (In fact the spire had – by Peter's decree – always been the tallest structure in the city ... until 1962 when the red-and-white steel lattice TV tower was built that you can see looming in the distance to the north; but the cathedral spire is still the second-highest edifice in the city.)
As the fortress is on an island, you need to cross a bridge to get to the inside. For the main entrance that is Ioannovsky Bridge at the north-eastern tip of the island. En route in take note of the Russian Imperial insignia above the main gate.
Once through that gate take a look at the large annotated map to get your bearings and then obtain the tickets for the exhibitions you want to see from the info centre to the left.
To do the Trubetskoy Bastion prison museum first, you have to make your way to the far end of the fortress complex, past the cathedral and a tall brick chimney rising into the sky to the rear of the fortress.
Inside the bastion is a small intro exhibition about the prison and its regime together with a few artefacts, such as a straightjacket and regular prison clothing.
The cells of the prison are along identical corridors on two storeys. Some cells have been restored to what they would have looked like in different historical periods, others are rather bare. In some of them art installations add an extra touch, such as the glass panels with images of shadowy, hooded figures or the indication of bookshelves in the (otherwise now empty) prison library room.
There are explanatory text panels, in both Russian and (more or less OK) English, that bring things to life a bit more. Some are general thematic explanations, e.g. regarding the sound insulation systems, or provide historical contexts (e.g. about the precursors to the October Revolution (see under Political History Museum). One panel informs visitors about how the prisoners in the isolation cells tried to overcome the nominal incommunicado rule, by applying a “tapping alphabet”.
Other panels provide short biographies of more or less prominent inmates the place had seen over the years. Famous names to look out for include Leon Trotsky and Maxim Gorky (see also above).
One section of the cell-block corridors has been reconstructed to look like it did back in the day, with two grim-looking dummy prison guards and tarred hemp mats on the floor (to silence the guards' steps on the hard stone floor).
An extra is an exhibition of historic photos of the Trubetskoy Bastion, going back as far as the reconstruction of the prison in 1870/71, so to a very early era of photography (which thus makes the photos doubly remarkable). Also interesting is the separate part about the “Red Terror” following the revolution.
Back outside you have to make your way back to the eastern end of the fortress complex to get to the Cosmonautics and Rocket Technology exhibition.
Near the entrance to this are a few open-air exhibits including model rockets and engines and a battered space capsule charred presumably from re-entry into the earth's atmosphere.
Inside, in the first wing are various early rockets and engine designs, a reconstruction of the office of the key Soviet rocket engineer that the museum is officially named after, V.P. Glushko, and a section about some of his pioneering designs of electric propulsion systems.
The technology's contribution to WWII (and the USSR's victory in it) are also covered, especially the Katyusha rockets whose launchers were nicknamed “Stalin's Organ” by Germany's Wehrmacht soldiers in the war. That's because of the characteristic sound they made when launching salvoes of missiles, which added a psychological warfare element to these feared weapons.
The main section of the exhibition, however, is about the Soviet Union's achievements in the “Space Race” with the USA during the Cold War era. Other countries' efforts are also mentioned on the side, though, such as the French research programme with space cats – whereas the USSR tended to favour dogs. The famous first mammal in space, Laika, gets special coverage, of course (even though she perished on her mission), as do the two space dogs Belka and Strelka, who were the first to return from space alive. Amongst the human cosmonauts, it is of course the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, who gets pride of place here.
In addition, yet more rocket engines, whole capsules and a models of the Salyut space station and the Lunokhod moon rover, various spacesuits as well as mysterious-looking apparatus are on display. One curious large display is a section of a space station (presumably a reconstruction) which includes the toilet part … a technological challenge in zero gravity!
Smaller artefacts include a wide range of space food products as well as countless space-exploration-related Soviet medals. Especially noteworthy is the section about the USSR's “Interkosmos” programme, in which they primarily took cosmonauts from various other Eastern Bloc countries and Soviet-aligned states into space, for instance the first (GDR) German in space, Sigmund Jähn, in 1978.
This gets a more tragic undertone when it gets to the missions with cosmonauts from Syria and Afghanistan (in 1987 and 1988, respectively), given that both countries have meanwhile become war-torn shadows of their former selves and would hardly be in a position to provide cosmonauts now, or even have any time for such luxurious scientific “pastimes”.
The rest of the Peter & Paul Fortress is of much less or no interest from a dark-tourist's perspective, although some may also find the graves of the tsars in the Peter & Paul Cathedral interesting, or the separate exhibition about the history of the fortress and St Petersburg, whereas I doubt any dark tourists would be massively interested in the collection of porcelain and glassware and such things.
In addition there are a few exhibitions that are not under the aegis of the St Petersburg Museum of History but also located within the premises of the fortress. And these include one of medieval torture instruments. Perhaps people who enjoy things like the London Dungeon may also find that entertaining (I gave it a miss).
Overall, it's probably the Trubetskoy Bastion prison museum that's the best thing at St Petersburg's famous Peter & Paul Fortress. I personally also enjoyed the Cosmonautics exhibition, even though it's only got a few darkish aspects (but I've always been fascinated by space exploration and the associated technology and adventure stories). But it may not be for everyone. And it has to be said that this exhibition can hardly compete with its much larger counterpart in Moscow.
Location: in the very heart of St Petersburg, Russia, on Zayachy ('hare') Island on the Neva River just across from the Hermitage/Winter Palace.
Google maps locators:
Main visitor entrance: [59.9514, 30.3219]
Trubetskoy Bastion (former prison): [59.9487, 30.3136]
Cosmonautics exhibition: [59.9518, 30.3212]
Cathedral: [59.9501, 30.3161]
Access and costs: Easy enough to get to; prices vary but are reasonable.
Details: To get to the fortress from central Saint Petersburg you could walk it (ca. 20 minutes from Palace Square and the Hermitage) or take the metro line 2 (blue) to Gorkovskaya. From there it's just a few minutes walk south to the pedestrian bridge that takes visitors to the main north-eastern entrance. Alternatively there is another entrance on the western side too, via the Kronverksky vehicle bridge, which is also more handy for getting to the beach outside the fortress.
Behind the main eastern gate you can on arrival get your bearings from a large annotated map (also in English). The Cosmonautics exhibition is just to the north from here. The Trubetskoy Bastion, on the other hand, is in the furthest south-western corner a 5-10 minute walk away.
Admission to the fortress grounds as such is free, but to see the various attractions you have to buy separate tickets, which you can obtain at one of the ticket offices such as at the main info office right behind the main north-east gate.
Admission to the Trubetskoy Bastion prison museum: 200 RUB (students 120 RUB)
Admission to the Cosmonautics exhibition: 150 RUB (students 100 RUB).
The other attractions within the grounds cost between 100 RUB (history of the fortress) to 450 RUB (cathedral). Guided tours are also available, including group tours up the cathedral belfry and combination tours of the various other sites/exhibitions.
Opening times of the Trubetskoy Bastion: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (only to 5 p.m. on Tuesdays), the Cosmonautics exhibition is open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. (also only to 5 p.m. on Tuesdays). Last admission is an hour before closing time. Both, like all other exhibitions as well as the ticket office, are closed on Wednesdays.
The grounds of the fortress as such are open daily from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.; access to the island grounds outside the fortress is possible between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m.
Time required: a couple of hours at least, depending a bit on how into Cosmonautics you are and whether you also want to do more within the fortress complex. If you want to do everything that's on offer here, then you'd need a whole day at least.
Combinations with other dark destinations: in general see under St Petersburg.
The nearest other dark attraction is the Museum of Political History, which is just across the road from the main pedestrian bridge to the fortress. Furthermore, just a few blocks up the Kamennoostrovsky boulevard is the Kirov Museum. And a bit east along the banks of the Neva River you get to the Cruiser Aurora (see under St Petersburg). And across the river you're not far from the Leningrad Blockade Museum.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: The large complex of the fortress includes various other, non-dark attractions, such as the cathedral, several other exhibitions, the views from the wall facing the Neva River, and even a beach outside the walls on the banks of the river.
In winter, a spectacle to be seen here is what the Russians call “Walrus Club”, when men hack a large hole into the ice cover on the river to create a plunge pool and then jump into the icy water like a “morzhi” ('walrus'). They claim it's good for their health. In theory anybody can partake … so if you happen to visit in winter and find, say, minus 10 degrees too warm, then you can join them and cool off walrus-style.
I saw this on my first visit to this city, which was in winter, way back in 1987, when St Petersburg was still called Leningrad, but I freely admit that I wasn't one bit tempted to use the icy plunge pool (or even get out of my coat).
  • Peter and Paul Fortress 01 - seen from across the NevaPeter and Paul Fortress 01 - seen from across the Neva
  • Peter and Paul Fortress 02 - overviewPeter and Paul Fortress 02 - overview
  • Peter and Paul Fortress 03 - gatePeter and Paul Fortress 03 - gate
  • Peter and Paul Fortress 04 - cathedralPeter and Paul Fortress 04 - cathedral
  • Peter and Paul Fortress 05 - heading towards Trubetskoy BastionPeter and Paul Fortress 05 - heading towards Trubetskoy Bastion
  • Peter and Paul Fortress 06 - inside the prisonPeter and Paul Fortress 06 - inside the prison
  • Peter and Paul Fortress 07 - inmate frockPeter and Paul Fortress 07 - inmate frock
  • Peter and Paul Fortress 08 - metal bed framePeter and Paul Fortress 08 - metal bed frame
  • Peter and Paul Fortress 09 - corridorPeter and Paul Fortress 09 - corridor
  • Peter and Paul Fortress 10 - grumpy dummy guardPeter and Paul Fortress 10 - grumpy dummy guard
  • Peter and Paul Fortress 11 - famous inmates used to be in herePeter and Paul Fortress 11 - famous inmates used to be in here
  • Peter and Paul Fortress 12 - back outsidePeter and Paul Fortress 12 - back outside
  • Peter and Paul Fortress 13 - capsule outside the Cosmonautics exhibitionPeter and Paul Fortress 13 - capsule outside the Cosmonautics exhibition
  • Peter and Paul Fortress 14 - rocket technologyPeter and Paul Fortress 14 - rocket technology
  • Peter and Paul Fortress 15 - Soviet space shipPeter and Paul Fortress 15 - Soviet space ship
  • Peter and Paul Fortress 16 - Vostok rocket and the poster-boy cosmonaut GagarinPeter and Paul Fortress 16 - Vostok rocket and the poster-boy cosmonaut Gagarin
  • Peter and Paul Fortress 17 - space hugsPeter and Paul Fortress 17 - space hugs
  • Peter and Paul Fortress 18 - cryptic Soviet apparatusPeter and Paul Fortress 18 - cryptic Soviet apparatus
  • Peter and Paul Fortress 19 - Salyut space station and space foodPeter and Paul Fortress 19 - Salyut space station and space food
  • Peter and Paul Fortress 20 - space station toiletPeter and Paul Fortress 20 - space station toilet
  • Peter and Paul Fortress 21 - first German in spacePeter and Paul Fortress 21 - first German in space
  • Peter and Paul Fortress 22 - when Syria was reaching for the starsPeter and Paul Fortress 22 - when Syria was reaching for the stars




©, Peter Hohenhaus 2010-2019

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