Assessing the past century today and
leafing through the chronicle of events that left a tragic stamp on the destinies of
many states and nations, we inevitably return to the former capital of the Russian Empire,
the magnificent St. Petersburg at the time of its last sovereign, Nicholas II, as one
of the starting points for the coming cataclysms. By a fatal coincidence of circumstances.
St. Petersburg became the centre of fomenting forces that in the final analysis disrupted
the historical course of the twentieth century. St. Petersburg is more than a geographical
notion: it is one of the indisputable symbols of the past century. We closely study its
destiny because it seems to embody all tragedies of twentieth century Russia, including
the First World War and the fall of autocracy; the revolution of 1917 and the hardships
of war communism; the destruction of churches and successive waves of repression; and the
900day siege of Leningrad in the Second World War the like of which has not
befallen any city in modern history.
In 1918, after losing its status and
many privileges as a capital, St. Petersburg–Petrograd–Leningrad fell into several
decades of oblivion, gradually becoming “a great city with a provincial destiny.” It
lost much of its former splendour in certain districts and areas, but nevertheless
retained, unlike Moscow, its traditional aspect. In spite of all, the city preserved
the key town building ensembles, the inimitable beauty of its vistas, the invaluable
museum treasures attracting millions of tourists and, last but not least, that unique
Petersburg flavour that continues to delight every visitor even today.
The photographs featured in this art book
show St. Petersburg at the heyday of its development, in the late nineteenth and early
twentieth centuries, when the Russian Empire, whose embodiment and symbol the city was,
passed through its last decades. Keenly sensing the inner dynamics and tension of the
vanishing world, the capital’s master photographers, above all the famous Karl Bulla
(“one of Russia’s best chroniclers”) attempted to capture the image of the city in all
its richness and complexity. Thanks to their works, we can reconstruct today the forgotten
and little known pages of Russian history that will perhaps never stop arousing our interest.
The first chapter, The Capital of the Russian
Empire, is made up of subjects that relate to the imperial court, high society, government
institutions and the highest bodies of state power. The second chapter, Working Days of the
City, includes photographs showing the St. Petersburg City Duma, the municipal authorities,
police and fire services, financial and commercial institutions, public transport and more.
The third chapter, Cultural Life, is devoted to St. Petersburg as a great academic and spiritual
centre, a city with a strong network of educational, scientific and cultural institutions,
and with humanitarian traditions.