Since the very beginning of the 18-th century, St. Petersburg' s extraordinary history and beauty has proved irresistible to the whole world. It was Petersburg for the czars, Petrograd for a nation at war and Leningrad for the followers of the Bolshevik Revolution. As changes reverberated in the wake of the failed coup of 1991, the country's second-largest city also won a battle to change its name from Leningrad back to the original St. Petersburg. The move was officially approved by the Supreme Soviet on 7 September, 1991.

Petersburg, Petrograd, Leningrad - each name evokes a different image of a city that miraculously sprung into existence by the vision of a single man. Peter the Great was born on June, 29, 1672 on St. Peter's day. The idea to name an important sea fortress after his patron saint had captured him long before the foundation of St. Petersburg. But this imaginary fortress must have been in a key position to the sea, i.e. "sea gate", so that it corresponded to the apostle Peter's function as the keeper of keys to Eden in Christian mythology. As a child Peter fell in love with the sea and learned to sail at the age of 12; after adventuring abroad and learning to build ships in Amsterdam, he eagerly desired a shipping port for his landlocked nation. At first Peter hoped to build such city at the Azov Sea during his military campaign of 1697, and thus acquire an outlet to Europe through the Black Sea. But the Russian army sustained a defeat. Only six years later, in spring of 1703 the long-awaited victory in a decisive battle against the Swedes in the Baltic Sea occurred. So Peter outrageously decided to take the chance and build a city along the conquered shores of the Gulf of Finland, which would let Russia "stand firmly on the sea".

Tens of thousands of workers were brought in to dig canals and waterways along 101 islands of the Neva delta. The desolate windswept landscape subject to frequent fogs and floods, impassable marshes and the wide, tidal river Neva (neva was an old Finnish word for swamp) greeted them. On bare enthusiasm, supported by few devoted accomplices, Peter ordered work to commence on building the fortress, that eventually became a rallying point, from which order and progress set out to overcome and reclaim the wildness. The city was one of the first in the world built according to preconceived plans - drawn up by the most famous Russian and European architects as well as Peter himself, who brought the majesty of the West to his own doorstep. He introduced Western culture, commerce and technology, and was determined to pull his backwater but beloved country out of its long isolation. The first buildings of the city included an admiralty and a shipyard. To ensure long-termed success, every structure had to be made from stone; anyone caught building with wood risked banishment to Siberia. On 16 May, 1703 a salute was fired to celebrate the founding of Sankt Pieterburkh, Russia's "window to the West". Peter immediately brought in 1,000 aristocratic families, 500 families of the best merchants and traders, and 2,000 artisans and craftsmen. Nine years after its inception in 1712, Peter the Great made St. Petersburg the capital of the Russian Empire; it remained so for over 200 years. Foreign architects such as Rastrelli, Trezzini, Le Blond and Montferrand designed some of the most splendid buildings that Russia had ever known. Both Westerns and Russians flocked into the new capital; by 1725, the year of Peter's death, Petersburg had over 75,000 nationalities.

Over the next 150 years, sparked by the reign of Katherine the Great, Petersburg became the host to Russia's Golden Age and a mecca to some of the world's greatest composers, dancers, artists, and writers. As the catalyst for Russia's Renaissance, Petersburg flowered in the music of Chaikovsky, Glinka and Rimsky-Korsakov; in the Ballets Russes of Diaghilev, Nijinsky and Anna Pavlova; in the arts and crafts of Repin, Benois and Faberge; and in the literature and poetry of Gogol, Dostoevsky and Pushkin. Her noble spirit was founded on beauty, innovation and progress.

After Napoleon was defeated in 1812, secret societies spread across Russia calling for the abolition of serfdom. One of these movements, known as the Decembrists (a group of dissatisfied nobles), also petitioned for the end of autocracy. On 14 December 1825 they marched into Senate Square with other soldiers who had refused to swear allegiance to the new czar, Nicholas I. The uprising was crushed within a few hours, and the conspirators hanged. Pushkin, whose personal censor was the czar himself, immediately composed a poem on the event. Senate Square was later renamed Decembrists' Square in their honor.

In 1848 another revolutionary circle, known as the Petrachevists, was sparked into action by the writing of Belinsky. Fyodor Dostoyevsky became a member of this group. The aim of the society was to prepare for an uprising, and the members secretly printed material that advocated emancipation. But the police uncovered their plot and on 22 April 1849 they were all arrested and imprisoned in the Peter and Paul Fortress. With the earlier Decembrists revolt in mind, Nicholas I exiled them to Siberia and penal servitude. But before the prisoners were to hear their sentences, Nicholas I set up a mock execution. Only at the last moment, as the ropes were being tied around their necks, were the prisoners informed that the czar had granted them their lives.

In 1861, under increasing pressure and protest, the next czar, Alexander II, signed a decree abolishing serfdom; but this was not enough. With the publication in Russia of Karl Marx's Das Kapital, the first Russian Marxist groups were formed, Revolutionary activities mounted, and on 1 March 1881, the Narodnaya Volya ("Peoples' Will") succeeded in assassinating Alexander II. Six years later five students, including Lenin's senior brother, tried to kill Alexander III in Petersburg; their attempt failed and they were all hung in the Kronstadt Fortress.

Czar Nicholas II, who was fill-fated to be the last czar, began his reign by marrying Alexandra, the granddaughter of Queen Victoria. Nicholas was a weak and superstitious man who held a paranoia and deep dislike for the intelligentsia and politicians. Proletarian organizations continued to gather - the Social Democrat Labor Party was founded in 1898. In 1903, this party split into two fractions: the Mensheviks, led by Martov, and the Bolsheviks led by Lenin.

In 1905, Russia's first revolution received a bloody baptism. On January 9, a huge procession of dissatisfied workers marched to the Winter Palace; the protesters hoped to get the czar's attention by standing a peaceful demonstration in the Palace Square. The demonstrators were met with rifle fire from the palace guards, and over 1,000 people were massacred on what has become known as Bloody Sunday. A tide of strikes and protests ensued, and the czar was forced to establish a limited consultative parliament called the state Duma. Nicholas's hold on the country was further weakened by the outbreak of WWI in 1914. Due to anti-German sentiment, the city's name was russianized to Petrograd.

In February 1917, another revolution finally overdrew the monarchy of Nicholas II, and a provisional government led by Kerensky was established. After 10 years of forced exile, Lenin returned by train to Petrograd and planned the Bolshevik takeover. On 24 October, 1917, Lenin gave the command from the Smolny Institute for the start of the October Revolution. The battleship Aurora sailed up the Neva and fired a blank shot at the Hermitage to signal the beginning of what American writer John Reed called the "Ten days that shook the world". Red Army troops surrounded the Winter Palace and seized the czar and his family. Later Nicholas II officially refused his ruling and the Bolsheviks finally and irrevocably took control of the new Soviet state. Lenin and the Communist Party began to govern the country. Marxist-Leninist slogans rose up on red banners undulating over the double-headed eagles and royal gardens, whose monuments were inscribed with the exhortations of past poets. The palaces and proletariat, Petersburg and Petrograd, existed side by side in a curious dichotomy Dostoevsky described as "the most abstract and premeditated place in the world".

In 1918, Lenin moved the capital of the Soviet Union back to Moscow. When Lenin died in 1924, the city of Petrograd was renamed to Leningrad in his honor.

Following Lenin the next Secretary of the Communist Party was Iosif Vissarionovich Dzugashvili, who adopted the last name of Stalin (steel). The 1934 assassination of Leningrad Party chief Sergey Kirov signalled the beginning of the Great Terror. The new Leningrad Party leader, Andrey Zhdanov, persecuted Leningrad's writers and artists in what is now known as the Leningrad Affair. Some of them were ruthlessly executed, other sent to gulag, few managed to escape to the West. Eventually the poets Mayakovsky and Yesenin committed suicide. Even Zhdanov himself didn't escape the purges; unexpectedly he fell from Stalin's grace and was executed in 1948. Of approximately 40 million people that were arrested throughout Russia, seven million were immediately shot and the others sent off to the gulags for "rehabilitation". Within a few short decades the Soviet Union lost an entire generation of its most courageous, creative, and devoted - the brains and soul of a nation. This loss is comparable only to the country's loss during WWII.

Hitler invaded the USSR in 1941. The crippled country battled against the invading German forces for almost three years. However, Leningrad heroically bore the brunt of the 900-days siege, unprecedented in the world's history, and recovered its terrible consequences. The legend has it that until the monuments to Russia's greatest military leaders and national heroes Alexander Suvorov, Mikhail Kutuzov and Barclay De Tolley (all three buried in St. Petersburg) stay undamaged, the city will survive whatever disaster a war brings. Indeed, some of the city's monuments were taken off their pedestals and buried in secret places, others were covered with earth or sacks of sand and safeguarded with wooden shields, only the three monuments to great heroes of Russia stayed uncovered. In all wartime not a single damage was caused to them. Despite hideous destruction and chaos, the Russian people managed to preserve, maintain and enrich their culture and dignity. On 27 January, 1944, Leningrad celebrated a complete victory over Nazi troops. Never has a hostile soldier stepped in the city in 300 years of its history.

Leningrad started rebuilding itself immediately after the war, a Herculean task considering that one third of the city's buildings had been damaged and much of its infrastructure (factories, power stations, transportation networks, etc.) destroyed. Following Stalin's death things here stayed reasonably calm through the Khrushchev and Brezhnev years. Moscow was the undisputed center of the USSR although Leningrad remained Russia's cultural center, with many exciting innovations in art, popular music, and literature originating here.

Democracy in Petersburg

In the local elections of March 1989 Leningraders were given a choice of Communist Party members to vote for and they elected their first quasi-democratic city council. One of these new deputies was a little-known lawyer by the name of Anatoly Sobchak who squeaked by after two run-offs to win his district. Sobchak rose to the helm of a group of reform-minded deputies and in 1990 was elected Petersburg's mayor. Under his leadership the city slowly opened itself to foreign investment and free-market development, and remained calm during the days in August 1991 and October 1993 when Moscow freaked out.

In 1996, in a city-wide election Sobchak was ousted by one of his former deputy mayors, Yakovlev, who has, on the face of it, continued along the same reform and privatisation path as his predecessor.

It was in 1991 that Leningraders overwhelmingly voted to rename their city St. Petersburg.