Kronstadt

Kronstadt, the pride of Peter the Great, remained a key Russian naval harbour for centuries. The name, Kronstadt, means “Crown Town” in Swedish. Reserve a whole day to explore the town, stroll along its embankments, in its old parks, and check out its defence fortifications.   Kronstadt is a small town of just under 20,000 square kilometres, but every street here bears reminders of the highlights of Russian history. 

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The Russian history of this place commenced in 1703, when the construction of a fortress began on the Island of Kotlin by decree of Peter the Great. The forts, protecting the Neva delta from potential Swedish incursions, were the first to be built, followed by more solid fortifications, designed by the emperor himself. The fortifications were built by soldiers under the command of Alexander Menshikov. The Swedes, who had formerly owned this land, made several attempts to reclaim Kotlin Island, but the Russian army fought them back, and Kronstadt became Russian territory forever. In 1720, Kronstadt emerged as the foremost Russian naval base. Ground was broken for the central fortress around the same time. Construction on the port and the city really kicked off in 1723, when Peter I and his wife Catherine I visited Kronstadt. A personal palace was built for Peter I, but it has not survived.  Noblemen and wealthy merchants moved in next to the emperor. Peter’s number one comrade-in-arms, Alexander Menshikov, also had a house built for him in Kronstadt. The majority of Kronstadt’s residential buildings and fortifications were destroyed by the great flood of 1824. The early decades of the 20th century were a difficult time for the town. In 1921, Kronstadt rebelled against the Bolsheviks and was subjected to bombardment. The legendary Kronstadt mutiny was suppressed. The town was bombed again twenty years later. Luftwaffe warplanes hit the town in September 1941, inflicting heavy damage. All this adversity notwithstanding, there are a lot of places worth seeing here. Kronstadt remained a restricted town until 1996, so its landmarks were reliably conserved for many decades. UNESCO took the centre of Kronstadt under its patronage in 1990. 

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The largest marine cathedral ever built in Tsarist Russia, the St. Nicholas Marine Cathedral was built in Kronstadt’s main square in 1913 in memory of Navy sailors killed in action. The cathedral was designed by Vasily Kosyakov. This imposing neo-Byzantine temple stands precisely on the spot where retired anchors were once stored at Yakornaya Ploshchad, which means Anchor Square. Emperor Nicholas II personally planted 32 oak seedlings around the future cathedral on its ground-breaking day. The cathedral did not remain a place of worship for very long. It was closed in 1929. The crosses were removed a year later. The cathedral was converted to a cinema, named in honour of the writer Maksim Gorky. The familiar nickname for it among the locals was “Maksimka.” The church building housed a branch of the Central Museum of the Navy in the 1970s. The building was returned to the Russian Orthodox Church in 2002. 

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One of the earliest buildings in Kronstadt, built in 1724 to the design of Johann Friedrich Braunstein, this palazzo was intended for Peter’s closest associate Alexander Menshikov. Hence its other name: Menshikov Palace. The College of Admiralties took over the building in the 1760s, but never made any use of it. The luxurious palazzo remained empty for a long time. We will never know what the original palazzo looked like. There is no trace of Petrine baroque in the architecture of the current building. The palazzo was rebuilt in the 19th century. And in 1926, all the remaining 18th century architectural details were irretrievably destroyed by fire. The building and its neighbourhood underwent several renovations in the late 20th century, which left next to nothing of the erstwhile luxury. Crucial interior and exterior architectural details were destroyed. The palazzo is now the home of the Leningrad Navy Base headquarters, so you cannot go inside. The Italian Pond across the street from the palazzo was created concurrently with the palazzo. The pond, which is connected with the Merchant Harbour, was in the past used for the winter moorage of ships. 

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The Kronstadt Admiralty was the idea of Catherine II, who decreed for the Admiralty to be moved from St. Petersburg to Kronstadt after the St. Petersburg Admiralty burned down in 1783. The construction of the Admiralty in Kronstadt was entrusted to the Kronstadt port commander, Samuel Greig. The construction plan was officially firmed up in 1785. The properties built by 1797 included the tar works, the rope yard, the dried bread-making factory, provisions shops, the stone-built timber and coal stores, the bypass channel, several sail lofts, officers’ quarters and service personnel quarters. The great Russian architect Vasily Bazhenov joined the project circa 1799 to supervise the construction of further buildings. Admiralty buildings currently occupy about one-fifth of Kronstadt. The entire complex is a protected cultural legacy site. The main gate of the Admiralty compound used to be in Yakornaya Square, right where the St. Nicholas Cathedral stands. The compound is property of the Defence Ministry, so do not make plans for a leisurely walk around or a close look at the buildings. They can only be seen from across the Obvodnoy Canal (Bypass Channel). 

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Peter I broke ground for the fortress in 1723. It was designed by civil engineer Abraham. Hannibal, who was a protégé of Peter the Great and the great-grandfather of the poet Alexander Pushkin. The fortress consisted of several ramparts named in honour of the key regiments of the Russian army. Peter did not live to see the fortress completed. In fact, much of the construction work ground to a halt after Peter’s death. Empress Elizabeth invested heavily in the construction and renovation of fortress buildings in a bid to take her father’s cause forward. As Russia lived under the constant threat of a new war with Sweden, the Kronstadt fortress was fully armed and on high alert all the time. In 1805 it was decided to upgrade the Kronstadt fortress as wars with France and Turkey loomed. However, the epic flood of 1824 ruined or damaged most of the fortress buildings. Some 17,000 people lived on the fortress compound in the 19th century, but the fortress could accommodate many more. The fortress barracks currently house the Naval Cadet Corps, various Navy offices, and a naval school. The part of the fortress particularly worth seeing is the northern rampart, which faces Ulitsa Vosstaniya. 

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This important 19th-century historical landmark takes up an entire block in the middle of town. There were rows of regular market stalls here in the early 1800s. Emperor Nicholas I once paid a visit to the marketplace and was so horrified by the chaos that he immediately ordered that a building be constructed for the market stalls, in order to clean up the mess in the middle of Kronstadt. The building was designed as a replica of St. Petersburg’s own Gostiny Dvor on Nevsky Prospekt. Completed in 1832, the building burned down 42 years later. The new building had a slightly different design, but the purpose and intent was the same. Kronstadt’s Gostiny Dvor underwent a major reconstruction, which took many years and was completed in 2007. There is a musical fountain outside Gostiny Dvor on the Sovetskaya Ulitsa side. 

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Construction on the Naval Artillery Arsenal and artillery yard began in 1832. The building was completed four years later, in 1836. The first floor was reserved for wheels, axes, rigging and machine tools. Rifles, hand tools, ammunition and boarding weapons were stored on the second floor. Bombs, grenades and cannonballs were stored in a dedicated area outside. Double-headed eagles were placed on the barrier walls of the Arsenal. Cannons with heaps of cannonballs and bombs were stationed outside the westerly building front. Russian mines and torpedoes were invented here in the late 19th century. Ammunition supplies for Soviet warships were operated outside the Kronstadt Arsenal during the Great Patriotic War. The Arsenal is currently a repair facility for ship-based cannons, rocket launchers, and mine and torpedo weapons. 

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A unique 18th-century hydraulic engineering installation, this dock was built to the order of Peter the Great to repair the underwater parts of warships. It took a lot of engineering skill to build this dry dock, and a lot of manpower. Three thousand soldiers were brought to Kronstadt from across Russia. Peter did not live to see his dock completed. Constructed was put on hold after his death, but was resumed under the personal supervision of Elizabeth I, and the channel was eventually opened in 1752. The occasion was celebrated in grand style. The opening of the dock was marked by a huge fireworks display. The 2,24 km long dock could accommodate ten ships at the same time, which was record capacity for its time. A Scottish steam-powered pumping machine was installed by the dock in 1774 to pump water out of the dock. This machine worked reliably for 75 years. Ships were repaired here up until 2008. The dock basin is an officially recognized historical landmark. 

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Petrovsky (Peter’s) Park was sponsored by Thaddeus Bellingshausen, Governor of Kronstadt and Antarctic explorer, in the mid-19th century. The park was planted on the grounds of the former Arsenalnaya Square. Bellingshausen personally picked the trees and plants to be planted in the park. It was the governor’s idea to dedicate the park to Peter I. A seven-metre statue of Peter the Great, cast by Peter Klodt, was erected in the middle. The bronze Peter’s sword was stolen in 1961. It was soon replaced, but the new sword does not look the same as the original one. This name of this place was Liberty Park in Soviet time. The historical name was restored to it in 1991. 

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This white wooden lighthouse, the symbol of Kronstadt, stands on Peter’s Canal embankment. Built in 1888, the lighthouse is till operational. Few other lighthouses in the world can rival with this one in longevity. The light from this lighthouse can be seen from 30 kilometres away. The lighthouse is a strategic facility, so you cannot go inside.  

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This is a historical gauge to measure the water level in the sea. It is simply a metal rod attached to a pier of the Blue Bridge across the Bypass Canal. They use the Kronstadt tidal gauge to measure water level fluctuations in the Baltic Sea. The measurement system changed a little at the end of the 19th century, and some new notches had to be added on the gauge.