St. Petersburg: A Portrait of a Great City

Thursday, January 14, 2010 - 2:45pm


A tercentennial exhibition at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library 
October 24, 2003 January 17, 2004 
Few cities of old Europe save perhaps for Paris and Venice have inspired a fascination comparable to the one exerted by St. Petersburg since its founding three hundred years ago. Created literally ex nihilo by Peter the Great in May 1703, decreed capital of the Russian empire a mere ten years later, it was widely admired as one of Europe's handsomest towns half a century after its founding, thanks to the embellishments it received under Empress Elizabeth. By Catherine the Great's death in 1796, it had become a cultural capital as well as a political one. Described by countless if not always uncritical visitors throughout the nineteenth century, its development is intimately linked to the incomparable flowering of Russian literature and the arts from Pushkin to Tolstoy, from Glinka to Tchaikovsky, from Briullov to Repin. The early twentieth century avant-garde had one of its finest hours there, with Diaghilev, Bakst, Bely, Akhmatova, and Mandelshtam among its most illustrious representatives. Stripped of its original name after 1914, when it became Petrograd, then Leningrad as of 1924, deprived of its status as capital in 1918, martyred by a long siege during the Second World War, it appeared to be on its way to becoming a locus for remembrance and nostalgia. Yet, miraculously, it has managed to preserve or rebuild its architectural glory, while its intellectual and cultural prestige have survived and revived. The restoration of its original name by popular referendum in 1991, the jubilee celebrations in the spring of 2003 can be, and have been interpreted as the signs of a renaissance of the "immense and proud" city of Pushkin's poem.
This tercentennial exhibition was not a vain attempt to present in New Haven a comprehensive account of St. Petersburg and its history. Its more modest purpose was to offer a portrait of this great city with a selection of some highlights from the Yale collections. The first part of the display is devoted the history of Petersburg during its first century. The second part focuses on accounts of the city by Western European travellers and visitors, from Kotzebue to Verdi. The third illustrates Petersburg's third century with a few, inevitably limited images, centering on one of Yale's most famous treasures, the Romanov family albums, exhibited for the first time in their entirety in more than two decades, and ending with the emblematic figure of Akhmatova.
Yale has had the singular privilege of being blessed during its long history which coincides within two years with that of the city we are celebrating with the extraordinary generosity of donors collecting in particular fields. Valerian and Laura K. Lada Mocarski were such donors in the area of Russian history and travel, and, especially, accounts of Russia by Western travellers, from Herberstein to Custine and beyond. Polly Lada Mocarski endowed a fund which continues to foster acquisitions in this domain, while providing assistance to research. One wish that was particularly dear to her was that items from the collection formed by her and her husband should be regularly displayed for the enjoyment and instruction of all, beyond the confines of the Beinecke reading room. This exhibition, which has attempted to fulfill this wish, is dedicated to her memory.
A fully illustrated catalog of St. Petersburg: A Portrait of a Great City, is available at the Beinecke Library or may be ordered from the University Press of New England (1.800.421.1581;
For more information contact:
Fax: 203.432.4047


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