Though built in 1806 as a school for wealthy young women, Smolny was not well-known until the Bolsheviks commandeered it in 1917 to headquarter the regional government. Indeed, for a time it served as the personal headquarters of Lenin himself! It also witnessed Kirov’s assassination by Nikolaev and the latter’s subsequent execution (which event sparked the Great Purge 1934-38). The regional communist government operated from the Institute until the fall of communism.
Architecturally, the institute is one of the best examples (along with the Kazan and St. Isaac’s Cathedrals) of the 18th-century Neoclassical movement. Designed by Giacomo Quarenghi, the greatest Russian architect of the period, the strong pillars and triangular crown evoke the temples of Greece and Rome, lending the building power and stature.
Currently, the building serves as the local Governor’s office. It is not open to the general public.
Far more interesting than the Institute, the Smolny Convent boasts one of the most beautiful cathedrals in Russia. Commissioned to house Elizabeth the nun, the convent became a favorite project of Elizabeth the Empress. The original design (by the famed Italian Francesco Rastrelli) called for an even larger complex, including a 140-metre high bell tower. Fortunately, Elizabeth died, leaving the compound unfinished but the imperial treasury in the black.
Unlike the Institute, Smolny Convent is in the Russian baroque, characterized by “austere lines with richness of decoration and use of colour” (Ioffe 26)—hence the iceberg blue walls, gilt onion domes, and rich ornament. Four domed buildings complement the central cathedral. The entire complex is perfectly symmetrical and in the same baroque style (excepting the interiors).
Our guidebook recommends avoiding wasting money to see the interior, which is “disappointingly severe and suffered from neglect in the Soviet era” (Richardson 201) and, oddly, in the neoclassical style. Though it continues to hold religious services, the Convent now functions primarily as a concert venue.
Richardson, Dan. The Rough Guide to St. Petersburg. Rough Guides 2008.
Question for discussion:
Why would Lenin choose the Institute building for his headquarters during the October Revolution? Do you think architectural symbolism played a role in his choice, or was it more the result of pragmatic availability?
By Yevgeniya Derevyannykh, Richard Jordan, Barry O’Keefe