Alexander Garden (Kelly Okun)

In arguably the largest tourist attraction in Russia, St. Petersburg embodies the modern-day culture of the country. Transitioning from a tsarist government, to a communist and socialist revolution, to today’s reign under Putin, Russia has undergone several significant changes. Within these different nuances, St. Petersburg’s popular sites have evolved. For example, Alexander Garden (Aleksandrovskii sad), originally part of Peter the Great’s shipbuilding scheme at the beginning of the eighteenth century, is currently a rare patch of grass where people from all paths of life can congregate. Although parks are traditionally built for certain citizens, one can truly say that the people have changed this park, debunking former myths in the process.

Alexander Garden was immediately immortalized in Alexander Pushkin’s description in his novel Evgeny Onegin. However, Alexander Garden received its name from another Alexander, Alexander II. Interestingly, the park was built in honor of Peter the Great’s 200th birthday. Because he chose 52 different types of tree species to be planted there, Alexander II earned his name on the plaque (Alexander Garden [Saint Petersburg]). The park opened in 1874 after many years of hard work by the designer, Eduard Regel. However, many historians enjoy reminding tourists and residents alike that Alexander Garden used to be fortification against the Swedes.

In 1703, St. Petersburg became Russia’s first port and connection to the rest of Europe. By 1704, Peter the Great began building the Admiralty, a fortress. Here, Russia built its navy and placed its naval officers in the Admiralty. Even though building the fort at the mouth of the Neva would have been more advantageous, “Peter also wanted it to be protected by the Peter and Paul fortress” (Navigating St Petersburg).

The Admiralty experienced many fires, especially since it was constructed with wood. Anna Ioannovna, the Empress of Russia from 1730 to 1740, decided to rebuild the Admiralty with stone. This stonework lasted until 1805. Then, the Admiralty, under Andreyan Zakharov’s designs, was reconstructed one last time into Admiralty Square. Because the naval officers and wealthy merchants near the former Admiralty became the aristocracy of St. Petersburg, Admiralty Square became the social area for them. Alexander I was not fond of so much upper class influence in this area and gave Admiralty Square more administrative buildings. More changes were made in 1844 when the shipbuilding base was filled in at Admiralty Square and moved downstream (Navigating St. Petersburg).

As Admiralty Square transformed from a naval focus to one more social and political, several aesthetic changes were made. In 1872, plans for Alexander Garden were initiated, and the park began construction in 1874. Other names for the garden include Admiralty Garden and Labourers’ Garden. In 1879, a “dancing” fountain, designed by Alexander Geschwend, was installed in the garden and is synchronized with music. In 1880, monuments were added to the collection of statues to give it a historical touch. Furthermore, in 2007, a memorial plaque in honor of the first tram line opening in St. Petersburg in 1907 was placed in the Alexander Garden. The garden still holds “public toilets from the time of Alexander III” (Baikal Nature). This setup is quite popular in the city, with even buses being converted into public restrooms. However, perhaps the most important aspect of this park is the people. The Russians loved this garden so dearly that, during World War I when they experienced a shortage of firewood, they resolved not to cut down any of its trees.

Initially, the elite of the era claimed Alexander Garden. However, as Bolsheviks became the faction in charge, more and more aristocrats dealt with “political persecution, [the expropriation of property], [imprisonment], execution, and [the designation] as ‘former people’” (Smith 7). After the Revolution of 1917, the park was opened to the public, permanently losing its aristocratic ambiance but not its prestige. Additionally, rumors and myths continue to circulate, even into the 21st century where facts are readily available to contradict these beliefs.

The Przhevalsky myth revolves around Nikolai Mikhailovich Przhevalsky’s appearance. Born in early 1839 in Smolensk, he joined the military as a teenager and was promoted to general officer in 1867. He completed five expeditions to unknown lands, encountering “the great salt lake of the Chinese classical writers, Lop Nor, in the desert.” Dying in 1888 during his fifth exploration, he became renowned for his success as well as praised for his traveling techniques; not many explorers at the time chose only three companions (Answers Corporation).

Despite the inconsistencies of Polish and Georgian backgrounds, the myth states that many Russians believe that Przhevalsky was the father of Joseph Stalin; some ardent communists even leave flowers by the statue in commemoration of Stalin because their appearances are quite similar. When this myth was mentioned to an elderly crowd in Alexander Garden, they literally laughed at the concept. They declared that Przhevalsky was born in Smolensk, Stalin in Georgia. The general consensus was that Przhevalsky, though also considered “maniacal”, was not related to Stalin. I expected these reactions from the younger generations, but the elderly, who have lived in the soviet era, shared the same sentiment.

Although the Przhevalsky statue may be the most popular in the park, others are scattered about the garden’s paths. For example, the statue of Zhukovsky, added in 1887, memorializes Vasily Andreyevich Zhukovsky, a famous Russian poet and writer in the early nineteenth century. “Zhukovsky is credited with introducing the Romantic Movement into Russia”, and he translated many works into Russian, including those written during what was dubbed the Dolbino Autumn. In fact, Grand Duchess Alexandra Feodorovna asked Zhukovsky to tutor her in Russian since she was from Germany. He became close enough with the family to tutor her son, Alexander, as well. (Poem Hunter)

In 1896, the statue of Gogol was added; Nikolai Gogol was first considered to be a realist writer but later believed to be more surrealist. He was also credited with introducing the idea of short stories. Legends such as Alexander Pushkin soon followed his lead.

The statue of Lermontov was also unveiled in 1896. Mikhail Lermontov led an intriguing life. Developing wit as his only way to survive military school, he wrote many controversial poems; they led to fame but also to exile in the Caucasus. He wrote many poems while there and, upon return to St. Petersburg, was able to publish some of them as well as his only novel before being exiled again. He soon died in a duel in 1841 but is still famous among Russians today. (Russiapedia)

The last major statue to gain admittance to the Alexander Garden was Glinka in 1899. Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka is considered the “father of modern Russian music” or “classical music.” Because he grew up in a more privileged setting, he was inspired by his French and Italian cultural education. He decided later in his life that he wanted to establish a purely Russian opera. A Life for the Tsar, his first attempt at using Russian and Polish culture, was actually Zhukovsky’s idea. He became extremely successful with this opera but his next attempt was too foreign for the Russian audience because his inspiration was more from the bordering states of Russia than the center. After his death, many composers used Glinka’s work as a foundation for their own, allowing Glinka to become famous once more. (Classical Net – Basic Repertoire List – Glinka)

Currently, Alexander Garden is not restricted in any way, socially and geographically. Set between the Neva River and St. Isaac’s Cathedral, the park is open to whoever wishes to stroll its paths. The benches at the fountain, surrounded by statues of the greats, are regularly occupied by couples, families, artists, and vendors. Every so often, a tour will be led through the garden and past the Przhevalsky statue. In addition to the vendors and plethora of paths, Alexander Garden also hosts a playground, where children continuously run around while their parents spectate from nearby benches. Compared to the strict regimen of navy officers and merchants, Alexander Garden’s visitors have significantly expanded. It was also noted that most visitors today are tourists. However, Alexander Garden’s most inspiring aspect is that its history is fully dependent on its people.

 

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