A Century of Movie Going: The Aurora Theater

Ashby Gaines (Russian Studies Program, College of William and Mary)

For Abstract of the Research Paper in Russian Click Here. Чтобы прочитать краткое изложение статьи по-русски, нажмите кнопкой мышки здесь.

           Vladimir Lenin once said, ‘Of all the arts, the most important for us is Cinema’. While this claim can be debated, The Aurora Theater has proven that cinema is a highly coveted art form in St. Petersburg. The Aurora Theater opened its doors under the name The Piccadilly Theater in 1913 and since then has been the oldest continuously operating movie theater of St. Petersburg.  Located on the bustling Nevsky Prospekt, the theater epitomizes the spirit of Petersburg’s main street.  In the late Imperial capital, the Nevsky served as a display for the goods of the new market economy, the place where all the existing classes and cultures came together to consume its commodities (Berman 193).  The motion picture was the unusual Western product that the newly opened theater offered to Petersburgers from all walks of life. Although Lenin saw cinema as a primary tool of propaganda, Petersburg moviegoers never were just silent objects of the official film culture. Rather, they kept on negotiating a complex dialogic relationship with films they watched and turned The Aurora Theater into the place where Petersburgers of all walks of life enjoyed modern film culture.

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Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood

Located just off of Nevsky Prospekt, the Holy Resurrection Church (Spas-na-krovi) was originally erected in memory of Tsar Alexander II by his son, Alexander III.  As the Great Reformist Tsar, Alexander II became a symbol of the new, liberal Russia, legally free of serfdom and moving ever closer to Westernization. Ironically enough, Alexander II was assassinated by a terrorist group, the People’s Will (Narodnaya volia), in a planned bombing.   [Read more…]

Gazprom’s Tower: Civil Society in the Venice of the North

Alex McGrath (Russian Studies Program, College of William and Mary)

This is the cover of Boris Vishnevsky's book. Published in 2011, it includes all the articles he wrote for the newspaper "Novaya Gazyeta" between 2006 and 2011

For Abstract of the Article in Russian Click Here. Чтобы прочитать краткое изложение статьи по-русски, нажмите кнопкой мышки здесь.

The romantic skyline of Saint Petersburg is in danger. The classic precipices of the city are under threat of being overshadowed: Peter and Paul’s Fortress, Saint Isaacs Cathedral, the Admiralty, Smolny Cathedral[1]. The tallest building in this “Venice of the North” is soon to be a gargantuan, spiraling office building. And it won’t just be the tallest, but FOUR TIMES as tall as the closest competitor. In a city characterized by its 18th-19th century feel and it’s horizontal focus, the tower has the potential to change the style of the city forever and “bring St. Petersburg into the 21st century”, or to simply ruin hundreds of years of careful urban planning. That is, unless the people of Saint Petersburg can come together to prevent the construction of the gas-o-scraper (Vishnevsky “Gazoskreb” 21)[2]. The opposition groups are many: political parties, Russian NGOs, architects, journalists, celebrities, UNESCO. Their adversaries: the city administration and the oil and natural gas behemoth Gazprom. The battle is being waged in the courts, in the media, and in the streets. In a country where western style democracy, characterized by its individual freedoms and competitive politics, has yet to take hold, the debate over the construction of the Gazprom Tower has inspired an enormous outpouring of political involvement at the grassroots level.

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Kresty Prison: A Forgotten Site of Memory?

The Kresty prison is an impressive red brick structure that lies along the banks of the Neva River. When I came across this complex, I was in awe of its beautiful architectural style and its unique presence in the Petersburg skyline. Kresty, meaning “crosses”, describes the cross-like pattern of the complex. [Read more…]

Kronstadt Fortress – Memory and Forgetting in Modern Russia

The fortress of Kronstadt lies on Kotlin Island about 30 miles offshore from St. Petersburg in the Gulf of Finland. It was constructed in 1703 by Peter the Great, just a year after he established his new capital, St. Petersburg. The history of the fortress has closely paralleled the history of St. Petersburg. Kronstadt has played two very different roles in the history of Russia. [Read more…]

Kunstkamera: a Museum or a Freak Show?

The Kunstkamera was established as the first museum of Russia by Tsar Peter I in 1718 in Petersburg on the River Neva across from the Winter Palace. Heavily influenced by 18th century romanticism and Dutch scientific methods, Peter began taking interest in the natural sciences, or naturalia. [Read more…]

Negotiating the Meanings of Smolensky Cemetery: Between Orthodoxy and Goth Subculture

William Lahue (Russian Studies Program, College of William and Mary)

For abstract of the paper in Russian click here. Чтобы прочитать краткое изложение статьи по-русски, нажмите кнопкой мышки здесь.

     Smolensky cemetery is the oldest continuously operating cemetery in St. Petersburg. It is located on Vasilievsky island banking the Smolensk river to the North and Maly prospect to the South. It is divided into Lutheran, Orthodox, and Armenian sections. Over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries the cemeteries’ identities were closely linked with religious identities of communities living around it. In the 20th century after the October revolution new atheistic authorities wanted to close the cemetery and viewed this effort as part of their war on the old regime. The story of the cemetery in the twentieth century is the story of the communities with religious identities resisting the official atheistic ideology enforced by the state authorities. The post-Soviet story of the cemetery, especially of its Orthodox section, is about the Orthodox Church restoring its symbolic control over the cemetery. In the face of this transition of power and values the Goth subculture has emerged and asserted itself in dialogue with the new dominant ideology.

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Peter and Paul Fortress: Meanings of the Site

The founding of Peter and Paul Fortress on May 27, 1703 also commemorates the founding of St. Petersburg. Despite the unfavorable marsh conditions, it took only four months for 20,000 conscripts to build the fortress. Originally built with wood, it was later redone in stone under the influence of Domenico Trezzini.

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Redefining Constructivism Today: The Red Banner Textile Factory

Constructivism, a 20th-century Soviet architectural style, has recently regained the attention of Russia’s art and design community.  After years of dilapidation, 20th-century Constructivist buildings like the Red Banner Textile Factory are being restored, while new developments pay homage to the old style. [Read more…]

Smolny Institute and Convent

The Smolny grounds lie on the far eastern side of the city, within the crook of the Neva. They comprise two sites of interest, the Smolny Institute and the Smolny Convent.

Smolny Institute

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.

Smolny Convent

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.

Works Cited

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