Sunday, 15 November 2009

What to see: The Smolny Institute, St Petersburg

The Smolny Institute for Noble Maidens was set up by Empress Ekaterina II, who planned it in cooperation with her influential advisor on education issues, Ivan Betskoy (often said to have been her real father). The Empress intended the Institute to share accommodations with the Smolny convent, as some sort of Enlightenment counterweight to the nunnery, and therefore decided to house it in a building to the right of the Smolny Cathedral (the name derives from the fact that the cathedral had been built on the former tar yard, Smolny Dvor).
Ekaterina II’s grandson, Aleksandr I, decided to enlarge the school and had a larger building erected to the right of the cathedral. It is this building we know as the Smolny Institute. It was built by Giacomo Quarenghi (1744-1817) between 1806 and 1808 and the architect rightly came to consider it one of his finest buildings.
The Smolny Institute has an impressive temple front with eight Ionic columns, resting on seven arcades and carrying a tympanum. The Institute also has two projecting wings, each crowned with a tympanum, in a way reminiscent of some of the other buildings of this great master of Russian neoclassicism, such as the Assignation Bank in St Petersburg and Quarenghi’s original designs for Elghammar Manor in Sweden, which were executed in a somewhat modified form.
The girls’ school closed down in August 1917 and the building was shortly thereafter taken over by the Petrograd Council of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies. Thus it was there that Lenin and his followers plotted the coup which brought the Bolsheviks to power in October 1917. After the communist takeover the Institute remained the seat of government until Lenin moved the capital to Moscow in March 1918. This explains why one of the city’s few remaining statues of Lenin, in the famous “taxi-hailing pose”, can be found outside. The monument was done by V. Kozlov in 1927, three years after Lenin’s death.
After Lenin’s departure for Moscow, the Smolny Institute became the headquarters of the Regional and City Committees of the Communist Party. The First Secretary Sergey Kirov, whom Stalin had apparently come to view as a potentially dangerous rival, was murdered there in December 1934, an event which provided the excuse for Stalin’s purges. Today the building is the seat for the Governor of St Petersburg.

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