The Church of Crying over Spilt Blood

(This is part of an ongoing series where I chat shit about landmarks in Petersburg.)

13th of March 1881. Alexander II, Russian tsar and moustache model, seemingly unaware that summer was still months away, was taking a stroll in the Summer Gardens. It was a beautiful Russian spring day, which meant that a mere few inches of snow had fallen and the tsar was snuggled up in only one furry jacket.

Alexander’s entourage, as usual, were pressuring him to be less autocratic. “Be less autocratic,” they were saying.

Whatever, he thought, ignoring them imperiously.

“The people are sick of constant censorship,” they moaned. “They want basic civil liberties.”

Alex was sick of the chat. “What are they gonna do, assassinate me and unintentionally precipitate a period of conservative politics, spearheaded by my orphaned son? Wait until my grandson is engaged in war on the world stage, seize the nation’s railways and storm the Winter Palace?” he scoffed. Shaking his head at the preposterousness of the suggestion, he got into his carriage and gestured for his driver to move on.

Just as the vehicle began to move away, his trusted advisor shouted through the window – “Be careful, tsar – the people’s will is more powerful than you might think.”

What a weird way to phrase that, thought Alex to himself, settling back into the plush seat.

The streets through which the carriage clippity-clopped were lined with people waving their handkerchiefs and yelling about right to assemble and political representation. Maybe I should look into this “constitution” idea, thought Alex idly.

Just as he was beginning to convince himself that a little political representation could go a long way, the carriage abruptly stopped. Sticking his head out of the window, hoping he still looked regal, the tsar saw that a man holding a white package was standing in front of the horses.

Shit, he thought, as the man exploded.

Alex was rushed to the Winter Palace, missing both legs and half of his tummy. As he died he reached out to his son, soon-to-be Tsar Alexander III, and whispered, “…Build me the biggest… goddamn church you can…”

Alex Jr took his father’s words to heart, and, on the very spot Alexander got exploded, he constructed the architectural marvel that is known today as the Church of Crying over Spilt Blood. No expense was spared. There’s gold leaf, mosaics, enamel domes, marble floors, icons on icons on icons. There’s even a stall outside selling corn on the cob, although I’m not sure that was constructed at the same time as the church itself.

Alex Jr is said to have painted the twinkle in Jesus’ eyes with his own hands – although this is disputed: the tsar was notoriously afraid of ladders.


Blurry ceiling ft. Jesus

Under the Soviets, famously not keen on religion or shit tonnes of gold that could be feeding the people being used to decorate big fancy churches, the cathedral fell into disrepair. It was briefly used to store posters, including the iconic There is No God cosmonaut one, but its doors were closed forever after the harassed janitor misplaced the keys.


Say what you like about the USSR, they didn’t mince words.

The church was painstakingly repaired following the fall of the Soviet Union. The restoration is said to have taken over a year in man hours; it was one gentleman’s job to paint the straps on the saints’ sandals, and he worked full time, Monday to Friday. That’s how many goddamn saints there are in the place.

These days, over forty tourists visit the church a year, paying homage to the assassinated tsar, and admiring the lengths his son went to to make people feel bad about it.


A Palace for Every Season

The Hermitage: doubtlessly the cherry on the top of the sundae that is St Petersburg, cultural and canal capital of Russia. The Winter Palace, as it is also known, attracts millions of visitors a year, and is one of the world’s largest museums; it’s said that it would take a person twenty years to get round the whole thing.

Sure, it’s pretty good.

The Summer Palace is located in the Summer Gardens, a stone’s throw from the morbidly-named but surprisingly jolly Church on Spilled Blood.  Legend says that Great Peter, father of Petersburg, built the palace with his bare hands, once again teaching us that he was as rugged as they come. The architecture is Dutch, the furnishings are French, but you couldn’t find anything more emblematically Russian.

It’s alright.

I’ve been in Petersburg since February, and although Spring has technically started, clearly no one’s told the weather. It’s still snowing and every time the temperature reaches the dizzy heights of 0°C, I celebrate by prancing around the city without a hat and wearing only one pair of trousers.

For that reason, I still basically think Russia’s gripped in winter’s icy fist, and I’ve been doggedly visiting the appropriate palace accordingly. Every week for the last couple of months, I’ve stuck my nose outside, sniffed the air, and once I’m confident that, yeah, it’s still pretty much winter here, skipped off to the Winter Palace to soak up some culture.

I can hardly wait for the snow to melt: I don’t know where the Spring Palace is, or even what’s inside it, but the buildup has been so intense that I’m pretty sure it must be the best thing ever.

Sadly, on questioning my Russian friends about this magical place, I’ve been met with nothing but bemusement. “The Spring Palace?” They say. “Don’t you mean the Summer or Winter Palace?”

It’s a sad fact of the Russian climate that the Spring and indeed Autumn Palaces are so neglected.

For now, I sit by the window, watching the snow stubbornly falling, and dream about a new seasonal palace.

The Copper Rider

I moved to St Petersburg a few months ago, and I’ve been trying my best to see as many of the достопримечательности (I’m not kidding – that’s the Russian for “sights”) as I can. This is no mean feat, since Petersburg is the cultural capital of Russia and pretty much saturated with statues, museums, galleries, parks, cathedrals, churches, cemeteries, plaques and other such Instagram-worthy stuff.

Unfortunately, although I’ve been studying Russian for two and a half years now, my grasp of the language is still, if I do say so myself, only slightly better than dreadful. At the main sights, of course, information is translated into English; but since I’m meant to be immersing myself, I try to divert my attention to the Russian original.

So what do I do when, as often happens, my patchy Russian fails? How do I fill in the blanks?

Simple. I make shit up.

It started off as a way to cope with the fact that I don’t understand 70% of what I read, but since then it’s become something of a hobby of mine. Maybe I’m a product of this “fake news” age, but I do find fiction much more attractive than fact.

Let’s take, for example, one of Petersburg’s most famous sights: the gigantic statue of Great Peter, also known as the Copper Rider.


Made from over fifty thousand melted kopecks, this imposing figure stands on the banks of the Neva, a stone’s throw from the Winter Palace.

Great Peter, here depicted sitting on his faithful steed Loshad, is the very same Peter who gave his name to the ‘berg, who put the Petro in Petrograd. But what, I hear you ask, made Pete so great?

Well, for one thing, he drove all the snakes out of the city, just like St Patrick did in Ireland. I’m not 100% on this, but I’m pretty sure Peter did it first, which makes Patrick something of a follower on. This particular achievement is immortalised in copper; if you look closely, you can see a snake being trampled under the hooves of the mount.


You can tell I didn’t take this because I’ve never seen Russia without snow. Also, it’s in focus.

When Peter founded Petersburg, the place was awash with snakes. You couldn’t move for them. It was like that film, Snakes on a Plane, except instead of being on a plane, the snakes were everywhere. You’d reach to wipe the sweat off your brow and come away with a fistful of snakes. You’d have to shake out your jumpers before you put them on and twenty or thirty snakes would come pouring out.

Like, it was really stupid how many snakes there were.

I know what you’re thinking – why did Peter decide to build his capital in an actual nest of snakes? Why’d he not pick somewhere overrun with a nicer thing, like puppies or artisan bakeries? I’ll tell you why. That bastard was tenacious. He wasn’t gonna let a little thing like a million snakes stop him from breaking a window into Europe.

What makes Peter’s Pied Pipering of the serpents so spectacular, though, is the way he got rid of them. In a display of diplomacy that boggles the mind, Peter actually entered into talks with the head snake (the so-called King Cobra). Instead of forcibly exiling the snakes, he reached an historic compromise, according to which the snakes would leave the city in return for a hefty monthly donation of mice.

The snake trampled under the horse’s feet, therefore, is somewhat misleading: a more realistic statue would show a snake and Peter sitting at a desk, hours deep into exhausting peace negotiations. Whatever, though. Artistic license always seems to take preference over hard, cold facts.