The State Hermitage occupies six magnificent buildings situated along the embankment of the River Neva, right in the heart of St Petersburg. The leading role in this unique architectural ensemble is played by the Winter Palace, the residence of the Russian tsars that was built to the design of Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli in 1754-62. This ensemble, formed in the 18th and 19th centuries, is extended by the eastern wing of the General Staff building, the Menshikov Palace and the recently constructed Repository.
Put together throughout two centuries and a half, the Hermitage collections of works of art (over 3,000,000 items) present the development of the world culture and art from the Stone Age to the 20th century. Today the Museum is creating its digital self-portrait to be displayed around the world. Computer technologies enable the State Hermitage Museum to provide people from all over the world with wider access to information about the Museum and its treasures.
In February 1744 a fourteen years old princess Sophia Fredericka Augusta Dorothea Anhalt-Zerbst came to Russia to be introduced to the Russian Empress Elizaveta Petrovna and to her future husband, the heir to the Russian throne, Grand Duke Pyotor Feodorovich whose wife she would become a year later. The young princess from a tiny German principality was startled with this strange country, with its immense spaces, increadible scale of construction, entertainment, scheming. Saint-Petrsburg of Peter the Great, the city - fortress, the ship-yard and the port was transforming into the city of palaces during the reign of Elizaveta. She saw the majestic and pompous building of the royal residence being constructed while life inside the temporary wooden palace of the "merry" Empress Elizaveta Petrovna, neither less luxurious than the new one, was full of splendour and idleness. Prince de Ligne, Austrian diplomat, said that Catherine distingwished herself with great gifts and subtle intellect... Her ambitions were unlimited but she was able to guide them towards sensible aims.
On June 28, 1762 as a result of political coup d'etat she was proclaimed Empress Catherine II who was later called by her contemporaries and descendants "Catherine the Great", the period of her reign is known as "the magnificent age".
Being captivated by the ideas of European Enlightment Catherine II reconstructed pompous and pretentious interiors of the Winter palace according to the new tastes. Next to the palace meant for "pleasant entertainments and merry amusements" she commissioned to construct in line with Versailles fashion a building of the "Hermitage" which means "the dwelling of a hermit". The rooms of her "Hermitage" were decorated with paintings, bronze and carved stones that very soon could not be housed in the Small hermitage and then the Great Hermitage started to be built. When Catherine II bought masterpieces of the famous masters, sometimes even the whole art galleries, from European nobility she not only satisfied her own ambitions but also with every new purchase she suggested startled Europe - kings, bankers, philosophers - a thought that Russia flourished and prospered under the scepter of the powerful monarch. The enlightened Empress also took delight in theatre. The first theatrical performances were held in the Small Hermitage, in 1783 she commissioned to construct a building of the Hermitage Theatre.
"The court of Catherine, - wrote Count de Segur in 1780-s, - was the meeting place of all European monarchs and celebrities of her age. Before her reign Petersburg built in the cold and ice was almost unnoticed, insignificant town in Asia. During her reign Russia became a European country. Saint-Petersburg occupied an important place among the capitals of the educated world and the Russian throne raised as high as the most powerful and significant thrones".
The 19th century for Russia started from the coup d'etat. On March 11, 1801 Emperor Paul I was killed in his residence, Michael's Palace, by a group of conspirators. His son, a 24-years old Alexander I (1801-1825) ascended the throne. The young Emperor proclaimed liberal ideas cultivated by his teachers-republicans which enabled his subjects to expect from this enlightened ruler to establish the life in the country in the most reasonable way. These intensions were not to be realized as ambitions of another European polititian, Napoleon, plunged the continent into war. It was only the Russian army that could resist the onslaught of the army of Napoleon. Brilliant victory of Russia brought glory both to the state and`the monarch. In November 1825 Alexander I died in Taganrog.
On December 14, 1825 on the Senate Square in Saint Petersburg the army was supposed to swear allegiance to the new Emperor Nikolai Pavlovich. He was ascending the throne instead of his elder brother Konstantin who abdicated in favour of Nikolai because preferred to marry for love to the throne. The young generation of Russian nobility took with enthusiasm the victory over Napoleonic France and having acquainted with the spirit of freedom in Europe were striving to establish the new ways in Russia by means of the uprising. The "Decembrists" uprising was severely suppressed by Nicholas I (1825-1855) who ruled with an "iron hand" and oppressed any kind of dissidents. The period of his reign was completed with an ignominious Crimean war that demonstrated so many faults in the military and civil policies of this Emperor.
Alexander II Nikolaevich (1855-1881) came into history as a reformer. He liberated Russian peasantry and opened with his reforms a new epoch of Russian history. Freedom of thoughts stirred up by this reforming gave rise to an extremism and the tsar-liberator became its victim. He was killed by the terrorists on March 1, 1881. In his personal sympathies Alexander III (1881-1894) "took after his gandfather Nicholas I", as one contemporary put it. "From his early childhood Alexander thought that too fast evolution of political establishments could be dangerous for the country". After the tragic death of his father he strived to strengthen autocracy in coordination with liberal reforms of Alexander II.
"Nicholas II had no vice, but he possessed the defect that was the worst for a monarch, he was devoid of personality" wrote Maurice Paleolog, the French ambassador in Russia. The most dramatic events of the turn of the centuries - a war and revolutions - fell to the lot of this delicate and soft-hearted man, an irreproachable father and husband but irresolute polititian. The execution of Nicholas II and his family in 1918 put an end to the 300 years of the reign of the Romanovs dynasty.
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