The Cathedral of SS Peter and Paul is the oldest church in St. Petersburg, and also the second-tallest building in the city (after the television tower). It is intimately linked to both the history of the city and to the Romanov dynasty, as it is home to the graves of nearly all the rulers of Russia since Peter the Great.
Work began on the first, wooden church to be erected on the site just one month after St. Petersburg was officially founded, and the church was consecrated on April 1, 1704. In 1712, the current, stone Peter and Paul Cathedral started to be built, to a design by Domenico Trezzini. This one took slightly longer to build - 20 years, in fact - and was consecrated on June 29, 1733.
The Peter and Paul Cathedral marked a radical departure from traditional Orthodox churches, being built in early Baroque style. Its rectangular shape, bell-tower, and landmark needle are all features borrowed from the protestant churches of Western Europe - the influence of Dutch architecture is particularly visible - all of which was in accordance with Peter's wishes.
The cathedral's rectangular base stretches from southwest to northeast, and its walls are formed with decorative pilasters and ornate cherub heads on the windows. The multi-tiered cathedral bell tower is crowned with a landmark needle, upholstered with copper gilded sheets. The needle, built by Dutchman German von Bolis, is topped off by the figure of a flying angel bearing a cross. The clock for the bell tower was delivered in 1720 from Holland where it was purchased for 45,000 rubles - a huge sum for the time.
The inside of the cathedral holds a fantastic iconostasis, completed by a group of more than forty Moscow architects under Ivan Zarudny from 1722-1727. Whereas the architectural style of the cathedral is similar in style to the Lutheran church, the painting of the iconostasis is more in the spirit of Catholic Church icons. The walls of the cathedral are also embellished with paintings of various bible themes, including many paintings of gospel stories by artists of the early and mid 18th century.
The bell-tower has a colorful, often tragic history. As the tallest structure for many miles, it was often the victim of lightning, and in fact burned down on the night of April 29-30, 1756, in a particularly severe fire. Although the bells were destroyed, the iconostasis was removed from the cathedral in the nick of time. In 1766, Catherine the Great ordered the bell tower to be rebuilt exactly as it had been, and the new tower was unveiled in 1776.
New bells were brought from Holland by renowned Dutch craftsman Ort Krass. They played "Since the Glory" at the top of every hour until 1917, and at noon played the national anthem, "God Save the Tsar", to the accompaniment of a canon shot - a tradition which continues today. The clock was turned off, but in 1952 a new one was installed that chimed four times a day and played the hymn of the Soviet Union.
One major attraction is the graves of most of the Romanov rulers of Russia from Peter the Great onward. Peter's grave is at the front right, and people still leave fresh flowers on it. Also here are both Catherines, Elizabeth, all three Alexanders, Paul, Peter III, Anne - and now both Nicholases as well, as the remains of Nicholas II and his family were re-interred in the small Chapel of St. Catherine on July 17, 1998.