French figures in the history of St. Petersburg

The contribution made by Frenchmen to the cultural, political, and social life of St. Petersburg is immense and touches almost every field of endeavor. It begins with the engineer Joseph-Gaspart de Guerin, who helped Peter the Great choose the site for his new city and begin fortifications of the Peter and Paul Fortress, and reaches its apogee in the shining career of Marius Petipa, the legendary ballet master who presided over the Golden Age of Russian ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre.

Angels and a cross at the top of St Catherine's Church on Nevsky Prospekt in St Petersburg, Russia
Angels and a cross at the top of St. Catherine's Church on Nevsky Prospekt

Among the greatest neoclassical architects to work in the city were several Frenchmen, starting with the highly influential teacher Jean-Baptiste Vallin de la Mothe, designer of the Bolshoy Gostiny Dvor, through to the extraordinary career of Auguste de Montferrand, who spent over half his life on the construction of the magnificent St. Isaac's Cathedral. The early 19th century also saw an influx of French engineers and scientists, many of whom came to teach at the recently established Institute of Transport, among them Pierre-Dominique Bazaine, who became the Institute's rector.

Catherine the Great, who professed a life-long admiration for the ideals of the Enlightenment, corresponded with several major figures of French thought and culture, among them Voltaire and Diderot, and it was through the latter that she invited large numbers of French artists, musicians and dancers to her court. Among them were Maurice Etienne Falconet, the sculptor of the famous Bronze Horseman, and the painter Gabriel-Francois le Doyen. The number of French citizens coming to the city increased rapidly after the French Revolution, and included people from all walks of life. The confectioner Louis Jules Benois, for example, became the father of an extraordinary artistic dynasty that included the architects Nikolay and Leontiy Benois, and the great stage painter Alexandre Benois, who with Diaghilev's Ballets Russses began to reverse the direction of the cultural exchange.

Ballet has always been at the centre of the relationship between St. Petersburg and Paris. Prior to Petipa, the Imperial Ballet Theatre had already witnessed the careers of several brilliant French dancers and choreographers, including his immediate predecessors Jules Perrot and Arthur Saint-Leon, both of whom were stars of the Paris Opera.