The most German places in modern St. Petersburg (PHOTOS)

Russia Beyond (Legion Media, Adamovich Nikolai / TASS, Anna Sorokina)
Germans used to be the second largest ethnic group in St. Petersburg after the Russians. And there are still many places there connected with German history.

Wandering around St. Petersburg, one often comes across old signs in German, for instance, indicating the water level in the River Neva in different years. And there are other traces of German presence in the life of the city. Bizarre though it might seem to today’s residents, St. Petersburg used to have a considerable number of German speakers among its population.

This sign is found near the Sadovaya metro station.

How did Germans end up in St. Petersburg?

Germans started coming to Russia in the mid-18th century at the invitation of Empress Catherine the Great, who was German by birth. They settled in uninhabited lands in the Volga region and southern Siberia and it is there that you can still meet the descendants of those very  settlers today. Many also went to the then capital of the Russian Empire, St. Petersburg. Among them were notable individuals, such as Peter Pallas, who discovered the fluffiest cat in the world, the manul, on which he bestowed his name (mind you, the cat was never asked!); the founder of electrical engineering, Emil Lenz; and mariner and navigator Adam Johann von Krusenstern [Ivan Kruzenshtern].

English Embankment, 50. Here in 1859-1862 lived the Prussian envoy Otto von Bismarck.

Otto von Bismarck, a diplomat during his time in St. Petersburg; archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, who discovered Troy; and explorer Alexander von Humboldt, who published works on the Urals and Siberia for foreigners, all lived in the city for many years. According to the 1897 census, more than 50,000 ethnic Germans were registered in St. Petersburg, which had a population of one million - they were the largest ethnic group after the Russians. They also held senior state and academic posts - in other words, they were very prominent people in the capital.

The Germans started leaving Russia in the early 20th century - the two world wars and revolutions contributed to this. At present, there are no more than 3,000 Germans, including expats, living in St. Petersburg, whose population now is five million.

Petrikirche and its environs

Millionnaya street.

St. Petersburg had districts which went under the name of sloboda - i.e. settlements inhabited by people of the same profession (for example, potters, blacksmiths or sailors) or the same nationality. The city used to have Greek, Tatar and French slobodas. The German sloboda occupied most of the center, from the Summer Garden to the Winter Palace, with Millionnaya Street as its high street (between 1738 and 1783, it was called Nemetskaya [German] Street). There, the locals maintained their traditions, language and religion. 

Petrikirche in old times and now.

The Lutheran church Petrikirche (Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul), which dates back to the mid-19th century (and is today headed by Pastor Michael Schwarzkopf), originally from Thuringia, is the heart of the German quarter. “Our church is very small, but independent and it is a source of pride for us,” says Michael. The current church community is indeed small - there are just 500 permanent parishioners, according to Gerhard Reutter, the community’s head of public relations. Gerhardt gives guided tours of the church to everyone who is interested, taking them down to the crypt and up to the bell tower. During the Soviet era, there was a swimming pool and the now restored interiors are very impressive.

Willi Peter organ, 2017.

The Petrikirche also attracts organ music enthusiasts: Kirchenmusikdirektor Sergey Silayevsky invites well-known performers and himself often sits down at the instrument (and even plays early European music in duets with a balalaika player). “We have a Willi Peter organ from the 1970s, which arrived here in 2017 from a similar German community abroad (Deutsche Gemeinde im Ausland), only in Sweden,” says Sergey.

Graduates at the Petrischule.

Just beyond the Petrikirche is the Petrischule, which was the first school in St. Petersburg. Its famous alumni include opera composer ‘Boris Godunov’, Modest Mussorgsky; Nicholas Benois, the architect of Peterhof; and also Soviet poet Joseph Brodsky.


Aside from the Petrischule, there were also schools attached to the Annenkirche (which now serves the Finnish community, while the Annenschule became a physics and mathematics-focused high school); the German Reformed Church (in the Soviet period it was converted into a house of culture in Constructivist style); and the Katharinenkirche on Vasilyevsky Island.

There, on Vasilyevsky Island, you can see the bulk of the German architectural heritage.

“Lines” instead of streets

Vasilyevsky Island was initially the site of the French quarter, but the location was hugely popular with St. Petersburg’s Germans. The island itself is laid out as a series of “lines” rather than streets: The intention had been to dig canals following the example of Amsterdam, but they proved too narrow and had to be filled in again, while the “lines” remained. As a matter of interest, another city in Russia with lines instead of streets is Marx in Saratov Region, the former capital of the Republic of the Volga Germans.

The German archaeologist who discovered Homer’s Troy, Heinrich Schliemann, an honorary citizen of St. Petersburg, lived at No. 28 on the 1st Line between 1850 and 1860. The piano factory of Jakob Becker was on 8th Line (after the collapse of the USSR, production was resumed in Germany).

Pharmacy-museum of Dr. Alexander Poehl.

Some of St Petersburg’s oldest medical institutions survive on Vasilyevsky Island. There were so many doctors among the Germans that at one time the two words were practically synonymous. Peter I opened the Kunstkamera museum, with its collection of various medical rarities, on the island. An obstetrics institute with a midwifery school, subsequently named after the Russian German Dmitry Ott, opened on the island in 1797.

The opening of the museum inside the Poel's pharmacy, 1983.

The still-functioning pharmacy-museum of Dr. Alexander Poehl, the first pharmacy in the city, is to be found there. There were rumors that Poehl kept actual griffins in the pharmacy tower and practiced alchemy. It is unclear to this day whether there was any truth in the stories - perhaps you will be the one to discover the secrets of his pharmacy!

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