Scarlet Sails in St. Petersburg

Every year in June, a ship with scarlet sails makes its way down the Neva. Fireworks go off and concerts are going on in the Palace Square. The big event is the celebration of the graduating senior class. Tickets to the concerts and shows in Palace Square are for students only, but tourists and locals can join the crowd and go to the Neva to watch fireworks and see the replica of Peter the Great’s ship (Standart) sail down the river.

Scarlet Sails is a one-of-a-kind event in St. Petersburg. Neither Moscow nor any other Russian city has this tradition although graduates from other cities are welcome to take part in the event. Many come from all over Russia to celebrate their graduation with a bang (or many!).

So what’s with the scarlet sails?

It comes from a short story written by Russian author, Alexander Grinevsky, and it’s one of his most famous stories about following your dreams and taking your destiny into your own hands – a message that any senior could relate to.

The tradition started in 1968 when the city of Leningrad decided to organize a special event honoring their graduating seniors. The tradition continued up until 1979 when it was temporarily discontinued as it was considered a hazard due to the huge crowd drunk students that gathered in the square. Students were overjoyed when the celebration was re-established in 2005.

The Story of the Scarlet Sails by Alexander Grin

The Scarlet Sails is about two young dreamers – A young girl (Assol) who
dreamed of leaving behind the small village where she grew up and a young boy (Arthur Grey) who aspired to become captain of a ship. 

When Assol was young, she met a wizard who told her that when she grew up a prince would come and take her away on a ship with scarlet sails if only she believed it. Everyone in the town found out about this prediction and made fun of her for years but she kept believing.

Grey was the son of a nobleman and his father wanted him to take over the family business, but he always wanted to be a captain. He followed his dreams and with hard work he was later promoted to captain and given his own ship.

Just passing through the village on one of his voyages, he saw Assol and
immediately fell in love with her. He started to ask the locals about the beautiful young woman, but they told him she was crazy. After he heard the story, Grey had a moment of doubt, but a friend of Assol was there at the time and he defended her by saying she wasn’t crazy just different from everyone else. She was a dreamer. 

Grey made up his mind, changed his sails to red and sailed back into the harbor to claim his bride and everyone lived happily ever after. 

If you’re interested in Alexander Grin’s story, The Scarlet Sails, here’s a link to the movie on YouTube. The movie’s in Russian but has English subtitles.

Watch It

Here’s a video of one of the Scarlet Sails celebrations in St. Petersburg.

Watch It

SAFS Advice

The crowd is made up of high school students who just graduated and are looking to have a good time, so this event can get a little crazy. If you want to avoid the crowd, I recommend going to a restaurant to watch the show. Be aware that the boat and fireworks are all facing the Winter Palace and there are no restaurants nearby that face the river. The restaurant options are on the other side of the Neva but it’s a good place to watch from
if you don’t want to be in the crowd. Reserve in advance!

Some restaurant options:

  • River Lounge
  • Bellini
  • Andante
  • Do Zari
  • The Flying Dutchman
  • Frigrat Grace
  • Volga Volga

The metro will be working 24/7.