Kronstadt – Symbol of the Russian Navy
Anyone interested in the sea or naval history needs to head to Kronstadt, the birthplace and symbol of the Russian navy. Russia’s Baltic Fleet is split between here and Kaliningrad—Russia’s anomalous lone region surrounded by Poland and Lithuania on the southern Baltic Sea.
Located 30 kilometers west of St. Petersburg, the citadel of Kronstadt has been guarding the sea approach to the city for 300 years. It was an essential part of Peter’s plan to build a city on the Baltic, build a navy and protect them both. Since 1991, Kronstadt and other sites in St. Petersburg have made up a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Kronstadt is on the island of Kotlin and is surrounded by several smaller islands with forts on them.
Before coming to Kronstadt, we recommend that you take some time to consider what you want to see and give yourself plenty of time to get there. We recommend that you go by taxi. No matter how much time you have, your first stop should be the Naval Cathedral.
Kronshlot, Then Kronstadt
Peter the Great found Kotlin Island to be the perfect spot for launching his brand-new navy in 1703. He initially called the fort “Kronshlot” (the Swedish word for “royal castle”), and it opened for service in May 1704. At that time Sweden was Russia’s greatest enemy. Only one month later, the Swedish tested Kronshlot, but not as expected. They bypassed the fort and went straight for the new village of St. Petersburg. The Swedish were unsuccessful in this battle, as they were in the broader Great Northern War that extended from 1700 to 1721. In October 18, Peter renamed the fortress Kronstadt, or “royal city” in Swedish.
Gateway to St. Petersburg
For a time, Kronstadt acted as St. Petersburg’s main trading port. Barges from around the world would drop anchor at Kronstadt to sell goods to Petersburgers. Eventually, though, the island returned to its original mandate of city defense and naval training. After a fire in the city in 1783, Catherine the Great temporarily moved the Admiralty to Kronstadt.
Rebellion against the Communists
In March 1921, an uprising brewed in Kronstadt against the encroaching Bolsheviks. Vladimir Lenin’s party was slowly taking over the region, and sailors and soldiers in Kronstadt were against their advance. So much unrest brewed in Kronstadt that it has been described as a powder keg. Discipline there was so severe that the sailors were ready to burst, and they assassinated the admiral in command on the island. To put down the Kronstadt Rebellion, the Bolsheviks attacked the island by “land,” because the water between St. Petersburg and Kronstadt was still frozen over in March. After twelve days of fighting and thousands of casualties, the Bolsheviks were victorious. Beyond battle deaths, the Bolsheviks executed more than 1,000 rebels after the battle. The Bolsheviks imprisoned even more, while still more fled successfully to Finland, creating a huge refugee problem there. Though the Bolsheviks won, it was an important lesson that not everyone would submit to communism so easily.
WWII on the Island
Starting in the late 1930s, Kronstadt came alive with preparations for a large maritime war. When the Germans first attacked Russia on June 21, 1941, they dropped mines from the air into the canals around Kronstadt. The Russians navy responded by shooting a few planes down. It was the first of many air raids that the Germans pummeled Kronstadt with. The citadel had a submarine unit that disrupted German supply lines through the Gulf of Finland. However, by September 8, 1941, the Germans enclosed the city with a blockade. Kronstadt was unable to defend the city.
Exploring the Island
Today, Kronstadt is a regular residential town. Many of its residents are affiliated with the navy, but not all. Since the first Russian census in 1897, the population has hovered between 31,000 to 59,000 people. You will find stores, restaurants, and normal services here. Kronstadt is a good tourist site to bring children to, since they can wander outdoors. There are several parks, and you can pack a picnic. If you want to take a long hike, you can walk to Fort Rif on the far western end of Kotlin Island. The walk is about two hours, fifteen minutes one way. The same trip is about twenty-five minutes by car, and there is no public transportation that goes there. Kotlin is about 10 kilometers (6 miles) long and 4 kilometers (2 miles) wide. At Fort Rif you can get a sense of the swamps and marshes from which St. Petersburg was formed.
Your 1st Stop: Naval Cathedral
If you have time for nothing else on Kronstadt, see the Naval Cathedral. Since 1913, it has been the focal point of Anchor Square. It is visible from the road to Kronstadt. Inside, the cathedral has sweeping Byzantine-style chandeliers. Combined with numerous ocean-themed flourishes, they create, perhaps, the most unique interior in any Russian Orthodox church.
When you enter, you will see bins of shawls and skirts for women to don. In some spaces, like Orthodox monasteries, women are “required” to wear this clothing—with the typical consequence being showing disrespect to staff and believers. At the Naval Cathedral, this actually appears to be optional, so only borrow them if you feel comfortable doing so. In general, it is a good idea for women to carry something to cover her head any time she visits a church or monastery. You may or may not be stopped if not following the Orthodox dress code.
While there is a real anchor on Anchor Square, the square is named for the white cobblestone anchor embedded in the ground. Plan to take a lot of pictures here. In addition to the white cathedral, there is a lovely Monument to the Revolutionary Sailors of the Baltic (1905-1906, 1917 and 1919-1921), and a statue of Admiral Stepan Osipovich Makarov. Makarov, oceanographer and commander of the Russian navy, died in the famous Battle of Port Arthur during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. He invented the icebreaker.
See the Sea
From Petrovsky Pier, you can take a boat tour of the Gulf of Finland. The tour will show you about six forts, one of which (Konstantin) includes a small hotel, restaurant and museum.
Other Must-See Destinations at Kronstadt
- Summer Garden
- Italian Pond
- Petrovsky Park and Peter the Great Statue
- Father Ivan Kronstadtsky Statue
- Father Ivan Kronstadtsky Apartment-Museum
- Ivan Aivazovsky Statue. Aivazovsky was Russia’s most famous maritime painter. He was born in Feodosia, a Crimean port city on the Black Sea, now part of Ukraine. Feodosia is Kronstadt’s sister city
Tips for Visiting
- Getting here: The easiest way to get to and from Kronstadt is by taxi. Request a drop off at the Naval Cathedral, from where you can walk to most other points of interest. You can also get to Kronstadt by bus or boat.
- Where to eat: Since Kronstadt is a regular residential town, you can find many restaurant options serving various budgets. We recommend Holland Kitchen, right across the street from Petrovsky Park.
- Consider staying: If you want to really spend some time in Kronstadt, Kotlin Island and its surrounding forts and islands, consider spending a night on the island. Hotels and hostels on the island tend to be cheaper than those nearby on the roads leading to Kronstadt.