The first railway station in Russia and a famous monument of modern architecture in St Petersburg has finally opened after renovation and is definitely a destination you’ll want to add to your list of must-see places in the city
St Petersburg is a rare example of a city where practically every building is marked by history: almost every house and every street is a living monument to either an outstanding person or a major historical event. ‘The city of three revolutions’ attracts thousands of tourists every year who meticulously follow the same weathered path: Hermitage — Nevsky Prospekt — St Isaac’s Cathedral — Church on the Spilled Blood — Kazan Cathedral — Mariinsky Theatre, or some variation thereof. As the 2018 World Cup approaches, St Petersburg is preparing to greet foreign guests and show off all it has to offer. However, not many will get beyond the pages of shiny brochures and will miss out on the gems that are not at the top of go-to lists. The newly renovated Vitebsky Railway station is a fine example of such an underrated monument.
The station is a memorial of huge historical and cultural significance. The first railway station in Russia, it was opened in 1837 to connect St Petersburg and Tsarskoye Selo, a nearby royal residence. Originally, the station was a wooden one-storey building, which has since gone through a number of transformations. The building that we see today was constructed in 1904 by the famous architect Stanislaw Brzozowski, who turned Vitebsky railway station into one of the first art nouveau buildings in St Petersburg. The asymmetrical layout of the facade, massive stained-glass windows, lavish stucco panels and exquisite metal ornaments left contemporaries in raptures. The station exhibited singular features which were innovative and rare at the time, such as lifts for passengers and their luggage, conveyors, and electricity. Serving both aesthetic and functional aims, it was more than just a quick pit stop at the beginning of long journeys.
Apart from its architectural esteem, Vitebsky Railway Station holds enormous cultural relevance. For instance, the Imperatorsky Pavilion situated on the second floor of the station used to host stars from the Silver Age of Russian poetry, including Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam and Alexander Blok, and before the 1918 Revolution, the tsar’s family would frequent the luxuriously decorated building before their departures to Tsarskoye Selo. Vitebsky Railway station also played a crucial role during the First World War: it was precisely the place from which the troops of the Russian Imperial Army departed to the battlefields in 1914-1918. In 2014, on the 100th centenary of Russia’s entry into the War, a special monument depicting officers of the Russian Guard was set up in front of the station. It is one of the very few monuments dedicated to the First World War in St Petersburg.
Despite numerous restorations and attempts to bring the station back to its original appearance, the building was in a terrible state until just recently. The paint on the walls was peeling off, the lifts were broken, forcing passengers to drag their luggage up the stairs, and the legendary restaurant was closed due to its emergency condition, which meant that most of the architectural delights of Vitebsky were under threat. It was evident that the railway station was in urgent need of a comprehensive restoration. The 2018 World Cup came just in time, as the Vitebsky Railway Station is one of the five prime railway points into St Petersburg, which is due to welcome thousands of football fans this summer.
Restoration works started in July 2017 and were only finished earlier this month. Engineers and construction workers toiled tirelessly to bring back the chic and grandeur of the Vitebsky Railway station and return it to its historical roots. Though the opening of the station was postponed twice in April 2018 due to unforeseen problems that cropped up during the restoration, it did not affect the overall look of the station or the impression it makes once it was finally finished.
After the facade of the station was unveiled, it was clear that a feat had been accomplished. Not only were the layout and clock tower at the entrance completely renovated, but the interiors and platforms had been refurbished as well. The Imperial Pavilion is finally open to visitors, the stained-glass windows are completely renewed and the historical coats of arms and reliefs above the grand entrance have been restored. Moreover, the infrastructure of the Vitebsky Railway station was modernised to adapt to the needs of low-mobility passengers, the building now has special lifts for disabled people and a special audio system incorporated into the loudspeakers to make them clearer for people with hearing aids. Moreover, the facade of Vitebsky is now illuminated, which adds a touch of magic to experiences at the station, turning late arrivals and departures into bright encounters with St Petersburg.