St Petersburg, capital of the Russian empire, stands at the head of the Gulf of Finland, and at the mouth of the Neva, in 59° 56' N. lat. and 39° 19' E. long. The flat and low marshy ground upon which the city is built only recently emerged from the sea; the mighty Neva, which flows 36 miles from Lake Ladoga, subdivides into many branches, thus forming some 100 islands. When a strong wind blows from the sea its level rises, and the poorer streets are flooded; when the overflow exceeds 10 feet (as in 1891) nearly the whole city is inundated. The country is so marshy and barren that the government of St Petersburg (area, 20,760 sq. m.; pop., without the capital, 850,000) has only 40 inhabitants per sq. m. In 1702 Peter the Great captured the Swedish forts on the Neva, laid the foundations of his capital on one of the islands of the delta, and dreamed to make of it a new Amsterdam. The Neva, connected by canals with the upper Volga, became the outlet of the immense basin of the chief river of Russia and its numberless tributaries; and assisted by four main lines of railway St Petersburg has for more than 150 years been the chief port of Russia for the export of raw produce and the import of manufactured goods. Foreign trade and the centralisation of government have made St Petersburg a populous city with more than a million inhabitants and covering 42 sq. m., on the banks of the Neva and the islands formed by its branches. The Great Neva (400 to 700 yards wide within the city) is a beautiful river of deep and pure water. But the channel across the bar at its mouth is narrow and sinuous, so that Cronstadt, on an island 16 miles W. of St Petersburg, remains both the fortress and the port of the capital; though since 1885 a ship-canal, 22 feet deep, admits ships to St Petersburg, and two-thirds of the foreign vessels unload within the city. The main body of the city stands on the mainland, on the left bank of the Neva; and a beautiful granite quay, with a long series of palaces and mansions, stretches for 2 1/2 miles. Only two permanent bridges cross the Neva; two bridges of boats are removed in autumn and spring. The island Vasilievsky, between the Great and Little Nevas, contains the Stock Exchange, the Academy of Sciences, the University, the Philological Institute, the Academy of Arts, and various schools and colleges. On the Peter-burgskiy Island, between the Little Neva and the Great Nevka. stands the old fortress and prison of St Peter and St Paul, facing the Winter Palace, and containing the Mint and the cathedral wherein the members of the imperial family are buried, also the arsenal. Numerous islands, separated from each other by the small branches into which both Nevkas subdivide, and connected together by a great number of wooden bridges, are covered with beautiful parks and summer-houses. The main part of St Petersburg has for its centre the Old Admiralty; its lofty gilded spire and the gilded dome of St Isaac's Cathedral are among the first sights caught on approaching St Petersburg by sea. Three streets radiate from it, the first of them the famous Nevskiy Prospect. The street architecture, with its huge brick houses covered with stucco and mostly painted gray, is rigid and military in aspect. A spacious square, planted with trees, encloses the Old Admiralty on three sides. To the east of it rise the magnificent mass of the Winter Palace, the Hermitage Gallery of Art, and the semicircular buildings of the general staff. In the Petrovskiy Square is the well-known statue of Peter I. on an immense block of Finland granite. The richly decorated cathedral of St Isaac of Dalmatia, erected by Nicholas I., is an almost cubic building (330 feet long, 290 broad, and 310 high), surmounted by one large and lofty and four small gilded domes. In Nevskiy Prospect are the Kazan cathedral, the public library, the square of Catharine II., and the Anitchkoff Palace.
The climate is less severe than might be expected, but it is unhealthy and very changeable. The average temperatures are 15.4° F. in January, 64° in July, and 38.6° for the year; the Neva is frozen for an average of 147 days in the year. A short but hot summer is followed by a damp autumn and very changeable winter, severe frosts being followed by rainy days in the midst of winter, and returning in April and May after the first warm days of the spring. The population has rapidly increased during the 19th century, and attained, with the suburbs, 1,500,000 in 1905, as against 918,016 in 1881. But it decreases very much during the summer, because the crowds of peasants who come to work in the factories in winter, return to their villages in summer. The sanitary arrangements being very imperfect, typhoid fever and European cholera are endemic. The mortality, 31 to 39 per thousand before 1885, is now 24. There are 17,000 Finnish citizens, 45,000 of German race (mostly from the Baltic provinces), and 22,500 Poles.
The total production of its factories (cottons, various textiles, metals, leather, sugar, guns, porcelain goods, etc.) is nearly £29,000,000. Yearly 20,000 boats and rafts, laden with corn, hemp, flax, linseed, leather, fuel-wood, and building materials (3,000,000 tons), reach St Petersburg by the Neva; and 1,300,000 tons of goods, including 500,000 tons of corn, come in by rail, chiefly from the upper Volga. The export of corn from St Petersburg alone is one-fifth of the total export from Russia; besides hemp, flax, linseed, leather, crude petroleum, etc, the total value of the exports being from £8,000,000 to £10,000,000; the imports, chiefly of coal, machinery, groceries, and manufactured goods, reach about the same value. The port is visited yearly by about 1800 ships.
The number and variety of scientific, literary, educational, artistic, and technical institutions concentrated in the capital, render life at St Petersburg attractive. The St Petersburg University, and the numerous academies, medical, technological, engineering, naval, military, etc, as well as the Ladies' University, number thousands of students, both male and female. The Academy of Sciences and the Academy of Arts are well known; there is an excellent conservatoire of music. The public libraries are numerous. Besides the Imperial Public Library (1,200,000 volumes and 40,000 MSS.), there are the libraries of the Academy of Sciences, the University, the Council of State, as well as those of the scientific societies. There are besides rich museums of art in the Hermitage (Flemish, Russian, and early Italian schools well represented, and priceless collections of Greek and Scythian antiquities), in the Academy of Arts; and there are important museums. The Russian publishing trade is concentrated at St Petersburg.