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Russia’s State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg

Updated on June 18, 2011

Former Royal Palace of Russia's Czars

September 26, 2010

Among the many palaces in St. Petersburg, Russia is the Hermitage, now known officially as the State Hermitage Museum.

It is one of the oldest and one of the largest, in terms of the sheer size of its art collection, art museums in the world.

It is situated on the banks of St. Petersburg’s Neva River and is actually a complex of five  buildings.  These are the Winter Palace, Hermitage Theatre, Small Hermitage, Old Hermitage and New Hermitage.

Empress Elizabeth of Russia

Public domain photo of portrait by Charles Andr van Loo (1705 - 1765) - photo courtesy of  ( )
Public domain photo of portrait by Charles Andr van Loo (1705 - 1765) - photo courtesy of ( )

Winter Palace Started by Empress Elizabeth Daughter of Peter the Great

The largest of the buildings is the Winter Palace, the home of Russia’s Tsars since it was first built for the Empress Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great.

The Baroque style, three story green palace was designed by Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli and constructed between 1754 and 1762.

Elizaveta Petrovna (Empress Elizabeth) died in 1762 just before the palace was completed. Elizabeth was succeeded by her nephew, Peter III whose reign lasted only a few months before he died and was succeeded by his wife Catherine, known to history as Catherine the Great.

Catherine became the first of the Tsars to live in the palace which was the official residence of the Tsars until Tsar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate and the monarchy abolished following the liberal February Revolution of 1917 which preceded the Bolshevik coup in October 1917 (known as the October Revolution) which brought Vladimir Lenin and the Communists to power..

State Hermitage Museum

State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia:
Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Russia, 190000

get directions

State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia

The Winter Palace in St. Petersburg


Catherine the Great Sets the Tone for the Palace

As Empress, Catherine moved into the completed Winter Palace and made it her official residence.

From Peter the Great onward, the Russian monarchy looked to make Russia more European. Peter’s conquest and annexation of St. Petersburg was part of this attempt to extend Russia more into Europe socially and culturally. To this day St. Petersburg is the most European of Russian cities.

Peter the Great began the Tsarist tradition of collecting art from Western Europe and Catherine the Great continued it on a grand scale.

In 1764 Catherine the Great initiated the construction of a small two story palace next to and adjoining the Winter Palace. Today, this is known as the Small Hermitage.

When I first visited St. Petersburg (then known as Leningrad) as a college student this little palace was known as the Hermitage with the Winter Palace and other parts of the present State Hermitage Museum remaining separate museums or used as administrative offices by the Soviet Government.

Catherine the Great of Russia

Public domain photo of portrait by artist Johann-Baptist Lampi the Elder (17511830) Photo courtesy of ( )
Public domain photo of portrait by artist Johann-Baptist Lampi the Elder (17511830) Photo courtesy of ( )

Catherine's Private Hideaway and Start of the Original Museum

What is now known as the Small Hermitage, was Catherine’s private hideaway for herself and close friends. It was Catherine who created what was to become the core of the Hermitage collection. Catherine purchased huge amounts of art from Western Europe and displayed them in this private hideaway of hers.

I still recall touring what was then known simply as the Hermitage with our college tour group and the guide telling us that Catherine’s collection contained many paintings by famous artists, but because the Hermitage was off limits to all but a select few friends of Catherine and her successors, many of these masterpieces were assumed by the art world to have been lost or destroyed.

It wasn’t until the Soviets opened the Hermitage to the public in the years after coming to power following the October 1917 Bolshevik coup.

Like Catherine, her successors were also great collectors of art. Following the collapse of communism and the removal of the shackles placed on Russian history, culture and religion by the Soviets, the Russian people took a great interest in re-discovering their hidden past. Part of this involved restoring many of the old palaces, churches, monasteries and other pre-Soviet historic sites.

Thus, while the Hermitage and Winter Palace were operated as public museums during the Soviet era, the rest of the complex was used for government offices. Now, the entire complex is operated as one of the world’s greatest art museums. However, despite the vast quantity of art on display, it is only a portion of the vast art collections of the Tsars.

Whether an art lover or not, anyone visiting St. Petersburg should take a few hours to squeeze in a visit the Winter Palace and Small Hermitage. Even if one is not interested in the art itself (and the collections are not limited to painting and sculptures but cover wide range of historic collectibles) the sheer beauty of the interior architecture alone is worth the visit.

A Digital Visit

If you are one of those who have no plans  for a trip to St. Petersburg in the near future, you can still visit the website of the State Hermitage Museum , click on the link for Russian or English language and then click on the Digital Collection link.  You can then select the type of collection you wish to view and settle in for a few hours of viewing the art of your choice.  

A second option is to click on the Exhibitions link to see if an art museum near you is hosting an exhibit  from the collections of the State Hermitage Museum.

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An Interesting Aside: Infidelity, Murder and the Replacing of a Weak Tsar Before a German Born Princess Moved into the Winter Palace

In addition to Peter the Great (Tsar Peter I), Catherine the Great (Empress Catherine II) is probably the most recognized Russian Tsar outside of Russia.

Catherine was born Sophia Augusta Frederica Sophia Augusta Frederica, and was the daughter of Prince  Christian August of the German Principality of Anhalt-Zerbst.  She married Peter III, the son of Peter the Great’s daughter Anna and successor to Peter the Great’s other daughter, the Empress Elizabeth.

The marriage of  Peter and Catherine was not a happy one and both spent more time in bed with their lovers than with each other.  

Like Catherine (who took the name Catherine upon converting from the Lutheran faith of birth to the Russian Orthodox faith of her adopted country), Peter was also German as his Russian mother had been married to a German noble and had given birth to and raised Peter in Germany.

While Catherine worked and made herself very popular with the Royal Family and the Russian people, Peter was very unpopular, especially with the powerful nobility.  

Catherine, fearing that Peter planned to divorce her and marry his lover, Elisabeth Vorontsova , thereby replacing Catherine with Elisabeth as the Tsarina, conspired with her then current lover, Grigori Orlov, to overthrow Peter as Tsar.  Catherine obviously didn’t mind losing Peter as her husband but definitely didn’t want to lose her position as Tsarina which would be lost if Peter divorced her.

However, before Catherine and Grigori could make their move, the Russian Imperial Guard, angered by Peter’s plans to institute harsher discipline on them, revolted and imprisoned Peter and then forced him to abdicate.  While imprisoned by the Guard Peter was killed.  

It is unknown whether Catherine ordered the killing of Peter or whether his captors decided to do this themselves.  Regardless of whether the killers acted under orders or on their own, Catherine took no action against them.


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    • mecheshier profile image


      8 years ago

      Great hub and so informative. I love history and art. Now the Hermitage museum is a must see. Thank you!

    • dpatullo741 profile image


      8 years ago from UK

      Your deep search is showing in your article. Many thanks for sharing great knowledge.

    • profile image

      travel forum 

      8 years ago

      I would love it if someone with access to photos would do an article on the Moscow subways. Many of the underground stations are cathedrals to the worker, created as socialistic shrines to the working man - Bronze statues and tile mosaics. They are overlooked, I guess, because the natives don't notice, and foreign tourists for the most part don't use the subways which are confusing without a Russian guide.

    • profile image

      Lake Mary Hotels 

      8 years ago

      I'm planning a trip this year to St. Petersburg, so your information comes in handy. I am a huge fan of museum, so I won't miss visiting the Hermitage.

    • burning bush profile image

      burning bush 

      8 years ago

      I visited Russia back when it was the foundation of the Soviet Union. Even though I was constantly watched or accompanied by a "guide", there was so much history and beauty that a couple of weeks would not begin to be enough time to absorb it all. BUT, your hub is a great start. Thanks.

    • nikitha p profile image

      nikitha p 

      8 years ago from India

      Nicely written, thanks for sharing this.

    • profile image

      Doug Hughes 

      9 years ago

      Fabulous place. I visited almost a decade ago and barely scratched the surface. I was surprised by an exhibit of Native American artifacts, collected by Russian explorers of North America. But there was Egyptian artifacts - and at that time a controversial exhibit of paintings that was stolen from Berlin after the war, if I recall, containing some art that the Nazis stole from France. The decision from Moscow was 'finders keepers'.

      As I recall, one of the problems of the museum was properly funding the climate upgrades to maintain proper levels of heat, humidity and light. The structure is 200 years old - it's the only major museum where the building is as much a historical antique as the exhibits.

      Kudos on a good article.

      I would love it if someone with access to photos would do an article on the Moscow subways. Many of the underground stations are cathedrals to the worker, created as socialistic shrines to the working man - Bronze statues and tile mosaics. They are overlooked, I guess, because the natives don't notice, and foreign tourists for the most part don't use the subways which are confusing without a Russian guide.

    • profile image

      tim Hanks 

      9 years ago

      Thanks for the beautiful hub. I am a big fan of art museums. I so very like the old portraits and the way they are painted. They take me in some fantastic world.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      great hub, thanks!

    • informationguru profile image


      9 years ago

      Well written and very informative. 5 stars.

    • sambaran08 profile image


      9 years ago from India

      great hub,thanks for sharing this history.

      visit my hub 2...

    • ladyjane1 profile image


      9 years ago from Texas

      Looks like we have something in common we both wrote about this beautiful museum. I fell in love with it while I was in St. Petersburg. Nice job. Cheers.

    • JSAlison profile image


      9 years ago

      Why do ancient aristocrats sound so much like Prohibition era mobsters? The aristo's got better memorials though and the Hermitage is something to be remembered by.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      great hub, i love russia and looking at their history and interesting monuments.

    • gloriaseman profile image


      9 years ago from New York

      Great hub, I have learnt a lot. Thanks for it!

    • ocbill profile image


      9 years ago from hopefully somewhere peaceful and nice

      definitely a place to visit when going to Russia. I couldn't help but think of the city abroad when I was in Tampa.


    • GmaGoldie profile image

      Kelly Kline Burnett 

      9 years ago from Madison, Wisconsin

      I tried the digital museum a while back searching for the history of Catherine the Great's jewelry but alas they weren't as forthcoming on the opulent gems. We forget how grand Russia once was - the epitome of art and of the world. I have a replica set of jewelry that the Tzarina was said once to have had - made out of malachite. The malachite is real, the gold is not but I love it just the same. The history is fascinating.

      Any idea of the square footage of the museum - it has to be one of the largest in the world?

    • brandrocker profile image


      9 years ago

      Wonderful hub! I liked it and learnt a lot of historical events.

    • dallas93444 profile image

      Dallas W Thompson 

      9 years ago from Bakersfield, CA

      Almost like a was there! Thanks for great information.

    • earnestshub profile image


      9 years ago from Melbourne Australia

      Thank you for the great hub. I have enjoyed reading and looking at the art very much.

    • PierrePierre profile image


      9 years ago

      Love this hub! Great Hermitage Museum!

    • theindianblues profile image


      9 years ago from Some where on the Globe

      Nice hub; really I enjoyed reading. Thanks you for sharing such a wonderful information.

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 

      9 years ago from San Francisco

      Great hub! The extra history you offer is fascinating. How cool that, due to the intimate nature of the Hermitage, so many of Catherine the Great's acquired masterpieces were assumed by the art world to have been lost or destroyed. What a treasure of a place!


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