Many visitors to Russia wish for the chance to see and experience the true Russian countryside (one could even say wilderness), as opposed to the splendour of St Petersburg and its pristine Parks…and it can be done without an arduous journey into the heart of the land because just a mere 22 miles from St Petersburg sits the Island Fortress of Schlisselburg. Isolated some 600m offshore, the Fortress is accessible by a ferry that sails across Ladoga Lake , the largest inland body of water in Europe. Shlisselburg’s high walls and wooden-roofed towers in the Novgorod style of fortification have been partly restored, but its ruinous skyline attests to the ferocious wartime onslaught it endured during WWII, making the fortress look almost as forbidding as it must have appeared to those imprisoned there in Tsarist days.
Born out of rivalry between the medieval rulers of Novgorod and Sweden, who realised that The River Neva’s outflow from Lake Ladoga held the key to the lucrative trade routes between Russia and the Baltic. The Fortress was first fortified in 1323 by Prince Yuri of Novgorod and the island on which it sits is known to Russians as Oreshek (‘’little nut’’) and constantly changed hands until its definitive recapture in 1702 by Peter the Great, who renamed it Schlusselburg (meaning “Key Fortress” in German) Having lost its military significance after Peter’s victory over Sweden in The Northern War, the fortress became a prison for anyone threatening autocracy, becoming as synonymous with Tsarist repression as the Lubyanka would be in Soviet Times. In the February 1917 Revolution it fell without a shot being fired, and prisoners joyfully burnt their cell blocks. When asked if it should be preserved as a monument to the tyranny they replied “We have suffered enough, let the foul place crumble to ruin!”
Nonetheless, the Bolsheviks turned it into a museum devoted to the infamies of Tsarism, just a few years after, Ladoga became the gateway to a chain of waterways and penal camps (The infamous Gulag) reaching to the Solovetskiy Islands within the Arctic Circle, where uncounted thousands perished building the White Sea Canal. Although the local town of Schlisselburg fell and was occupied by the Nazis in 1941, the fortress miraculously managed to hold out for 500 days right up until the Blockade of Leningrad (St Petersburg) was broken. In honor of this feat, the town was renamed Petrokrepost (Peter’s Fortress) - a name that’s still used in everyday speech.
Your guide will:
Take you into the Maw of the sixteenth-century Tsar’s Tower (Tsarskaya bashnya), where you will emerge in a grassy yard facing the ruined Fourth wing (Chetvortiy korpus), the last penal block to be built (in 1911), whose three floors once held a thousand prisoners, two to a cell. Set ablaze in 1917, it later served as a Soviet strongpoint and was pummelled by Nazi artillery, like the former prison church, whose shell forms a memorial to the fortress’s defence during the Blockade, festooned with sculptures made from redundant weaponry.
Your guide will then tell you about:
Its penal history which unfolded in two separate blocks at the end of the yard.The New Prison (Norvaya tyurma) which was constructed in 1884, for members of the Narodnaya Volya previously held in the Peter and Paul Fortress. Brutality, solitary confinement and silence were used here to crush their spirits. Within four years, seventeen of the twenty-one had died - many from suicide. Earlier generations of revolutionaries were interred in the Old Prison or Secret House (Sekretny dom) built during the rain of Paul, which was first used by Nicholas I to incarcerate those Decembrists who weren’t hanged or exiled to Siberia. The mocked up cells here suggest that conditions were better than 60 years later, with proper beds, desks and chairs, and long woollen coats for the prisoners to wear to protect against the severe Russian Winter and the all pervasive damp.
Let your guide tell you about:
Some of the latter-day inmates, who spent only a few weeks here, before being hanged in the yard and show you a plaque marking the spot where Lenin’s brother, Alexander Ulyanov, was executed for attempted regicide in 1887.
And we will transport you back:
To still earlier when there was the (no longer extant) Tower of Cells, where VIPs were confined and tell you about perhaps the cruellest fate of all which was that of Anna Leopoldovna’s son, Ivan VI, who was deposed as a baby by Empress Elizabeth and as “prisoner No 1” denied any education or enjoyment so that he would grow up unfit to be a tsar, before being murdered in 1764 after trying to escape.
To dispel the grim mood, we shall exit by a portal near Ulyanov’s execution place, to find a rocky beach and to gaze upon the exceptional beauty which is Ladoga Lake and the surrounding Russian countryside.