St. Petersburg, the hometown of Russian President Vladimir Putin, is a city that’s lived under three names, three radically different forms of government, and three centuries of tumult.
I arrived in St. Petersburg this week to prepare our coverage of Megyn Kelly’s discussions with Putin, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Modovan President Igor Dodon, and Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum.
And on Thursday morning, we learned Putin has agreed to sit down with Megyn for an exclusive one-on-one interview.
Megyn Kelly's interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin airs Sunday at 7/6c during the premier of "Sunday Night with Megyn Kelly"
St. Petersburg was built upon the marshy lands surrounding the Neva River along the Gulf of Finland. Peter the Great founded his imperial capital city through sheer force of will — and the back-breaking work of thousands of serfs. An untold number of them died on the job.
Peter wanted his city to rival the great European capitals such as Paris — and St. Petersburg’s broad avenues, known as prospekts, would feel familiar to anyone who has visited the French capital.
Yet the heart of St. Petersburg has a different feel than anywhere I have ever visited. Nearly 7 million people live near and around the city today, but it’s the city’s tragic and heroic past that forms so much of the landscape.
There’s the magnificent Winter Palace, the residence of Russian monarchs for nearly 200 years, which is now part of the Hermitage Museum. The palace was the target of many uprisings and revolutions from the time it was built in the 18th Century.
Less than a mile away, there’s the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood which marks the spot where Emperor Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. Though much of the older parts of the city are European in feel, this Cathedral is pure Russia, like St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow.
Intrigue and mystery haunt every wing of the former imperial palaces around the city. That includes the machinations of Rasputin, the mystic adviser to the last Czar and Czarina, Nicholas and Alexandra. They were overthrown 100 years ago, in 1917, and executed the following year.
During World War I, the name St. Petersburg was changed to the more Russian Petrograd, to sound less German. Then, a few years after the Bolshevik Revolution, Petrograd became Leningrad, in honor of revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin.
During World War II, Leningrad suffered perhaps more than any other single city in the catastrophic conflict. The city was attacked and bombed and then blockaded by Nazi Germany for nearly 900 days. More than 1.5 million city residents and soldiers are believed to have died, mostly from starvation. Monuments to the horrific toll dot the city; one of the most famous is called The Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad.
After the war Leningrad was slowly rebuilt, and continued to play a large role as the Soviet Union’s cultural capital.
But today, the city, which reverted back to St. Petersburg in 1991, is also known as the place that forged the views of Vladimir Putin, who rose from a modest background to become one of the most powerful people in the world.
In coming days, you’ll hear more from Megyn in St. Petersburg for the International Economic Forum. Megyn will also be sitting down, after the forum, for an exclusive one-on-one interview with Putin.
You can watch the full report during the premiere of "Sunday Night with Megyn Kelly" airing Sunday, June 4 at 7/6c on NBC.