Imperial Russiaís Most Prestigious Institute for Girls

Margarita Nelipa

Image Hosted by

Part I

Credit is due to Peter the Great (1672-1725) who had the remarkable maturity to envision providing an educational institute for young girls, based on Madame de Maintenonís Saint Cyr Girlís Institute in Versailles, France.[1] During his reign, private secular schools were set up for young orphan girls to learn grammar and a few life skills that included sewing. [2] However it was not until the much enlightened Ekaterina (Catherine) II (1729-1796) ascended to the throne, did womenís education gain a profile.

By Imperial commission, Ivan Ivanovich Betskoi (1704-1795), [3] who at the time was the Director of the Military Cadet Academy, and President of the Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg; created a European-style school offering an academic program for the very first time to young ladies from the nobility. The Smolínii Institut was designed to elevate the status of women through education, despite the custom of young noble girls acquiring a private education within the confines of the family residence, by invitation of private tutors. Rarely did girls not from the nobility receive a formal education in the age of academic enlightenment.

From Smola to a place of culture and education

Empress Elizaveta Petrovna selected the old Smolínii Dvor (Tar Yard) precinct which supported tar (smola) pits originally created [4] by the Empressís father, Peter the Great. By Prikaz this region was utilized since 1711 for the needs of the Russian naval fleet. [5] Close by, Peter I built the summer Smolíyanii Dvoretz (Palace) where Elizaveta, his youngest daughter, had spent her childhood. [6] Prior to the founding of St. Petersburg in 1703, this was the location of Spasskogo Posada [7] (village) that was re-constructed by the Swedes as a fort during the XVII century.

This location offered a commanding view from the bend of the Neva River, and it was here that the pious Empress founded her Voskresenskii Novodevichíii Monastyr (The Resurrection Maidenís Monastery) in 1744, [8] situated at the end of Voskresenskaya Ulitsa. [9] The re-designed square in front of the cathedral forecourt known as Ploschadí Ekaterininskoi, was re-named Ploschadí Rastrelli in 1923. [10] Considered to be one of St. Petersburgís largest architectural ensembles, the Rastrelli designed monastery became known simply as the Smolínii Monastyr. With it azure-blue and white faÁade it now presents a magnificent visual appeal in the Empressís favorite Baroque style. [11]

Empress Elizaveta Petrovna declared that the facility was to become known as the Vospitatelínoe Obshestvo Blagorodnih Devitz (Educational Society for Noble Maidens). It was to have become the most privileged private establishment for young girls. Lack of funds caused protracted delays, and finally, with the Empressís death in 1761, the project was suspended.

On 5 May, 1764 Catherine II signed an Ukase to create her Institute which would offer a new philosophy in the upbringing of young noble ladies (dvoryanki). Her intention was to encourage the maturation of a new breed of woman:

ď Ö psychologically and in practical terms Ö emphasizing the French language and nobility virtues that include dancing, music and singing Ö for the purpose of educating the heart and personality Ötheir excellent manners and worldly nobility shall offer a visible place in society.Ē [12]

Catherine also founded a second less familiar educational facility within the monastery precinct one year after her announcement of establishing the Smolínii Institut, in 1765. [13] This second institute was to serve the educational needs of girls without noble background, who came from prosperous merchant families.[14] They were referred to as meshanki (bourgeois).

To the west of the Voskresenskii Monastyr ensemble, a parcel of land was handed over for construction of a semi-circular main building with its own wings extending towards the Neva. Designed by Yuri Matveyevich Felten (1730-1801) in the classic style, [15] from 1842 it became known as the Alexandrovskoe Uchilishe (Institute). It was located on Ulitsa Palímenbahskoi, named in honor of one of the Directors of the Smolínii Institute.[16] Today we recognize it as Ulitsa Smolínogo. It was at this facility that the founder of scientific theoretical pedagogy in Russia, Konstantin Dmitrievich (1824-1870) Ushinsky, was briefly appointed as an inspector in 1859, [17] ensuring the appointment of Russiaís finest pedagogues.

Here the young students received an elementary program which would facilitate their entry into middle level society. Such a step defined Imperial Russia far ahead of the West in terms of formal provision of education for young females.

In 1764, just two years after Catherine the Greatís ascension to the throne, the new educational facility for girls opened their doors on 28 June, 1764. It would take a further two years to complete the interior decorations.[18] However on 11 January, 1797, by Imperial Ukase, with the intention of rescinding Ekaterinaís Imperial Will, the school closed its doors on the whim of the narrow minded Paul I (1754-1801). [19] The facility began to accept homeless widows from privileged backgrounds. [20]

Within a few years, honoring the legacy of Ekaterina, a new educational facility was erected to the east of the Smolínii Cathedral and monastery complex [21], by Alexander I. This third and final extension contributed to the final part of the ensemble. Giacomo Quarenghi (1744-1817), whose designs Ekaterina preferred, undertook the monumental project. He decided to position the neo-classical building back from the street behind a large open formal court, to permit a view of the yellow and white faÁade with an eight column portico in the center with two wings extending at either side. [22] The building itself was shaped like the Russian letter П (P) while the garden extended down to the Neva river bank. This project commenced in 1806 and was completed in 1809. It is this third building complex with which we today are familiar.

The project had to lie dormant until Nikolai I (1796-1855) commissioned Vasili Petrovich Stasov (1769-1848) to provide his own architectural contribution in 1832. Stasov rendered both the walls and columns with white marble, completed the roof and decorated the interiors. The Emperor dedicated the cathedral to his mother, the Dowager Empress Mariya Fedorovna (1759-1828), who became the Instituteís trustee. [23]

The Smolínii Institut Blagorodnih Devitz (Smolny Institute for Noble Girls) complimented the Alexandrovskii Lycťe for noble boys in Tsarskoe Selo, founded by Alexander I in 1811. [24]

Smolínii complex in 1889

[Ref: Palatial St. Petersburg by Theodore Child, Harperís Monthly Magazine, June, 1889, p 198.

[Authorís original copy]

© The author should be acknowledged if used for academic purpose.

Part II to follow


1. de Madariaga, I. Russia in the Age of Catherine the Great (2002) Phoenix Press, London, p 493

2. Jhenskoe obrazovanie v Rossii In:

3. Donnert, E. Russia in the Age of Enlightment (1986) Liepzig Edition, p 63

4. Zinovieff, K. Companion Guide to St. Petersburg (2003) Boydell & Brewster, U.K. p 69

5. Wechsberg, J. In Leningrad (1977) Doubleday & Co. New York, p 100

6. Lobanova, T. St. Petersburg (2001) Slaviya, St. Petersburg,, p 140

7. Ivanov, Yu. Et al. Sankt Peterburg Putevoditelí no Kulítornogo-Istoricheskim Pamyatnikam (2003) Russi Publ., Smolensk p 202

8. Petrograd i ego Okrestnosti Ed. Popova, (1915) M. V. Petrograd, p 175

9. Child, T. Palatial St. Petersburg, Harperís Monthly, June 1889, p 198

10. Progulka k Smolínomy Dvoru Ekskursiya # 7, Progulki no Sankt Peterburgu In:

11. Shaymuna, l. S. Leningrad Entsiklopedicheskii Spravochnik (1957) Gosydarstvennoe Nauchnoe Izdatelístvo, (250th Anniversary edition) Leningrad, p 722

12. Bokova, V. M. Institutki Vospominanie Vospitannits Institytkov Blagorodnih Devitz (2001) Novoye Literaturnoe Obrazovanie, Rossiya, p 5

13. op. cit. Progulka k Smolínomy Dvoru Ekskursiya # 7,

14. Lobanova, T. op. cit., p 141

15. Dmitrievna, E. Saint Petersburg History, Architecture, Culture (2003) Korona Print, St. Petersburg, p 357

16. op. cit., Progulka k Smolínomy Dvoru Ekskursiya # 7

17. Ushinsky, Konstantin Dmitriyevich In:

18. Filipova, E. A. Smolnii Cathedral, History of Construction In:

19. Lobanova, T. op cit., p 141

20. Entsiklopediya Rossiiskoi Monarhii (2003) Exmo, Moscow, p 314

21. op. cit., Petrograd i ego Okrestnosti p 175

22. Schwarz, V. Leningrad (1982) Progress Publishers, Moscow, p 104

23. Lobanova, T. op cit., p 141

24. op cit., Entsiklopediya Rossiiskoi Monarhii p 16.

  • Return to Home Page
  • Counter 1