The university is the Russia's oldest university, founded in 1724 by Peter the Great, which predates the foundation of Moscow State University in 1755.
It is disputed by the university administration whether Saint Petersburg State University or Moscow State University is the oldest higher education institution in Russia. While the latter was established in 1755, the former, which has been in continuous operation since 1819, claims to be the successor of the university established along with the Academic Gymnasium and the Saint Petersburg Academy of Sciences on January 24, 1724 by a decree of Peter the Great.
In the period between 1804 and 1819, Saint Petersburg University officially did not exist; the institution founded by Peter the Great, the Saint Petersburg Academy, had already been disbanded, because the new 1803 charter of the Academy of Sciences stipulated that there should be no educational institutions affiliated with it.
The Petersburg Pedagogical Institute, renamed the Main Pedagogical Institute in 1814, was established in 1804 and occupied a part of the Twelve Collegia building. On February 8, 1819 (O.S.), Alexander I of Russia reorganized the Main Pedagogical Institute into Saint Petersburg University, which at that time consisted of three faculties: Faculty of Philosophy and Law, Faculty of History and Philology and Faculty of Physics and Mathematics.TheMain Pedagogical Institute (where Dmitri Mendeleev studied) was restored in 1828 as an educational institution independent of Saint Petersburg University, and trained teachers until it was finally closed in 1859.
In 1821 the university was renamed Saint Petersburg Imperial University. In 1823 most of the university moved from the Twelve Collegia to the southern part of the city beyond the Fontanka. In 1824 a modified version of the charter of Moscow University was adopted as the first charter of the Saint Petersburg Imperial University. In 1829 there were 19 full professors and 169 full-time and part-time students at the university. In 1830 Tsar Nicholasreturned the entire building of the Twelve Collegia back to the university, and courses resumed there. In 1835 a new Charter of the Imperial Universities of Russia was approved. It provided for the establishment of the Faculty of Law, the Faculty of History and Philology, and the Faculties of Physics and Mathematics were merged into the Faculty of Philosophy as the 1st and 2nd Departments, respectively.
In 1849 after the Spring of Nations the Senate of the Russian Empire decreed that the Rector should be appointed by the Minister of National Enlightenment rather than elected by the Assembly of the university. However, Pyotr Pletnyov was reappointed Rector and ultimately became the longest-serving rector of Saint Petersburg University (1840–1861).
In 1855 Oriental studies were separated from the Faculty of History and Philology, and the fourth faculty, Faculty of Oriental Languages, was formally inaugurated on August 27, 1855.
In 1859–1861 female part-time students could attend lectures in the university. In 1861 there were 1,270 full-time and 167 part-time students in the university, of them 498 were in the Faculty of Law, the largest subdivision. During 1861–1862 there was student unrest in the university, and it was temporarily closed twice during the year. The students were denied freedom of assembly and placed under police surveillance, and public lectures were forbidden. Many students were expelled. After the unrest, in 1865, only 524 students remained.
A decree of the Emperor Alexander II of Russia adopted in 18 February 1863 restored the right of the university assembly to elect the rector. It also formed the new faculty of the theory and history of art as part of the faculty of history and philology.
In March 1869, student unrest shook the university again but on a smaller scale. By 1869, 2,588 students had graduated from the university.
In 1880 the Ministry of National Enlightenment forbade students to marry and married persons could not be admitted. In 1882 another student unrest took place in the university. In 1884 a new Charter of the Imperial Russian Universities was adopted, which granted the right to appoint the rector to the Minister of National Enlightenment again. On March 1, 1887 (O.S.) a group of the university students was arrested while planning an attempt on the life of Alexander III of Russia. As a result, new admission rules to gymnasiums and universities were approved by the Minister of National Enlightenment Ivan Delyanov in 1887, which barred persons of ignoble origin from admission to the university, unless they were extraordinarily talented.
By 1894, 9,212 students had graduated from the university. Among the renowned scholars of the second half of the 19th century affiliated with the university were mathematician Pafnuty Chebyshev, physicistHeinrich Lenz, chemists Dmitri Mendeleev and Aleksandr Butlerov, embryologist Alexander Kovalevsky, physiologist Ivan Sechenov, pedologist Vasily Dokuchaev. On March 24, 1896 (O.S.), on the campus of the university Alexander Popov publicly demonstrated transmission of radio waves for the first time in history.
As of January 1, 1900 (O.S.), there were 2,099 students enrolled in the Faculty of Law, 1,149 students in the Faculty of Physics and Mathematics, 212 students in the Faculty of Oriental Languages and 171 students in the Faculty of History and Philology. In 1902 the first student dining hall in Russia was opened in the university.
Since about 1897 regular strikes and student unrest shook the university and spread to other institutions of higher education across Russia. During the Revolution of 1905 the charter of the Russian universities was amended once more, the autonomy of the universities was partially restored and the right to elect the rector was returned to the academic board for the first time since 1884. In 1905–1906 the university was temporarily closed due to student unrest. Its autonomy was revoked again in 1911. In the same year the university was once again temporarily closed.
In 1914 with the start of the First World War, the university was renamed Petrograd Imperial University after its namesake city. During the War the university was the important center of mobilization of Russian intellectual resources and scholarship for the victory. In 1915 a branch of the university was opened in Perm, which later became Perm State University. The Assembly of Petrograd Imperial University openly welcomed the February Revolution of 1917, which put an end to the Russian monarchy, and the university came to be known as just Petrograd University. However, after the October Revolution of 1917, the staff and administration of the university were initially vocally opposed to the Bolshevik takeover of power and reluctant to cooperate with the Narkompros. Later in 1917–1922 during the Russian Civil War some of the staff suspected of counter-revolutionary sympathies suffered imprisonment (e.g., Lev Shcherba in 1919), execution, or exile abroad on the so-called Philosophers' ships in 1922 (e.g., Nikolai Lossky). Furthermore, the entire staff suffered from hunger and extreme poverty during those years.
In 1918 the university was renamed 1st Petrograd State University, and in 1919 the Narkompros merged it with the 2nd PSU (former Psychoneurological Institute) and 3rd PSU (former Bestuzhev Higher Courses for Women) into Petrograd State University. In 1919 the Faculty of Social Science was established by the Narkompros instead of the Faculty of History and Philology, Faculty of Oriental Languages and Faculty of Law. Nicholas Marr became the first Dean of the new faculty. Chemist Alexey Favorsky became the Dean of the Faculty of Physics and Mathematics. Rabfaks and free university courses were opened on the basis of the university to provide mass education. In the fall of 1920, as observed by freshman studentAlice Rosenbaum, enrollment was open and the majority of the students were anti-communist including, until removed, a few vocal opponents of the regime. Seeing that they were educating "class enemies", a purge was conducted in 1922 based on the class background of the students and all students, other than seniors, with a bourgeois background were expelled.
In 1924 the university was renamed Leningrad State University after its namesake city. In order to suppress intellectual opposition to Soviet power, a number of historians working in the university, including Sergey Platonov, Yevgeny Tarle and Boris Grekov, were imprisoned in the so-called Academic Affair of 1929–1930 on fabricated charges of participating in a counter-revolutionary conspiracy aimed at overthrowing the government. Some other members of the staff were repressed in 1937–1938 during the Great Purge.
During the 1941–1944 Siege of Leningrad in World War II, many of the students and staff died from starvation, in battles or from repressions. However, the university operated continuously, evacuated to Saratov in 1942–1944. A branch of the university was hosted in Yelabuga during the war. In 1944 the Presidium of the Supreme Council of the Soviet Unionawarded the university with the Order of Lenin on the occasion of its 125th anniversary and for its contribution to science and culture.
In 1948 the Council of Ministers named the university after Andrei Zhdanov, a recently deceased prominent communist official. This decision was revoked in 1989 during Perestroika.
In the late 1940s the university was hit hard by ideological and anti-Semitic purges. In particular, in 1949 several leading professors of the Faculty of Philology were accused of "cosmopolitanism", and some of them (Viktor Zhirmunsky, Mark Azadovsky, Grigory Gukovsky) were expelled from the university. Throughout the post-war Soviet years, unofficial ethnic quotas severely limiting Jewish admittance to Leningrad State University existed, which lasted at least untilPerestroika.
In 1949–1950 several professors died in prison during the investigation of the Leningrad Affair fabricated by the central Soviet leadership, and the Minister of Education of the RSFSR, former rector Alexander Voznesensky, was executed.
In 1966 the Council of Ministers decided to build a new suburban campus in Petrodvorets for most of the mathematics and natural science faculties. The relocation of the faculties had been completed by the 1990s.
In 1969 the Presidium of the Supreme Council of the Soviet Union awarded the university with the Order of the Red Banner of Labour.
In 1991 the university was renamed back to Saint Petersburg State University after its namesake city.