Starov's Gate Church
at one end of the square forms the access point into the Alexander Nevsky Lavra
The Alexander Nevsky Monastery was established by Peter the Great in the 1710s, marking the site where he believed Alexander Nevsky had defeated the Swedes at the Battle of the Neva in 1240. The space between the monastery and the route of Nevsky Prospekt remained largely undeveloped during the seventeenth century, with the boundary marked only with a wooden fence and a wooden bell tower built in 1754 on the edge of what later became Alexander Nevsky Square. By the late seventeenth century the houses of Nevsky Prospekt had begun to encroach on this space. While Empress Elizabeth I had patronized the Smolny Convent, the accession of Empress Catherine II brought a renewed interest in completing the Alexander Nevsky Monastery.
In 1784 a commission examined the options for further developing the monastery. The square was likely laid out by the diocese architect Ivan Starov in the latter half of the eighteenth century to provide access from the main road through the city, Nevsky Prospekt, and the developing monastery complex. Starov was also working on several buildings for the monastery, including its main cathedral, the Holy Trinity Cathedral, and the Gate Church, which fronted the square. His assistant, Mikhail Melentyev, built a semi-circular stone wall around the square, and by 1784 it had become known as the Alexander Nevsky Square, referring to the monastery, whose buildings now framed all sides of the square. Starov added further apartment buildings on Nevsky Prospekt, and an almshouse on the square. From 1857 until at least the 1880s the name Alexander Nevsky Lavra Square was also in use.
The square in 1906. The Gate Church
is visible, and in the distance rise the spires and domes of the lavra.
By the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the square had become rundown and was considered a disreputable area, housing grain barns and tram tracks. It was barely lit at night and became notorious for passers-by being robbed. It was also well known for the large numbers of rats that came to feed on the grain, and at night moved to the nearby river to drink. A popular urban legend of the 1920s recorded how a cab driver and his horse tried to pass through the area at night, with only their skeletons, gnawed clean by rats, found the following day.