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From the southern tip of lake Ladoga, the largest lake in all of Europe, the Neva River flows forty-one miles west to the sea. As it nears the Finnish Gulf, its fast-moving currents divide into more than a dozen branches, the twistings and turnings of which have carved out an intricate archipelago from the low-lying marshes around them. At the beginning of the eighteenth century these islands numbered over a hundred, but today there are only forty-four, the narrow streams and channels between them having been filled in as a city took shape. None of these islands have any topographical irregularities. There are no hills or outcroppings as in Paris, Athens, Florence, or Rome. No point on the delta stands more than thirty feet above the sea.
In years gone by, the Finns, Swedes, and Russians who claimed these scrub-covered lands gave them such names as the Isle of Brushwood, the Isle of Birches, the Isle of Stones, and the Isle of Goats. A sandy, elongated oval less than half a mile long and a fifth of a mile wide, the Isle of Hares is one of the smallest of the Neva's islands, and it splits the river's channel near its northern bank. Over the centuries, this island served as a refuge for fishermen seeking shelter while mending their nets, but a permanent settlement never took root. Never, that is, until May 16, 1703, when a detachment of Russian soldiers under the command of Peter the Great's lifelong friend General Aleksandr Menshikov set in place the first wooden palisades for a large hexagonal fort whose guns would bar the river to enemy ships. The citythat would take shape on the islands around this fort would be the product of Tsar Peter's vision, but he was not there to see its beginnings. Only six weeks after Menshikov's men had set the first palisades in place, laid out the rough outlines of the fort, and built the first crude shelters did Peter finally join them. On that day, June 29, the Orthodox feast day of Saints Peter and Paul, he named the settlement Sankt Pieter Burkh in honor of his patron saint.
The residents of Sankt Pieter Burkh soon Russified its Dutch-sounding name into St. Petersburg, and Menshikov's fort, later enlarged to enclose all of Hare Island within its sixty-foot-thick masonry walls, would become the Fortress of Saints Peter and Paul. Until the Revolution of 1917, this formidable structure would protect Peter's city, and from its center would rise St. Petersburg's first great cathedral, in which each of Russia's emperors and empresses would be laid to rest. Scarcely a stone's throw away, St. Petersburg's first political prison lay deep within the foundations of the fortress bastions themselves. Here Dostoevskii would languish in 1849, as would hundreds of others who, in the half-century that followed, struggled against autocracy in the name of freedom. To the dungeons of this dank, gray hulk the statesmen who inherited the floundering government of Russia after the Revolution of February 1917 would send Nicholas II's advisers and confidants, only to be sent there in their turn by Lenin's vengeful Bolsheviks a few months later. Set on a single island too small to leave room for a palace or a main street, the Fortress of Saints Peter and Paul nonetheless enclosed two of the most fundamental secular and ecclesiastical instruments on which the power of Russia's sovereigns depended.
In less than a century after its founding, the city that had been built on the Neva's marshes began to glow with a mysterious charm that fascinated Russians and foreigners alike. By 1790, the brackish streams of the Neva delta had become picture-perfect canals faced with carefully cut embankments of red Finnish granite. Elegant palaces, government offices, and townhouses stood upon the very lands that once had shifted so easily beneath the river's capricious currents, and avenues wider than the Champs Elysées stretched from the river's edge to the city's suburbs. "The view of Petersburg delights us less by what it is than by the idea of what it will be," a German visitor wrote just ten years before the city celebrated its hundredth birthday. "Berlin," he added, "may vie with it ... in regard to its beautiful symmetry, but Petersburg has more grand possibilities."
To discover all the dimensions of those possibilities required time and foresight. Still struggling to bring his vision of St. Petersburg into focus, Peter the Great vacillated about where its hub ought to be. By the time he officially named it Russia's capital in 1712, he had already experimented with centering his city on Kotlin Island (site of the present-day Kronstadt naval base), some twelve miles downstream from Hare Island and well out into the shallows of the Finnish Gulf. When Kotlin Island had proved unsatisfactory, Peter turned to Vasilevskii Island, which like the Fortress of Saints Peter and Paul stood along the Neva's northern bank. Larger and more accessible than Kotlin Island, which was separated from the mainland by more than a mile of water, Vasilevskii Island still suffered from low-lying topography that brought the stormy waters of the Finnish Gulf over its banks every spring and fall. Peter himself would never abandon his dream of building Russia's capital on land that was protected by water on every side. But in the end, St. Petersburg would find its natural center on the islands that the narrow Fontanka and Moika rivers had cut from the Neva's southern bank and on the mainland just beyond. Here in little more than a century after Peter's death his successors would build the Winter Palace, the General Staff Headquarters, the Admiralty, the Imperial Ruling Senate, the Holy Synod, and St. Isaac's Cathedral—all the institutional edifices from which Russian power could be projected across Eurasia and around the globe.
The marshlands from which Peter's relentless will shaped Sankt Pieter Burkh have been part of Russia's story for nearly a thousand years. In the tenth century, these were claimed by the great commercial entrepôt of Novgorod, the only true republic in the long and turbulent history of the Russian land, and in the year 1240, Novgorod's legendary Prince Aleksandr Nevskii defeated Sweden's armies not far from where Peter's city was to stand. During the next century, Prince Aleksandr's descendants waged at least twenty campaigns against the Swedes, Germans, and Lithuanians, but the land itself remained poor, able to sustain only a few fishing villages, some trading posts, and a handful of farmers. Had farmland and fish been their only attractions, the processes of history would have passed the marshes of the Neva delta by. But other forces were at work, for the Neva River formed a part of a vital water route that had connected Europe and the Near East since at least the middle of the ninth century.
What drew the Russians and their enemies to this northernmost point on the fabled river road that flowed "from the Varangians to the Greeks" was trade. Starting in the ninth century, the chance to exchange goods with the Near and Middle East had drawn the princes and merchants of northern Europe to the Neva's mouth, and the struggle to control that trade accounted for the battles that the armies of Novgorod, Sweden, and the Teutonic Knights had fought to retain the lands through which it flowed. After relinquishing the Neva delta to the Swedes in the fourteenth century, the Russians returned briefly in the sixteenth, when Ivan the Terrible began his ill-fated drive to gain a foothold on the Baltic. Then, the Swedes regained their grip and built the fortress of Nyenskans less than three miles upriver from Hare Island. Nyenskans had been Menshikov's first objective in the spring of 1703. Only after he had driven the Swedes from it could he begin to lay the foundations for St. Petersburg on Hare Island.
Even with the Swedes pushed aside, Peter's choice of the Neva River delta as the place to build Russia's "window on the West" violated almost every principle by which the sites for cities are usually chosen. It had no reliable source of fresh water, and the soil around it was too barren to grow the crops needed to feed its people. For nearly five months of the year from November through March, the Neva was usually frozen, and history would show that the islands and marshlands at its mouth suffered serious floods almost every year. Timber for all but the smallest and rudest buildings had to be cut in the hinterland and floated downstream, and material for foundations and paving proved so hard to come by that the city's eighteenth-century governors levied a tax payable only in stones on every wagon and ship that arrived. Virtually every foot of land reclaimed from the marshes on which St. Petersburg was built had to be filled with oaken piles sixteen feet long and driven their full length into the ground. No other capital city in Europe had to overcome so many obstacles. St. Petersburg's beginnings had no counterpart anywhere in the modern West.
Every year, Peter ordered between ten and thirty thousand serfs, prisoners of war, and common criminals to be marched to the Neva delta to drain marshes, drive piles, and build St. Petersburg's first buildings. These men worked with the crudest tools under conditions that killed them by the thousands. Some dug dirt with their hands and carried it away in containers made from their shirts and coats, while others hacked at the swampy ground with roughly made picks and wooden shovels. Cholera and giardiasis threatened everyone who entered the region, and the bad water that caused those ailments has condemned St. Petersburg's residents to endure those sicknesses ever since. "It would be difficult to find in the annals of military history any battle that claimed more lives than the number of workers who died in [the building of] St. Petersburg," the historian Kliuchevskii wrote at the end of the nineteenth century. For the men who built Russia's new capital, he concluded, the new city "turned out to be nothing but a huge graveyard."
That first summer, encampments of forced laborers sprang up on several of the Neva delta's low-lying islands, only to be washed away by floods that left their residents unprotected in the wind and mud. "We have terrible weather coming in from the sea and it floods the bivouacs of my troops," a worried officer wrote to Peter that August. In an ominous postscript, he added: "The natives around here say that at this time of year this place is always flooded." A visiting French physician reported that the Neva and its tributaries had "joined together to form one great sea, on the surface of which the city seemed to float" during one such flood, and the Tsar himself once nearly drowned when rising waters submerged the newly built Nevskii Prospekt, the main avenue of the city. Scientific records kept since those early days show that the Neva's waters have risen more than five feet above flood stage on 260 occasions. Despite predictable floods, the city continued to stand. "His will was Fate," the poet Pushkin wrote a century later in remembering how Peter the Great had ordered St. Petersburg to rise from the Neva's swamps. And nothing, it seemed, could shake his resolve to make it into a "paradise." St. Petersburg was to be Russia's New Constantinople, New Rome, and New Zion. In Peter's own words, it became the "promised land," "God's Heaven," a "sacred place" established by imperial decree on "holy Russian land."
What impelled Peter to start building a new capital on a swamp still ruled by his enemy the King of Sweden remains something of a mystery even now. When the young Tsar seized the throne in 1689, Moscow had been Russia's capital for the better part of two hundred years and its prince had dominated Russian politics for a century longer than that. Moscow's rulers led Russia's feuding princes when they defeated the Mongols in 1380 and then gathered their separate domains into a kingdom that stretched from the frontiers of Poland to the shores of the Pacific. Fifteenth-century Russians revered Moscow as the Third Rome—the final hope for the salvation of all humankind—and their rulers and churchmen insisted that the purity of their Orthodox faith set Russia above all its rivals. As the capital of Holy Russia, pious medieval Moscow continued to seem as sufficient unto itself in the seventeenth century as it had in the fifteenth. Peter's plan to build a new capital in one of his kingdom's remotest corners therefore challenged all the prejudices, beliefs, and hopes that had shaped Russians' destinies for hundreds of years.
An extraordinary six-foot-nine-inch giant who sensed that his country either must become part of the modern world or be overwhelmed by it, Peter drove Russia forward from his first day on its throne to the last. To those Dutch and English merchants who once had demanded a foothold on his nation's lands, he offered alliances, not submission, and against the sovereigns of Sweden and the Ottoman Empire who had claimed spoils from Russia in earlier times he marched as a dangerous foe. In a single generation, Peter gave his country a victorious army, a new way of life, and a capital created in the image of what he wanted it to become. As the window he opened to the West, St. Petersburg became the nerve center of a mighty modern empire that covered fifteen time zones and a sixth of the earth's surface at the same time as it remained an eternal reminder of the forces that had shaped its founder's idea of the future.
The vision that Peter brought to St. Petersburg stemmed from a turbulent youth, during which he had gravitated to Moscow's Foreign Quarter and learned at first hand the secrets of mathematics, modern weapons, and ships that could sail into the wind. As a royal jack-of-all-trades, he was fascinated by the lives of Moscow's Europeans, and took that infatuation with him on the Grand Embassy of Russians he led to the West in 1697. There, he saw men and women living more grandly than any of his subjects, and he witnessed the many ways in which modern technology made Europeans' lives easier and more comfortable. He could not stay away from Europe's museums, hospitals, shipyards, and cannon foundries, and he was enthralled by the elegantly designed urban buildings in which his hosts lived and worked. Everything Peter saw during his first trip to the West helped him create an eclectic image of what Russia might become, and that was the vision he brought to the first rough huts he helped Menshikov and his soldiers put together on the sodden marshes of the Neva delta in 1703 and 1704.
When Peter formally transferred his residence from Moscow to St. Petersburg in 1710, the outlines of his new capital had begun to emerge. Although designed to be approached from the sea, the new city's structure was best seen when arriving from the hinterland along the Neva river-highway that traders had used nearly a thousand years before. As it moved toward the infant city's eastern limits, the river shifted course from west to north, and then turned sharply west again before dividing into the branches that formed the deltas main islands to the north of its main channel. Just before reaching the log defenses that would one day become the Fortress of Saints Peter and Paul, the Greater Nevka branched off to the right, and then the Lesser and Middle Nevka both broke off from it further on. The first two defined the island that became the Petersburg Quarter, in which Peter himself had already settled to oversee his builders' progress. A little further down the Neva, the Little Neva flowed off to the right, leaving the land that stood between it and the main current to form Vasilevskii Island. These were the islands upon which Peter intended to center his new capital to make it safe from attacks by land or sea. But the Russian mainland lay along the Neva's southern bank, and it was there that the forces of history and nature had determined that the center of St. Petersburg's political and aristocratic life eventually would take shape. Even by the time Peter died in January 1725, the focus of St. Petersburg had already begun to shift away from the islands he loved so much.
The Petersburg Quarter already boasted a hundred and fifty substantial dwellings when Peter moved Russia's capital to St. Petersburg in 1712. Its center was Trinity Square, around which the wooden Trinity Cathedral, the Government Printing Office, and St. Petersburg's first hospital had been built. Nearby stood the main city market, recently rebuilt after fire had destroyed it in 1710, its huge courtyard surrounded on three sides by a rough two-story wooden building that housed its hundreds of shops and stalls. Here St. Petersburgers could buy foreign luxuries before moving on to the "Glutton's Market" that offered such home-grown necessities as lentils, peas, bacon, and flour for sale just a few blocks away. Somewhat nearer to the quarter's center, St. Petersburg's Tatar Market flourished, even in those early days, as an outlet for used and stolen goods. In years to come, it would become the city's famous flea market, to which knowledgeable collectors thronged on Thursday mornings to buy antiques and rare paintings that had made their way to Russia in the baggage of well-heeled but not always well-educated noble travelers.
Built of square-hewn logs that were painted to resemble brick, the Tsar's own quarters stood beneath a huge lime tree not far from Trinity Square. At times, Peter worked on the building himself and even made some of the furniture that filled its three smallish rooms. Other times, he and his friends gathered at St. Petersburg's first tavern, ostentatiously named the Triumphal Osteria of the Four Frigates, which an enterprising German had built nearby. There, they drank the Tsar's favorite vodka laced with cayenne pepper, laughed, cursed, and ate the naval rations of salt beef and hard biscuits of which Peter was especially fond. Late at night, they would make their way home through streets whose names told the tale of the first men Peter had brought to settle there: Dvorianskaia (nobles') Street, Ruzheinaia (armorers') Street, Pushkarnaia (cannon makers') Street, and Monetnaia (coin minters') Street all reflected the Tsar's resolve to bring the things he thought most important to St. Petersburg. Because war lay at the core of his plan to modernize Russia, he expected St. Petersburg to become a producer of armaments as well as a bastion of defense. Only then could the city play its proper part as the capital of the empire that fate had given the Romanovs to rule.
Although it contained St. Petersburg's first buildings, the Petersburg Quarter did not become the center of the city, even though Peter himself had chosen to live there. Just to the west, Vasilevskii Island had already been laid out in regular streets called "lines" that would be intersected at right angles by canals to create precisely shaped building lots on which Peter wanted the center of his capital to be built. Transformed into a watery checkerboard, Vasilevskii Island was to become (according to Peter's vision) a model of his cherished Amsterdam, with each of its buildings fronting on a canal that would make sail-driven boats the main form of transportation. Here, the Tsar's plan failed. The first canals were too narrow and quickly silted up. A sixth sense seemed to turn St. Petersburg away from Vasilevskii and Petersburg Islands toward the slightly higher land and more convenient access to the hinterland that the Neva's opposite bank offered.
Because no bridges linked any of the islands on which St. Petersburg took shape, all of its daily life gravitated toward the river. This was precisely what Peter had intended from the very first, for he had hoped to make St. Petersburg's dwellers into the sailors his nation had always lacked. The Neva and its branches thus became the avenues along which workers, aristocrats, soldiers, statesmen, and diplomats all had to make their way in roughly made boats that sometimes broke apart as they struggled against the wind, crippled by the Tsar's prohibition against using oars. Such accidents claimed the lives of one Polish ambassador, several prominent army officers, and even one of Peter's attending physicians in St. Petersburg's early days, when floods sometimes cut the islands off from the mainland for days and weeks at a time.
Once St. Petersburg had formally been named Russia's capital, Peter ordered hundreds of merchants and traders, two thousand artisans, and a thousand of Russia's leading aristocrats to move there "with their entire families and everyone who lives in the same household with them." To make the city grow quickly, the impatient Tsar earmarked nearly five percent of his state budget for new government buildings, and he chose his friend and confidant Prince Aleksandr Menshikov to become St. Petersburg's first Governor General. Probably the most powerful man in Russia after Peter himself, Menshikov lived far more extravagantly than his master, and it would be he, not Peter, who would set the standards by which the aristocratic residences of Russia's capital would be measured for the next quarter of a century or more. In years to come, some would call St. Petersburg a "city of palaces," while others remembered it as a "city of barracks." Both images had their beginnings under Menshikov and Peter, who brought aristocrats and soldiers to the city in large numbers the moment it began to take shape.
Begun by the Italian architect Giovanni Fontana, whose designs were supplemented by half a dozen other builders before it was finished in 1721, Menshikov's urban palace occupied nearly a sixth of Vasilevskii Island's main embankment. Rising from an elaborate landing pier at the river's edge, and with extensive gardens that reached far back toward the island's center, the building blended the vivacious features of an Italian baroque palazzo with more austere classical influences from France, and it contained every luxury that could be had in St. Petersburg at the time. Its outside walls were salmon pink highlighted by white, and its roof was made from flat iron plates painted a brilliant red. Fashionable Delft tiles covered the interior walls and some of the ceilings in several rooms, while its parquet floors featured an extravagant blend of exotic woods. Foreigners and Russians alike called Menshikov's palace the "largest and finest in all of St. Petersburg," although some were heard to wonder if some of its furnishings had not been stolen from Polish castles. Peter himself often used it for diplomatic receptions, his own being far too small.
Elegance and extravagance conspicuously displayed in a rural setting were the obvious hallmarks of the country palace that Menshikov planned twenty-five miles away at Oranienbaum while his St. Petersburg palace was being built. An aristocrat's refuge from the diseases that plagued the city in the summer, the Oranienbaum Palace was easily the most opulent of its day, and it gave the Russians their first glimpse of how grand buildings would be used to define the capital's suburbs in the century ahead. "The palace is built on a hill from which there is a splendid view," wrote Friedrich Wilhelm von Bergholtz, a general in Peter's army who had gone back to his native Germany only to return in the entourage of the Duke of Holstein in 1721. "The rooms," he added, "are small but beautiful, and decorated with marvelous paintings and furniture." Before the palace spread the Finnish Gulf, the gateway to the sea lanes that led to the Western world from which its designers had drawn their inspiration, and from the Grand Hall visitors could see Kotlin Island, upon which the first line of St. Petersburg's defenses had been built. The ill-fated Emperor Peter III would commission the Italian Antonio Rinaldi to build a smaller palace in the gardens of Oranienbaum, and Catherine the Great would add to his assignment by ordering a Chinese palace and a Sliding Hill Pavilion along which she and her court rode on sleds in winter and small four-wheeled carts in summer.
When Peter the Great's father had built a wooden palace in the Moscow suburb of Kolomenskoe to please his young and "modern" second wife in 1670, a handful of secular paintings, mirrors, and European furnishings had led the leading writer of the day to call it the eighth wonder of the world. Now, half a century later, such a statement seemed quaint, for Peter the Great, Menshikov, and their allies had moved Russia into a world in which progress and luxury were measured in grander terms. By the early 1720s, clothing, manners, furnishings, and entertainments in St. Petersburg all reflected the excesses of baroque Europe. The Summer Garden for which Peter set aside space on the Neva River's southern waterfront as soon as the ground thawed in the spring of 1704 reflected all those new and modern tastes.
The French architect Jean-Baptiste Alexandre Le Blond, who had worked closely with André Le Nôtre in designing Louis XIV's gardens at Versailles before being hired by Peter's agents to work in St. Petersburg, insisted that "groves make the chief beauty of a garden," and that "fountains and water are [its] soul." Peter therefore ordered limes and elms from Kiev, oaks from Moscow, fruit trees from the lands of the Volga, and cypresses from the south for his Summer Garden. He sent agents to Hamburg for chestnuts, ordered tulips from Holland, and collected roses, lilacs, sweet peas, and carnations in Russia and abroad. He installed rare birds in aviaries shaped like pagodas and left blue monkeys to chatter nearby in decorative cages. Alabaster arbors imported from Venice decorated cleverly built grottoes, and there were conservatories that sheltered orange and lemon trees against the fierce winter winds. Fifty marble fountains that took the form of cascades, spouting dolphins, and gushing horses added to the display in keeping with Le Blond's dictum that a garden without water "appears dull and melancholy."
Eventually, the Summer Garden grew to cover more than thirty-five acres of walks shaded by lime trees, along which nestled nearly a hundred antique Italian marble statues. Catherine the Great thought it all a monument to bad taste and took pains to rebuild it in the less formal English style after a flood uprooted many of its trees in 1777. But the Empress Elizabeth loved every one of its excesses, and so did many of her contemporaries. In the nineteenth century, the Summer Garden became the place to which Petersburgers went on holidays and summer evenings to parade their new fashions and be seen in the right company. At its front gate, one of Russia's first terrorists tried to kill the Emperor Alexander II in 1866.
|Pt. 1||Window on the West (1703-1796)|
|2||Lords of the Realm||53|
|3||The Shadow of the Winter Palace||80|
|Pt. 2||Imperial Colossus (1796-1855)|
|4||The Hub of Empire||105|
|Pt. 3||Cradle of Revolution (1856-1941)|
|7||The Peter and Paul Fortress||171|
|8||On the Eve||196|
|Pt. 4||"Hero City" (1941-1991)|
|10||Nine Hundred Days||268|
|11||Together in Step||309|
|12||Past and Present||345|
Posted July 15, 2006
This beautiful book about St Petersburg is what a explorer needs intriguing city. It gives one a good idea of the country, from its ethnic composition, flora and fauna and physical features,and other attractions. I also found Union Moujik, Russia and Belarus to be useful guides in understanding the pulse of the countryWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.