NATASHA'S DANCE A Cultural History of Russia
By Orlando Figes
METROPOLITAN BOOKS Copyright © 2002 Orlando Figes
All right reserved. ISBN: 0805057838
On a misty spring morning in 1703 a dozen Russian horsemen rode across the bleak and barren marshlands where the Neva river runs into the Baltic sea. They were looking for a site to build a fort against the Swedes, then at war with Russia, and the owners of these long-abandoned swamps. But the vision of the wide and bending river flowing to the sea was full of hope and promise to the Tsar of landlocked Russia, riding at the head of his scouting troops. As they approached the coast he dismounted from his horse. With his bayonet he cut two strips of peat and arranged them in a cross on the marshy ground. Then Peter said: 'Here shall be a town.'
Few places could have been less suitable for the metropolis of Europe's largest state. The network of small islands in the Neva's boggy delta were overgrown with trees. Swept by thick mists from melting snow in spring and overblown by winds that often caused the rivers to rise above the land, it was not a place for human habitation, and even the few fishermen who ventured there in summer did not stay for long. Wolves and bears were its only residents. A thousand years ago the area was underneath the sea. There was a channel flowing from the Baltic sea to lake Ladoga, with islands where the Pulkovo and Pargolovo heightsare found today. Even in the reign of Catherine the Great, during the late eighteenth century, Tsarskoe Selo, where she built her Summer Palace on the hills of Pulkovo, was still known by the locals as Sarskoe Selo. The name came from the Finnish word for an island, saari.
When Peter's soldiers dug into the ground they found water a metre or so below. The northern island, where the land was slightly higher, was the only place to lay firm foundations. In four months of furious activity, in which at least half the workforce died, 20,000 conscripts built the Peter and Paul Fortress, digging out the land with their bare hands, dragging logs and stones or carting them by back, and carrying the earth in the folds of their clothes. The sheer scale and tempo of construction was astonishing. Within a few years the estuary became an energetic building site and, once Russia's control of the coast had been secured with victories over Sweden in 1709-10, the city took on a new shape with every passing day. A quarter of a million serfs and soldiers from as far afield as the Caucasus and Siberia worked around the clock to clear forests, dig canals, lay down roads and erect palaces. Carpenters and stonemasons (forbidden by decree to work elsewhere) flooded into the new capital. Hauliers, ice-breakers, sled-drivers, boatsmen and labourers arrived in search of work, sleeping in the wooden shacks that crowded into every empty space. To start with, everything was done in a rough and ready fashion with primitive hand tools: axes predominated over saws, and simple carts were made from unstripped trunks with tiny birch-log wheels. Such was the demand for stone materials that every boat and vehicle arriving in the town was obliged to bring a set tonnage of rock. But new industries soon sprang up to manufacture brick, glass, mica and tarpaulin, while the shipyards added constantly to the busy traffic on the city's waterways, with sailing boats and barges loaded down with stone, and millions of logs floated down the river every year.
Like the magic city of a Russian fairy tale, St Petersburg grew up with such fantastic speed, and everything about it was so brilliant and new, that it soon became a place enshrined in myth. When Peter declared, 'Here shall be a town', his words echoed the divine command, 'Let there be light.' And, as he said these words, legend has it that an eagle dipped in flight over Peter's head and settled on top of two birch trees that were tied together to form an arch. Eighteenth-century panegyrists elevated Peter to the status of a god: he was Titan, Neptune and Mars rolled into one. They compared 'Petropolis' to ancient Rome. It was a link that Peter also made by adopting the title of 'Imperator' and by casting his own image on the new rouble coin, with laurel wreath and armour, in emulation of Caesar. The famous opening lines of Pushkin's epic poem The Bronze Horseman (1833) (which every Russian schoolchild knows by heart) crystallized the myth of Petersburg's creation by a providential man:
On a shore by the desolate waves
He stood, with lofty thoughts,
And gazed into the distance ...
Thanks to Pushkin's lines, the legend made its way into folklore. The city that was named after Peter's patron saint, and has been renamed three times since as politics have changed, is still called simply 'Peter' by its residents.
In the popular imagination the miraculous emergence of the city from the sea assigned to it a legendary status from the start. The Russians said that Peter made his city in the sky and then lowered it, like a giant model, to the ground. It was the only way they could explain the creation of a city built on sand. The notion of a capital without foundations in the soil was the basis of the myth of Petersburg which inspired so much Russian literature and art. In this mythology, Petersburg was an unreal city, a supernatural realm of fantasies and ghosts, an alien kingdom of the apocalypse. It was home to the lonely haunted figures who inhabit Gogol's Tales of Petersburg (1835); to fantasists and murderers like Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky's novel Crime and Punishment (1866). The vision of an all-destroying flood became a constant theme in the city's tales of doom, from Pushkin's Bronze Horseman to Bely's Petersburg (1913-14). But that prophecy was based on fact: for the city had been built above the ground. Colossal quantities of rubble had been laid down to lift the streets beyond the water's reach. Frequent flooding in the city's early years necessitated repairs and reinforcements that raised them higher still. When, in 1754, building work began on the present Winter Palace, the fourth upon that site, the ground on which its foundations were laid was three metres higher than fifty years before.
A city built on water with imported stone, Petersburg defied the natural order. The famous granite of its river banks came from Finland and Karelia; the marble of its palaces from Italy, the Urals and the Middle East; gabbro and porphyry were brought in from Sweden; dolerite and slate from lake Onega; sandstone from Poland and Germany; travertine from Italy; and tiles from the Low Countries and Lübeck. Only limestone was quarried locally. The achievement of transporting such quantities of stone has been surpassed only by the building of the pyramids. The huge granite rock for the pedestal of Falconet's equestrian statue of Peter the Great was twelve metres high and nearly thirty metres in circumference. Weighing in at some 660,000 kilograms, it took a thousand men over eighteen months to move it, first by a series of pulleys and then on a specially constructed barge, the thirteen kilometres from the forest clearing where it had been found to the capital. Pushkin's Bronze Horseman turned the inert monument into an emblem of Russia's destiny. The thirty-six colossal granite columns of St Isaac's Cathedral were cut out of the ground with sledgehammers and chisels, and then hauled by hand over thirty kilometres to barges on the gulf of Finland, from where they were shipped to St Petersburg and mounted by huge cranes built out of wood. The heaviest rocks were shifted during the winter, when snow made hauling easier, although this meant waiting for the thaw in spring before they could be shipped. But even then the job required an army of several thousand men with 200-horse sleigh teams.
Petersburg did not grow up like other towns. Neither commerce nor geopolitics can account for its development. Rather it was built as a work of art. As the French writer Madame de Staël said on her visit to the city in 1812, 'here everything has been created for visual perception'. Sometimes it appeared that the city was assembled as a giant mise-en-scène - its buildings and its people serving as no more than theatrical props. European visitors to Petersburg, accustomed to the mélange of architectural styles in their own cities, were particularly struck by the strange unnatural beauty of its ensembles and often compared them to something from the stage. 'At each step I was amazed by the combination of architecture and stage decoration', wrote the travel writer the Marquis de Custine in the 1830s. 'Peter the Great and his successors looked upon their capital as a theatre.' In a sense St Petersburg was just a grander version of that later stage production, the 'Potemkin villages': cardboard cut-out classic structures rigged up overnight along the Dniepr river banks to delight Catherine the Great as she sailed past.
Petersburg was conceived as a composition of natural elements - water, stone and sky. This conception was reflected in the city panoramas of the eighteenth century, which set out to emphasize the artistic harmony of all these elements. Having always loved the sea, Peter was attracted by the broad, fast-flowing river Neva and the open sky as a backdrop for his tableau. Amsterdam (which he had visited) and Venice (which he only knew from books and paintings) were early inspirations for the layout of the palace-lined canals and embankments. But Peter was eclectic in his architectural tastes and borrowed what he liked from Europe's capitals. The austere classical baroque style of Petersburg's churches, which set them apart from Moscow's brightly coloured onion domes, was a mixture of St Paul's cathedral in London, St Peter's in Rome, and the single-spired churches of Riga, in what is now Latvia. From his European travels in the 1690s Peter brought back architects and engineers, craftsmen and artists, furniture designers and landscape gardeners. Scots, Germans, French, Italians - they all settled in large numbers in St Petersburg in the eighteenth century. No expense was spared for Peter's 'paradise'. Even at the height of the war with Sweden in the 1710s he meddled constantly in details of the plans. To make the Summer Gardens 'better than Versailles' he ordered peonies and citrus trees from Persia, ornamental fish from the Middle East, even singing birds from India, although few survived the Russian frost. Peter issued decrees for the palaces to have regular façades in accordance with his own approved designs, for uniform roof lines and prescribed iron railings on their balconies and walls on the 'embankment side'. To beautify the city Peter even had its abattoir rebuilt in the rococo style.
'There reigns in this capital a kind of bastard architecture', wrote Count Algarotti in the middle of the eighteenth century. 'It steals from the Italian, the French and the Dutch.' By the nineteenth century, the view of Petersburg as an artificial copy of the Western style had become commonplace. Alexander Herzen, the nineteenth-century writer and philosopher, once said that Petersburg 'differs from all other European towns by being like them all'. Yet, despite its obvious borrowings, the city had its own distinctive character, a product of its open setting between sea and sky, the grandeur of its scale, and the unity of its architectural ensembles, which lent the city a unique artistic harmony. The artist Alexander Benois, an influential figure in the Diaghilev circle who made a cult of eighteenth-century Petersburg, captured this harmonious conception. 'If it is beautiful', he wrote in 1902, 'then it is so as a whole, or rather in huge chunks.' Whereas older European cities had been built over several centuries, ending up at best as collections of beautiful buildings in diverse period styles, Petersburg was completed within fifty years and according to a single set of principles. Nowhere else, moreover, were these principles afforded so much space. Architects in Amsterdam and Rome were cramped for room in which to slot their buildings. But in Petersburg they were able to expand their classical ideals. The straight line and the square were given space to breathe in expansive panoramas. With water everywhere, architects could build mansions low and wide, using their reflections in the rivers and canals to balance their proportions, producing an effect that is unquestionably beautiful and grandiose. Water added lightness to the heavy baroque style, and movement to the buildings set along its edge. The Winter Palace is a supreme example. Despite its immense size (1,050 rooms, 1,886 doors, 1,945 windows, 117 staircases) it almost feels as if it is floating on the embankment of the river; the syncopated rhythm of the white columns along its blue façade creates a sense of motion as it reflects the Neva flowing by.
The key to this architectural unity was the planning of the city as a series of ensembles linked by a harmonious network of avenues and squares, canals and parks, set against the river and the sky. The first real plan dates from the establishment of a Commission for the Orderly Development of St Petersburg in 1737, twelve years after Peter's death. At its centre was the idea of the city fanning out in three radials from the Admiralty, just as Rome did from the Piazza del Popolo. The golden spire of the Admiralty thus became the symbolic and topographical centre of the city, visible from the end of the three long avenues (Nevsky, Gorokhovaia and Voznesensky) that converge on it. From the 1760s, with the establishment of a Commission for the Masonry Construction of St Petersburg, the planning of the city as a series of ensembles became more pronounced. Strict rules were imposed to ensure the use of stone and uniform façades for the palaces constructed on the fashionable Nevsky Prospekt. These rules underlined the artistic conception of the avenue as a straight unbroken line stretching as far as the eye could see. It was reflected in the harmonious panoramas by the artist M. I. Makhaev commissioned by the Empress Elizabeth to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the city in 1753. But visual harmony was not the only purpose of such regimentation: the zonal planning of the capital was a form of social ordering as well. The aristocratic residential areas around the Winter Palace and the Summer Gardens were clearly demarcated by a series of canals and avenues from the zone of clerks and traders near the Haymarket (Dostoevsky's Petersburg) or the workers' suburbs further out. The bridges over the Neva, as readers who have seen Eisenstein's film October (1928) know, could be lifted to prevent the workers coming into the central areas.
Excerpted from NATASHA'S DANCE by Orlando Figes Copyright © 2002 by Orlando Figes
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.