The Creation of St. Petersburg

An examination of the creation of St. Petersburg, a former Russian capital.

Peter the Great
Peter the Great. Wikimedia Commons

In July 1991 the city of Leningrad overturned seventy-seven years of socialist and communist rule by resuming its original name, St. Petersburg. An important center for science, art and industry, this great city was the Russian capital for over two hundred years, gaining the nickname 'The Venice of the North'. However, at the start of the eighteenth century, St. Petersburg did not exist.

War Gains and Building Starts

The delta of the Neva river had been geographically and politically important for over a thousand years when, in 1703, Tsar Peter I recaptured it as part of his 'Northern War' with Sweden.

The Neva led into the Gulf of Finland, and then the Baltic Sea, forming a long established trading route to Europe. On the 16th May 1703, Peter ordered the building of a fortress named after St. Peter and St. Paul on the delta's Hare Island, consolidating his conquest of the area; this was a prescient move, as the war with Sweden continued until 1721, territory frequently changing hands. The fortress was difficult to build, requiring the movement of millions of tons of earth, and the sinking of large wooden piles into the ground, all for support. The workers were conscripts with few tools, often forced to shovel soil with their hands.

From a Fortress to a City

Peter, later known as Peter the Great, admired European culture and technology greatly, even traveling incognito on a grand tour to broaden his knowledge; he desired a great European city for himself, one from which he could trade and sail in the west.

The Hare fortress was intended as the start of a larger project, and although the delta was a great marsh, either frozen or flooded, he ordered the construction of a glorious capital. The Italian architect Domenico Trezzini designed a new city in the baroque style, with broad open streets, huge buildings, cathedrals and palaces.If the construction of Peter's fortress had been hard on the workers, the city was far worse: over 30,000 conscripts and prisoners died in appalling conditions.

Dysentery and malaria were rife, workers were underfed, and punishment ranged from whipping to mutilation and execution. Whole forests had to be cleared for timber, hills leveled and lakes filled; stone grew so scarce that Peter barred anyone else in Russia from using it, on pain of exile.

The Russian aristocracy did not escape, as the leading families were ordered to build houses in the city at their expense, with each design and location already specified on Trezzini's plan. Libraries, art galleries and a zoo were added, and Peter worked unceasingly to make his geometric and ornate capital grow in the harsh delta. Peter was unyielding and utterly merciless in his creation of St. Petersburg, and he succeeded. Despite a short decline after Peter's death in 1725, subsequent Tsars added even greater glories, the city becoming an entity in its own right, rivaling Venice and the other great European centres: beautiful in architecture, rich in culture, but bloody in origin.

Some Tsars disliked the city, preferring the old fashioned Moscow (such as Nicholas II, the last major Russian Tsar), and under the communist government of the twentieth century (and after being renamed the less German Petrograd in World War One) St.

Petersburg was replaced as capital by Moscow; it was renamed once more as Leningrad.