A Political and Economic Dictionary of Eastern Europe

By Alan J. Day; Roger East et al. | Go to book overview

S

Assembly (Croatia).

Parliament (Latvia).

St Petersburg

The second city of the Russian Federation and formerly the imperial capital, situated in the far west of the country at the confluence of the River Neva and the Gulf of Finland. Population: 4.7m. (2000 estimate). The Neva region, an integral part of Russian states from the 9th century, was annexed to the Swedish Empire in 1617 but won back in the early stages of the Northern War (1700-21) under the Romanov Tsar Peter the Great. Despite the widely-acknowledged unsuitability of the site, with its damp climate and persistent flooding, its strategic significance led Peter to found the city of St Petersburg there in May 1703. Construction of the fortified encampment was hazardous in the extreme and scores of soldiers and peasants were killed. Peter employed European architects to create a distinctly European city. By 1712 his 'Venice of the North' had become sufficiently prosperous and important to become the new capital of the Russian Empire, indicating its westward orientation.

St Petersburg was to be the economic and cultural heart of the expanding Empire. In 1837 it became one terminus of the country's first railway and in 1851 it was connected by track to Moscow deep in the interior. As the centre of political life, it was also the focus of popular dissent. The emancipation of the serfs in 1861 prompted an influx of migrant labour, creating overcrowding and the basis for mass unrest. The 'Bloody Sunday' massacre of pro-reform supporters in the city's Palace Square in January 1905 launched a revolution leading to the introduction of broad, if poorly-backed, political liberalization. The legislative Duma was based in the city from 1906.

Following the outbreak of war with Germany in 1914 the city's name was changed in a gesture of Russian patriotism to the less Germanic form Petrograd. The severe impact of the First World War on the city and the country at large prompted further discontent. The scene in early 1917 of the March Revolution, Petrograd then

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