The Most Intentional City: St. Petersburg in the Reign of Catherine the Great

The Most Intentional City: St. Petersburg in the Reign of Catherine the Great

The Most Intentional City: St. Petersburg in the Reign of Catherine the Great

The Most Intentional City: St. Petersburg in the Reign of Catherine the Great


This book examines a critical phase in the city's history. Founded by Peter the Great a mere sixty years before Catherine II ascended Russia's throne, St. Petersburg became one of the leading economic and political centers of Europe during her reign.Previous books on St. Petersburg have focused on its foundation and earliest years, or on the nineteenth century, when its cultural dominance within Russia was well established, or on the twentieth century, when the city was cradle to revolutions and subsequently lost its role as capital to Moscow. Catherine's reign has been largely overlooked, despite the fact that much of the city's image in Russian culture was established in that epoch. The Most Intentional City is based extensively on unused archival sources from central archives in St. Petersburg and Moscow as well as regional archives and manuscript collections. These are flavored with published accounts by Russians as well as foreign residents and visitors from a number of countries, including Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, Italy, and various German states. The rich secondary literature, especially that produced by Russian and Soviet scholars, adds to the interpretation. It is said that the first wife of Peter the Great once placed a curse on Peter's new city: May Petersburg be empty The city's detractors over the centuries have enumerated many reasons why the city never should have been established and why it should not have grown. Yet grow it did. No other city in the world situated so far north (almost on the sixtieth parallel) is more than a fifth its size. In Catherine's reign the city assumed the vitality, the social and economic strength, and the identity in myth and legend that assured that the curse pronounced against it would remain unfulfilled. The Most Intentional City reveals how it all took place."


It was the Russian writer Fedor Dostoevsky who first termed St. Petersburg “the most intentional city,” nearly a century and a half after the city was founded and fifty years after the death of Catherine the Great. St. Petersburg was by that time very much a city of official dom. To many people it seemed un-Russian. It was somehow false, unnatural, an artifice. Dostoevsky’s comment was not intended to be complimentary.

One of the things most widely known about St. Petersburg is that it was a planned city. An intentional act created a new capital for a new empire. It was an act of supreme confidence in a ruler’s ability to shape the dominion under his authority. The intentionality extended beyond simply creating a new residence for the court and its appurtenances. Other rulers of the time were doing that. This was to be a most intentional city, bringing urbanism into an overwhelmingly rural society. The city had never really developed in Russia, although elsewhere it was a favored form of human habitation that had for ages been coveted by conquerors, condemned by moralists, depicted by artists, lauded or lamented by poets, resented by rustics, and sought out by fortune-seekers. In characterizing St. Petersburg as “intentional,” Dostoevsky implicitly recognized it as an object to be examined, studied, and analyzed.

Dostoevsky concerned himself with one particular city that he found not entirely to his liking. It was only in the twentieth century that scholars in general discovered the city as an object of study. To a great extent it was the seemingly intractable problems of city life that turned consideration to efforts to define precisely what the city is, how it develops, its relationship to rural life, and the role it plays as a part of a larger human society. Answers to these issues extend inexorably into the historical dimension, and a rich literature studying the city in various contexts and from different perspectives has made its appearance in recent decades.

Closely related to the history of particular cities is the history of urbanization, the process of becoming urban. The distinction between . . .

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