Magazine article History Today

Foundation of St Petersburg: May 27th, 1703. (Months Past)

Magazine article History Today

Foundation of St Petersburg: May 27th, 1703. (Months Past)

Article excerpt

IT WAS NO PLACE to build a city, among the islands and mosquito-ridden marshes where the River Neva debouches into the Gulf of Finland. Damp, windy and prone to floods, St Petersburg has a long winter and the Neva can freeze from November to April, when hardy citizens known as `walruses' break holes in the ice for a dip. Peter the Great's capital was constructed on piles in the marshes, but so many of the labourers who toiled on it died that it was said to be founded on skeletons.

Peter ruthlessly disregarded practical considerations and human life in his determination to create a new capital for himself and a Russian outlet to the West in an area recently seized from the Swedes, where there were already some small settlements. According to legend, the right spot was shown him by an eagle hovering above it. The Tsar cut two strips of turf with a bayonet and arranged them in the shape of a cross, then made a crucifix out of bits of wood and planted it on the turf, announcing that he would build at this place a church to St Peter and St Paul. The more eloquent later version has him talking of cutting a window through to Europe.

The first house was a little log hut put up in three days by soldiers for the Tsar himself and subsequently preserved as Peter's Cabin. He lived there in cramped quarters, sleeping on a cot, while keeping a close eye on the construction of his new city's first main building, the Peter and Paul fortress on an island in the Neva. It was principally a prison and the Tsar had his own son Alexis tortured to death there in 1718. Nearby rose the original wooden cathedral of SS Peter and Paul, where Peter himself was buried when he died in 1725, and almost all the Romanovs after him.

There was also an inn called the Four Frigates and a shipyard where the first Admiralty buildings were erected at what became the centre of the city. As early as 1704 Peter was writing of the place as his capital and insisting that it must be made beautiful with trees and flowers. His New Rome, his 'paradise' as he was soon calling it, was built by forced labour. From 1706 30,000 and from 1707 40,000 peasants were conscripted every year and driven across Russia in gangs for hundreds of miles to the site. …

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