St. Petersburg is probably better remembered for the elegance of its imperial past than for the suffering and triumphs of its workers. The glitter of the court, the stunning architectural ensemble of the city, the presence of foreign embassies and merchants, and an artistic and cultural life of world stature all but concealed from the eyes of the privileged the increasingly squalid reality in which the great bulk of peterburzhtsy were immersed. If Russia's backwardness was symbolized by the peasant and the village, in contrast to which the monarchy, the gentry, and educated society defined themselves, then St. Petersburg was the leading symbol of culture and civilization as opposed to the "dark masses." Those who sought education and high culture came to Petersburg, and those who came there for other reasons were shaped anew by the city's conspicuous involvement in science, the arts, publishing, commerce, and higher learning. The very appearance of St. Petersburg was a forceful statement of its high purpose. The stately elegance of the city's center and riverfront, the generous proportions of its public spaces, the restrained, sculpted delicacy of its stone and ironwork bespoke a dignity and refinement that locked visitor and settler alike in a spiritual embrace that both elevated and transformed.
Yet the city was from its inception a site of intense labor exploitation, worsened by severe climatic conditions and the frequent onset of disease. In the very construction of the city between 1703 and 1721, thousands of workmen, mostly conscripts and forced laborers, perished from the poor rations and severe conditions.1 The imperial____________________