Peter the Great: Emperor of All Russia

By Ian Grey | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XXIII
The Foundation of St. Petersburg 1703-1706

THE Neva is a turbulent river. It flows from Lake Ladoga into the Gulf of Finland, branching into four main streams at its delta. These streams -- the Great and Little Neva, and the Great and Little Nevka -- with their affluents form a broad and elaborate estuary, containing nineteen islands. Both mainland and islands are low lying, dank, and marshy: neva, a Finnish word, means mud.

At this time the estuary was desolate. The river frequently burst from its channels in flood. A few Finns fished the waters, but they abandoned their huts and fled whenever the river began to rise. The climate was unhealthy and harsh in its extremes. Fogs were frequent and the dampness pervasive. The winters were long, dark, and bitterly cold; the summers, breaking with hardly a warning of spring, were short and hot. The estuary was isolated. Approach was difficult by sea and by land. The delta of the Neva was an inhospitable wilderness. But here Peter chose to build his city.

At first he had no thought of a city. He wanted only a port and a fortress to guard the delta from attack. His plan was to rebuild the fortress of Slotburg at the mouth of the Okhta, but then he decided that a site must be found nearer to the sea. He considered YanniSaari, or Hare Island, on the northern side of the Great Neva, the most suitable. Here on 16 May 1703 he laid the foundations of the new fortress and port, to be called St. Petersburg, after his patron saint.1

This choice of Hare Island had every mark of an arbitrary and hasty

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