History of St. Petersburg
Vasilii Surikov, Monument to Peter the Great on Senate Square. 1870.
St. Petersburg, the grand imperial city founded by Russian Czar Peter the Great, and named after his Patron Saint, was intended to be a "window on Europe." A port for the landlocked western portion of the Russian Empire, the city has been steeped in mythology since it's rough beginnings.
The city was founded in 1703 by Peter the Great when he laid the foundation stones for the Peter and Paul Fortress. The environment was rough- marshes, water underneath the land, and forest covering the islands of the Neva Delta.
Peter had ordered a conscription of approximately 40,000 men to initially begin construction on the ambitious city. Over half of the conscripts died due to the harsh conditions while having to "dig out the land by hand, dragging stones or logs or carting them by back" (Figes, pg. 4). Many of the men were Swedish prisoners held during the Great Northern War.
The construction quickly grew. The early stages of the development of the city required nearly a quarter of a million people to "clear forests, dig canals, lay down roads, and erect palaces" (Figes, pg. 5). According to Orlando Figes, in his cultural history of Russia, entitled Natasha's Dance, "Nothing in his [Czar Peter] dragooned capital was left to chance. This obsessive regulation gave St. Petersburg the reputation of a hostile and repressive place" (pg. 13). Fyodor Dostoevsky, famed Russian author, described the city as the "the most abstract and intentional city in the whole world round."
The city was intentionally made to be a vast Imperial city. The ruggedness of the terrain, the sheer cost of the city, and the grand construction imbued it with a mystique from the very beginning. Peter the Great placed regulations on building outside of the city, in an attempt to lure stone masons to aide in the construction of the city. "Architects, artisans and craftsmen were brought from all over Russia and from many foreign countries to construct and embellish the new town" Source
St. Petersburg was to be Russia's European capital, and indeed, to many native Russians, it was too European for their taste. The foreign workers Peter had imported had given the city an even stronger European feel. Rumors began Peter was indeed a German, and not the real Czar. Orlando Figes sums up the dueling sentiments perfectly- "For some, it was the triumph of civilization, the conquering of nature by order and reason; for others, it was a monstrous artifice, an empire built on human suffering that was tragically doomed" (pg. 160).
Through the nineteenth century, the city became one of the most culturally brilliant on earth. Many feats of architecture were constructed- the Hermitage museum, the Winter Palace and the Summer Palace. Writers such as Pushkin, Gogol and Dostoevsky immortalized the St. Petersburg myth, which "can be characterized by a certain duality, with binary oppositions, such as the real vs. unreal city, the city set at the end of the world vs. the notion of St. Petersburg as a fourth Rome" Source.
The city was a hotbed for revolutionary activity throughout the nineteenth century. This was shaped by the rapid industrialization of the city. Revolutionary ideas spread fast among the workers. Radical new ideas might not spread fast in the countryside, but in an industrial metropolis built on hardship, these same ideas began to take hold.
One of the first large scale revolutionary events in the cities history was the Decembrist insurrection. Organized by left wing aristocrats and army officers, the Decembrists were put down violently while marching towards Peter's Square. There were other flare ups in the city, as the Czar's central authority weakened towards the twentieth century, and workers became more involved and better organized.
World War I saw the renaming of the city to Petrograd, as St. Petersburg had a "German" sound to it. Then later, after the Russian revolution, the city was renamed "Leningrad" after the Vladimir Lenin, a leader of the Bolshevik movement. By 1939, the city had over three million residents, even though it had suffered under the Red Terror of the Bolsheviks, and later Stalin's purges.
World War 2 saw the greatest threat to the city yet. Hitler's intent was to completely destroy the city. For Nazi Germany, there was no need for a grand imperial city in eastern Europe. The city was cut off from the outside world by the German Wehrmacht, and denied food and other resources as they were constantly shelled and bombed. This lasted for 29 months, and was one of the most destructive sieges in human history.
The cities vast culture is a testament to the constant turmoil that surrounded it from the beginning.
Painting depicting view of Peter and Paul Fortress by Fyodor Alexeyev
Figes, Orlando. Natasha's Dance : a Cultural History of Russia. New York :Metropolitan Books, 2002. Print.