In May 2015, St. Petersburg, founded by Tsar Peter I, completed 312 glorious years of existence. It was on May 27, 1703 that the revolutionary Russian ruler Peter I had set out to build himself a city that rivaled the European cultural centers in its magnificence and commissioned the Peter and Paul Fortress.
When Tsar Peter I ascended to the throne of Russia in 1682, he was only 10 years old. While Peter ruled jointly with his half-brother till 1696, it was his half-sister Sophia who acted as regent and exercised all power for close to a decade. Peter later became the sole ruler till his death in 1725. He was a revolutionist and a visionary.
A great patron of western education and ways, Peter sought to bring a number of cultural and social reforms to Russia. Peter had inherited the Tsardom of Russia and his dreams for his nation were great. He envisioned a large empire that would challenge the limits hitherto untested by previous rulers. To back the size of the empire, he established a modern, rationalist system of socio-political lifestyle, and encouraged pursuit of science and cultural reformation.
Tsar Peter I undertook several military adventures to expand the boundaries of his kingdom. In his endeavors, he had often gone to war with Sweden. The delta region of River Neva had been of geographical and military importance for thousands of years. In 1703, Tsar Peter I captured the Neva delta as part of his ongoing ‘Northern War’ with Sweden. The difficult terrain had belonged to Russia and Sweden alternately. The Neva delta opened up into Finland leading up to the Baltic Sea, allowing easy trade access to mainland Europe.
On May 27, 1703, Peter commissioned the building of a fortress dedicated to St. Peter and St. Paul on the delta’s Hare Island. The fortress was meant to consolidate the region and assimilate it into Russian territory for good. Peter’s move at establishing the city at this location was an astute one. The difficult terrain had made it impossible for any previous regime to build a fortress here and to defend this territory. The war with Sweden lasted until 1721, and the region frequently changed hands between Russians, Swedes, Finns, and Germans, making the work slow and laborious. The fortress itself was difficult to construct. Built mostly by conscripts with insufficient tools and materials, the fortress turned out to be a great achievement for Tsar Peter.
Peter the Great, as he later came to be known, greatly admired European culture and wished to make use of the technological advancement of the west. The Tsar was known to have traveled incognito across Europe, learning the lifestyle and culture and studying the architecture of the European cities. He desired to build himself a great city, very European in its outlook, from where he could trade with the west. With the fortress in place, Peter commissioned the construction of a glorious city intended to be his capital. The Italian architect Domenico Trezzini set to work at designing the intended capital in the baroque style. The sweeping broad streets, the towering cathedrals and stately palaces were part of the Italian designer’s master plan.
The construction of St. Petersburg, however, was an extremely difficult and arduous labor. The working conditions were appalling and it is believed that over 30,000 conscripts and prisoners deployed to work died from diseases such as dysentery and malaria, hunger and malnutrition, punishment and execution, and sheer exhaustion. Forests were cleared, lakes filled, and hills leveled. Peter, ruthlessly, barred the use of stone elsewhere in Russia when supplies grew short. The Russian nobles were forced to follow Trezzini’s design and construct palaces in the capital city under the threat of persecution. Utterly merciless in his endeavor, Peter worked unceasingly till the marshland blossomed into a grand capital city. Peter’s death in 1725 did not end the dominance of the city. Subsequent Tsars added to the beauty of St. Petersburg.
St. Petersburg was named the imperial capital of Russia in 1712 and it remained so until the communist revolution of 1917, following which Moscow became the new capital. The city was renamed Petrograd in 1914 during World War I to make it sound less German. After the death of Vladimir Lenin in 1924, it was renamed Leningrad. The city got back its former name, St. Petersburg, in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed.
Present day St. Petersburg
St. Petersburg displays Russia’s prowess as a nation. The ‘showcase capital’ of Russia has been fine-tuned by the European architects over the years. From baroque and neoclassical palaces to grand cathedrals and impressive plazas to bridges, this dazzling city wears grandeur on its sleeves. About 8,000 architectural monuments grace this historic city.
An eclectic collection of museums, art galleries, and theaters dots the cityscape. Its Hermitage Museum, spread over four palaces, has one of the world’s greatest and oldest collections of art and antiquities. Erarta Museum houses the best in modern Russian art. Walking down the streets of St. Petersburg is no less rewarding as you come across artistically impeccable bronze statues of the Tsars and important historic figures.
St. Petersburg is also the major financial and industrial centre of Russia with oil and gas, shipbuilding, aerospace industry, and software and computers being some of the strong areas.
Russia’s first railway was built here in 1837 and since then the city’s infrastructural development was put on fast track.
Facts About St. Petersburg
It is referred as the ‘The Venice of the North’ owing to its many rivers and canals.
It has more bridges than any other city in Europe.
It is part of the UNESCO’s World Heritage List and it is also one of the youngest cities in Europe.
Also On This Day:
1918 – Third Battle of Aisne begins.
1937 – The Golden Gate Bridge opens.
1941 – German battleship Bismarck is sunk by the British Royal Navy.