May 27, 2007

Peter the Great Founds St. Petersburg

On May 27, 1703, Peter the Great founded the city of St. Petersburg.

Peter reconquered the area from Sweden, and named it after his patron saint, the apostle Saint Peter. He envisioned St. Petersburg as a modern city, which would allow Russia to take its place among the European powers. St. Petersburg was built on the location of a former Swedish fortress, in the marshland area where the Neva River drains into the Gulf of Finland.

Building was difficult in such an area, but Peter was determined to create his "window to Europe". Forced labor was drafted from all over the country, at a rate of about 40,000 individuals a year (or about one conscriptee for every 9 to 16 households, depending on the population of the area). Laborers were expected to provide their own tools and food for the journey, and were marched long distances on foot, under guard and often in shackles. The mortality rate was tremendous -- only about 50% ever reached St. Petersburg.

Peter modeled his city after such cities as Venice and Amsterdam, and intended a city in which the principle means of transport was by boat. In fact, the first permanent bridge in St. Petersburg was not built until 1850, over a hundred years after Peter's death. German engineers were imported to design St. Petersburg. The first building was a fortress, and the city radiated outwards from it. Peter forbade the construction of any stone buildings outside of St. Petersburg, so that all Russian stonemasons would be forced to come there to work.

St. Petersburg remained the capital of Russia for over 200 years, until 1917 when the capital was moved to Moscow following the Russian Revolution of 1917. The name of the city was changed to Petrograd in 1914, and later became Leningrad in 1924. In 1991 the name was changed back to St. Petersburg.

Today St. Petersburg is the second-largest city in Russia, and Russia's most important port on the Baltic. It has a population of over 4 and half million people, and a geographic area of 1439 square kilometers, making it the second largest European city, in terms of geographic area, with a population of over a million people.

Illustration: Bronze Horseman, by Vasily Ivanovich Surikov, 1870.
Public Domain

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