Saint Petersburg – the City Built on Bones

A few weeks ago I watched a very interesting BBC documentary about the history of Russia called – Empire of the Tsars. The documentary speaks of a fascinating period where Russia was reinvented and transformed from a largely rural and insular country to a major global power. In particular, the documentary focuses on the Romanovs – a Russian royal family lineage that lasted 300 years – and primarily the lives and achievements of Peter and Catherine the Great.

Peter the Great had big political ambitions for Russia that were shaped by the time he spent in western Europe and particularly the Netherlands during his 20s. When he returned to Russia, he implemented sweeping reforms aimed at modernizing the country from introducing social measures such as western dress codes and a tax on beards (yes, you read that correctly), to the industrialization of the resource economy and establishment of a navy. Peter’s early passion for shipbuilding and sailing and his lifelong dream of a Russian maritime power seemed to converge nicely over inhospitable swamp and marshlands near the mouth of the Baltic Sea. This strategically located swamp along the banks of the Neva River, which belonged to the Swedes at the time (late 1600s) would become St. Petersburg. The city was spawned through Peter’s adamant and persistent will, who not only needed a window to Europe and warm-water port to realize his dream of a navy power, but was also staunchly determined to turn his new City into the Cultural Capital of Russia.

The city was built by tens of thousands of serfs, convicts and prisoners of war (Peter ordering an alleged conscription of 40,000 serfs annually), who had to provide their own tools and food for the journey of hundreds of kilometres on foot. The serfs were in groups, often escorted by military guards and shackled to prevent escape. Tens of thousands of workers died building the city from disease, starvation, frequent flooding and exposure to harsh conditions. Often times the workers had no tools and dug by hand and carried the dirt in the front of their shirts. It is due to the heavy casualties suffered creating St. Petersburg that it became known as the City Built on Bones. Just imagine being forced out of your home to go help build a city hundreds of kilometres away at the whims of your current leader, with nothing provided, and on top of it all – you had to build it on a swamp.

Peter’s time in Western Europe shaped the urban fabric of St. Petersburg. He hired engineers, architects and businessmen from across Europe to help drain the marshland and sink trees into the swamp in order to support foundations, and design a city vastly different from Russian cities at the time which grew organically. Peter also outlined three key rules/guides for St. Petersburg:

  1. buildings must be constructed next to each other with their faces along a “red line” (i.e., creation of a streetwall and frontages)
  2. streets must be straight, not curved (i.e., creation of a grid system)
  3. everything must be built of stone

In fact, the need for stone was so great that Peter restricted the construction of stone buildings throughout the rest of Russia and ordered all stonemasons to help build the new city. And what you can see in Peter’s three rules was an attempt to sterilize the city (not too different from what Paris, Barcelona, Lisbon or even Brasilia experienced), but starting from scratch. These rules were so influential in fact that Catherine the Great ordered 160 cities across Russia to implement similar design approaches.

In 1712 Peter moved the capital from Moscow to St. Petersburg, which remained the capital for just over 200 years until the Bolshevik Revolution. In 1917, Lenin reverted the capital back to Moscow and started the Russian Revolution.

Over those 200 years as a capital, several key figures such as Empress Elisabeth, Catherine the Great, and Alexander the 1st, 2nd and 3rd would completely transform St. Petersburg from a small port on the Baltic to a major European capital renowned for its opulent palaces, awe-inspiring churches, and as the centre of the Russian Golden Age in artistic, literary and musical talent. Initially, people and key state figures were ordered to move to St. Petersburg to help populate the area (remember – it was made a capital by Peter). But over time, they began coming on their own accord and the growing number of diverse immigrants eventually turned St. Petersburg into a much more cosmopolitan city than Moscow and the rest of Russia. Famous individuals like Aleksandr Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Ilya Repin, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and numerous others called St. Petersburg their home. Today the City is the 2nd largest in Russia, is recognized as the Cultural Capital of the Country, and plays a key economic, scientific, cultural, and touristic role on an international scale.

It is simply incredible that the foresight and vision Peter the Great had for St. Petersburg had finally arrived, and yet he never got to see it.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky famously wrote – “[St. Petersburg is the] most abstract and intentional city in the whole world”

The main fountain group and the palace in Peterhof, a day trip from St.Petersburg
The Peterhof Palace and the Grand Cascade fountain

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