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The History of St. Petersburg: A City "Built on Human Bones"

Peter the Great's city of St. Petersburg was spectacular, but it was built on a "swamp of human bones."

The Peter and Paul Fortress, St. Petersburg.

The Peter and Paul Fortress, St. Petersburg.

Peter the Great's War Reward

Peter the Great of Russia left his legacy in the city that he envisioned and had constructed, St. Petersburg. It killed several thousand peasants to fulfil his vision of turning an unpopulated area into an east meets west cultural hub to rival Europe’s great cities.

Peter was born on the 9th June 1682, according to the Gregorian calendar and his life was colourful and alcohol-fuelled. He married twice, firstly to Eudoxia, secondly to Martha who was known as Catherine I. He was the father of 14 legitimate children; none of his mistresses had surviving issue by Peter. He reigned with his often incapacitated half-brother Ivan V (1666–96) for fourteen years and then for 29 years alone until his death on the 8th February 1725.

Peter or Pyotr Alekseyevich believed that Russia needed its own sophisticated city with a commanding seaport for trade to compete with the rest of Europe. He chose Ingermanland, also known as Ingria and Izhorskaya Zemlya on the River Neva which Sweden had annexed in the early 1600s. It was seized by the Russians, led by Peter, during the Second Northern War (1700–21.)

Russia's Window on Europe

The Neva flowed into the Gulf of Finland and the area boasted 42 islands and a delta. Its low-lying marshy position has seen the city endure flooding for centuries as the winds and water from the Gulf of Finland have combined to create havoc. It was only in the 1980s that flood defences were installed and some of the canals were blocked.

His new city was closer to the other vibrant European cities than Moscow which lay 640km to the south, hence St. Petersburg's reputation as Russia’s "window on Europe." Its many islands and canals earned it the name of the Venice of the North.

St. Petersburg lies just 7 degrees away from the Arctic Circle so it has enjoyed “white nights” when the days last for 19 hours in the middle of summer. This is as much of an attraction as the cultural and west-east mixture of architecture that was conceived by Peter and his architects.

The Tsar was forced to defend his modern Russian city; some of his courtiers were not as passionate as he was about the project and he faced several assassination attempts.

Tsar Peter the Great of Russia and from 1721 the Russian Empire.

Tsar Peter the Great of Russia and from 1721 the Russian Empire.

Foundations Laid in 1703 for the Russian Empire

In early May 1703, Peter seized the land and a ramshackle Swedish fort. He quickly built a much more splendid one. He laid the foundation stone for the Peter and Paul Fortress on Zayachy Island, the first stone and brick construction in the new city, on the 27th May 1703.

The official founding of St. Petersburg, taken as that date, is often associated with the origins of the Russian Empire’s establishment in 1721 and except for 1728–30, between 1713 and 1917 the city served as the seat of power instead of Moscow. The Bolsheviks restored Moscow as their regime’s capital city in 1917. Interestingly, the Swedes did not officially concede Ingermanland to Russia until the end of the war in 1721.

Central St. Petersburg, along the Moyka River.

Central St. Petersburg, along the Moyka River.

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St. Petersburg's Architects Set to Work: Le Blond and Trezzini

The name of St. Petersburg was chosen in honour of Saint Peter, not the Tsar, although it can't have been an unpopular decision. He employed the Dutch spelling of Sankt Pieter Burch but as German influence grew this was altered to Sankt Peterburg. The English spelling offered another version, Saint Petersburgh, but all meant St. Peter’s Town.

Peter the Great had a home built for himself, the Monplasir Palace, which became the Peterhof Palace as it extended into a network of châteaus, palaces and gardens based on France’s Versailles.

Peter hired Frenchman Jean Baptiste Alexandre le Blond as the city’s chief architect. The early building work centred around the Peter and Paul Fortress and Trinity Square but it soon extended following the plans presented by the Swiss Italian architect Domineco Trezzini. Trezzini chose Vasilyevsky Island for the city centre of St. Petersburg and intended that canals and not streets would lead into it. The canal scheme was abandoned and today the island is the city’s administrative centre.

A Map of St. Petersburg from 1720 as Peter the Great's city takes shape.

A Map of St. Petersburg from 1720 as Peter the Great's city takes shape.

S.V. Ivanov's A Peasant Leaving His Landlord on Yuri's Day.

S.V. Ivanov's A Peasant Leaving His Landlord on Yuri's Day.

The Russian City Built on a Swamp of Human Bones

370 bridges were built over the numerous existing canals and Baroque architecture was adopted for the grandest of buildings as the city developed, including the spectacular Menshikov Palace on the River Neva, the Summer Palace and later the Winter Palace, the adjoining Hermitage Museum and the Kunstkamera, Russia’s first museum which was completed in 1727.

Peter used Swedish prisoners of war and Russian peasants, serfs, owned by Russian nobility to realise his creation of the modern Russian city. The serfs were commodities, given no choice about whether they wished to travel hundreds or thousands of miles from their homes. Peter was an autocrat. His wish should be their wish, and as the buildings, bridges and streets of Russia’s showpiece grew, so too did the number of casualties and deaths on construction sites.

Peter the Great cared little about the workers' health and safety—the serfs and prisoners were viewed as expendable. The significant loss of life led to comments that St. Petersburg rested on a swamp of human bones.

The Peterhof Palace today.

The Peterhof Palace today.

Much of St. Petersburg Survived Fire and War

Peter the Great was dead before the significant fires of 1736–37 which destroyed part of his vision. The city was rebuilt, the city centre was relocated to the Admiralty district to the east of the Neva and the reconstructed city had five boroughs.

Today, St. Petersburg bears this name, but it was called Petrograd and Leningrad during periods of the 20th century.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Joanne Hayle

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