Saint Petersburg

This is my third talk out four at the New York Times journey in the Baltic Sea 3-17 September 2017 ( Please find attached to my essay a PowerPoint presentation with maps and pictures mostly taken from Wikipedia.

René Nyberg – 9th September 2017

New York Times Journeys

If Peter the Great were to found a new capital for Russia today, he’d site it on the Pacific coast! These heady words by a known Russian analyst reflect the changed geopolitical perspectives. But they also underline the extraordinary nature of Peter’s decision to build a new capital city 600 miles northwest from Moscow in the middle of nowhere on enemy – that is, Swedish – territory. The founding of St. Petersburg changed the course of history in the whole Baltic Sea area. In many ways, St. Petersburg defined the destiny of Finland.

St. Petersburg is by no means the world’s sole purpose-built capital. We have Washington DC, probably the first of its kind in modern times, followed by several others including Canberra, Brasilia, Abuja, and Astana.

Landlocked, underdeveloped, and primitive compared to its European neighbors, the Grand Duchy of Muscovy was isolated. Peter broke with tradition and sought to materialize a vision within his own lifetime. He first travelled and studied Europe. He then returned home and turned the country around with brutality and sheer willpower. He started a modernization that changed the country and remains ongoing.

Yes, during the last three centuries all Russian and Soviet rulers and the rules of new Russia have enacted reforms to modernize the country until their time was up; they encountered unsurmountable obstacles, or threats to their own life and rule. Each new autocrat picked up the baton, a pattern that continues to this day. If Vladimir Putin cannot or will not pass the needed reforms, his successor, whoever that may be, will have to do it. Change is never painless, and Russian history is full of revolts and revolutions. But make no mistake; Russia will not any time soon turn into a liberal democracy.

Reform for Russia has always meant Westernization or emulating European examples starting from dress to a clean shave. But founding a new capital on swampland at the mouth of a river in the far end of the Gulf of Finland conquered from the Swedes with a scant population of Lutheran Finnish fishermen was extraordinary. Engaged in a mortal fight with Charles XII of Sweden, Peter proceeded to build the capital that again after an interval of seventy years carries his name – Sankt Peterburg. He forced his nobles to take up residency in the new city and build stone houses there – not wooden ones like in Moscow. Despite the speed and the brutality of the move, Peter knew what he was up to. He used Dutch builders to master the canals and the water flows, he engaged Italian architects to design the central buildings of his new capital city, just like Ivan III did at the end of the 15th century rebuilding the Kremlin in Moscow.

Peter’s logic was manifold. He reorganized the government using the proven Swedish system of “colleges”, i.e. departments as a model – but without a parliament. He subjugated the Orthodox Church, modernized the army, and built a navy. To become a maritime power, Russia needed an outlet to the sea. The Baltic was dominated by Sweden, the Black Sea was blocked by the Ottoman Empire, and the Arctic waters of the Barents Sea in Archangelsk were not an option.

Russia commemorates the foundation of its navy on the last Sunday in July. The celebrations this summer were more elaborate than usual, even a Chinese detachment of several vessels paraded on the Neva. Two oversized men-of-war from the Russian Northern Fleet, a giant nuclear-powered Typhoon class submarine the “Dmitri Donskoi”, and a nuclear-powered cruiser the “Pjotr Veliki” (Peter the Great) had to stay on the roadstead of Kronstadt. The occasion honors the first naval victory of the Russian Navy in 1714 over the Swedes off the Southwestern tip of Finland in Hanko (Gangut in Russian).

Peter’s plan was bold and its realization incredible. Built on the bones of the commandeered serfs, the new city emerged. The Russian capital was moved from Moscow in 1712, where it remained until Lenin moved it back to Moscow in 1918. Peter took residence building his own Versailles, Petergof, which was located west of the capital on the southern shore of the Gulf of Finland. It faced the island of Kotlin to become the sea fortress Kronstadt and the first harbor of the new city.

Note the German cum Dutch names – Peterburg, originally Pieterburch, Peterhof (Peter’s Court), Kronstadt (Crown City). Peter’s westernization was brutal but efficient. Like the Bolsheviks two hundred years later, he revised the Russian orthography. In a straightforward way, he appropriated modern terms that the Russian language lacked mostly from German. French words were assumed later just as today English words and slang expressions are assumed without qualm. Modern Russian dystopian literature, which has produced some remarkable oeuvres, today peppers the dialogue of Russian characters with Chinese words in projected futures.

Not only was the city built on swampy ground, but the waters of the Neva estuary were shallow. Only beyond the island of Kotlin where the sea fortress of Kronstadt was built, did the sea drop to allow shipping for larger vessels. Until the latter part of the 19th century and the reign of Alexander II, Kronstadt remained the main port of the city before a canal of almost 18 miles (30 km) in length and up to 400 ft. (120 m) in width and with a draft of up to 45 ft. (14 m) was dredged from the shallow waters of the Neva to the island of Kotlin. Our cruise liner, the MS Koningsdam, will pass the canal as all ships that enter the Neva and Russia’s internal waterways beyond Lake Ladoga.

The broad and swift Neva, with its granite-lined embankments, is an arresting sight. But St. Petersburg is prone to flooding and history records several storm surges with devastating effects. A flood prevention complex was inaugurated after decades of construction and delays in 2011 closing the mouth of the Neva at the island of Kotlin with a dam. The dam and underwater tunnel form a crucial section of the Ring Road for bypassing the city.

St. Petersburg is unquestionably one of the world’s most beautiful ones. It is poetically called the Palmyra of the North, an association now less appropriate since the Palmyra’s destruction by ISIS in 2015. The city’s striking baroque and neoclassical center with radial streets and exquisite vistas emerged by the mid-18th century. The first permanent bridge was built in 1850, but to this day there is not a single tunnel under the Neva. The city’s beautiful center continued to expand until the revolution, after which the Bolsheviks turned their backs on this splendid city. Despite extensive shelling during the savage siege in World War II the city was preserved and still retains its architectural look from imperial times.

Stalin’s distaste for the city probably saved it. It never became an object of socialist rebuilding and the palaces and the churches were left standing. The only breach of the imperial zoning law that no building, except a church, shall be taller than the Imperial or Winter Palace was the Bolshoi Dom, the “Big House” of the Secret Police – Cheka, GPU, NKVD, KGB, and now the FSB. It was, of course, intentionally built higher than the Czar had willed. The dark joke about the Big House was that from its roof you could see all the way to Siberia.

The history of the city is full of tragedies and in the words of its best-known poet Anna Akhmatova “the city is particularly well suited to catastrophes.” The revolutions of 1917 and the Russian Civil War decimated the population, which fell from 2.5 million to just 750,000. The same was repeated during the Siege of Leningrad. The worst Stalinist purges of the post-war period occurred in Leningrad.

With five million inhabitants St. Petersburg is the largest city in this part of the world. It is larger than Berlin and the largest port on the Baltic. It is the Russian Federation’s number-two city and after the collapse of the Soviet Union again came to be called “Northern Capital” as it was affectionately known during the imperial period. Moscow remained the old capital and all Czars were crowned in the Cathedral of Archangel in the Kremlin but buried in the Peter and Paul fortress church across the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg.

The insensitive change of the name by the Bolsheviks to Leningrad after Lenin’s death in 1924, despite the fact that Lenin had had moved the capital to Moscow in 1918, would have remained an episode in the history of the city were it not for the 900-day Siege of Leningrad. Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7, known as the Leningrad Symphony, symbolizes the suffering of the population. In a patriotic fever, the name of the city was russified in 1914 to Petrograd, but the original name was again adopted in 1991.

But St. Pete, as it’s known to English speakers or Piter as its inhabitants, the pitertsi, call it, is not just a city of museums, churches, and palaces. It is an important industrial and scientific center. The size of its shipyards and industrial zones is striking. Most factories date back to the smokestack era; they are beyond repair. But St. Petersburg nevertheless remains an industrial and scientific center of Russia, second only to Moscow. Its universities and research centers have retained their edge.

Walking in the city the sheer mass of housing from the turn of the last century is astounding. All of it is not beautiful, but there are an endless number of elegant buildings, mostly requiring repairs. It is still possible, and indeed, recommendable to take a Raskolnikov tour based on the novel Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The apartment building, his attic and the cellar of the usurer lady are still there. It’s eerie, but fascinating. Peu à peu these buildings are being renovated. But the cruel truth remains that when the Soviet Union collapsed half of the population of Leningrad lived in kommunalka’s, i.e. in huge pre-revolutionary flats sharing a kitchen and other facilities with several families. Soviet literature and film is full of dramas about this forced lifestyle, which started to change only when Nikita Khrushchev began in the late 1950’s to build five-story prefab walkup apartment buildings that became known as khrushchyovkas.


It is beyond doubt that St. Pete has profited from the fact that it is Vladimir Putin’s home town. He grew up in the drab houses of the outskirts of the city. He joined the KGB in Leningrad and he returned to the renamed city to become a deputy mayor. He has never forgotten his city and the team that formed his government were mainly recruited from St. Pete. This has been a blessing for the city and serious funds have been made available for the reconstruction and beautification of the city. The dam and Ring Road projects mentioned earlier could never have been financed without the support of the present ruler of the Kremlin.

This also goes for the only modern train connection crossing the Russian border. The Allegro intercity train between St. Petersburg and Helsinki was inaugurated 2010 in the presence of President Halonen of Finland and Vladimir Putin. The three-and-a-half-hour trip eliminates the border stop altogether, with formalities taken care of in the moving train. With this advance, travel to and from St. Petersburg attained a European level of convenience and comfort. +++