Peter the Great's Great City

Monday, 13 January 1890 - Saint Petersburg, Russia

Saint Petersburg in winter
Brrr! I am now in Saint Petersburg in the middle of January. 1890 was not known for it’s warm winter anywhere, and it dips well below zero Fahrenheit at night here. The record is -35 degrees in 1883. The rivers are frozen. Sleds and skates are the perferred modes of transportation. I ran across a outdoor meat market where the meat was all frozen--naturally.

So what would make me come to such a frozen wasteland? Well, Petersburg currently the fifth largest city in Europe and the population is very close to the one million mark. It is the largest city in Russia and the center not only of government, but of culture. This is a very modern and international city. Overshadowed Moscow will tell you that Saint Petersburg is the least Russian spot in Russia.

Peter the Great
Petersburg (as the natives call it) is a young city, less than 200 years old. When Peter the Great came to the throne in 1682, Russia was still a feudal state stuck in the Middle Ages. (In fact the serfs won’t be emancipated until 1861!) Peter dreamed of making Russia a modern country and part of the European community. To do that he would need a navy and a seaport for commerce. Unfortunately the only seaport was way to the north on the Arctic Ocean. (Russia did not reach the Black Sea yet.)

Northwest of Moscow was the Bay of Neva just south of Finland in a land called Ingria. It was sparsely populated but Russia and Sweden had been fighting over it for centuries. In 1703 Peter took Ingria from Sweden and built a fort on the island at the mouth of the Neva River. He named it Peter and Paul Fortress in honor of the feast day it was founded. Paul got dropped from the city name, Saint Peter being the namesake of the Tzar was only coincidence.

Tzar Peter wanted more than just a fort, so tens of thousands of peasants were conscripted to fill in the marsh and build a city. It’s estimated 40,000 died in the project. Rather than using Russian architects, Peter hired ones from all over Europe to build in the Baroque-style that was popular at the time. He also brought in scientists and businessmen. Petersburg was going to be more than a port. Peter moved the capital there, and created a cultural center.

Saint Petersburg winter taxi
Since it’s founding, Petersburg has been international with long established ethnic neighborhoods. There is even a British one! The University of St. Petersburg back home in the 27th century recommended I go to the English Embankment. I not only found a hotel owned by an Englishman, but British owned businesses, clubs and even a Church of England. I’ve been told there are a couple of thousand Brits in the city. Tzar Peter invited British merchants and shipbuilders to his new city. They must have done well because this is a rather posh neighborhood. The numbers however went down during the Crimean War when Russia and Great Britain were fighting one another. But that was back in the 1850s. So far I haven’t gotten any suspicious looks from the natives, thinking me a spy or something.

A couple of streets over is the Dutch Quarter. There are also Germans, Finns, Swedes, Poles, Lithuanians, Tartars, Siberians and of course Russians. Since the emancipation of the serfs, peasants have flooded into St. Petersburg hoping to make a better life for themselves. Most failed, which is why they revolted in 1917.

As I said, Petersburg is the cultural center of Russia. It is the home of writers, composers, artists and one of the best known ballet companies in the world. I have come at this least welcoming season to record the premier of Tchaikovsky’s ballet Sleeping Beauty in a couple of days. Maybe the natives spend so much time visiting museums, attending performances and reading because they want to stay in where it is warm!

Map of Saint Petersburg as it looked in 1890


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