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by Olga AGEYEVA, Cand. Sc. (Hist.), Institute of Russian History, Russian Academy of Sciences
Under Peter the Great, the czar who initiated what is called Petrine reforms, the Russian public split on the issue of St. Petersburg.
Some admired the new town and seaport, its architecture and layout. Others cursed the German "paradise" and dreamed of returning to Moscow. Which party was right?
Founded in the Neva's estuary in May 1703, St. Petersburg became Russia's capital city in 1712. By the year 1725 it had a population of 40,000, that is it was the nation's second largest city after Moscow. Its very existence fueled controversy. Was it indeed a new wonder of the world? Or a foul gangrene, "the fiery disease", on the body of the Russian czardom? A limb one had better cut off and throw away?..
The Petrine authorities were thumbs up for the new capital, of course. The hierarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church, men of letters and artists extolled the Northern Palmyra. Its image was consonant with the ideas of Petrine reformers. Originally, however, the town on the Neva was founded for purely utilitarian purposes-as a fortress and seaport in Russia's northwest. This is what we read in the gazette Vedomosti ("Tidings") of August 1703: "... His Majesty has ordered that a town and fortress be built at the seaside not far from Schlotburg for all merchandise shipped to Riga, Narva and Schanez, and likewise for Persian and Chinese merchandise."
The new town was also seen as an important stronghold against the Swedes, at that time at war with Russia. Johann Vockerodt, a Prussian diplomat, says the idea to build a fortress, first suggested by the head of the government Fyodor Golovin after the Russian troops had captured Kantsi*, was approved by the war council.
But St. Petersburg was in for a great future. The year 1708 was an important landmark along this path. That year, on June 29 (the czar's nameday and the new town's fifth birthday), the Metropolitan of Ryazan Stephan Yavorsky read a sermon in the presence of the czar and his kin. The church hierarch praised Peter for "three protective canopies", three monuments in the service of Most High - St. Petersburg, the navy and the new army. His Eminence pointed to three causes for the seaside town "having its seat" there, in the Baltic: "utility", the country's defenses and "great interest and profit" from sea trade, for a big port it was to be.
The Russian Baltic Fleet does indeed owe its birth to the city on the Neva with so many shipyards, moorings and all.** The navy gave us a military and commercial advantage, it gave us an opportunity to get to know the wide world and increase our knowledge. To communicate with the outside world the Russians had to draw upon the latest achievements of European science, engineering and culture. Speaking about Russia, Metropolitan Yavorsky said it had been a closed, "imperfect" country until it got a navy, sea and St. Petersburg. But now, he sermonized, "we could rejoice and be merry", and beg the Lord "to let us open the gateway to the world with Peter's key." The allusion is clear enough:
St. Peter holds the key to paradise; and Czar Peter has the key to the gate into Europe, that is he has St. Petersburg and the navy.
What His Eminence said in his sermon about St. Petersburg and the navy agreed with the ideas of Peter I and his court. The czar understood the importance of the navy and of Russia's access to the sea. In his letter of 11th September 1715 to his son Czarevich Alexei, Peter said, among other things, that the Swedes, having seized the Baltic coast from Russia, "not only robbed us of so badly needed landing-stages, they also drew the curtains to check our inquisitiveness and cut off our communication with the world."
The 1710s opened another important chapter in the growth of the "Petrine town". To begin with, the Russian capital was moved from Moscow to St. Petersburg. Peter and his associates wanted to make the new capital on the Neva a "regular" (formal) town after the Western model. With the Russian army routing the Swedes in a bitter battle at Poltava (1709), which brought the laurels of military victory to Russia, Peter the Great turned to his ambitious plan to build the world's nicest town on the Neva, a town without
* Kantsi and Schanez were part of the Swedish fortress Nienschanz, now within St. Petersburg's city limits. - Ed.
** See: Zh. Alferov and A. Rodionov, "Russia's Naval Might Was Born Here", Science in Russia, No. 6, 2001.- Ed.
peer in architecture and layout. That's what he commissioned in 1716 the illustrious French architect Jean Leblon to do.
There came a spate of praise and cheers. One lavished praise above all on Peter and his reforms. In October 1717 the Reverend Gavriil Buzhinsky pronounced an encomium to glorify St. Petersburg and its founder, Peter the Great. The Rev. Buzhinsky, the shepherd in charge of the navy flock, sang praises of St. Petersburg, and eulogized its commercial and economic significance. He described at great length the splendid land around the Neva with an outlet to the Baltic Sea, the islands of St. Petersburg, and its magnificent edifices. It was a nice town, a wonderful town-such was the leitmotif instilled in people's minds. The Rev Buzhinsky also sermonized on St. Petersburg glory throughout the world.
Another man of consequence, Feofan (Theophanus) Prokopovich, stinted no praise either.
That way Russians, who had never been to the new capital, could learn about the Sts. Peter and Paul Fortress, the Admiralty, the Summer Palace and other majestic structures of "high architectural renown".
Meanwhile the new Russian capital grew apace. The long Northern War between Russia and Sweden came to a close and Russia was proclaimed an empire with an emperor, Peter the Great (1721). This event ushered in a new era for Russia and St. Petersburg. An obscure author aired the then current views on the new Russian capital in his pamphlet on the origins and growth of St. Petersburg as the capital of the Russian Empire. Czar Peter edited the booklet with his own hand. The author digged deep into history by comparing the then young Russian capital to Constantinople. According to him, St. Andrei (Andrew) the First-Called went as far north as Kiev and even farther north to the Neva to bless the site of the "Petrine town" to be. So this unknown writer linked St. Petersburg with Kievan Rus and its history. And in due course he eulogized the Petrine age and its reform fervor.
This pamphlet about St. Petersburg is remarkable in many ways. Predicting a brilliant future for the Northern Palmyra, the author turned to the idea of a Fourth Northern Monarchy voiced by Prince Dmitry Kantemir, an eminent writer of the day, in his treatise on monarchies (1714). The Fourth Northern Monarchy was Russia, a country that fell heir to the third Western Empire which, in its turn, was an heir to the two ancient empires, the Eastern and the Southern. Telling the Russian public about an emperor's title bestowed on Czar Peter in St. Petersburg's Trinity Cathedral, the obscure author of the pamphlet says it meant the beginning of a Fourth Northern Monarchy. "Monarchy" and "empire" were actually the same thing to him (we do not find that in Prince Kantemir's treatise). As to St. Petersburg, it was proclaimed capital of the Russian Empire, a state enlightened by the Petrine reforms.
The high praises of the Northern Palmyra in official writings of the early 18th century concurred with what Peter I and his associates said to this effect. To the czar the new capital was a "paradise", heaven, the garden of Eden. To Prince Alexander Menshikov, his closest associate, it was a "holy land". Particular attention was drawn to the town's geographical location making it possible to attack problems of the new, Petrine age on an all-national scale.
But such official eulogies were in stark contrast to what most of the contemporaries had to say-not only the low-born people, the rabble. High-placed nobles were not enthusiastic either. Compelled to kowtow to the official line, they said one thing at the court, and just the opposite in private. Johann Vockerodt, the Prussian diplomat, could see this duplicity. "They make the best of seeing the funny side of every new fiat and institution; besides, St. Petersburg and the Navy are abominable in their eyes. And they are never short of arguments to prove their point." Herr Vockerodt continued his testimony like this: "St. Petersburg owes the present efflorescence of its commerce solely to Peter Ps ardor and desire to make it a great and flourishing city in every respect... The Russians hate him so much they would rather not have trade of any significance there [in St. Petersburg] but, had it been in their power, prefer Archangel instead."
Hard as the Russian court might try to endear St. Petersburg to the Russians, Herr Vockerodt went on, they would never prefer that place to Moscow they love so tenderly... It was customary to compare the two Russian capitals, the old and the new, by using the Moscow yardstick. The critics took a negative view of the "paradise" and its official praise. The building of St. Petersburg and of the merchant navy would ruin the country, they argued. Herr Mardefeld, the Prussian ambassador, wrote in his dispatch to the king on 12th July 1727 about the stance of "the old Russian
party" championed by Princes Dmitry and Mikhail Golitsyns. They and their adherents saw the cause of Russia's desolation in the founding of St. Petersburg and in other ruinous projects of the late emperor (Peter I died in 1725), the navy among them. Together with the majority of Russians such people would rather give up all that and return to Moscow.
Hence the bitter dislike of Izhora seized back from the Swedes. This land, otherwise known as Ingermanland* and taking in St. Petersburg and
* Ingermanland is the Swedish name of the Russian land of Izhora. -Ed.
its district, was seized from Russia in the early 17th century. According to Herr Vockerodt, many Russians called Ingermanland "barren" and said Russia was a country large enough to need any further territorial gains... Peter Fs conquests added little, if anything, to Russia and its coffers.
The construction of St. Petersburg hit hard at popular well-being. Those who moved there had it worst of all. The prices of building materials and foodstuffs were exorbitant. The locality in and around the town had no cultivated fields, no industries, and so everything had to be brought in from afar. All that sent the prices up. We learn about this from John Perry, an Englishman who visited those parts. Because of the poor roads, he says, the prices of victuals in the northern capital rose 3 to 4 fold, and those of horse forage - 6 to 8 fold. Another witness, Christian Weber (a diplomat from Hanover), said foodstuffs and homes in Moscow were quite cheap, and one could live off there but on a third of the expenses needed in the awfully dear St. Petersburg. Lars Orenmalm of Sweden stressed this point: the czar would use St. Petersburg as a reformatory of sorts for a greater part of the Russian nobility, he sought to "render it impotent" and ruin it by a costly life there. Aliens, who would look on the Petrine town as a "world wonder", would nonetheless agree with the Russians about its "poor" site. As Christopher Gassman of Switzerland wrote in his memoirs, "St. Petersburg suite the palate of very few only, life is very dear there and quite uncomfortable."
St. Petersburg's land was no good for construction either. Concerning the town plan for Vasilyevsky ostrov (this island was visualized as the town center), for which the formal style of architecture was envisaged, Johann Vockerodt said just as much: "The site is the most dismal one." The very position of St. Petersburg at the periphery of the Russian state was likewise unfortunate, Herr Vockerodt noted.
The mood of the St. Petersburg townspeople can be seen in their
pleas and petitions to the authorities, and best of all-in their behavior: the populace would boycott Peter's ukases in many ways. A large- scale construction program was launched in Russia's northern capital in the 1710s. The czar wanted to make it a beautiful city after the European, "formal" style. Therefore the numerous makeshift structures and wooden houses had to be pulled down to make way for straight avenues. Rigorous building codes were imposed: all houses were to be erected to "correct" plans. Everything was specified in detail-building materials, the number of stories and so on. Home-owners could not put up other structures in their yards. Force was used to make residents move to other town districts and settle there.
All that rubbed the townspeople the wrong way, and they countered with sabotage. For instance, in 1719 ukases were issued to have the housebuilding program on Vasilyevsky Island completed by the year 1721. These orders not carried out, the czar had to tighten the screws and promulgate a series of harsh repeat ukases: three in 1720; another one in 1721 and two others in 1724. The latter two fiats prescribed to start work no later than July 1724 so as to have the first buildings along embankments roofed and ready for finishing touches in two years' time, in 1726. Meanwhile early in 1721 the architect Domenico Tresini filed a progress report on Vasilyevsky Island. It says only 151 nobles took land plots for construction there between 1716 and 1721 (the original target figure was over 700); and only 87 people had built or started building their homes.
The St. Petersburg populace was not overly enthusiastic about the tokens of European urban civilization either-such things as stone pavements, night lightening and the like. As many as 396 households failed to act on the Petrine ukase obliging every household to pave the street in front of the house, and 187 households did a poor job of it ("they did not pave in full or paved but unsmoothly"). All that we learn from Maestro Tresini's report. In social makeup, the saboteurs came from the lower classes and from the highborn alike, as it is evident from the list contained in the report: tradespeople (53), stone masons (2), peasants (4), and so forth; courtiers (85), generals (7), senators (1), senior army officers (57), clerks (25), scribes and scriveners (96)...
Even the upper crust wielding power in St. Petersburg happened to be divided, as we see in the Senate-held voting of 24 March 1721, which in fact decided on the future of the "formal" town. The senators considered the Petrine ukase of 1719 on the town plan for Vasilyevsky Island; four senators voted for the plan, and three- against. The motion was carried by one vote only.
All these moods notwithstanding, the trend toward a positive view of the northern capital gained currency among the town population by the end of the Petrine age. Judging by the inventory of the Building Authority for 1721, as many as 127 people took land plots and built homes on Vasilyevsky Island "of their own accord" in two previous years (the ukase provided for 174).
There came a change in the popular mood. The many vigorous steps taken by the government to improve conditions in St. Petersburg worked in the end: the new Russian capital attracted merchants and craftsmen, builders and other trades. It thus became possible to abolish labor conscription by the ukases of 1718-1721 and shift to a system of hired labor. Step by step the St. Petersburg life style gained popularity in Russia as part and parcel of the coveted Russian Palmyra of the North.
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