Perhaps it was chance. Peter, at first, had no thought of building a city, much less a new capital, on the Neva. He wanted first a fort to guard the mouth of the river and then a port so that ships trading with Russia could avoid the long journey to Archangel. Perhaps if he had captured Riga first, St. Petersburg would never have been built—Riga was a flourishing port, already a great center for Russian trade, and it was free of ice for six weeks longer than the mouth of the Neva—but Riga did not fall into Peter’s hands until 1710. The site of St. Petersburg was the first spot where Peter set his foot on the Baltic coast. He did not wait; who knew what the future would bring? Seizing the moment, as he always did, he began to build.

Many things about St. Petersburg are unique. Other nations, in the flush of youth or a frenzy of reform, have created new national capitals on previously empty ground: Washington, Ankara and Brasilia are examples. But no other people has created a new capital city in time of war, on land still technically belonging to a powerful, undefeated enemy. Moreover, 1703 was late in the history of Europe for the founding of a major city. By then, large towns and cities had sprung up even in Europe’s American colonies: New York was already seventy-seven years old, Boston seventy-three, Philadelphia sixty. And St. Petersburg, for 200 years the capital of the Russian empire, now the second-largest city of the Soviet Union, is the northernmost of all the great metropolises of the world. Placing it at the same latitude on the North American continent would mean planting a city of three and a half million on the upper shores of Hudson Bay.

When Peter came down through the forests and emerged where the Neva meets the sea, he found himself in a wild, flat, empty marsh. At the mouth of the Neva, the broad river loops north in a backward S and then flows westward into the sea. In the last five miles, it divides into four branches which intersect with numerous streams flowing through the marshland to create more than a dozen islands overgrown with thickets and low forests. In 1703, the whole place was a bog, soggy with water. In the spring, thick mists from melting snow and ice hung over it. When strong southwest winds blew in from the Gulf of Finland, the river backed up and many of the islands simply disappeared underwater. Even traders who for centuries had used the Neva to reach the Russian interior had never built any kind of settlement there: It was too wild, too wet, too unhealthy, simply not a place for human habitation. In Finnish, the word “neva” means “swamp.”

The fort at Nyenskans was five miles upriver. Nearer the sea, on the left bank, a Finnish landowner had a small farm with a country house. On Hare Island in the center of the river were crude mud huts which a few Finnish fishermen used in the summer months; whenever the water rose, the fishermen abandoned them and retreated to higher ground. But in Peter’s eyes the river sweeping past in a swift and silent flood broader than the Thames at London was magnificent. It was here that Peter decided to build a new and larger fortification to defend the newly seized mouth of the river. The first digging began on May 16, 1703, the date of the foundation of the city of St. Petersburg.

The fortress, named after St. Peter and St. Paul, was to be large, covering the entire island, so that on all sides it would be surrounded by the Neva or its tributaries. The southern side was protected by the fast-flowing river, while the northern, eastern and western approaches were morass, crisscrossed with streams. As the island itself was low and marshy and sometimes covered by flood, the first stage of work was to bring in earth to raise the level of the island above the water’s reach. The Russian workers had no tools except crude pickaxes and shovels. Lacking wheelbarrows, they scraped dirt into their shirts or into rough bags and carried it with their hands to the site of the rising ramparts.

In spite of everything, within five months the fortress began to take shape. It was in the form of an oblong hexagon, with six great bastions, each constructed under the personal supervision of one of the Tsar’s closest friends and each named for its builder: the Menshikov, the Golovin, the Zotov, the Trubetskoy and the (Kyril) Naryshkin. The sixth bastion was supervised by Peter himself and named after him. The fortress was built of earth and timber; later, Peter ordered the ramparts rebuilt with higher, thicker walls of stone. They rose grim, brown, implacable, jutting up thirty feet from the Neva waves, commanded by rows of cannon. Near the end of Peter’s reign, Friedrich Weber, the Hanoverian ambassador, noted that, “On one of the bastions they hoist every day after the Dutch manner the great flag of the fortress on a great mast.… On festival days they display another huge yellow flag which represents the Russian eagle grasping with his claws the four seas which touch Russia’s borders, the White, the Black, the Caspian and the Baltic.”

Just outside the fortress was the small one-story log house in which Peter lived while the work progressed. Constructed by army carpenters between May 24 and 26, 1703, it was fifty-five feet long and twenty feet wide and had three rooms: a bedroom, a dining room and a study. There were no stoves or chimneys, as Peter meant to occupy it only in the summer months. Its most interesting feature is the effort that the Tsar made to hide the fact that it was a log cabin: the mica windows were large and latticed in the style of Holland, the shingles on the high-angled roof were laid and painted to imitate tiles, and the log walls were planed flat and painted with a grid of white lines to give the impression of brick. (The house, the oldest building in the city, has been surrounded by a series of outer shells for preservation. There it remains to this day.)

Battle of Systerbäck

Work on the fortress was intensive because in those early years Peter never knew when the Swedes would return. In fact, they returned every summer. In 1703, within a month of Peter’s occupation of the delta, a Swedish army of 4,000 approached from the north and camped on the north bank of the Neva. On July 7, Peter personally led six Russian regiments, four dragoon and two infantry—in all, a force of 7,000—against the Swedes, defeated them and forced them to retreat. The Tsar was constantly under fire, and Patkul, who was present, was forced to remind his tall patron that “he was also mortal like all men and that the bullet of a musketeer could upset the whole army and place the country in serious danger.” Throughout that first summer, too, the Swedish Admiral Nummers kept nine ships lying at anchor in the mouth of the Neva, blocking Russian access to the gulf and awaiting a chance to move against the growing Russian entrenchments upriver. Peter, meanwhile, had returned to the shipyards above Lake Ladoga to spur construction, and eventually a number of vessels, including the frigate Standard, arrived off the new fortress on the Neva. Unable to challenge Nummers’ stronger force, the ships waited here until the approach of cold weather forced him to withdraw. Then, Peter sailed the Standard out into the Gulf of Finland.

It was an historic moment, the first voyage of a Russian tsar on a Russian ship on the Baltic Sea. Although skim ice was already forming over the gray waves, Peter was eager to explore. On his right, as he sailed westward away from the Neva, he could see the rocky promontories of the coast of Karelia fading away northward toward Vyborg. On his left were the low, gently rolling hills of Ingria, stretching westward to Narva, beyond the horizon. Dead ahead, just over fifteen miles from the Neva delta, he saw the island which came to be called Kotlin by the Russians and which was to be the site of the fortress and naval base Kronstadt. Sailing around the island and measuring the depth of the water with a lead line in his own hand, Peter found that the water north of the island was too shallow for navigation. But south of the island was a channel which led all the way to the mouth of the river. To protect this passage and to install an outpost fortification for the larger work he was building on Kotlin Island, Peter ordered that a fort be constructed in the middle of the water at the edge of the channel. It was difficult work: Boxes filled with stones had to be dragged across the ice and then sunk beneath the waves to form a foundation. But by spring a small fort with fourteen cannon rose directly from the sea.

From the beginning, Peter had intended that his foothold on the Baltic would become a commercial port as well as a base for naval operations. At his instruction, Golovin wrote to Matveev in London to encourage commercial vessels to call on the new port. The first ship, a Dutch merchantman, arrived in November 1703, when the new port had been in Russian hands for only six months. Hearing of the ship’s arrival at the mouth of the river, Peter went to greet her and to pilot her upstream himself. The captain’s surprise at discovering the identity of his royal pilot was matched by Peter’s pleasure on learning that the cargo of wine and salt belonged to his old friend Cornelius Calf of Zaandam. Menshikov gave a banquet for the captain, who was also rewarded with 500 ducats. To further honor the occasion, the ship itself was renamed St. Petersburg, and was granted a permanent exclusion from all Russian tolls and customs duties. Similar rewards were promised to the next two vessels to arrive in the new port, and before long a Dutchman and an Englishman anchored to claim their prizes. Thereafter, Peter did everything possible to encourage use of St. Petersburg by foreign merchantmen. He reduced the tolls to less than half what the Swedes levied in the Baltic ports they controlled. He promised to send Russian products to England at very low prices, provided the English would pick them up in St. Petersburg rather than Archangel. Later, he was to use his power as tsar to divert vast portions of all Russian trade away from its traditional path to the Arctic and toward the new ports on the Baltic.

To strengthen his grip on his new possession, Peter also made great efforts to build new ships in the Lake Ladoga yards. On September 23, 1704, he wrote to Menshikov, “Here, thanks be to God, all goes fairly well. Tomorrow and the day after, three frigates, four snows, a packet-boat and a galliot will be launched.” But the Ladoga waters were stormy and treacherous, and too many of these ships were foundering or going aground on the southern shore as they approached the Schlüsselburg fortress at the Ladoga end of the Neva River. The remedy, Peter decided, was to move the main shipyard to St. Petersburg so that the Ladoga voyage could be avoided. In November 1704, he laid the foundation of a new construction yard on the left bank of the Neva, across the river and just downstream from the Peter and Paul Fortress. Originally, the Admiralty was only a simple shipyard. A large, open rectangle was established beside the river with one side on the water and the other three made up of rows of wooden sheds which served as workshops, forges, living quarters for the workmen and storehouses for ropes, sails, cannon and timber. From the central section, which was used for offices and eventually became the headquarters of the Russian fleet, rose a tall, thin wooden spire, surmounted by a weathervane in the form of a ship.* Beneath this spire, in the open space surrounded by the sheds, Peter’s ships were built. The sizable hulls were constructed beside the Neva, then slid into the river and towed to wharves for fitting out. Soon after its founding, Peter became concerned that the Admiralty was too exposed to possible Swedish attack and the three land sides were fortified with high stone ramparts, glissaded slopes and moats, giving the city a second bastion almost as powerful as the Peter and Paul Fortress.

In the years that followed, Swedish probing attacks and harassment of the new city continued, both by land and by sea. In 1705, the Russians drove tall stakes into the waters of the channel off Kotlin Island and tied ropes between them to keep Swedish craft from penetrating up toward St. Petersburg. An approaching Swedish squadron, seeing from a distance the mass of tall stakes and ropes, took them for the masts of a sizable Russian fleet and withdrew after an ineffectual long-range bombardment. In 1706, Peter himself, sailing far out in the gulf, sighted a Swedish squadron headed in his direction and returned immediately to report the news by agreed-on cannon signals to Vice Admiral Cruys, the Dutch officer in command of the Russian fleet. Cruys, however, refused to believe the Tsar’s report and was convinced only when he saw the Swedish ships with his own eyes. Some time after that, Peter touched on the episode with ironic humor. Cruys, reporting on naval matters, complained to Peter of the general ignorance and insubordination of his fleet officers, saying, “His Majesty, with his skill, knows the importance of perfect ‘subordination.’ ” Peter responded warmly, “The Vice Admiral [Cruys] is himself to blame for the want of skill of the naval officers as he himself engaged nearly all of them.… As concerns my skill, this compliment is not on a very firm footing. Not long ago, when I went to sea and saw the enemy’s ships from my yacht and signaled according to custom the number of ships, it was thought only to be amusement or the salute for a toast, and even when I myself came on board to the Vice Admiral, he was unwilling to believe until his sailors had seen them from the masthead. I must therefore beg him either to omit my name from the list of those whom he judges skillful, or in future cease from such raillery.”

With the passage of time, Peter’s vision of St. Petersburg grew broader. He began to see it as more than a fortress guarding the mouth of the Neva, or even a wharf and shipyard for commercial and naval vessels on the Baltic. He began to see it as a city. An Italian architect, Domenico Trezzini, who had built a handsome palace for King Frederick IV of Denmark, arrived in Russia at exactly this moment. His style, like that of most architects practicing then in Northern Europe, was heavily influenced by Holland, and it was this Dutch, Protestant, northern-baroque design which Trezzini brought to Russia. He had signed a contract on April 1, 1703, to become the Tsar’s Master of Building, Construction and Fortification, and Peter quickly brought him to the Neva to supervise all construction there. For nine years, as the first buildings were converted from simple log structures to brick and stone, Trezzini put his stamp on the city. While laborers were still toiling on the earth foundations of the fortress, Trezzini began to build a small and functional church within its walls. Lacking elegant materials to decorate its interior, Trezzini covered the walls with yellow stucco in imitation of marble. In 1713, Trezzini began construction of the baroque Peter and Paul Cathedral, which, with numerous modifications, still stands on the site today, its Germanic golden spire soaring 400 feet into the air.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.