The ceaseless building operations required an appalling amount of human labor. To drive the piles into the marshes, hew and haul the timbers, drag the stones, clear the forests, level the hills, lay out the streets, build docks and wharves, erect the fortress, houses and shipyards, dig the canals, soaked up human effort. To supply this manpower, Peter issued edicts year after year, summoning carpenters, stonecutters, masons and, above all, raw, unskilled peasant laborers to work in St. Petersburg. From all parts of his empire an unhappy stream of humanity—Cossacks, Siberians, Tatars, Finns—flowed into St. Petersburg. They were furnished with a traveling allowance and subsistence for six months, after which they were permitted, if they survived, to return home, their places to be taken by a new draft the following summer. Local officials and noblemen charged by Peter with recruiting and sending along these human levies protested to the Tsar that hundreds of villages were being ruined by the loss of their best men, but Peter would not listen.
The hardships were frightful. Workers lived on damp ground in rough, crowded, filthy huts. Scurvy, dysentery, malaria and other diseases scythed them down in droves. Wages were not paid regularly and desertion was chronic. The actual number who died building the city will never be known; in Peter’s day, it was estimated at 100,000. Later figures are much lower, perhaps 25,000 or 30,000, but no one disputes the grim saying that St. Petersburg was “a city built on bones.”
Along with human labor, the materials with which to build the city had to be imported. The flat, marshy country around the Neva delta had few large trees to supply wood and was almost devoid of rock. The first stones for the new city came from demolishing the Swedish fort and town of Nyenskans upriver and bringing its materials downstream. For years, every cart, every carriage and every Russian vessel coming into the city was required to bring a quota of stones along with its normal cargo. A special office was set up at the town wharves and gates to receive these stones, without which the vehicle was not allowed to enter the city. Sometimes, when these rocks were greatly in demand, it required a senior official to decide the fate of every stone. To conserve wood for building, it was forbidden to cut trees on the islands, and no one was allowed to heat his bath house more than once a week. Timbers were brought from the forests of Lake Ladoga and Novgorod, and newly constructed sawmills, turned by wind and water power, reduced the trunks to beams and planks. In 1714, when it developed that building in St. Petersburg was being delayed by a shortage of stonemasons, Peter decreed that until further notice, no stone house could be built in Moscow under “pain of confiscation of goods and exile.” Soon after, he extended this decree to the entire empire. Inevitably, stone and brick masons throughout Russia picked up their tools and headed for St. Petersburg in search of work.
The city needed a population. Few people chose voluntarily to live there; therefore, in this matter, too, Peter employed force. In March 1708, the Tsar “invited” his sister Natalya, his two half-sisters, the Tsarevnas Maria and Feodosia Alexeevna, the two Dowager Tsaritsas, Martha and Praskovaya, along with hundreds of noblemen, high officials and wealthy merchants, to join him in St. Petersburg during the spring and no one, according to Whitworth, “was allowed to excuse themselves by age, business, or indisposition.” They came unwillingly. Accustomed to an easy life in the countryside of Moscow where they had large houses and where all their provisions were brought from their own neighboring estates or bought cheaply in the flourishing Moscow markets, they were now obliged to build new houses at great expense in a Baltic marsh. They had to pay exorbitant prices for food imported from hundreds of miles away, and many calculated that they had lost two thirds of their wealth. As for amusements, they hated the water on which the Tsar doted, and none set foot in a boat except by compulsion. Nevertheless, having no choice, they came. The merchants and shopkeepers came with them and found solace in the fact that they could charge outrageous prices for their goods. Many laborers—Russian, Cossack and Kalmuck—having served the required time in building public works, stayed on, being unwilling or unable to walk the long distance home, and were engaged by noblemen in building the private houses commanded by the Tsar. Eventually, thousands of these laborers settled and built homes for themselves in Petersburg. Peter encouraged these efforts by coming, whenever invited, to lay the first stone of any new building and to drink a glass to the success of the owner.
Neither the location nor the design of these houses was left to free will or chance. Noble families were required to build houses with beams, lath and plaster “in the English style” along the left bank of the Neva (noblemen owning more than 500 peasants were required to build two-storied houses); a thousand merchants and traders were instructed to build wooden houses on the opposite side of the river. Built in haste by unwilling labor for unhappy owners, the new houses were often flawed by leaky roofs, cracking walls and sagging floors. Nevertheless, to add to the grandeur of the city, Peter ordered that all substantial citizens whose houses were only one story high must add a second story. To aid them, he instructed Trezzini to make available free plans of different-sized houses of suitable design.
Most of the new city was built of wood, and fires broke out almost every week. Attempting to contain the damage, the Tsar organized a system of constant surveillance. At night, while the city slept, watchmen sat in church towers looking out over the silent rooftops. At the first sign of fire, the watchman who spotted it rang a bell whose signal was immediately picked up and passed along by other watchmen throughout the city. The bells woke drummers, who turned out of bed and beat their drums. Soon the streets were filled with men, hatchets in hand, running to the fire. Soldiers who happened to be in the city also were expected to hurry to the scene. Eventually, every officer, civil or military, stationed in St. Petersburg was given a special fire-fighting assignment for which he was paid an extra monthly allowance; failure to appear brought swift punishment. Peter himself had such an assignment and received a salary along with the rest. “It is a common thing,” said a foreign observer “to see the Tsar among the workmen with a hatchet in his hand, climbing to the top of the houses that are all in flames, with such danger to him that the spectators tremble at the sight of it.” In the winter when water was frozen, hatchets and axes were the only tools that could be used to fight fires. If the houses standing next to the house in flames could be chopped apart and dragged away quickly enough, the fire could be isolated. Peter’s presence always had great effect. According to Just Juel, the Danish ambassador, “As his intelligence is extraordinarily quick, he sees at once what must be done to extinguish the fire; he goes up to the roof; he goes to all the worst danger points; he incites nobles as well as common people to help in the struggle and does not pause until the fire is put out. But when the sovereign is absent, things are very different. Then the people watch the fires with indifference and do nothing to help extinguish them. It is vain to lecture them or even to offer them money; they merely wait for a chance to steal something.”
The other looming natural danger was flood. Petersburg was built at sea level, and whenever the Neva River rose more than a few feet, the city was inundated. Peter wrote to Menshikov in 1706:
The day before yesterday the wind from west-southwest blew up such waters as, they say, have never been before. In my house, the water rose twenty-one inches above the floor; and in the garden and on the other side along the streets people went about freely in boats. However, the waters did not remain long—less than three hours. Here it was entertaining to watch how the people, not only the peasants but their women, too, sat on the roofs and in trees during the flood. Although the waters rose to a great height, they did not cause bad damage.
“On the 9th at midnight, there came out of the sea from the southwest so strong a wind that the town was completely under water,” wrote an English resident in January 1711. “Many people would have been surprised and drowned if the bells had not been rung to wake them and make them go up to the roofs of their houses. The greater part of their houses and livestock were destroyed.” Nearly every autumn, the Neva overflowed, cellars were swamped and provisions destroyed. So many building planks and beams drifted away that it became a capital crime to take such floating objects from the water before the owner could retrieve them. In November 1721, another tremendous southwest wind backed up the river again, carrying a two-masted schooner through the streets and leaving it stranded against the side of a house. “The damage is beyond words,” the French ambassador reported to Paris. “Not a single house is left that has not had its share. Losses are reckoned at two or three million roubles. [But] the Tsar, like Philip of Spain [after the loss of the Armada], made the greatness of his soul clear by his tranquility.”
Even fifteen years after its founding, as tall, windowed palaces were rising along the Neva embankments, and French gardeners were laying out formal, geometric flowerbeds, daily life in St. Petersburg remained, in one foreigner’s description, a “hazardous hand-to-mouth bivouacking.” One problem was that the region simply could not feed itself. The Neva delta, with its great stretches of water, forest and swamp, seldom produced good harvests, and sometimes, in wet years, crops rotted before they ripened. Wild nature was helpful; there were strawberries, blackberries and an abundance of mushrooms, which Russians ate as a great delicacy with only salt and vinegar. There were small hares, whose gray fur turned white in winter, which provided dry, tough meat, and wild geese and ducks. The rivers and lakes teemed with fish, but foreigners were chagrined to find that they could not buy it fresh; Russians preferred fish salted or pickled. But despite what could be gleaned from soil, forest and waters, St. Petersburg would have starved without provisions sent from outside. Thousands of carts traveled from Novgorod and even from Moscow during the warmer months bringing food to the city; in winter, the lifeline was maintained on a stream of sleds. If these supplies were even slightly delayed along the way, prices immediately soared in St. Petersburg and in the villages nearby, for, in reverse of the normal process, the town supplied its satellites with food.
In the forest around St. Petersburg, an endless horizon of scraggly birches, thin pines, bushes and swamps, the traveler who ventured off the road was quickly lost. The few farms in the region lay in clearings reached by unmarked paths. And in these thickets and groves roamed bears and wolves. The bears were less dangerous, for in summer they found enough to eat and in winter they slept. But wolves were plentiful in all seasons, and in winter they appeared in aggressive packs of thirty or forty. This was when hunger drove them to enter farmyards to catch dogs and even attack horses and men. In 1714, two soldiers standing guard in front of the central foundry in St. Petersburg were attacked by wolves; one was torn to pieces and eaten on the spot, the second crawled away but died soon after. In 1715, a woman was devoured in broad daylight on Vasilevsky Island, not far from Prince Menshikov’s palace.
Not surprisingly, few Russians chose to live in this wet, desolate and dangerous region. For a while, it was empty, as war and plague swept away most of the original Finnish-speaking inhabitants. Peter gave land to his noblemen and officers, and they brought families and even whole villages of peasants from the interior of Russia to settle here. These simple people, uprooted from the pleasant hills and meadows around Moscow, suffered greatly but did not complain. “It is surprising to see with what resignation and patience those people both high and low submit to such hardships,” wrote Weber. “The common sort say that life is but a burden to them. A Lutheran minister related to me that on occasion when he examined some simple Russian peasants about their belief and asked whether they knew what they ought to do in order to obtain eternal salvation, they answered that it was very uncertain even whether they should go to heaven at all, for they believed that everlasting happiness was reserved for the Tsar and his great boyars.”
It was not just the common people who hated St. Petersburg. Russian noblemen and foreign ambassadors grumbled and wondered how long the city would survive its founder. Tsarevna Maria declared, “Petersburg will not endure after our time. May it remain a desert.” Only a few saw more clearly. It was Menshikov who said that St. Petersburg would become another Venice, and that the day would come when foreigners would travel there purely out of curiosity and to enjoy its beauty.
The Swedes never understood Peter’s fierce attachment to this marshy site. The Tsar’s determination to keep the new city became the chief obstacle to making peace. When Russian fortunes in the war were low, Peter was willing to give up all he had conquered in Livonia and Estonia, but he would never agree to yield St. Petersburg and the mouth of the Neva. Few in Sweden understood that the Tsar had split the Swedish Baltic empire permanently, that the wedge driven between Sweden’s northern and southern Baltic provinces, interrupting the lines of communication across the Neva delta, presaged their eventual total loss. Most Swedes considered the loss to be relatively minor and only temporary and thought Peter a fool. Knowing how the winds driving up the gulf piled water into the Neva delta and flooded many of the marshy islands, they assumed that wind and water would quickly destroy the fledgling town. The new settlement became the butt of jokes. The attitude of Sweden was that of its supremely confident King: “Let the Tsar tire himself with founding new towns. We will keep for ourselves the honor of taking them.”
Peter called the new city St. Petersburg after his patron saint, and it became the glory of his reign, his “paradise,” his “Eden,” his “darling.” In April 1706, he began a letter to Menshikov, “I cannot help writing you from this paradise; truly we live here in heaven.” The city came to represent in brick and stone everything important in his life: his escape from the shadowy intrigue, the tiny windows and vaulted chambers of Moscow; his arrival on the sea; the opening to the technology and culture of Western Europe. Peter loved his new creation. He found endless pleasure in the great river flowing out to the Gulf, in the waves lapping under the fortress walls, in the salty breeze that filled the sails of his new ships. Construction of the city became his passion. No obstacle was great enough to prevent his carrying out his design. On it he lavished his energy, millions of roubles and thousands of lives. At first, fortification and defense were his highest considerations, but within less than a year he was writing to Tikhon Streshnev in Moscow asking for flowers to be sent from Ismailovo near Moscow, “especially those with scent. The peony plants have arrived in very good condition, but no balsam or mint. Send them.” By 1708, he had built an aviary and sent to Moscow for “8,000 singing birds of various sorts.”
After Peter, a succession of empresses and emperors would transform the early settlement of logs and mud into a dazzling city, its architecture more European than Russian, its culture and thought a blend of Russia and the West. A long line of majestic palaces and public buildings, yellow, light blue, pale green and red, would rise along the three-mile granite quay which fronted the south bank of the Neva. With its merging of wind and water and cloud, its 150 arching bridges linking the nineteen islands, its golden spires and domes, its granite columns and marble obelisks, St. Petersburg would be called the Babylon of the Snows and the Venice of the North. It would become a fountainhead of Russian literature, music and art, the home of Pushkin, Gogol and Dostoevsky, of Borodin, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov, of Petipa, Diaghilev, Pavlova and Nijinsky. For two centuries, the city would also be the stage on which the political destinies of Russia were enacted as Russia’s sovereigns struggled to rule the empire from the city Peter had created. And in this city was played the final act of the drama in which Peter’s dynasty was overthrown. Even the name of the city would change as the new regime, seeking to honor its founder, decided to give Lenin “the best we had.” The new name, however, still sticks in the throats of many of the city’s citizens. To them, it remains simply “Peter.”