Historical Tales: 8—Russian - Charles Morris

A Window Open to Europe

Peter the great hated Moscow. It was to him the embodiment of that old Russia which he was seeking to reform out of existence. Had he been able to work his own will in all things, he would never have set foot within its walls; but circumstances are stronger than men, even though the latter be Russian czars. In one respect Peter set himself against circumstance, and built Russia a capital in a locality seemingly lacking in all natural adaptation for a city.

In the early days of the eighteenth century his armies captured a small Swedish fort on Lake Ladoga near the river Neva. The locality pleased him, and he determined to build on the Neva a city which should serve Russia as a naval station and commercial port in the north. Why he selected this spot it is not easy to say. Better localities for his purpose might have been easily chosen. There was old Novgorod, a centre of commerce during many centuries of the past, which it would have been a noble tribute to ancient Russian history to revive. There was Riga, a city better situated for the Baltic commerce. But Peter would have none of these; he wanted a city of his own, one that should carry his name down through the ages, that should rival the Alexandria of Alexander the Great, and he chose for it a most inauspicious and inhospitable site.

The Neva, a short but deep and wide stream, which carries to the sea the waters of the great lakes Ladoga, Onega, and Ilmen, breaks up near its mouth and makes its way into the Gulf of Finland through numerous channels, between which lie a series of islands. These then bore Finnish names equivalent to Island of Hares, Island of Buffaloes, and the like. Overgrown with thickets, their surfaces marshy, liable to annual overflow, inhabited only by a few Finnish fishermen, who fled from their huts to the mainland when the waters rose, they were far from promising; yet these islands took Peter's fancy as a suitable site for a commercial port, and with his usual impetuosity he plunged into the business of making a city to order.

Harbor of St. Petersburg


In truth, he fell in love with the spot, though what he saw in it to admire is not so clear. In summer mud ruled there supreme: the very name Neva is Finnish for "mud." During four months of the year ice took the place of mud, and the islands and stream were fettered fast. The country surrounding was largely a desert, its barren plains alternating with forests whose only inhabitants were wolves. Years after the city was built, wolves prowled into its streets and devoured two sentries in front of one of the government buildings. Moscow lay four hundred miles away, and the country between was bleak and almost uninhabited. Even to-day the traveller on leaving St. Petersburg finds himself in a desert. The great plain over which he passes spreads away in every direction, not a steeple, not a tree, not a man or beast, visible upon its bare expanse. There is no pasturage nor farming land. Fruits and vegetables can scarcely be grown; corn must be brought from a distance. Rye is an article of garden culture in St. Petersburg, cabbages and turnips are its only vegetables, and a beehive there is a curiosity.

Yet, as has been said, Peter was attracted to the place, which in one of his letters he called his "paradise." It may have reminded him of Holland, the scene of his nautical education. The locality had a certain sacredness in Russian tradition, being looked upon as the most ancient Russian ground. By the mouth of the Neva had passed Rurik and his fellows in their journeys across the Varangian sea,—their own sea. The czar was willing to restore to Sweden all his conquests in Livonia and Esthonia, but the Neva he would not yield. From boyhood he had dreamed of giving Russia a navy and opening it up to the world's commerce, and here was a ready opening to the waters of the Baltic and the distant Atlantic.

St. Petersburg owed its origin to a whim; but it was the whim of a man whose will swayed the movements of millions. He was not even willing to begin his work on the high ground of the mainland, but chose the Island of Hares, the nearest of the islands to the gulf. It was a seaport, not a capital, that he at first had in view. Legend tells us that he snatched a halberd from one of his soldiers, cut with it two strips of turf, and laid them crosswise, saying, "Here there shall be a town." Then, dropping the halberd, he seized a spade and began the first embankment. As he dug, an eagle appeared and hovered above his head. Shot by one of the men, it fluttered to his feet. Picking up the wounded bird, he set out in a boat to explore the waters around. To this event is given the date of May 16, 1703.

The city began in a fortress, for the building of which carpenters and masons were brought from distant towns. The soldiers served as laborers. In this labor tools were notable chiefly for their absence. Wheelbarrows were unknown; they are still but little used in Russia. Spades and baskets were equally lacking, and the czar's impatience could not wait for them to be procured. The men scraped up the earth with their hands or with sticks and carried it in the skirts of their caftans to the ramparts. The czar sent orders to Moscow that two thousand of the thieves and outlaws destined for Siberia should be despatched the next summer to the Neva.

The fort was at first built of wood, which was replaced by stone some years afterwards. Logs served for all other structures, for no stone was to be had. Afterwards every boat coming to the town was required to bring a certain number of stones, and, to attract masons to the new city, the building of stone houses in Moscow or elsewhere was forbidden. As for the fortress, which was erected at no small cost in life and money, it soon became useless, and to-day it only protects the mint and cathedral of St. Petersburg.

The new city, named Petersburg from its founder, has long been known as St. Petersburg. While the fort was in process of erection a church was also built, dedicated to St. Peter and St. Paul. The site of this wooden edifice is now occupied by the cathedral, begun in 1714, ten years later. As regarded a home for himself, Peter was easily satisfied. A hut of logs—his palace he called it—was built near the fortress, fifty-five feet long by twenty-five wide, and containing but three rooms. At a later date, to preserve this his first place of residence in his new city, he enclosed it within another building. Thus it still remains, a place of pilgrimage for devout Russians. It contains many relics of the great czar. His bedroom is now a chapel.

Such a city, in such a situation, should have taken years to build. Peter wished to have it done in months, and he pushed the labor with little regard for its cost in life and treasure. Men were brought from all sections of Russia and put to work. Disease broke out among them, engendered by the dampness of the soil; but the work went on. Floods came and covered the island, drowning some of the sick in their beds; but there was no alleviation. History tells us that Swedish prisoners were employed, and that they died by thousands. Death, in Peter's eyes, was only an unpleasant incident, and new workmen were brought in multitudes, many of them to perish in their turn. It has been said that the building of the city cost two hundred thousand lives. This is, no doubt, an exaggeration, but it indicates a frightful mortality. But the feverish impatience of the czar told in results, and by 1714 the city possessed over thirty-four thousand buildings, with inhabitants in proportion.

The floods came and played their part in the work of death. In that of 1706, Peter measured water twenty-one inches deep on the floor of his hut. He thought it "extremely amusing" as men, women, and children were swept past his windows on floating wreckage down the stream. What the people themselves thought of it history does not say.

As yet Peter had no design of making St. Petersburg the capital of his empire. That conception seems not to have come to him until after the crushing defeat of the Swedish monarch Charles XII. at the battle of Pultowa. And indeed it was not until 1817 that it was made the capital. It was the fifth Russian capital, its predecessors in that honor having been Novgorod, Kief, Vladimir, and Moscow.



To add a commercial quarter to the new city, Peter chose the island of Vasily Ostrof,—the Finnish "Island of Buffaloes,"—where a town was laid out in the Dutch fashion, with canals for streets. This island is still the business centre of the city, though the canals have long since disappeared. The streets of St. Petersburg for many years continued unpaved, notwithstanding the marshy character of the soil, and in the early days boats replaced carriages for travel and traffic.

The work of building the new capital was not confined to the czar. The nobles were obliged to build palaces in it,—very much to their chagrin. They hated St. Petersburg as cordially as Peter hated Moscow. They already had large and elegant mansions in the latter city, and had little relish for building new ones in this desert capital, four hundred miles to the north. But the word of the czar was law, and none dared say him nay. Every proprietor whose estate held five hundred serfs was ordered to build a stone house of two stories in the new city. Those of greater wealth had to build more pretentious edifices. Peter's own taste in architecture was not good. He loved low and small rooms. None of his palaces were fine buildings. In building the Winter Palace, whose stories were made high enough to conform to others on the street, he had double ceilings put in his special rooms, so as to reduce their height.

The city under way, the question of its defence became prominent. The Swedes, the mortal enemies of the czar, looked with little favor on this new project, and their prowling vessels in the gulf seemed to threaten it with attack. Peter made vigorous efforts to prepare for defence. Ship-building went on briskly on the Svir River, between Lakes Ladoga and Onega, and the vessels were got down as quickly as possible into the Neva. Peter himself explored and measured the depth of water in the Gulf of Finland. Here, some twenty miles from the city, lay the island of Cronslot, seven miles long, and in the narrowest part of the gulf. The northern channel past this island proved too shallow to be a source of danger. The southern channel was navigable, and this the czar determined to fortify.

A fort was begun in the water near the island's shores, stone being sunk for its foundation. Work on it was pressed with the greatest energy, for fear of an attack by the Swedish fleet, and it was completed before the winter's end. With the idea of making this his commercial port, Peter had many stone warehouses built on the island, most of which soon fell into decay for want of use. But to-day Cronstadt, as the new town and fortress were called, is the greatest naval station and one of the most flourishing commercial cities in Russia, while its fortifications protect the capital from dangers of assault.

In those early days, however, St. Petersburg was, designed to be the centre of commerce, and Peter took what means be could to entice merchant vessels to his new city. The first to appear—coming almost by accident—was of Dutch build. It arrived in November, 1703, and Peter himself served as pilot to bring it up to the town. Great was the astonishment of the skipper, on being afterwards presented to the czar, to recognize in him his late pilot. And Peter's delight was equally great on learning that the ship had been freighted by Cornelis Calf, one of his old Zaandam friends. The skipper was feasted to his heart's content and presented with five hundred ducats, while each sailor received thirty thalers, and the ship was renamed the St. Petersburg. Two other ships appeared the same year, one Dutch and one English, and their skippers and crews received the same reward. These pioneer vessels were exempted forever from all tolls and dues at that port.

St. Petersburg, as it exists to-day, bears very little resemblance to the city of Peter's plan. To his successors are due the splendid granite quays, which aid in keeping out the overflowing stream, the rows of palaces, the noble churches and public buildings, the statues, columns, and other triumphs of architecture which abundantly adorn the great modern capital. The marshy island soil has been lifted by two centuries of accretions, while the main city has crept up from its old location to the mainland, where the fashionable quarters and the government offices now stand.

St. Petersburg is still exposed to yearly peril by overflow. The violent autumnal storms, driving the waters of the gulf into the channel of the stream, back up terrible floods. The spring-time rise in the lakes which feed the Neva threatens similar disaster. In 1721 Peter himself narrowly escaped drowning in the Nevski Prospect, now the finest street in Europe.

Of the floods that have desolated the city, the greatest was that of November, 1824. Driven into the river's mouth by a furious southwest storm. the waters of the gulf were heaped up to the first stories of the houses even in the highest streets. Horses and carriages were swept away; bridges were torn loose and floated off; numbers of houses were moved from their foundations; a full regiment of carbineers, who had taken refuge on the roof of their barracks, perished in the furious torrent. At Cronstadt the waters rose so high that a hundred-gun ship was left stranded in the market-place. The czar, who had just returned from a long journey to the east, found himself made captive in his own palace. Standing on the balcony which looks up the Neva, surrounded by his weeping family, he saw with deep dismay wrecks of every kind, bridges and merchandise, horses and cattle, and houses peopled with helpless inmates, swept before his eyes by the raging flood. Boats were overturned and emptied their crews into the stream. Some who escaped death by drowning died from the bitter cold as they floated downward on vessels or rafts. It seemed almost as if the whole city would be carried bodily into the gulf.

The official reports of this disaster state that forty-five hundred of the people perished,—probably not half the true figure. Of the houses that remained, many were ruined, and thousands of poor wretches wandered homeless through the drenched streets. Such was one example of the inheritance left by Peter the Great to the dwellers in his favorite city, his "window to Europe," as it has been called.