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History Of The Building St Petersburg History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

Peter the Great’s cruelty and ambition came together in the grandeur of his most enduring project: the creation of a modern capital city on a bare swampy portion of the Baltic coast which he named after himself, St. Petersburg. After having finally reached his long-life dream of accessing a western sea port, Peter wasted no time in ordering the building process of his great city. Despite its beauty and its great source of revenue as a tourist attraction in the present day, the building of St. Petersburg took too great a toll on the people of Russia in lives, cultural uprooting, and costs.

In order to make his dream city become a reality, Peter needed raw labor, and lots of it. After having conquered the mouth of the Neva River in 1703, Peter’s primary thought was to build a port on the Baltic along with a fort to guard it and all this was to be done as soon as possible. Not having conquered a better spot, he decided to build the city there. [1] If “the Dutch had tamed the sea in building Amsterdam…” so could the Russians. [2] The solution to getting the work done fast was to implement forced labor. “From 1706 30,000 and from 1707 40,000 peasants were conscripted every year…including Cossacks, Swedish prisoners, Siberians, Tatars, Finns…” [3] Villages protested that they lost all their able-bodied men. “From Kyiv alone, 8,152 men were taken in 5 years.” [4] Not only were these workers made to work against their will, but they also had to deal with the extreme conditions of the swampy wasteland. It was at the mouth of the Neva River, where mosquitoes flocked, wolf packs attacked and ate humans, floods were frequent, the winter was known to be bitter and cruel and the summer days fierce and scorching, that Peter the Great chose to build his city. “The housing that was provided lacked any kind of cleanliness, the large number of workers resulted in a scarcity of food, the inexperience of the peasants caused many accidents.” [5] “Wages were not paid regularly and desertion was chronic.” [6] Scurvy, dysentery, malaria and other diseases were popular because of the lack of sanitary conditions, and often were the cause of dying workers. “It is estimated that from 30,000 to 100,000 people died building St. Petersburg.” [7] As Nikalai Karamzin stated, the city “was built on tears and corpses.” [8] It was literally a city built on bones.

The primary thing a new city requires is a population, so after Peter declared St. Petersburg the new capital he demanded the entire court move there. All noblemen, high officials and wealthy merchants were told to come as well. There were to be no exceptions as Whitworth described, “…no one…was allowed to excuse themselves by age, business, or indisposition.” [9] Reluctantly they all moved there, not having any choice on the matter. It wasn’t a popular location at all and complaining was often heard whenever Peter wasn’t around. One of Peter’s own jesters complained, “On one side the sea, on the other sorrow, on the third moss, on the fourth a sigh.” [10] Whether or not Peter was aware of these complaints he never showed it and continued on with his westernization plan for Russia. Remembering the bloody 1682 streltsy uprising against his family, Peter despised Moscow and anything dealing with it; so he dedicated his life to enforcing Russia to adopt the western ways and culture he so greatly admired. “The city was intended to wrest the spiritual leadership away from Moscow.” [11] The first change Peter made was he replaced the dvorianstvo (nobility be inheritance) by shliakhetstvo (nobility be personal service). [12] He then followed with a proclamation stating “that within a certain time nobles who wished to present themselves at court must build themselves a residence there, employing one of the standard architectural designs…” [13] This required all houses to be of required size, design, certain materials and a specific location. For example building in stone was forbidden anywhere else in the country so all stoneworkers moved to St. Petersburg. [14] Since there were so many requirements and most of the building materials as well as other things had to be brought in from far distances which cost more money, “Many calculated that they had lost two thirds of their wealth.” [15] Extra money was also spent on things like bribing the merchants to reroute their trade to St. Petersburg. [16] Peter also forced Westernization of the population by allowing foreigners to live within the city, by demanding courtiers wear Western clothing, missing the sexes socially, forcing conformation to the social etiquette manual he provided, and requiring education in science, navigation and technology. [17] Since the elderly and sick were often left behind near Moscow, families became estranged. Religion was mocked and beards cut off. [18] A new culture was imposed on these people, which was emotionally distressing, and many were ruined financially.

Emotional cost aside, the costs of building St. Petersburg were financially draining even on this huge country. Peter hired architects Domenico Trezzini, Andreas Schluter and Alexandre LeBlond to actually plan out the city (see “Plan of St. Petersburg with its fortifications”-reproduced from “Gentleman’s Magazine” August 1749) [19] as well as design all its buildings. [20] All the buildings were Western in style. The skilled laborers required salaries as well, as well as buying and transporting materials. “Every cart, every carriage and every…vessel coming into the city was required to bring a quota of stones…” [21] Wood was scarce and regulated, even “no one was allowed to heat his bath-house more than once a week.” [22] Aside from the financial drain on courtiers, Peter imposed many new taxes to pay for the war, the new navy and his city. A head tax was imposed on all males; this alone “more than doubled peasants’ taxes.” [23] Other taxes or government controlled sales included “salt, tobacco, alcohol, tar, playing cards, chess pieces, furs, coffins,…births, funerals, chimneys, firewood, beds, bathhouses, horse collars, candle tallow, drinking water, document paper.” [24] A secret police was established to report any complaints about taxes or changes, and they were allowed to torture people. Five hundred merchant families were relocated and bribed to trade through St. Petersburg, as well as 500 traders. 2000 artisans were brought in. Peter also insisted on building gardens, zoos, aviaries, museums, art galleries, libraries and instituted rubbish removal, [25] all at great expense. Cost is measured not only monetarily, but also emotionally, physically and in mental stress.

Many do not agree with me that the building of St. Petersburg was too great a toll on the people of Russia. The chief opposing argument is that St. Petersburg opened a “Window on the West”, allowing the backward country of Russia to join industrialized Europe. I disagree. Although St. Petersburg itself became Westernized, nothing much changed in the remainder of the country-technology and scientific advancement did not come, serfdom remained, peasantry was taxed and oppressed when not enslaved. I believe that St. Petersburg became rather isolated and estranged from the rest of Russia. The country’s leaders lost touch with the remainder of the country, and I believe a capital on the edge of a vast country cannot be aware of the needs of its people. Perhaps in time, this Westernization and isolation, especially of the court, contributed to the Russian Revolution. Much is made of a great Navy and open port obtained to the West. The Navy in truth could muster against the Swedes, but was nothing in comparison to Spain, England, the Dutch or France. The “great port” was frozen six months out of the year, and still a great distance away from lands carrying valuable trade goods such as spices. Peter would have had a much better location if he had waited for his conquering Riga in 1710 and had less expense monetarily and in lives. After Peter the Great died, although the capital was not returned to Moscow, many of his administrative reforms were abandoned. Although Russia was quite changed by his reign, it did not become “Westernized”. Indeed, I would say that it is not totally Westernized yet. I think the Russian people have a little different approach to life, and are selective about what they choose to adopt from the West, not agreeing it is all good. I believe they are still “Russia centered”. I think the people who think St. Petersburg opened a “Window to the West” are only partially correct, and want people to believe that “West is best” for all cultures.

I think that the building of St. Petersburg took too great a toll on the people of Russia in number of lives, cultural upheaval and cost. A bad location was chosen in the interest of speeding the fulfillment of a dream and personal priorities. Forcing anyone to do anything is usually counterproductive. People may go along with you because they have to, but most will resent it. Building the city cost an enormous amount, not only from the courtiers, but mostly the peasantry in lives and taxes. When I think of St. Petersburg, I think not only of this, but I also think of Disneyland. St. Petersburg was the first “invented” city, it is beautiful to tour, but it has an imaginary aura that makes it seem separate from the rest of both worlds.


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