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History of St.Petersburg city foundation

By St Petersburg Expert Igor, Russia, June 2011

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Last time we saw that Peter was determine to drag Russia from quagmire of Muscovite routine, but literally had not had any ground to build St.Petersburg on this particular spot, hence as a legend has it He, built the city in midair and lowered it down on this mushy soils. And this legend is based on popular opinion, that Peter built St.Petersburg on empty spot, but it’s not entirely true. Where Neva makes a sharp turn on the right bank side of the river, near confluence with river Okhta, which starts up north on Karelian Isthmus and flows into Neva, as early as 1632 stood the Swedish fortress Nyenshkans(Kantzi in Russian variant), which served as a port of call and was quite developed with Lutheran church on the main square in the middle built by Italian architect.

And here in 1240 a decisive battle against Sweeds, commanded by Birgher, was won by Novgorodian prince Alexandr Nevskii. Also thanks to him Novgorogian principality had kept its independence from German crusaders, knights sent here by Pope to convert Russian orthodox population into catholic faith by the power of the sword, whom Alexndr  defeated, during famous battle on ice of Chudskoe lake. And he kept in check Tatar-Mongol invasion by descendants of Chingis Khan through his diplomatic efforts.  So this territory was a part of Russia’s Novgorodian city principality, which was a member of Hanseatic trading league as well, until it was lost again to Sweden during dark ages of big tribulations in Moscow. Alexandr Nevskii was sanctified by orthodox church and needless to say Peter wanted to emphasize this historical past of his new capital by making Alexandr Nevskii a patron saints of the city. Peter wanted to populate this new city with sacred relics, just like any other Christian emperor, starting from Constantine, did it before him. Thus he ordered to bring Alexandr Nevskii remains here from Vladimir to be interned in specially built monastery down the river Neva. So finally after about 100 years, when Baltic sea was just Swedish inner lake, Russia had an outlet to sea. To protect his new capital, Peter decided to destroy Nyenskans fortress and found a new one down the river which he called “Peterburgh” in Dutch manner  and it latter gave a name to the city proper in its Germanized form as St.Petersburg.  

Opposite part on the left bank of the river Neva had a ferry crossing to the former Nyenshkans and the road leading to it was built there previously. This area became known as “Smolny”, meaning tar in Russian and its name derives from the time when Peter the First put there warehouses for this combustible material. The tar was used for shipbuilding and back then fire safety was a priority for him, so he tried to separate inflammable materials as far as possible. So he chose this place which was dry enough to start construction here on the other side of the city a long distance away from his Admiralty shipbuilding yard. It is necessary to say that except the fires the second biggest curse for St.Petersburg were the floods, from which the city suffered quite regularly.  Usually they occurred during autumns when the air pressure changes created the long wave on the Gulf of Finland, that run against river Neva current and bottlenecked in its estuary. And as we know it by now the water has the power to move things around, so people populating this area preferred to live in some sort of collapsible houses which could be disassembled easily and tied to the tops of the trees, to be slapped back together, when the water was gone.  Every elevated place was already built up by some sort of rackety shacks, so Peter knew where to put his family, whom he brought from Moscow against their will, needles to say. Everything was expensive, nothing grew here, but every plot of dry land was assigned to someone and people were required to construct on it under the fear of punishment for noncompliance, according to recommendations of his “chancellery for construction”.

This chancellery designed three types of standard houses depending on your brackets, one for have nots mean people, another for more well to do haves, and third for those who have yachts noble estate people accordingly. By the way this chancellery was headed by the French court architect Leblon, with whom Peter the First naturally had some sort of disagreement and after Peter customary used his walking stick as an argument with him, Leblon fell sick and died shortly after. So as you can imagine some of the people found themselves a little bit at ease being far away from this carpenter-tzar and his walking stick, which was more like a an extra large size club, that he carried along as a persuasion instrument. And Peter’s own son, unfortunate Prince Alexy, who found his father’s energy a bit overwhelming on many occasions and hard to keep up with also moved in the territory along with his friend Kikin, who was in charge of Admiralty supply and latter also was accused of plotting with Alexy against Peter’s reforms. His mansion is still standing as an excellent example of Petrine’s baroque style. And after Kikin’s execution it went to a good use and accommodated Peter’s Kunstkammer (Chamber of curiosities) from 1718 to 1734- the first museum after a fashion, Peter never wasted a good place even though people might be expendable.      

There was also a small palace, called also Smolny, for a Peter second wife, Catherine the First. She reigned for a couple of years after Peter’s death in 1725 brought to power by the support of Guard regiment under Menshikov’s comand. And her reign was short and uneventful, mostly parties and drinking, which is understandable considering that she was literarily a “trophy wife”, servant girl, working for Lutheran pastor, married to Swedish soldier, captured by Russian colonel Sheremetiev, passed on to second in command “most illustrious” governor- general of St.Petersburg area’s- Prince Menshikov, who himself had started as a pie seller on the streets of Moscow, before Peter noticed him and made him his most trusted adviser. So when Peter saw this wash maid at Menshikov’s house he claimed this war booty, no pun intended. Though she wasn’t the most striking beauty in a classical sense, but she had some curves and most importantly could relate to Peter on personal level and pacify his terrible nervous fits, that he developed during his young days living in Moscow, when he witnessed how wild crowd executed his relatives. 

And after Catherine’s death the palace was occupied by Peter’s daughter Elisabeth, though she could not claim the throne, because she was born out of wedlock, before Peter legitimatized relationship and  made an honest woman out of Catherine.  So they put on the throne Peter’s niece Anna, daughter of Peter’s half-brother John. To expand his influence Peter wanted to marry off all his relatives to the representatives of different European courts. So he married his niece to a Duke of Curland, present Latvia, with a great pomp, but unfortunately poor husband took too serious this celebration, which lasted several weeks and died from alcohol poisoning and subsequent complications. So his widow spent her best 20 years in some obscure Germanized court and when offered this chance for Russian throne she became a new autocrat, tearing up “conditions”, prepared for her by Moscovite counsel of noble families, that might restrain her from total control of power.

Having this background and being cruel and rough by nature she didn’t trust any Russians at all and brought her own German court to St.Petersburg, headed by the former stable boy Bheron, whom she made the Duke of Curland, and whose name became generic for description of terror and arbitrary abuse of power in Russian language. Needless to say when she died in 1741 after ten years of her gloomy reign, appointing her niece Anna with her baby boy John the Sixth as the next heir to the throne with Bheron as regent, people did not want this German influence and turned their eyes to Elisabeth, who was the youngest daughter of Peter the First, born in 1709 three years before Peter married his second wife Catherine.  Spending her young years in this rundown Smolny house, being watch closely by Bheron and Anna not being able to enjoy court life and social affairs, expecting to be forced to retire to nunnery.

Elisabeth was convinced to claim the throne with the usual backup on part of Guard regiments.  Being young and very attractive, she knew how to make herself popular with Guard officers, who were the actual power behind the throne, representing influential noble families of Russia. She was proclaimed the God mother by them and carried in their hands into Winter Palace to depose baby John with his mother Anna Leopoldovna, daughter of Anna Ioanovna’s sister after asking her Guards:”Do you know whose daughter am I?”  and hearing resounding  “Yes” as an answer. So she sent baby John to Shlisselburg fortress, with a standing order to kill him if there is any attempt made to rescue him and so it happened, he was killed by prison guards being a middle aged man grown in an iron mask and not even knowing who he was. But all in all Elisabeth’s reign was considered as bloodless and easy going as possible. May be, that humdrum life that she led, before she became Russian Tsarina, made her overcompensate with the lifestyle of dissipation latter on. Having the same energy as her farther Peter she was directing it to writing official edicts about latest fashion, having fun and games, shopping for shoes (aprox. 1500 in her collection) and partying hard. For example she introduced cross-dressing parties, desiring to put forward her best feet and show both of her legs she dressed as a sailor and made men, wearing hoopla dress trip all over the place. She changed the style of decoration to French Rococo and to her Russia indebted for flowering of so called “Russian baroque style”, which great exponent was famous architect of Italian origin Bartolommeo Francesco Rastrelli, who came to Russia with his farther sculptor Carlo Bartolommeo Rastrelli, as a 14 year old boy.

He started under Bheron and Anna Ioanovna, building palaces for them, and was treated with suspicion by Elisabeth at the beginning, but since Russia didn’t have any great architects at that time, he became main court architect to built 20 palaces during 20 years of Elisabeth’s reign, including Winter Palace, which became the main residence for Romanov dynasty and famous Catherine’s Palace in Pushkin, that was compared to a piece of jewelry missing a box, by a French ambassador. But palaces were not everything that she constructed; she encouraged church construction using state funds as well. Never being married officially she was introduced to Orthodoxy by her morganatic husband Alexy Rasumovskii, who was a quire boy in a small village church in Ukraine, before he was discovered by chance by one passing through general, who brought the strapping boy to St.Petersburg. Elisabeth obviously was smitten by his voice and they lived happily in Anichkov palace, which she ordered to be built for him by Rastrelli at Anichkov bridge crossing on Nevskii prospect. Being pious and not ambitious by nature Alexy Razumovskii stayed away from politics, but managed to impart his religion on Elisabeth. And this seed fell on fertile ground, because she was always afraid of death and darkness, remembering how she herself came to power during night time, she never slept at night and spent her nights having parties with ball room dancing at her brightly lit palaces with sparkling lights of thousands candles, reflected in countless mirrors in guided carved frames. And who knows, may be her childhood memories of fear being sent to the nunnery when she lived in Smolny house made her to choose this particular spot to build a monastery for herself at the end of her life. And of course she could not spend the rest of her days in total obscurity, so she again used  Rastrelli to design for her final refuge place befitting to her to be able to retire in style. She decreed to build any cathedral in Orthodox manner in Russian cross-shaped plan with 5 cupolas, as opposed to one cupola basilica style during Peter’s time. 

The Smolny Newmaiden cathedral of Resurrection  and convent compound surrounding it marked a new development in Russian architecture, which till then had not known such sophisticated spatial schemes.(Markup#2)  Though it was only finished in the rough in 1764 a few years after Elisabeth’s death and interior decoration only as late as 1830, it was a source of inspiration for many architects, who worked in Russia, for example one of them, also Italian- Giacomo Quarenghi  who built extension building to the convent in severe British Palladian neoclassical style, as opposed to Rastrelian plaster decorated luxuriant baroque, used to take his hat off, every time he passed by this cathedral and stood still admiring it, mumbling in Italian:”What a church!”   Rastrelli’s design of exterior reveals the ingenuity with which he suffused eastern and western influence. Placement and the form of ribbed cupolas reminiscent of Borromini and 17th century Roman baroque, yet tightly integrated monolithic mass of the central and subsidiary domes is related to two of the greatest medieval Russian monuments-the Kremlin Dormition cathedral and the Novgorodian St. Sophia. Also characteristic for Rastrelian baroque is the use of color which he chose for each building himself, in this case white on a pastel blue stucco façade- to delineate the building’s structural and decorative elements. As a final touch, the crosses that soar above the five cupolas are mounted on golden orbs, which surface in proper light glows with celestial radiance. 

The further history of Smolny convent connected not with the nuns and God, but with more secular ideas of enlightenment, embraced by Catherine the Great, who was under strong influence of Montesquieu and other luminaries, about educating girls of noble birth separated in their early age from evil influence of the world. Until the time when those girls were themselves expelled from premises to give room to other people who had their own ideas how to save Russia- the Soviet of Worker’s and Soldier’s deputies and the head of central committee of Bolshevik party comrade Lenin was quartered there nearby during events of 1917. But it is a theme for another article.                     

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