"Here a great city will be wrought / To spite our neighborhood conceited" - The Foundation of the Peter and Paul Fortress, the original citadel and nucleus of the city of St Petersburg

27 May 1703, 310 years ago at the mouth of the River Neva, Tsar Peter the Great ordered the laying of the foundation stone of the Peter and Paul Fortress, the original citadel and nucleus of the city of St Petersburg.
“On a deserted, wave-swept shore, / He stood – in his mind great thoughts grow – / And gazed afar. The northern river / Sped on its wide course him before; / One humble skiff cut the waves’ silver. / On banks of mosses and wet grass / Black huts were dotted there by chance – / The miserable Finn’s abode; / The wood unknown to the rays / Of the dull sun, by clouds stowed, / Hummed all around. And he thought so: / ‘The Swede from here will be frightened; / Here a great city will be wrought / To spite our neighborhood conceited. / From here by Nature we’re destined / To cut a door to Europe wide, / To step with a strong foot by waters. / Here, by the new for them sea-paths, / Ships of all flags will come to us – / And on all seas our great feast opens.’ (Alexander Pushkin, “The Bronze Horseman”)

“View of the Neva and the Peter and Paul fortress” by V. S. Sadovnikov (1847)

Located on the small Hare’s Island, the last island in the delta of the river, the Peter and Paul Fortress was planned by Peter the Great as springboard for his new capital. The region had been taken from the Swedes during the Great Northern War only four weeks before and, since his attempts to reform Mother Russia were met with fierce resistance by almost everyone, Peter decided to start here all over again. Naming the place after St Peter (of course), he invited engineers, artisans and artists from Western Europe and banned the building of stone structures in the rest of his empire to force local talent to come to the banks of the Neva. One of the methods that endeared him so much to his contemporary subjects.

 A panoramic view of the city from 1753

However, Peter’s project was crowned with success – within two centuries, St Petersburg’s population grew to one and a half million people, the city itself housing the most palaces in Europe, second only to Venice, despite the local peculiarities of being built in a swamp on the same latitude as the southern tip of Greenland. The list of famous sons and daughters of the city is equally impressive, from all Tsars to the likes of Pushkin and Dostoevsky.

Ivan Aivazovsky's Turner-like capture of a St Petersburg sunrise from 1847

The 20th made St Petersburg the city of three revolutions, the one of 1905, the February and the October Revolution of 1917 and changed its name accordingly, removing the German parts during World War I to be called Petrograd and to Leningrad in 1924. The terrible 872 day siege followed in 1941 and the city remains, if not the second capital like in the days of the Tsars, the second largest city of Russia and is called St Petersburg again since 1991.

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