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Built on a swamp at the cost of thousands of lives, Peter the Great’s ‘antidote to Moscow’ has survived uprisings, sieges and floods to become Europe’s third largest city. But is history now catching up with St Petersburg?
On 16 May 1703, while looking over sparse marshlands near the mouth of the Baltic Sea that he had taken from the Swedes, Tsar Peter the Great cut two strips of turf from Hare’s Island on the Neva river, laid them in a cross and declared: “Let there be a city here.” As he spoke, an eagle appeared overhead in an auspicious omen.
Or at least that’s the myth of St Petersburg’s founding. In reality, Peter the Great wasn’t even there, and most likely neither was the eagle. It was a group of soldiers under the command of his friend, General Alexander Menshikov, who began building what would become the Peter and Paul Fortress on Hare’s Island in May 1703. The tsar only arrived the following month.
But although untrue, this myth perfectly encapsulates the origins of St Petersburg. Built on an inhospitable swamp at the cost of thousands of lives, it was brought into being through the iron will of Peter, who needed a warm-water port and a fortress against the Swedes. Moreover, it was to be his “window to Europe”: a new capital where Peter’s western-inspired reforms of the military, bureaucracy and national culture would take hold.
St Petersburg survived its adverse beginnings and then a revolution, a catastrophic siege in the second world war and seven decades of communist rule, to become the third largest city in Europe. Now, however, it faces the twin challenge of preserving its past while solving quality-of-life problems to ensure its future. […]