Founding of St. Petersburg

Czar Peter the Great created the city of St. Petersburg on the nortwestern frontier of Russia to be a window to the West, a Western-style, modern capital far from the eastward-looking traditions of Moscow.

Summary of Event

For centuries, since the Mongol conquest, Russia had been largely cut off from Western Europe and had become predominantly Asian in its culture. Although the monarch’s title of “czar” came from the Latin “caesar,” the Russian government was fundamentally an Oriental despotism based upon the czar’s priestly role in the Russian Orthodox Church. Russian Orthodox Church
Orthodox Church, Russian Czar Peter the Great, however, was different from his predecessors. He was a tall, robust man (growing to six foot, seven inches, an extraordinary height for a man of his time) with a very active mind. Dissatisfied with the stifling atmosphere of intrigue in the Kremlin, he spent much of his time in boisterous activities with the foreigners in Moscow’s German Quarter. There, he encountered all manner of Western ideas and skills and grew steadily convinced that Russia was already backward and was falling further and further behind the nations of Western Europe. Peter believed that Russia’s only hope lay in adopting the cultural patterns that had made the Western Westernization;Russia nations strong. [kw]Founding of St. Petersburg (May 27, 1703)
[kw]Petersburg, Founding of St. (May 27, 1703)
[kw]St. Petersburg, Founding of (May 27, 1703)
St. Petersburg, Russia[Saint Petersburg, Russia]
[g]Russia;May 27, 1703: Founding of St. Petersburg[0150]
[c]Government and politics;May 27, 1703: Founding of St. Petersburg[0150]
Peter the Great
Menshikov, Aleksandr Danilovich
Petrovich, Alexis

At the same time, he knew that he could never accomplish his vision amid the traditionalist factions of Moscow, who would fight any sort of change as sacrilege against Russia’s Orthodox heritage. He felt that his only hope lay in building a new city, where he could surround his court and nobility with the proper environment to foster the attitudes he wanted to inculcate. He wanted a city with the sort of architecture he had seen during his 1697-1698 Grand Embassy, in which he had toured Europe with a company of like-minded advisers.

For his new city, Czar Peter chose a stretch of land, newly captured in the Great Northern War, located on the Gulf of Finland, not far from Lake Lagoda, where the Neva River branches into an intricate delta and estuary. So confident was he of his victory that he did not wait for the formal peace treaty ceding the land to Russia from Sweden but sent a contingent of soldiers under General Aleksandr Danilovich Menshikov to construct a fortress on one of the islands, where its guns could bar the passage of enemy ships. The foundation of this fortress, the Peter and Paul Fortress, was laid on May 27, 1703 (May 16 by the Old Style calendar). The Peter and Paul Fortress was to form the nucleus for Peter’s new city, to which he gave the Dutch-sounding name of Sankht-Peter-Burkh, which would soon be Russified to St. Petersburg by its reluctant inhabitants.

Peter the Great at the founding of St. Petersburg.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

Peter himself laid out the plans for his new city, drawing a grid of straight lines and right angles along the Neva River. This design stood in sharp contrast to the traditional pattern of Russian cities, which radiated out in concentric circles from a central fortress, or kremlin. The latter pattern can still be seen in modern Moscow, with its Boulevard, Garden, and Outer Ring Roads connected by long radials that all converge upon the Kremlin and Red Square in the city’s heart.

While traditional Russian structures were built in wood, Peter mandated that his new city would be built in stone. He wanted to ensure that his city would not burn down in the fires such as those that frequently swept Moscow and other traditional cities. To that end, he mandated that every carriage coming to the city must carry with it at least one building stone. However, because of the lay of the land along the Neva estuary, St. Petersburg proved particularly susceptible to flooding, particularly when prevailing westerly winds forced water from the Gulf of Finland to back up into the Neva River.

To build the broad avenues and stately palaces in the Western style Peter envisioned, he imported thousands of state and royal serfs from estates all over Russia. It is estimated that more than thirty thousand people perished in the process, and it is sometimes said that St. Petersburg was built as much upon the bones of the serfs as of the stone of Peter the Great’s vision.

By 1712, St. Petersburg had grown enough that Peter felt confident in naming it his new imperial capital, relegating tradition-bound Moscow to the role of second city. Peter mandated that his nobles build mansions in his new city and dwell in them for a set portion of each year. There they had to shave their long beards and set aside their Asiatic traditional robes in favor of Western coats and breeches. In a break from the long tradition of seclusion of women in the terem, Peter ordered that women must appear at St. Petersburg’s social functions. Instead of spending their time in needlework and pious prayers, Russian noblewomen would now hold salons in the French style, discussing intellectual matters, art, and literature.

However, these changes did not come without resistance from traditionalist factions. Peter’s own son, Czarevich (crown prince, literally “son of the czar”) Alexis Petrovich, became involved with a group of priests and noblemen who muttered against the abandonment of what they saw as Russia’s holy role as the last spiritual hope of Christendom. When the czarevich fled abroad at the instigation of foreign agents, Peter sent his own agents to lure the young man back. When Alexis returned under a false promise that he would be safe, he was immediately imprisoned in the Peter and Paul Fortress, where he was brutally tortured with the knout, a traditional Russian cat-o’-nine-tails whip into which bits of metal and broken glass were worked. The details of Alexis Petrovich’s final days are murky, but it is said that on the day before his death, he and his father were reconciled and embraced each other. It is also said by other sources that Peter had Alexis murdered.


By the time Peter the Great died in 1725, the center of gravity of Russian politics had irrevocably shifted from Moscow to St. Petersburg. Although the traditionalists grumbled, subsequent Russian monarchs continued to hold court in that city on the verge of the Arctic Circle, where the Sun never fully sets during the height of summer.

The un-Russian characteristics of St. Petersburg had profound effects on Russian literature as it developed, for the literati of Russian society were necessarily noblemen and others who would be required to appear at court there. St. Petersburg developed a reputation as a place not quite of this Earth, where extraordinary things could happen. A significant Russian literature of the fantastic sprang up, set in this liminal city. In Alexander Pushkin’s poem Medniy vsadnik (1837; The Bronze Horseman, 1899), the famous statue of Peter the Great comes to life and chases the protagonist through the streets of his city. In Nikolai Gogol’s short story “Nos” (1836; “The Nose,” 1946), the protagonist’s nose can detach from his face and take human form, with a rank higher than that of its former owner. Even in realistic fiction such as Fyodor Dostoevski’s novel Idiot (1868; The Idiot, 1887), the White Nights were a time when people could go mad and commit terrible crimes.

In 1914, St. Petersburg was renamed Petrograd, since a Russian name was considered desirable while the Russians fought the Germans. Following the 1917 October Revolution, the Bolsheviks returned the seat of government to the Kremlin in Moscow, considering it more secure than a city on the very edge of Russia’s boundaries. Petrograd remained a center of Russian culture, however, even when it was renamed Leningrad in honor of Bolshevik leader Vladimir Ilich Lenin. The city withstood a terrible nine-hundred-day siege during World War II, in which people literally dropped in their tracks from starvation. After the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union, St. Petersburg reclaimed its old name.

Further Reading

  • Bushkovitch, Paul. Peter the Great. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001. Less a straight biography of Peter the man than a study of the culture into which he was born and the ways in which he transformed it.
  • Cooper, Leonard. Many Roads to Moscow: Three Historical Invasions. New York: Coward-McCann, 1968. Of special interest is the section on the Battle of Poltava, which secured Russia’s claim on St. Petersburg and its surroundings.
  • Cracraft, James. The Revolution of Peter the Great. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003. Study of the cultural changes brought about by Peter the Great’s “revolution from above.”
  • Lincoln, W. Bruce. Sunlight at Midnight: St. Petersburg and the Rise of Modern Russia. New York: Basic Books, 2000. A cultural history of the city of St. Petersburg and examination of how it transformed Russian culture, often in ways that Peter the Great never anticipated and would even have abhorred.

Great Northern War

Battle of Poltava

Foundation of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences

Foundation of St. Petersburg’s Imperial Ballet School

Catherine the Great’s Instruction

Founding of Bolshoi Theatre Company

Russo-Swedish Wars

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