Triumph Over Adversity

Ten thousand years before Tsar Peter the Great founded St. Petersburg, it lay under more than 1,000 meters of ice. Then, just as the first great civilizations began to flourish in the valleys of the Nile, Tigris, and Euphrates, a receding glacial sea—the Baltic—flooded the territory of the modern-day city, leaving in its wake a river, the Neva, a mere youngster in geological time. Over the millennia, Nomadic Finns fished its waters, but they never settled the endless, sometimes poisonous, marshes and flat wastes beyond its banks. As a legacy, they left little more than remnants of their language, including the Finnish word for mud—Neva. That St. Petersburg exists at all is testimony to the sheer triumph of Peter’s iron will, the city being founded on fetid bog land just seven degrees south of the Arctic Circle in a climate so harsh that even to this day, many Russians consider it unfit for living. Peter was determined to imitate what he had seen in the great seaports of London and Amsterdam, where he had studied shipbuilding. Where Russians saw only wilderness, the tsar imagined a city at the doorstep of Europe, a cornerstone in the foundation of a modern nation. The tsar’s appetite for the fruits of the Enlightenment—the architecture, science, industry, customs, and dress of Europe—was as insatiable as his desire to control the Baltic, which he wrested from the Swedes on May 12, 1703. Four days later, he laid the foundation for the Peter and Paul Fortress on Hare Island, near where the Neva splits into its two main branches. According to legend, Peter dug two clumps of dirt with a bayonet. Laying the sod crosswise, he proclaimed: "Here shall be a town."

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