Once you’ve seen the view of this city from the sea, you can’t forget it. It’s not just the morning air on deck chilling your face, or the salt water lapping against the hull. It’s the marsh grass bending in the waves. It’s the seagulls gliding and screeching, and the lone figure of a fisherman on shore. As you get closer, it’s the colorful buildings tucked next to each other with their classical columns and shining rooftops in a skyline dotted with churches.
It could even be Charleston, but this city is not by the warm waters of the Gulf Stream. It’s on the Gulf of Finland next to the Baltic Sea. It is St. Petersburg, Russia which, like Charleston a few decades ago, dressed itself up for a 300-year birthday that it celebrated with art, music, dance, and theater from May to June—the same time Spoleto occurs in Charleston. But the festivities go longer into the night in St. Petersburg because it is the beginning of “white nights” when the sun sets for only two hours a day and the city takes on a special glow.
Hundreds of thousands of tourists visit St. Petersburg each year but few of them, even those from Russia, know its rich history: a history veiled during the Soviet era and a history still being rediscovered since the Berlin Wall came down.
The city began with Peter the Great, who grew up detesting court life in Moscow before inheriting the throne in 1696 at age 24. Only one year later he journeyed to Europe as the first czar to leave Russia in 600 years. During an epic visit to Holland, Germany, and France, Czar Peter recruited architects, artisans, and craftsmen to return to Russia and help build a city that would rival those in the west. He was a persuasive presence: six-feet seven-inches tall, with coarse dark hair, severe eyes, a striding gait, and abundant energy. He was extremely demanding but he was also fair, extending opportunity to anyone in whom he saw promise.
From an early age, Peter loved the sea and boats so it is not surprising that he left Moscow and went north to the Gulf of Finland. It was there, in 1703, that he stood in the marsh of the Neva River, gallantly set down a large stone, and declared that here would be the city of Sankt Piterburkh, in honor of his patron saint and with the Dutch spelling he had learned on his trip to Europe.
That same summer, 20,000 workers built the Peter and Paul Fortress (imagine Fort Sumter with a cathedral in the middle of it) and by the end of the following year they had completed the first shipyard. Peter’s dream of a port that would open traffic to Europe looked possible. Ten years later, in 1712, it became a reality when he moved the Russian capital from Moscow to St. Petersburg.
Peter’s curiosity and enormous energy propelled him to master ship building, as well as 13 other professions. He himself built, not only the first house in St. Petersburg, but many beautiful boats, and he regularly took part in the major construction projects of his new city. He envisioned St. Petersburg as a cultural haven as well as a great port, and to achieve this he sent hundreds of Russians to Europe to study the science, architecture, customs, and languages. He dressed his feudal countrymen in European clothes and taught them western manners.
Known by his subjects simply as Peter, he would carry scissors and stop men in the street to trim their long coats at the waist, to shear off their traditional beards, and to insist that they wear the buckled shoes then fashionable in Europe. Ladies in unthought-of of low-cut dresses had to attend formal balls which he organized once a week.
On his first trip to Europe, Peter recruited Italian architect Dominico Trizzini to design the city plan and palaces of St. Petersburg. Trizzini was one of many Europeans who would animate the blueprint of Peter’s dream into a city like no other in the world — a masterpiece of architecture, colorful buildings, and wrought-iron splendor, not unlike Charleston.
Also like Charleston, early St. Petersburg was repeatedly struck by floods and fire. So many wooden structures burned that the houses and embankments were eventually all built in stone. The floods, produced by a combination of ice melts and high winds, surged the Neva River as high as 13 feet, devastating the city. Although Peter once considered building canals to relieve the flooding, it was only later under Empress Catherine II that the city would be laced not only with canals, but with their 300 vehicle and foot bridges, each unique in its design, handrails, and statues.
After ruling for 29 frantic years, Peter died at 52—according to one version—as a result of diving into cold water to save a group of sailors. He was buried in a white marble coffin in the Peter and Paul Fortress he helped build. He had actualized his dream of creating a European city that would connect his country to the west, yet little did he know that in 200 years that connection would start to break; that Vladimir Lenin, with a dream of his own, would seize power in 1917 and that St. Petersburg, as Leningrad, would become a symbol of the Soviet Union.
Today, after the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, a renewed and renovated St. Petersburg opens its doors to the world. The city is alive and spirited again, perhaps the way Peter imagined it would be as he stood in the marsh that day with a stone in his hands and a dream in his heart.
When you visit St. Petersburg, by all means catch a boat onto the Neva River and witness this spectacle—this city of dreams—from the water. You will think of Russia in a new way, and you will never forget it. •