St. Petersburg

Happy birthday, St. Petersburg! Yes, that’s right, today’s the day St. Petersburg was founded, by Peter the Great back in 1703, just two weeks after he captured the area from the Swedish during the Great Northern War.

The site of the city was originally occupied by a Swedish fortress known as Nyenskans. After he captured the fortress, Peter laid down the Peter and Paul Fortress nearby, the first brick and stone building of what was to become St. Petersburg. The fortress was supposed to protect the new city from the Swedish counterattack Peter was sure would come, but the attack didn’t materialize and the fort never fulfilled a martial purpose. Instead, it was used as a base for the city garrison and as a prison for high-ranking or political prisoners.

The city was built by conscripted peasants under the supervision of statesman Alexander Menshikov. In 1712, Peter moved the capital from Moscow to the new city of St. Petersburg.

For the first few years, the city grew spontaneously around Trinity Square, but soon enough Peter appointed Jean-Baptiste ALexandre Le Blonde chief architect of the city. Le Blonde quickly established nurseries and workshops along the Neva River, and he lit the streets with oil lanterns he designed himself. Most of his grandest plans never came to fruition, as he died of smallpox in 1719, just three years after his appointment. Peter went on to establish the Academy of Sciences, University, and Academic Gymnasium before dying in 1725. The capital was briefly moved back to Moscow by his successor, Peter II, but then returned to St. Petersburg in 1732 under Empress Anna of Russia. It remained the capital of the Russian Empire until the communist revolution of 1917.

For its first century, the city’s architecture was mostly dominated by baroque and neoclassical buildings, such as the Winter Palace, which was built in 1732. In 1762, it was declared that no structure in the city could be higher than the Winter Palace, and spacing between buildings was forbidden. The city didn’t get its first permanent bridge across the Neva until 1850; before that, only pontoon bridges were allowed. By the mid 19th century, romantic styles of architecture started to replace the neoclassical style. Around the same time, the emancipation of the peasants led to a huge influx of them into the capital, resulting in poor boroughs springing up on the outskirts of the city.

Over the years, St. Petersburg was the site of several uprisings. The Decembrist revolt against Nicholas I was suppressed in 1825, and the Revolution of 1905 began in St. Petersburg before spreading to the countryside. During the February Revolution in 1917, Tsar, Nicholas II abdicated the throne, ending the 300-year Romanov dynasty. After the October Revolution, which brought Lenin to power, broke out later in 1917, the city earned the nickname “the city of three revolutions.” The city was renamed Petrograd after the February Revolution, and then Leningrad in 1924.

Throughout the 1920’s and 30’s, the poor areas on the outskirts of the city were reconstructed into planned boroughs, housing was nationalized, and many families who had previously lived in slums were given communal apartments to share with others.

The city was besieged by the Nazis for 872 days from September 1941 to January 1944. The Siege of Leningrad is remembered as one of the longest, most destructive, and lethal sieges of a major city in modern history. More than a million civilians died, mostly from starvation. Those who survived mostly abandoned the city, leaving it largely depopulated at the end of the war.

Citizens came back, however, and in the mid-1950’s the city got its first underground rapid transit system, the Leningrad Metro. St. Petersburg fell on hard times in the 1990s and was even forced to receive humanitarian food aid from abroad, but by 2006 it had bounced back and residential development was booming, leading to price inflation and major headaches for anyone who wanted to preserve the historic areas of the city. Gazprom announced plans to build a 396-meter skyscraper in 2006, which would have upended the unique, low profile of the city. Citizens turned out to protest, and eventually it was decided that another spot would have to be found for the project.

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