The Nevsky Wall

Reference  -  Leningrad/St. Petersburg History

Peter the Great

The history of St. Petersburg is the history of Russia. Founded at the mouth of the Neva river by Tsar Peter I (Peter the Great) in 1703 on land captured from the Swedes, it was originally built by conscripted serfs and prisoners of war. Thousands died to build the Peter and Paul Fortress in this boggy delta that was prone to spring floods. By 1712, Peter had made it the new Russian capital, which it would remain, except for a brief period, for over 200 years.

Because the city is crisscrossed with waterways and canals, it has been called the “Venice of the North”, and it has always been the most western and cosmopolitan of Russian cities. Catherine the Great assumed power in 1762 after a coup d’etat, which she engineered together with the officers of the Royal Guard. Catherine enjoyed an extremely luxurious and decadent court life and was the first monarch to move into the newly built Winter Palace. Catherine started a royal art collection which later developed into the world-famous Hermitage museum. She had the embankments of the River Neva clad in elegant red granite and the Summer Gardens adorned with an intricate wrought iron fence.

During the reign of Alexander I the Russian army successfully stopped Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and drove the French army back to Paris (1812-14). The captured French banners were put in the newly built Kazan Cathedral. In 1818 construction work began on the magnificent St. Isaac’s Cathedral. On March 1, 1881 Alexander II was assassinated, and the magnificent Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood (1883-1907) was built in his memory on the exact spot. By the late 1800’s, the city grew to be an important commercial and industrial center, as well as an artistic mecca for writers and composers.

Slideshow – City Images

In January 1905, a peaceful demonstration of workers was fired on by troops on Palace Square in an incident that became known as “Bloody Sunday”. This triggered public outrage and marked the start of the 1905-07 Revolution. On October 17 1905 Nicholas II was forced to issue a manifesto proclaiming a number of civil rights and instituting a new parliament, consisting of the Duma and the reformed State Council. The city now had a population of 2 million.

When war with Germany broke out in August 1914, it was decided to change the name of the city to the more Russian sounding Petrograd. The war was a disaster for Russia and for Petrograd in particular, with food shortages and popular unrest. The stage was set for the Revolution of 1917, the abdication of Nicholas II, and the assumption of power by Lenin and the Communists, who moved the capital back to Moscow. In the next three years, a bloody civil war raged between the Bolshevik Red Army and the insurgent White Army, costing millions of civilian lives. In 1924, the city was renamed Leningrad to honor the late Bolshevik leader. Through war and resettlement, the population of the city was reduced to 800,000, and a slow rebuilding and recovery was begun.

In the late 1920s mass construction of cheap housing for workers became a very prominent feature of the Leningrad landscape. Many cultural centers, “palaces of culture”, were built to provide the city’s people with entertainment, clubs and other social activities. In terms of architecture, most of what was built was rather modern and less than inspiring. The large apartments that had been constructed during St. Petersburg’s Imperial era were turned into communal apartments.

On December 1, 1934, Sergey Kirov, popular communist leader of Leningrad, was assassinated, an event that was to usher in the Great Purges of 1936-1938. One key effect of the purges was to all but destroy the upper levels of military command. This would have dire consequences in the first months of the war, conditions which were foreshadowed by the inept leadership of the Winter War with Finland in 1939-1940.

For the heroic resistance of the city and tenacity of the survivors of the Siege, in 1945 Leningrad became the first city in the Soviet Union awarded the title Hero City. It was the ultimate irony of the siege that after the city was liberated and the war was won, Stalin felt threatened by the very leaders responsible for its deliverance. Thousands of prominent citizens – administrators, generals, writers, and scientists – were arrested and prosecuted. Many were exiled to the camps, and hundreds were executed, some along with their families.

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