NEVA PROJECT: RIVER AND CITY
the Great and the Neva River Delta
Finnish waves forget
Their enmity and ancient bondage
And not unleash their bootless anger
To trouble Peters eternal rest.
- Pushkin, "The
When Peter the
Great founded the city of St. Petersburg on the Neva River delta in
1703, he was deliberately defying nature. It took heroic efforts to
drain the land and shore it up to support large structures; frequent
destruction and disease; most materials for construction, as well as
food supplies, had to be imported from elsewhere in Russia. Nevertheless,
Peter insisted on creating on this shifting, irregular landscape his
ideal city of perfect proportions and straight lines.
Neva River is short but very powerful. As the only outlet from Lake Ladoga,
the largest lake in Europe, it carries an enormous mass of water along its
74 km., discharging it into the Gulf of Finland. In width the river varies
greatly: just within the city limits of Petersburg it varies from about
800m before the great bend in the river to about 350m just after the bend
and further along, near the Bronze Horseman statue.
In most places
the Neva does not have steep banks; the waters lap the shores. Flooding
is very frequent in the delta, usually caused by large waves from tornado
action on the Baltic Sea.
Old maps and accounts
of the Neva delta depict a swampy lowland with relatively poor soil.
It was not, however, uninhabited: there were many settlements and fortifications
in what was known to Slavs as Izhorsk and to Swedish settlers as Ingermanland.
It had been part of the princedom of Novgorod since before the twelfth
century, and artifacts from the eighth century have been found there.
When the area was under Swedish control in the 17th century, there were
several settlements slightly upriver, in what is now eastern St. Petersburg,
and some large estates lower down the Neva, near the Fontanka River
Trade routes from
Ingermanland reached as far as Amsterdam in the west and Constantinople
in the south. In spite of its swampy quality, most of the land on which
St. Petersburg now stands was under cultivation prior to the founding
of the city in 1703, though it held few permanent structures in the
low-lying areas (Pyliaev 12).
vision of a grand panorama along the riverfront was quickly realized, though
the tsar did not succeed in his plan for making Vasilevsky Island look like
Amsterdam. By the mid-1720s the grand buildings along the riverfront
created a unified architectural ensemble. It contrasted sharply to traditional
Russian urban forms, as well as to the meandering settlements in parts of
Petersburg that were away from the water. Older Russian cities tended to
follow the natural land forms and to face inward, shutting out the broad
expanses all around, while this new city disregarded the lay of the land,
looked outward, and celebrated space (Ageeva 176-7). The gigantic
aquatic square in a foreign architectural frame looked miraculous, especially
in the middle of a city full of log cabins, kitchen gardens, cowsheds, and
clutchy mud (Kaganov 4).
The eventual straightening
of the citys streets to conform to the tsars ideal of a
regular city came at a high cost. People were summarily
expelled from their homes if they interfered with the urban plan; recalcitrant
families would find the roof removed from over their heads. There were
fines to be paid for failing to pave the streets or to plant the regulation
number of trees outside ones home (Ageeva
120). Environmentally, the cost was also high. Tens of thousands of
oak pilings were imported into the city from forests to the southeast,
for purposes of shoring up the swampy land. Huge effort went into straightening
and reinforcing the Neva
embankments. Canals were built to drain the wetlands, with
stone imported from islands in the Gulf of Finland. There were many
more canals then than there are now (see map), each representing a huge
investment in manpower and resources. And even so, frequent
flooding claimed many lives, both violently during flooding
and gradually through contamination of the water supply. Though Ageeva
shows that the famous legends of Petersburg as a city built on
bones were exaggerated, the wholesale transformation of the Neva
delta ecosystem has been very costly indeed.