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Peter the Great and the Neva River Delta


Let the Finnish waves forget
Their enmity and ancient bondage
And not unleash their bootless anger
To trouble Peter’s eternal rest.


- Pushkin, "The Bronze Horseman"


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 floods brought 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.


The 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 (Sementsov 134-5).


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).


Peter's 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-1720’s 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 city’s streets to conform to the tsar’s 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 one’s 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.

Further topics and interdisciplinary essays
Peter the Great and the Neva River Delta
Land and Sea in the Russian Traditional World View
Floods on the Neva River
The Neva Embankments: Hydrology and Aesthetics
Society and River Environment
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