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The Neva Embankments: Hydrology and Aesthetics

To stabilize the river banks and provide flood protection, embankments were built along both sides of the Neva in Petersburg. First wooden ones, then, as Pushkin famously put it, "the Neva dressed herself in granite."

The banks of the Neva at St. Petersburg were not steep and they were prone to frequent flooding. The first embankments were built in the settled areas near the Peter and Paul Fortress and across the Neva, between the Summer garden and the Admiralty. This was done by driving piles into the ground and filling in behind them with earth. In 1715 the order went out for all owners of homes fronting on the Neva to put in one 6.5-meter (21-foot) pile for each column on the façade of the house. Bunches of sticks were tied to the pile, which went in at a slant, and land was tamped and flattened on top. Floods in 1720 and 1721 damaged the embankments and necessitated reconstruction. This time they used longer piles, placed them vertically, and filled in the space between them with dirt, sand, and mortared cobblestone (Kochedamov 12-13).

-Wooden embankment; detail from an early-18th-century engraving

GROWTH OF THE CITY: The maps below show some of the changes in the regularity of the Neva shoreline as the city grew.

The Neva before 1703 (above); in 2002 (below)


The Neva in 1731

Note the extent to which the shorelines have been straightened and smoothed by the construction of embankments. Prior to 1703 (above left), the banks of the Neva were relatively flat, to allow for frequent flooding, and the area was swampy and forested. In 1731 the banks were still irregular, though some smoothing and straightening had occurred, and the canal system was mostly in place. Today (left), most of the swampland has been filled in and built upon, canals provide drainage, and granite embankments contain the river's waters.

The first stone embankment in St. Petersburg was built in 1720, along the edge of the Summer Garden. Its builders submerged boxes of rocks to form a foundation for the wall. This method proved unstable and the embankment lasted only three years before being replaced by a wooden one. Engineers continued to work on the problem of designing permanent embankments, which became more urgent with the building of the massive Winter Palace on the left bank of the Neva, which began in 1754. Between 1763 and 1788 the whole left bank of the Neva, except at the Admiralty, was shored up in granite, from the present site of Liteinyi Prospect all the way to Galernyi dvor. The granite came from large quarries on islands in the Gulf of Finland (Zakharov 108).

In addition to their important flood control function, the granite embankments transformed the appearance of St. Petersburg and helped create the city’s identity. Pushkin wrote of his fondness for “the Neva’s stern, elegant look,” which was entirely an artifact of the embankments. The steps, docks, and sculptures along the embankments were designed by prominent architects and created their own set of landmarks – a pair of sphinxes by the Academy of Arts, lions by the Palace Dock.

--The Neva embankment by the Academy of Arts
Painting by M. N. Vorob'ev, 1835

The paths along the embankments constituted some of Petersburg’s most attractive public spaces; in fine weather Petersburg society, including occasionally the tsars themselves, paraded along them in all their finery.

Palace Embankment, 1820s --

QUESTIONS FOR OUR READERS: How do the embankments affect the hydrology of the river? How much do they alter the current and the rate of siltation? How do the straight, granite banks affect the river's ability to cleanse itself? What possible adjustments can be made in the Neva shoreline to address ecological problems? Please share your thoughts with us.

Further topics and interdisciplinary essays
Peter I and the Neva 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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