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Land and Sea in the Traditional Russian World View


Nature has decreed that we here
Will cut a window through to Europe.


Pushkin, "The Bronze Horseman"

All accounts of St. Petersburg report that Peter the Great founded his new capital here as a gateway or “window to Europe,” a link between Russia and the west. The new port city would allow Russians to travel and take in European culture and learning, and it would ease trade and serve as a defense against invasion. But the city was also another kind of window for Russians: a window to the sea. This was to be a maritime city, in contrast to Russia’s traditional walled and landlocked cities. Peter said he wanted his family to learn to like being “surrounded by water” (Ageeva 62).

The Tsar called the city a "paradise" on earth and a "holy land." But as historian O. G. Ageeva contends, the founders of St. Petersburg actually took a highly utilitarian approach to the land here, valuing it only for its convenient and strategic location and not for its inherent qualities. In an agrarian culture like Russia's, this flew in the face of tradition, which valued above all the fertility and extent of arable land. St. Petersburg was inferior on both counts.

Peter I and his wife Catherine in a boat


Petersburg in 1753: lines and curves

Before the construction of St. Petersburg, three fourths of all Russian cities had radial plans built on concentric circles, and they made use of the natural topography of the area for fortifications, roads, etc. In contrast, the ideal city plan that was common in Europe after the Renaissance depended on mathematical proportions and on the domination of human reason over nature (Ageeva 176-7). Peter I, enamored of these European ideas, envisioned just such an ideal structure for St. Petersburg. Above all, he wanted to impose straight lines and "regularity" on the landscape. (See "Peter I and the Neva River Delta".) But even his autocratic power extended only so far. Apart from the carefully regulated structures along the river banks, the city grew in chaotic fashion inland.


“To Peter I, his new capital appeared a well-built and compact city with a regular network of canals, bridges, and a solidly constructed ‘Dutch façade.’ But the real Petersburg consisted of muddly neighborhoods, growing spontaneously, separated by swamps and stretches of forest” (Kaganov 3-4).

The "myth of Petersburg" that arose in the 19th century played upon the city's contradictions. In Pushkin's "Bronze Horseman," Peter's grand vision stands in opposition to the daily lives and needs of the city's inhabitants, and the river conflicts with the city. Nikolai Gogol, in his great short stories about Petersburg, contrasted the rational and regimented underpinnings of the capital's bureaucracy with the irrational needs and desires of the little people who lived and worked there and the supernatural forces lurking behind them. For Fedor Dostoevsky's characters, the contradictions could lead to madness and violence. Art historian Grigory Kaganov (46) finds a source of these contradictions in the city's treatment of space:

“So the collision of emptiness and comfort, ice and sun, north and south fully corresponded to real factors that formed the spatial imaging of Petersburg, natural and cultural. Nature provided an immense, uncomfortable plain with a broad river flowing level with its shores, provided the cold, the wind from the sea, and the beautiful white nights. Culture bore hither the dream of replicating here in this swampy Neva delta a kind of ancient southern city: the entire eitheenth century would imagine Peter-burg now as Rome, now as Constantinople, now as Venice, now (toward the end of the century) as Palmyra…. Petersburg’s physiognomic expressiveness consists in no small degree of this contradiction between its distant Mediterranean models and its local Finnish nature."



In his great symbolist novel Petersburg, Andrei Bely poked fun at the straight lines of the city: "Nevsky Prospect is rectilineal (just between us), because it is a European prospect, and any European prospect is not merely a prospect but (as I have already said) a prospect that is European, because ... yes ..."


--Nevsky Prospect, drawing by K. K. Gampel'n, 1830s

An early plan for the ideal city on the Neva, as a fortress city of perfect proportions. This plan went unrealized for a number of practical reasons, but it also contradicts the essence of Peter's maritime city, which is not to close in on itself but to reach out to the rest of the world.

Bely also comprehended the importance of the straight lines in the city as vectors connecting St. Petersburg with the rest of Russia, and Russia with the rest of the world. One of his characters, a high government official, dreams ominously that "all the earth, crushed by prospects, in its lineal cosmic flight should intersect, with its rectilineal principle, unembraceable infinity" (11). Ultimately, this vision closes in upon itself, so that "All of Petersburg is an infinity of the prospect raised to the nth degree. Beyond Petersburg, there is nothing."

This sense of a city simultaneously reaching out to the whole world and closed in upon itself, cut off from both nature and tradition, is a powerful force in Petersburg. The clash between land and sea, tradition and modernity has produced a mixture of creativity and anxiety that gives the city its unique aura.

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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