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History of Fort Oreshek

At the source of the Neva river there is a small island, occupied by the fortress “Oreshek” (“little nut”). It is a remarkable monument of old Russian defensive architecture, steeped in Russian history.

The people of the principality of Novgorod built the first small wooden fortress here in 1323, as part of a network of fortresses defending northern approaches to the principality. It became a Russian outpost on the important medieval trade route that connected an extensive area of eastern and southern Europe with the Baltic sea. Medieval chronicles refer to it as the route "from the Varangians (Vikings) to the Greeks." In 1348 the Swedes burned down the fortress, and in 1352 the Novgorodians rebuilt it, this time of stone. A fire caused severe damage to the structure in 1386, and in the early fifteenth century the fortress was almost completely reconstructed. By the middle of that century the fortress became not only a military outpost, but also the center of a large, economically advanced region, the first river port for foreign merchants heading south along the trade route. In times of tension is served as base for the ancient Russian military fleet.




At the end of the century, when the Novgorod region was incorporated into the newly powerful state of Muscovy, there was a renewed need for fortifications along the northwestern borders, where the Swedes were exercising their military might. The redesigned fortress was a model for its day. It occupied the whole island, leaving only a narrow strip along the shore where it was impossible for an invading army to congregate in significant numbers. When the Swedish fleet attacked Russian supply vessels in 1582, an inner harbor behind the walls provided protection for more than fifty Russian boats.
In February, 1611, Swedish troops under the command of Jacob Delagardie laid siege to the fortress. The Russian garrison held out for two months but eventually succumbed to famine and illness, and the fortress was captured. A peace treaty of 1617 ceded the fortress officially to Sweden, which remained in control of Oreshek for almost a century. The Russian army under Peter I stormed the fortress in 1702 and recaptured it. This was Russia’s first major victory in the Northern War. Because it helped Russia gain control of the Neva and its connection to the Baltic sea, Peter renamed the town Shlisselburg, or “key city.”

Monument to Peter I

Once again, in the first half XVIII century Shlisselburg, took on a double role as both a fortress town, protecting eastern approaches to Russian capital, and as a large port, whose trading abilities were aided by the construction of the Ladoga canal between 1719 and 1732. With political stability in the region, the importance of the fortress declined relative to trade and shipbuilding.

The last time the fortress served a military purpose was in World War II. When Hitler’s army laid siege to St. Petersburg and took control of much of the land along the Neva, a small Soviet detachment defended the fortress heroically for 500 days.

In addition to its strategic importance, the fortress at Shlisselburg served intermittently as a high-security prison from the time of Peter I through the early years of the Soviet regime. In 1756 the Crown Prince Ivan, rightful successor to his great aunt Empress Anna was imprisoned here by supporters of Elizabeth, the daughter of Peter I who took power after a coup in 1741. Ivan died 8 years later, in an unsuccessful attempt to liberate him. In the nineteenth century two close friends of the poet Alexander Pushkin, Ivan Poushchine and Wilhelm Küchelbecher were held in Oreshek before being sent into penal servitude for their participation in the Decembrist uprising against the tsar in 1825. This was also the site, on May 8, 1887, of the execution of five revolutionaries, among them Lenin’s brother Alexander Ulianov, for an attempt to kill Tsar Alexander III.


Monument to Soviet soldiers who defended Fort Oreshek in WWII


The Oreshek fortress is now part of the system of historical museums of St. Petersburg. Extensive restoration reveals remains of the fortifications built in 1352, as well as portions from the early sixteenth century and the eighteenth century. There is a monument on the site to the soldiers who died defending the fortress in the Second World War. Also preserved are some of the small, frigid cells where a host of political prisoners from both ends of the ideological spectrum spent decades in solitary confinement, both before and after the Russian Revolution of 1917.


School children on a field trip to the Oreshek Museum --

Further topics and interdisciplinary essays
Shlisselburg History Oreshek History
Ladoga Geography
Ladoga Ecology

References and links

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