In a previous life, I wrote an introduction for a short series based around the idea of digging around for the “real” Russia – or getting as close to it as is possible. Then the trip to St. Petersburg happened, and 13 weeks of articles spilled forth as a result. Ok, that whole experience has some relevance here; for as much as I value it (highly), it has to be said that the mighty city is not “Russia” per se. So, let’s try this again.
Peter the Great captured the Swedish fortress of Nyenskans at the mouth of the Neva river (then called the Nyen, under the Swedes) in 1703, establishing the core foundations of what would become his new, prized city. At its most ancient then, St.Petersburg is just over 300 years old. That is remarkably young for us Brits; the building I work in has its roots in the mid-1700s and the Roman origins of London date back to roughly 50 AD (!), although Thames valley settlements were established in prehistoric times.
If it had been built under an earlier Tsar, the form and nature of the city would be entirely different. Though if not for Peter the Great, his labouring serfs, imported professionals, and the estimated 30-100,000 souls that perished during the city’s construction; St. Petersburg would likely never have existed at all. The locale was hardly ideal to build upon; consisting, at the time, of a marshland estuary of isles and tributaries prone to flooding. Only a Tsar’s resources and stubborn will could possibly make such an endeavour a reality.
Peter was a decided Europhile, determined to establish his capital as a European city, or at least in the guise of one. As a result, the city emerged from its drained, swampy foundations as a chimera, drawing its form and style from notable European architecture. A touch of St. Paul’s Basilica here, some Venetian canals there – or should that be Amsterdam? Neo-Classical columns, statues and friezes may be found; Greek, Roman, or something between the two; all alongside of the excesses of the French “Sun King”. It’s Louis the 14th, revisited. The early construction of St. Petersburg did overlap with the last decade of Louis’ reign, prior to his death in 1715 incidentally; as if to see him on his way, whilst perpetuating his spirit abroad in the forming stone.
The point is that none of the above is Russian, and was never meant to be. Did Peter the Great actively dislike the traditional constructions of his homeland, or did he just like those of Europe more? Probably the former, as he actively tried to modernise and reform Russia, reportedly disliked Moscow, and saw Europe as an inspiration and an escape – both physically and culturally. Faced with his force of will, the old guard stood little chance, as his treatment of dissenters and potential usurpers (including his own sister and son) testified. Peter’s aversion to staid, tradition -and to anyone supporting it- revolutionised Russia, as ConstructionLitMag non-too-delicately puts it:-
“It cannot be overstated how stagnant Russia was when compared to Western Europe before Peter I. Whereas Catherine just continued the policies of her predecessor …, it was Peter who truly changed Russia’s future. By the turn of the nineteenth century, Russia rivaled the West.”
Also, in practical terms; one of the main disadvantages of traditional Russian architecture is that the vast amount of it was made of wood, particularly where houses and other constructions, supporting the lives of serfs were concerned. Stone was used in fortified, governmental, or other ‘precious’ structures: for major churches and cathedrals, for example. Small lives were just not important enough to warrant such provision, nor did they have the means, the finances, the permission, or the land required to establish structures more substantial. The very idea would have been an anathema to the controlling landlords. Wood, whilst easy to work with, has inherent issues of deterioration (aside from a marked propensity to burn down – as Moscow did on several occasions). Without modern techniques of preservation; it’s a losing battle. As such, much of Russian architectural history has been long lost to accident or intent.
Something of the traditional form still remains in the longevity of stone-built structures of course, and in the few, wonderfully rare wooden buildings that are still extant. We need to explore all of these. Oh yes.