Tsar Peter the Great founded St Petersburg on this date in 1703 (OS 16 May), and, with a few gaps, it was the capital of Russia until the Russian Revolution. Swedish colonists had built Nyenskans, a fortress, at the mouth of the Neva River in 1611, in a land then called Ingermanland, that was inhabited by Finnic tribe of Ingrians. A small town called “Nyen” grew up around it. Peter was interested in seafaring and maritime affairs, and he wanted Russia to have a year-round seaport in order to be able to trade with other maritime nations. He needed a better seaport than Arkhangelsk, which was on the White Sea to the north and closed to shipping for months during the winter. On May 1703 12 [O.S. May 1] 1703, during the Great Northern War, Peter captured Nyenskans, and soon replaced the fortress. On May 27 [O.S. May 16] 1703, , he laid down the Peter and Paul Fortress closer to the estuary 5 km (3 mi) inland from the gulf), on Zayachy (Hare) Island. This new fortress became the first brick and stone building of the new city of St Petersburg.
“St. Petersburg” is actually used as an English equivalent to three variant forms of the name: originally Санкт-Питер-Бурх (Sankt Piter-Burkh), later Санкт-Петерсбурх (Sankt Petersburkh), and then Санкт-Петербург (Sankt Peterburg). The full name is often substituted by the abbreviation SPb (СПб). “Sankt” was usually confined to writing; people usually called it Петербург (Peterburg) or the common nickname Питер (Piter). Petrograd (Петроград), the name given in 1914 on the outbreak of World War I to avoid the German sound of Petersburg, was a Slavic translation of the previous name. The name was changed to Leningrad (Ленинград) in 1924.
The city was built under adverse weather and geographical conditions. High mortality rate required a constant supply of workers. Peter ordered a yearly conscription of 40,000 serfs, one conscript for every nine to sixteen households. Conscripts had to provide their own tools and food for the journey of hundreds of kilometres, on foot, in gangs, often escorted by military guards and shackled to prevent desertion, but many escaped; others died from disease and exposure under the harsh conditions.
The new city’s first building, the Peter and Paul Fortress, which originally also bore the name of Sankt Pieterburg was laid down on Zayachy (Hare’s) Island, just off the right bank of the Neva, three miles inland from the Gulf. The marshland was drained and the city spread outward from the fortress under the supervision of German and Dutch engineers whom Peter had invited to Russia. Peter restricted the construction of stone buildings in all of Russia outside St Petersburg so that all stonemasons would come to help build the new city.
At the same time Peter hired a large number of engineers, architects, shipbuilders, scientists and businessmen from all countries of Europe. Substantial immigration of educated professionals eventually turned St. Petersburg into a much more cosmopolitan city than Moscow and the rest of Russia. Peter’s efforts to push for modernization in Moscow and the rest of Russia were completely misunderstood by the old-fashioned and conservative Russian nobility and eventually failed, causing him much trouble with opposition, including several attempts on his life.
Peter moved the capital from Moscow to Saint Petersburg in 1712, nine years before the Treaty of Nystad. The city was called the “window to Europe.” It was both a seaport and also a base for Peter’s navy, protected by the fortress of Kronstadt. The first person to build a home in Saint Petersburg was Cornelis Cruys, commander of the Baltic Fleet. Inspired by Venice and Amsterdam, Peter proposed boats and coracles as means of transport in his city of canals. Initially there were only 12 permanent bridges over smaller waterways, while the Bolshaya Neva was crossed by boats in the summertime and by foot or horse carriages during winter. A pontoon bridge over Neva was built every summer.
Peter was impressed by Versailles and other palaces in Europe and in consequence built Peterhof as his official palace, and the place for official receptions and state balls. The waterfront palace, Monplaisir, and the Great Peterhof Palace were built between 1714 and 1725.
Aleksandr Danilovich Menshikov, Peter’s best friend, was the first Governor General of Saint Petersburg Governorate in 1703–1727. In 1724 St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences was established in the city. After the death of Peter the Great, Menshikov was arrested and exiled to Siberia. In 1728 Peter II of Russia moved the capital back to Moscow, but 4 years later, in 1732, St. Petersburg again became the capital of Russia and remained the seat of the government for about two centuries.
St. Petersburg prospered under the rule of two most powerful women in Russian history. Peter’s daughter, Empress Elizabeth, reigned from 1740 to 1762, without a single execution in 22 years. She cut taxes, downsized government, and was known for masquerades and festivities, amassing a wardrobe of about 12,000 dresses, most of them now preserved as museum art pieces. She supported the Russian Academy of Sciences and completed both the Winter Palace and the Summer Palace, which then became residences of Empress Catherine the Great, who reigned for 34 years, from 1762 to 1796. Under her rule more palaces were built in St. Petersburg than in any other capital in the world.
St Petersburg is noted for its cooking tradition which is rooted in Slavic dishes but with a pan-European overlay. The 6 great dishes you must eat when you visit are borscht, blini, beef Stroganoff, pelmeni, pirozhki, and solyanka, and if you search this site you’ll find recipes for all 6. Now I’ll branch out to a classic summer soup: okroshka. It can be made with either kvass or kefir. In essence it’s a mixture of diced ingredients, mostly vegetables, moistened with kvass or kefir. There’s really nothing to it.
Kvass is a ubiquitous Slavic drink that is mildly alcoholic. It is made by the natural fermentation of dark bread, dried, baked into croutons, or fried, with the addition of sugar or fruit (commonly raisins), and with a yeast culture and zakvaska (“kvass fermentation starter”). Whenever I have toured rural Russia I have been greeted with the traditional bread, salt, and kvass. Kefir is fermented cow’s, goat’s, or sheep’s milk that is also very common as a drink or food ingredient throughout Russia. Kvass and kefir had wildly different tastes and so produce completely different soups, but the preparation method is otherwise the same. Use plain kvass, not one with any kind of flavoring in it (that is, if you can find it at all). If you water down a mix of plain yoghurt and sour cream you’ll get a passable substitute for kefir. In Russia the sour cream used is Smetana which is denser than Western sour creams.
Okroshka with Kvass (Окрошка на квасе)
6 cups kvass, chilled
250 gm boiled beef, Russian sausage, or ham (or a combination) finely cubed
2 large potatoes, boiled, peeled, and finely cubed
4 hard boiled eggs, peeled and sliced
1 cucumber, peeled and finely cubed
6 radishes, finely cubed
sliced green onions
chopped fresh dill
Mix all the solid soup ingredients in a large bowl and refrigerate them until they are thoroughly chilled.
Spoon portions of the soup ingredients into a bowl and pour in chilled kvass (or kefir) to cover – just like making your morning cereal.
Serve with bowls of green onions, dill, and sour cream for guests to add as they wish.