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Jacob Abbott

The Building of St. Petersburg

T HE struggle thus commenced between the Czar Peter and Charles XII. of Sweden, for the possession of the eastern shores of the Baltic Sea, continued for many years. At first the Russians were every where beaten by the Swedes; but at last, as Peter had predicted, the King of Sweden taught them to beat him.

The commanders of the Swedish army were very ingenious in expedients, as well as bold and energetic in action, and they often, gained an advantage over their enemy by their wit as well as by their bravery. One instance of this was their contrivance for rendering their prisoners helpless on their march homeward after the battle of Narva, by cutting their clothes in such a manner as to compel the men to keep both hands employed, as they walked along the roads, in holding them together. On another occasion, when they had to cross a river in the face of the Russian troops posted on the other side, they invented a peculiar kind of boat, which was of great service in enabling them to accomplish the transit in safety. These boats were flat-bottomed and square; the foremost end of each of them was guarded by a sort of bulwark, formed of plank, and made very high. This bulwark was fixed on hinges at the lower end, so that it could be raised up and down. It was, of course, kept up  during the passage across the river, and so served to defend the men in the boat from the shots of the enemy. But when the boat reached the shore it was let down, and then it formed a platform or bridge by which the men could all rush out together to the shore.

At the same time, while they were getting these boats ready, and placing the men in them, the Swedes, having observed that the wind blew across from their side of the river to the other, made great fires on the bank, and covered them with wet straw, so as to cause them to throw out a prodigious quantity of smoke. The smoke was blown over to the other side of the river, where it so filled the air as to prevent the Russians from seeing what was going on.

It was about a year after the first breaking out of the war that the tide of fortune began to turn, in some measure, in favor of the Russians. About that time the Czar gained possession of a considerable portion of the Baltic shore; and, as soon as he had done so, he conceived the design of laying the foundation of a new city there, with the view of making it the naval and commercial capital of his kingdom. This plan was carried most successfully into effect in the building of the great city of St. Petersburg. The founding of this city was one of the most important transactions in Peter's reign. Indeed, it was probably by far the most important, and Peter owes, perhaps, more of his great fame to this memorable enterprise than to any thing else that he did.


Stratagems of the Swedes.

The situation of St. Petersburg will be seen by the map in the preceding chapter. At a little distance from the shore is a large lake, called the Lake of Ladoga. The outlet of the Lake of Ladoga is a small river called the Neva. The Lake of Ladoga is supplied with water by many rivers, which flow into it from the higher lands lying to the northward and eastward of it; and it is by the Neva that the surplus of these waters is carried off to the sea.

The circumstances under which the attention of the Czar was called to the advantages of this locality were these. He arrived on the banks of the Neva, at some, distance above the mouth of the river, in the course of his campaign against the Swedes in the year 1702. He followed the river down, and observed that it was pretty wide, and that the water was sufficiently deep for the purpose of navigation. When he reached the mouth of the river, he saw that, there was an island, at some distance from the shore, which might easily be fortified, and that, when fortified, it would completely defend the entrance to the stream. He took with him a body of armed men, and went off to the island in boats, in order to examine it more closely. The name of this island was then almost unknown, but it is now celebrated throughout the world as the seat of the renowned and impregnable fortress of Cronstadt.

There was a Swedish ship in the offing at the time when Peter visited the island, and this ship drew near to the island and began to fire upon it as soon as those on board saw that the Russian soldiers had landed there. This cannonading drove the Russians back from the shores, but instead of retiring from the island they went and concealed themselves behind some rocks. The Swedes supposed that the Russians had gone around to the other side of the island, and that they had there taken to their boats again and returned to the main land; so they determined to go to the island themselves, and examine it, in order to find out what the Russians had been doing there.

They accordingly let down their boats, and a large party of Swedes embarking in them rowed to the island. Soon after they had landed the Russians rushed out upon them from their ambuscade, and, after a sharp contest, drove them back to their boats. Several of the men were killed, but the rest succeeded in making their way to the ship, and the ship soon afterward weighed anchor and put to sea.

Peter was now at liberty to examine the island, the mouth of the river, and all the adjacent shores, as much as he pleased. He found that the situation of the place was well adapted to the purposes of a sea-port. The island would serve to defend the mouth of the river, and yet there was deep water along the side of it to afford an entrance for ships. The water, too, was deep in the river, and the flow of the current smooth. It is true that in many places the land along the banks of the river was low and marshy, but this difficulty could be remedied by the driving of piles for the foundation of the buildings, which had been done so extensively in Holland.

There was no town on the spot at the time of Peter's visit to it, but only a few fishermen's huts near the outlet of the river, and the ruins of an old fort a few miles above. Peter examined the whole region with great care, and came decidedly to the conclusion that he would make the spot the site of a great city.

He matured his plans during the winter, and in the following spring he commenced the execution of them. The first building that was erected was a low one-story structure, made of wood, to be used as a sort of office and place of shelter for himself while superintending the commencement of the works that he had projected. This building was afterward preserved a long time with great care, as a precious relic and souvenir of the foundation of the city.

The Czar had sent out orders to the governments of the different provinces of the empire requiring each of them to send his quota of artificers and laborers to assist in building the city. This they could easily do, for in those days all the laboring classes of the people were little better than slaves, and were almost entirely at the disposal of the nobles, their masters. In the same manner he sent out agents to all the chief cities in western Europe, with orders to advertise there for carpenters, masons, engineers, ship-builders, and persons of all the other trades likely to be useful in the work of building the city. These men were to be promised good wages and kind treatment, and were to be at liberty at any time to return to their respective homes.

The agents also, at the same time, invited the merchants of the countries that they visited to send vessels to the new port, laden with food for the people that were to be assembled there, and implements for work, and other merchandise suitable for the wants of such a community. The merchants were promised good prices for their goods, and full liberty to come and go at their pleasure.

The Czar also sent orders to a great many leading boyars or nobles, requiring them to come and build houses for themselves in the new town. They were to bring with them a sufficient number of their serfs and retainers to do all the rough work which would be required, and money to pay the foreign mechanics for the skilled labor. The boyars were not at all pleased with this summons. They already possessed their town houses in Moscow, with gardens and pleasure-grounds in the environs. The site for the new city was very far to the northward, in a comparatively cold and inhospitable climate; and they knew very well that, even if Peter should succeed, in the end, in establishing his new city, several years must elapse before they could live there in comfort. Still, they did not dare to do otherwise than to obey the emperor's summons.

In consequence of all these arrangements and preparations, immense numbers of people came in to the site of the new city in the course of the following spring and summer. The numbers were swelled by the addition of the populations of many towns and villages along the coast that had been ravaged or destroyed by the Swedes in the course of the war. The works were immediately commenced on a vast scale, and they were carried on during the summer with great energy. The first thing to be secured was, of course, the construction of the fortress which was to defend the town. There were wharves and piers to be built too, in order that the vessels bringing stores and provisions might land their goods. The land was surveyed, streets laid out, building lots assigned to merchants for warehouses and shops, and to the boyars for palaces and gardens. The boyars commenced the building of their houses, and the Czar himself laid the foundation of an imperial palace.

But, notwithstanding all the precautions which Peter had taken to secure supplies of every thing required for such an undertaking, and to regulate the work by systematic plans and arrangements, the operations were for a time attended with a great deal of disorder and confusion, and a vast amount of personal suffering. For a long time there was no proper shelter for the laborers. Men came to the ground much faster than huts could be built to cover them, and they were obliged to lie on the marshy ground without any protection from the weather. There was also a great scarcity of tools and implements suitable for the work that was required, in felling and transporting trees, and in excavating and filling up, where changes in the surface were required. In constructing the fortifications, for example, which, in the first instance, were made of earth, it was necessary to dig deep ditches and to raise great embankments. There was a great deal of the same kind of work necessary on the ground where the city was to stand before the work of erecting buildings could be commenced. There were dikes and levees to be made along the margin of the stream to protect the land from the inundations to which it was subject when the river was swollen with rains. There were roads to be made, and forests to be cleared away, and many other such labors to be performed. Now, in order to employ at once the vast concourse of laborers that were assembled on the ground in such works as these, an immense number of implements were required, such as pickaxes, spades, shovels, and wheelbarrows; but so limited was the supply of these conveniences, that a great portion of the earth which was required for the dikes and embankments was brought by the men in their aprons, or in the skirts of their clothes, or in bags made for the purpose out of old mats, or any other material that came to hand. It was necessary to push forward the work promptly and without any delay, notwithstanding all these disadvantages, for the Swedes were still off the coast with their ships, and no one knew how soon they might draw near and open a cannonade upon the place, or even land and attack the workmen in the midst of their labors.

What greatly increased the difficulties of the case was the frequent falling short of the supply of provisions. The number of men to be fed was immensely large; for, in consequence of the very efficient measures which the Czar had taken for gathering men from all parts of his dominions, it is said that there were not less than three hundred thousand collected on the spot in the course of the summer. And as there were at that time no roads leading to the place, all the supplies were necessarily to be brought by water. But the approach from the Baltic side was well-nigh cut off by the Swedes, who had at that time full possession of the sea. Vessels could, however, come from the interior by way of Lake Ladoga; but when for several days or more the wind was from the west, these vessels were all kept back, and then sometimes the provisions fell short, and the men were reduced to great distress. To guard as much as possible against the danger of coming to absolute want at the times when the supplies were thus entirely cut off, the men were often put on short allowance beforehand. The emperor, it is true, was continually sending out requisitions for more food; but the men increased in number faster, after all, than the means for feeding them. The consequence was, that immense multitudes of them sickened and died. The scarcity of food, combined with the influence of fatigue and exposure—men half fed, working all day in the mud and rain, and at night sleeping without any shelter—brought on fevers and dysenteries, and other similar diseases, which always prevail in camps, and among large bodies of men exposed to such influences as these. It is said that not less than a hundred thousand men perished from these causes at St. Petersburg in the course of the year.

Peter doubtless regretted this loss of life, as it tended to impede the progress of the work; but, after all, it was a loss which he could easily repair by sending out continually to the provinces for fresh supplies of men. Those whom the nobles and governors selected from among the serfs and ordered to go had no option; they were obliged to submit. And thus the supply of laborers was kept full, notwithstanding the dreadful mortality which was continually tending to diminish it.

If Peter had been willing to exercise a little patience and moderation in carrying out his plans, it is very probable that most of this suffering might have been saved. If he had sent a small number of men to the ground the first year, and had employed them in opening roads, establishing granaries, and making other preliminary arrangements, and, in the mean time, had caused stores of food to be purchased and laid up, and ample supplies of proper tools and implements to be procured and conveyed to the ground, so as to have had every thing ready for the advantageous employment of a large number of men in the following year, every thing would, perhaps, have gone well. But the qualities of patience and moderation formed no part of Peter's character. What he conceived of and determined to do must be done at once, at whatever cost; and a cost of human life seems to have been the one that he thought less of than any other. He rushed headlong on, notwithstanding the suffering which his impetuosity occasioned, and thus the hymn which solemnized the entrance into being of the newborn city was composed of the groans of a hundred thousand men, dying in agony, of want, misery, and despair.

Peter was a personal witness of this suffering, for he remained, during a great part of the time, on the ground, occupying himself constantly in superintending and urging on the operations. Indeed, it is said that he acted himself as chief engineer in planning the fortifications, and in laying out the streets of the city. He drew many of the plans with his own hands; for, among the other accomplishments which he had acquired in the early part of his life, he had made himself quite a good practical draughtsman.

When the general plan of the city had been determined upon, and proper places had been set apart for royal palaces and pleasure-grounds, and public edifices of all sorts that might be required, and also for open squares, docks, markets, and the like, a great many streets were thrown open for the use of any persons who might choose to build houses in them. A vast number of the mechanics and artisans who had been attracted to the place by the offers of the Czar availed themselves of this opportunity to provide themselves with homes, and they proceeded at once to erect houses. A great many of the structures thus built were mere huts or shanties, made of any rude materials that came most readily to hand, and put up in a very hasty manner. It was sufficient that the tenement afforded a shelter from the rain, and that it was enough of a building to fulfill the condition on which the land was granted to the owner of it. The number of these structures was, however, enormous. It was said that in one year there were erected thirty thousand of them. There is no instance in the history of the world of so great a city springing into existence with such marvelous rapidity as this.

During the time while Peter was thus employed in laying the foundations of his new city, the King of Sweden was carrying on the war in Poland against the conjoined forces of Russia and Poland, which were acting together there as allies. When intelligence was brought to him of the operations in which Peter was engaged on the banks of the Neva, he said, "It is all very well. He may amuse himself as much as he likes in building his city there; but by-and-by, when I am a little at leisure, I will go and take it away from him. Then, if I like the town, I will keep it; and if not, I will burn it down."


Peter, however, determined that it should not be left within the power of the King of Sweden to take his town, or even to molest his operations in the building of it, if any precautions on his part could prevent it. He had caused a number of redoubts and batteries to be thrown up during the summer. These works were situated at different points near the outlet of the river, and on the adjacent shores.

There was an island off the mouth of the river which stood in a suitable position to guard the entrance. This island was several miles distant from the place where the city was to stand, and it occupied the middle of the bay leading toward it. Thus there was water on both sides of it, but the water was deep enough only on one side to allow of the passage of ships of war. Peter now determined to construct a large and strong fortress on the shores of this island, placing it in such a position that the guns could command the channel leading up the bay. It was late in the fall when he planned this work, and the winter came on before he was ready to commence operations. This time for commencing was, however, a matter of design on his part, as the ice during the winter would assist very much, he thought, in the work of laying the necessary foundations; for the fortress was not to stand on the solid land, but on a sandbank which projected from the land on the side toward the navigable channel. The site of the fortress was to be about a cannon-shot from the land, where, being surrounded by shallow water on every side, it could not be approached either by land or sea.

Peter laid the foundations of this fortress on the ice by building immense boxes of timber and plank, and loading them with stones. When the ice melted in the spring these structures sank into the sand, and formed a stable and solid foundation on which he could afterward build at pleasure. This was the origin of the famous Castle of Cronstadt, which has since so well fulfilled its purpose that it has kept the powerful navies of Europe at bay in time of war, and prevented their reaching the city.

Besides this great fortress, Peter erected several detached batteries at different parts of the island, so as to prevent the land from being approached at all by the boats of the enemy.

At length the King of Sweden began to be somewhat alarmed at the accounts which he received of what Peter was doing, and he determined to attack him on the ground, and destroy his works before he proceeded any farther with them. He accordingly ordered the admiral of the fleet to assemble his ships, to sail up the Gulf of Finland, and there attack and destroy the settlement which Peter was making.

The admiral made the attempt, but he found that he was too late. The works were advanced too far, and had become too strong for him. It was on the 4th of July, 1704, that the Russian scouts, who were watching on the shores of the bay, saw the Swedish ships coming up. The fleet consisted of twenty-two men-of-war, and many other vessels. Besides the forts and batteries, the Russians had a number of ships of their own at anchor in the waters, and as the fleet advanced a tremendous cannonade was opened on both sides, the ships of the Swedes against the ships and batteries of the Russians. When the Swedish fleet had advanced as far toward the island as the depth of the water would allow, they let down from the decks of their vessels a great number of flat-bottomed boats, which they had brought for the purpose, and filled them with armed men. Their plan was to land these men on the island, and carry the Russian batteries there at the point of the bayonet.

But they did not succeed. They were received so hotly by the Russians that, after an obstinate contest, they were forced to retreat. They endeavored to get back to their boats, but were pursued by the Russians; and now, as their backs were turned, they could no longer. defend themselves, and a great many were killed. Even those that were not killed did not all succeed in making their escape. A considerable number, finding that they should not be able to get to the boats, threw down their arms, and surrendered themselves prisoners; and then, of course, the boats which they belonged to were taken. Five of the boats thus fell into the hands of the Russians. The others were rowed back with all speed to the ships, and then the ships withdrew. Thus the attempt failed entirely. The admiral reported the ill success of his expedition to the king, and not long afterward another similar attempt was made, but with no better success than before.

The new city was now considered as firmly established, and from this time it advanced very rapidly in wealth and population. Peter gave great encouragement to foreign mechanics and artisans to come and settle in the town, offering to some lands, to others houses, and to others high wages for their work. The nobles built elegant mansions there in the streets set apart for them, and many public buildings of great splendor were planned and commenced. The business of building ships, too, was introduced on an extended scale. The situation was very favorable for this purpose, as the shores of the river afforded excellent sites for dock-yards, and the timber required could be supplied in great quantities from the shores of Lake Ladoga.

In a very few years after the first foundation of the city, Peter began to establish literary and scientific institutions there. Many of these institutions have since become greatly renowned, and they contribute a large share, at the present day, to the éclat  which surrounds this celebrated city, and which makes it one of the most splendid and renowned of the European capitals.