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The Founding of St. Petersburg

This Day in History

On 27 May 1703 Peter the Great established the city of St. Petersburg on the site of a captured Swedish fortress. The city, like its namesake, is associated with the creation of the Russian Empire and making the country a Great Power. Something the Russians are still griping about.


Peter became Tzar at the age of ten along with a half-brother who was a bit dim. Although his half-sister Sophia was actually running the place. In the meantime, the little rascal took advantage of his position to indulge in knocking people’s teeth out with a pick axe. It was just a game for young Peter, you know, for grins. His, not theirs’s. Sophia tried to have the boy killed. Honestly, wouldn’t you?


Sophia didn’t want to give up power just because her half-brother turned 18, but she couldn’t quite keep hold of the Crimea and if you’re going to rule Russia that sort of thing is de rigueur. Peter and his half-brother Ivan ascended to a joint thrown, but no one took much notice Ivan, who died conveniently childless a few years later.


Peter’s reign is best known for waking up one day and deciding that Russia needed to be more Western. This was not exactly met with positive acclaim. He ordered the boyars – the old conservatives – to shave their beards or have them pulled out. Even his capital of Moscow was too fusty, so in 1703 he established St. Petersburg in a Baltic swamp. Some 40,000 peasants worked for 10 years on what Peter called “the Venice of the north.”


What the Tzar really wanted was a Black Sea fleet (don’t they all?), but the Ottoman’s had opinions about that. Knowing that he couldn’t defeat the Turks on his own, he traveled Europe in Cognito to drum up support for a European coalition to defeat the Turks. It’s debatable how effective his disguise was – the man was 6’8”. Which may have had something to do with his fetish for little people. While his knew capital was being built, he summoned all the midgets and dwarves in the realm and built them a little village.


On the domestic front, after ten years of marriage, Peter forced his first wife to become a nun. As you do. Then he may have married a peasant girl named Marta in a secret ceremony. She changed her name to Catherine. When the couple finally came around to a public ceremony, in 1712, Peter predicted that it would be a fruitful marriage: “We’ve only been married three hours and we have 5 children.” You can’t fault the man’s logic.


By this time St. Petersburg was really starting to take shape. Two centuries later it was opening scene of the 1917 Revolution. Later the site of an epic World War II standoff where the Russians didn’t so much defeat Nazi Germany as much as hide until the winter did it for them.