Peter the Great
And the Beginnings of St. Petersburg
He was one of the more bizarre personalities in history. He also had serious personal problems. Major drinking issues and severe bladder ailments were two, along with a troubling habit of torturing people. He collected odd paraphernalia from around the world, conducted nightly parties so drunken and wild that entire palaces would be destroyed (in England more than once). He ostracized, tortured and finally had his son killed because he viewed the poor, terrified boy as too mild mannered.
Known as Peter the Great, it was not his quirks that made him famous. It was his persistence, his drive and his far-reaching vision with a dogged determination to drag a reluctant people into the modern world regardless of the cost.
Physically, he was a mountain of a human being. At six foot seven inches tall, he towered over his contemporaries. He was not only a foot taller than others, since the average man then stood around five foot seven inches, but his vision for what his country could be far surpassed anything anyone else in late seventeenth century Russia could imagine.
His Russian land in the late 1600s was a place of great potential, but still mired in backward traditions, ineffective leadership, endemic corruption, and institutionalized superstition.
Russia in those days was lacking the culture, the wealth, the education, and the glories of what Peter saw in the West. France, England, Germany, Sweden, Denmark … the advances in those increasingly sophisticated nations during the late 1600’s prodded him to action in Russia. Whether his people wanted it our not, whether they were ready or not, Peter the Great was going to drag the land he led and the people he loved into the new world of art, culture and international respect.
So beginning in 1703, thousands of workman began dredging swamps, cutting trees, forming canals, shoring up islands, building bridges, driving large tree pilings deep into the mud to serve as supports for the islands that would be the settings for some of the most beautiful buildings in the world – built in what would become one of the most impressive cities. However, attempting to fulfill Peter’s lavish dream, it is said that over 100,000 peasants died of the hard labor and poor working conditions.
This was Peter. And this became St. Petersburg.
See “St. Petersburg” and “St. Petersburg 2” under my heading “Teaching: Interesting Places” for more on the man and the place.