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St Petersburg - History

St Petersburg History

Alexandr of Novgorod defeated the Swedes near the mouth of the Neva in 1240 - earning the title Nevsky (of the Neva). Sweden took control of the region in the 17th century and it was Peter the Great's desire to crush this rival and make Russia a European power that led to the founding of the city. At the start of the Great Northern War (1700-21) he captured the Swedish outposts on the Neva, and in 1703 he founded the Peter & Paul Fortress on the Neva a few kilometers in from the sea. After Peter trounced the Swedes at Poltava in 1709, the city he named, in Dutch style, Sankt Pieter Burkh, really began to grow. Canals were dug to drain the marshy south bank and in 1712 he made the place his capital, forcing administrators, nobles and merchants to move here and build new homes. Peasants were drafted in for forced labour, many dying for their pains. Architects and artisans were brought from all over Europe. By Peter's death in 1725, his city had a huge population and 90% of Russia's foreign trade passed through it.

Peter's immediate successors moved the capital back to Moscow but Empress Anna Ivanovna (1730-40) returned to St Petersburg. Between 1741 and 1825 under Empress Elizabeth, Catherine the Great and Alexander I it became a cosmopolitan city with a royal court of famed splendour. These monarchs commissioned great series of palaces, government buildings and churches, which turned it into one of Europe's grandest capitals.

The emancipation of the serfs in 1861 and industrialisation, which peaked in the 1890s, brought a flood of poor workers into the city, leading to overcrowding, poor sanitation, epidemics and festering discontent. St Petersburg became a hotbed of strikes and political violence and was the hub of the 1905 revolution, sparked by Bloody Sunday - 9 January 1905 - when a strikers' march to petition the tsar in the Winter Palace was fired on by troops. By 1914, when in a wave of patriotism at the start of WWI the city's name was changed to the Russian-style Petrograd, it had 2 million people.

Petrograd was again the cradle of revolution in 1917. It was here that workers' protests turned into a general strike and troops mutinied, forcing the end of the monarchy in March. The Petrograd Soviet, a socialist focus for workers' and soldiers' demands, started meeting in the city's Tauride Palace alongside the country's reformist Provisional Government. It was to Petrograd that Lenin travelled in April to organise the Bolshevik Party. The actual revolution came after Bolsheviks occupied key positions in Petrograd on 24 October. The new government operated from here until March 1918, when it moved to Moscow, fearing a German attack on Petrograd.

The city was renamed Leningrad after Lenin's death in 1924. It was a hub of Stalin's 1930s industrialisation programme and by 1939 had 3 million people and 11% of Soviet industrial output. But Stalin feared it as a rival power base and the 1934 assassination of local communist chief Sergey Kirov was the start of his 1930s Communist Party purge.

When the Germans attacked the USSR in June 1941 it took them only two-and-a-half months to reach Leningrad. As the birthplace of Bolshevism, Hitler hated the place and he swore to wipe it from the face of the earth. His troops besieged it from September 1941 until late January 1944. Many people had been evacuated; nonetheless, between 500,000 and a million died from shelling, starvation and disease. By comparison the US and UK suffered about 700,000 dead between them in all of WWII.

After the war, Leningrad was reconstructed and reborn, though it took until 1960 for its population to exceed pre-WWII levels. In 1991 the Soviet Union was officially proclaimed 'dead' and residents of Leningrad voted to rename the city St Petersburg. Foreign investment gave the city a boost and, corny as it may sound, St Petersburg did re-establish itself as Russia's window on the West. But it wasn't all plain sailing: although the people were freer and the shops were stocked, many didn't have the money to enjoy the new prosperity and the crime rate soared.

Happily, in the new millennium these problems are starting to be left behind. Vladimir Putin's election to the presidency in March 2000 has upped the city's profile (he's spent most of his life in St Petersburg and is very fond of the city), and its infrastructure and architectural treasures are getting a thorough seeing to. Today Russia's largest port is an exciting cultural and international city preparing itself for its 300th anniversary in 2003.

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