On the boggy delta of the Neva, Peter the Great founded his ‘window to the West’ in 1703. Through sheer determination and at the cost of thousands of lives, European architecture was imported to this marshland and Russia had a new capital. Undeniably beautiful, I could wander for days along the canals and through the museums. From endless white nights in summer, to hours of bitterly cold darkness in winter, it has an atmosphere quite unlike anywhere else.
The conception of Russia’s very own Venice can be attributed to Peter the Great’s iron will to modernise the Empire in every field of national life. His reforms were not always popular but did undoubtedly change the course of history forever. Word of his feats quickly reached England and John Mottley’s expansive work on the Emperor’s life was printed in London in 1739.
What seemed like a distant dream a century before had largely been achieved by the end of the 18th century. With palaces, formal gardens, opera houses and a dominance of the French language, St Petersburg had successfully imitated its Western counterparts. This was largely due to Catherine the Great, who carried on the city’s cultural and political legacy. The inner workings of her court and the aristocracy are detailed Secret Memoirs of the Court of St Petersburg; a fascinating account by Charles Masson, a Frenchman who spent ten years living there.
By the second half of the 19th century, Petersburg was facing rapid development, industry was growing and merchants were becoming ever busier. In an effort to regulate the import and export of goods, an address book listing all the Russian and foreign merchants was published. This rare example from 1863 contains details of all the brokers dealing at the commodities exchange, as well as quality control inspectors at the port. Who knows if such transparency helped things become more ‘efficient’.
By 1905 calls for social reform were growing and in an effort to appease striking workers in the city, Nicholas II established a democratically-elected state parliament, or Duma. Grand Duke Mikhail Mikahilovich, the grandson of Nicholas I, owned this fine example of the document establishing the Duma, which is in an imperial portfolio.
The Duma was ultimately ineffective but the city played an important role in 1917 with the arrival of Lenin from Finland and the seizure of the Winter Palace by revolutionaries.