Building the World

The Founding of St. Petersburg, Russia

Panorama of St. Petersburg circa 1805, from Library of Congress at

St. Petersburg was completed (1713) around the same time of the United States’ capital, Washington, D.C. (1791).  Both can be considered purpose-created cities. Both were established by government mandate. The physical layout of each city’s core still reflects the original master plan. But the U.S. capital differs from St. Petersburg in a number of ways: while the Russian city showcased imperial splendor, the U.S. capital highlighted democratic values and history.


Why a new capital? Peter moved the capital to declare a new vision for the country. Prowess of the sea and inland transit of people and goods would come from a port. Moreover, the island could provide fortified security – important in protecting the rule of government. Finally, a new capital could be a showcase for Russian culture and the arts.

In 1712, Peter the Great declared the new city of St. Petersburg as the Capital of Russia, thus displacing Moscow as the seat of government. It remained Russia’s capital city until 1918, when by Lenin’s decree Moscow was restored to its ancient primacy.

The city’s name has bounced around: For a decade in the 1900’s it was called the more Russian, Petrograd. This was from 1914-24. It was during this period, in 1918, that Lenin moved the capital back to Moscow. Not surprisingly, Petrograd was renamed Leningrad after Lenin died.

St. Petersburg resumed its original name in 1992. No longer the capital of Russia (Lenin won that argument), the city remains famous for all the reasons Peter had hoped.


Peter the Great, from Library of Congress at

Peter had a fast intellect but an even stronger penchant for doing. He was very big – almost seven feet tall. He was so strong that he could twist silver platters at banquets and roll them up into scrolls. He could cut a cloth, thrown in the air, in half with his sword – or even slice an air-borne dinner napkin into two parts with his knife. His hands were covered with calluses; he never entered a factory without learning how to work every machine.

Peter was only 10 years old when he became czar. As an impressionable 15-year-old, he traveled to the Netherlands where he worked as a laborer in a shipyard. Peter’s knowledge of machines and tools was so vast that when he visited Germany, a couple of young princesses passed him over because they thought he was a craft worker. They were not wrong; Peter achieved the status of master-craftsman in 14 different trades.  Even in the quiet of his rooms, if they were ever quiet, Peter worked with his hands. After he died, objects found included scores of model boats, hand-made chairs, even a small container of teeth he had extracted from unfortunate volunteers while practicing with and developing new tools for dentistry.


Peter had an interest in Europe. In 1698, he toured the continent and returned with a new vision of what Russia could be. For example, he introduced what is now called “western dress,” and encouraged a new era of the arts including dance.

The whole art, at first, was imported. Jean-Baptiste Lande gave a recital of his ballet students that led to the founding of a Russian ballet school in 1738, which grew into the famed St. Petersburg Imperial Ballet School. By 1801, Charles Didelot’s productions at the St. Petersburg Bolshoi Theater (later called the Maryinsky and still later the Kirov) became showcasing the great innovations and artistic achievements of Russian ballet.  Russia’s reputation as a superior performance location – from facilities to salaries – lured famous teachers and dancers to Russia.

Modern Russian Ballet performing “Swan Lake,” from The Guardian at

Did all this come from a boy with restless leg syndrome? Young Peter was said to be so constantly in movement or jiggling that he could not sit through dinners without jumping up and going into the next room to stretch. He walked faster than anyone in his retinue, so that people had to run to keep up with him. He waved his arms about as he walked. No wonder that Czar Peter found a match for his restless energy in the dance.


Because his own life had been deeply influenced by study and travel, education did not escape Peter’s attention. One-third of the Russian population of Peter’s time was unable to read. In 1701, he founded a School of Mathematics. In 1716, he required all the children of landowners to attend one of three colleges: Army, Navy, or Engineering. Education was also required for the nobility, and study abroad was encouraged and even supported by the government.

Education continued to be a priority. The buildings that would later house the university were constructed on Vasilievsky Island between 1722 and 1742 to house the government’s 10 ministries and the Senate. St. Petersburg University, founded in 1819 (or perhaps earlier; historians differ), fostered the same spirit of innovation that characterized both Czar Peter and the new city. The university saw the development of the Periodic Table of the Elements (Dmitry I. Mendeleev) and the radio (Alexander S. Popov, at the same time as Marconi).

Document of Authorization

Upon the capture of the fortress Kantsy, the Council of War had gathered to decide whether to further strengthen that redoubt or to look for another, more convenient place for the fortress (because the above-mentioned Kantsy was too small, too far from the sea and not conveniently protected by its natural surroundings). The Council resolved to look for a new place. Several days later, such an appropriate place was found, an island named Lust Elant (Pleasure Island), and on May 16, 1703 (Pentecost Sunday) the fortress was established there and was named St. Petersburg.

– From E. S. Gorlov, The Founding of St. Petersburg as Recounted in the Journal (Diary Notes) of Tsar Peter the Great. Institute of Railroad Transportation Engineering, Moscow: Pub. Art. 1777, part 1, p. 76.

VOICES OF THE FUTURE: Discussion and Implications

Capitals: St. Petersburg was founded for commercial and military reasons, Lust Elant being an advantageous location with access to sea and ample natural protection. But Peter envisioned more than military success. A whole new culture was born – from fashion to ballet, from great architecture to modern art, from new science and technology to music. Sometimes a new vision demands a new center. Brasilia is such an example. Are there circumstances in our present global situation where a new capital is needed?

Culture: Why do some societies produce great advances in culture? It’s a question asked by Toynbee (Cities of Destiny) and still relevant today. From St. Petersburg came the Periodic Table of the Elements by Mendeleev, the ballet traditions of the Bolshoi and the Kirov, the music of Glinka, Borodin, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich.  Not to be omitted from the list of cultural treasures is the Hermitage Museum with over three million works of art, a collection begun when Catherine the Great acquired 250 paintings and later housed them in the Winter Palace. What are the factors that led St. Petersburg to foster and promote the arts? Can other cities take inspiration from the traditions that grew on the island of Lust Elant?


To read the complete chapter, members of the University of Massachusetts Boston may access the e-book through Healey Library Catalog and  ABC-CLIO here.  Alternatively the volumes can be accessed at WorldCat, or at Amazon for purchase. Further resources are available onsite at the University of Massachusetts Boston, Healey Library, including some of the following:

Building the World Collection Finding Aid

(*indicates printed in notebook series) 

*Almedingen, E.M. My St. Petersburg: A Reminiscence of Childhood. New York: Norton, 1970.

*Efimova, A. O. Turkina, and V. Mazin. Layers: Contemporary Collage from St. Petersburg, Russia. Catonsville: Fine Arts Gallery, University of Maryland, 1955.

*Seward, J.S., ed. The Collections of the Romanovs: European Art from the State Hermitage Museum. London and New York: Merrell, 2003.

Davidson, Frank P. and Kathleen Lusk Brooke, “Founding of St. Petersburg: 1703,” introduction. Dated 05/28/01.

Gorlov, Ella S. translator. “The Founding of St. Petersburg as Recounted in the Journal (Diary Notes) of Tsar Peter the Great,” Translated and adapted from the Russian script of the XVIIIth century, this resource contains historical sources, maps and pictures, as well as Russian originals. One copy of report written December, 1993.

Davidson, Frank P. Bibliographical notes regarding the founding of St. Petersburg including:

Massie, Robert K. Peter the Great: His Life and Work. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980.

Newby, Eric. The Big Red Train Ride. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978, p. 68

Chatty, Nigel. “Island Complex Offshore North Atlantic.” Nigel Chatty Associaties, Irvington-on-Hudson, New York 10533, published in 1989.


“Catherine the Great (Catherine II) in the history of St. Petersburg, Russia.”

“The Beginnings of Russian Ballet,”

*Andros on Ballet.”

“Peter the Great,”

*Rempel, Gerhard. Professor, Western New England College. “Personality of Peter the Great.”

*Atchison, Bob. “St. Petersburg 1900, Photo 2 On the Neva, a Petersburg Travelogue.

“Peter the Great’s New Russia: 1696-1725.”

*The State Hermitage Museum.”

“Peter the Great (Peter I).”

“Peter the Great and the Russian Empire.”

*Saint Petersburg, nds: Sankt Pedersborg.”

*“St. Petersburg State University – The ‘Twelve Colleges’ Building.

“Russian Male Choir of St. Petersburg.”

For a live webcame view of St. Petersburg harbor and the Neva River:

For current St. Petersburg:

For population of St. Petersburg and its changes:

For antique photos:

For psychological portrait of Peter:

For an overview of Russia from 1696 to 1725 with photos of Peter including the portrait of him by Johann Tannaueer of 1710:

For an overview of Russian music, listen in at:

For Russian folk music including Cossack songs, listen at:

For photos and history of ballet in Russia:

For photos taken on 300th anniversary of the city:

For St. Petersburg University:

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Building the World Blog by Kathleen Lusk Brooke and Zoe G Quinn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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