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How did Peter The Great build St. Petersburg?

As the icy Baltic wind gusted about him, Peter The Great, tsar of Russia, surveyed the desolate landscape that he had just wrested from the occupying Swedes. Seizing a bayonet, he hacked four sods from the soil and, flinging them to the ground in the shape of a cross, roared: "Here shall be a town!" No one but he could have envisaged a town in this cold, damp and boggy flatland where man-eating wolves roamed in broad daylight. And when the freezing winds swept in from the Baltic Sea, the River Neva flowed back upstream, flooding the low-lying delta regularly and reducing it to an expanse of oozing mud.

The year was 1703, and this inhospitable area had been only sparsely populated for centuries. Yet now that Peter's army had captured the last Swedish-held fortress of Noteburg, he resolved to move his capital from Moscow to a newly erected city - to be named St Petersburg - in this windswept wasteland. Peter the Great, who ruled from 1682 to 1725, abhorred Moscow, with its plots, deeply entrenched habits, superstitions and court intrigues.

It was this grim delta in the extreme northwest of Russia that aroused his enthusiasm. He regarded it as his "window on the West", giving him at last the sea outlet to the Baltic he desired. In a base far from Moscow, he believed he could begin to mold a brave new Russia, re-modelling it along the Western lines he so admired.

Man of the people

With visionary zeal Peter set about building a great city on the small island of Zayachy. But first the ground level had to be raised. To do this, workers brought tons of earth from neighboring islands. They had no wheelbarrows, so they scraped up the soil with their bare hands and carried it in makeshift bags or inside their shirts.

Peter's far-reaching plans required a vast workforce. Peasants, convicts and soldiers were rounded up and forced to go to St Petersburg, some for a few months, others for life. Provincial governors were bound by law to provide some 40, 000 workers a year to drive timber piles into the marshes for foundations, level the ground, and lay out the streets.

The workers had a miserable existence. They lived in squalid huts or slept in the open under thin blankets: their diet was poor and they were paid a pittance. Nonetheless, the first stage of construction was complete by 1710, and in 1712 the tsar made St. Petersburg the capital of Russia.

A great city needed a great population, but Peter knew well that none of his subjects would move to this Baltic wilderness by choice, so he simply ordered his court and senior officials in Moscow to join him there. They did so reluctantly.

In the early years, life was hard. Almost every autumn, the river flooded its banks, and harvests were scant or failed altogether. Without regular supplies from outside, St. Petersburg would have starved, and the tsar's dream would have perished.

City of words and music

The city had fewer than 35 000 inhabitants, most of whom wanted to leave. But Peter was content. He had escaped Moscow's stifling atmosphere and unsettled the nobility by uprooting them, thus strengthening his overall grip on the country.

As palaces started to rise along the Neva, a magnificent city began to emerge. Half-Russian, half-European in style, it was a city of golden spires and domes, of granite obelisks, palaces and galleries.

The imperial court of St Petersburg became the home of Russian music, literature and poetry - the city of Pushkin, Dostoyevsky and Diaghilev. After the outbreak of war in 1914, the city was called Petrograd, and in 1924 it was renamed Leningrad. After Russian communism collapsed in 1991, however, it reverted to its original name - the only truly appropriate one for a city that owed its existence to the stubborn will and bold vision of one man.

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