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On St. Petersburg And Catherine The Great, by Eva Stachniak

St. Petersburg, like other great cities of the world, has had its place in the shaping of modern history.

By European standards, St. Petersburg is a young city. It was founded by Peter the Great in 1703, and built in the subsequent years on the inhospitable strip of land, surrounding the delta of the Neva river which was prone to flooding. To build it, land had to be reclaimed from the sea and marshes using means similar to those employed in Venice. Long poles were hammered into the shaky ground, one close to another, to provide foundations for the buildings. Since stone quarries were far away, many wooden buildings were merely covered with stone-like stucco. At some point anyone entering St. Petersburg had to bring at least one large stone. To make sure the city was populated, Peter ordered all dvorianie (Russian gentry) serving at court to build their palaces there.

The building of St. Petersburg, however, was not a whim of a vain monarch. Its creation consolidated Russia’s hold on freshly conquered lands. Even more importantly, it provided Peter the Great with access to the sea.

The imperial palaces of St. Petersburg and its environs were the focus of court life.  The northern winters were long. By 3:00 p.m. it was already dark, and the courtiers longed for amusements which the Tsar or Tsarina provided in abundance. But outside of the Imperial Court, life in St Petersburg was – as many travellers attested – the life of a garrison town. Since the palace guards and other Russian regiments had their quarters in the city, men outnumbered women to such a degree that St. Petersburg became a fashionable destination for mothers with unmarried daughters. It was a new city that considered itself liberal, especially in contrast to Moscow which was set in its ways. Because it was designed and built with a plan in mind, it was orderly, while Moscow seemed more a collection of villages than one city.

Eighteenth century travellers to St. Petersburg have provided many descriptions of the city attractions, some of which became a direct inspiration for scenes in my novel. One of them was Kunstkamera, Peter the Great’s first museum, dedicated to preserving “natural and human curiosities and rarities.” Its goal was to debunk the superstitious fear of monsters and it featured (and still does) a large assortment of abnormal human and animal fetuses. During Peter the Great’s reign, the entrance to the museum was not only free, but each guest could count on a shot of vodka to fortify his/her spirit.

The city Catherine the Great arrived in at 14, as a prospective bride of Russia’s Crown Prince, is a particularly enticing setting for a historical novel that is trying to capture the development of imperial Russia. It was a city in the making, vibrant and full of pent-up energy. It wanted to prove its worth, stand its ground against more established and traditional Russian cities. It was ideal for newcomers of all classes, for it offered means of advancement and opportunities difficult to come by in other, more traditional parts of Russia. It was the center of power and intrigue and it carried in it the seeds of what Russia was and would become, an autocratic empire, a powerhouse of Europe which would, in the future, defeat Napoleon and Hitler – and determine the history of this part of the globe.


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Writing Historical Novels


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