St. Petersburg

A toddler's eye view of the embankmentPeter the Great was always the unorthodox monarch. His city was built on a boggy marsh plagued my mosquitoes in the summer and floods the rest of the year. It stands as his greatest testament. Without the tsarís iron will, St. Petersburg would never have survived.

There was no stone to quarry nearby. So after the cityís founding in 1703, he decreed that building in stone be outlawed across Russia. All carts approaching the fledgling city were to contribute stone to a building site, or be turned away. He forced his noblemen to migrate from their comfy Moscow palaces to the badlands of the Baltic ó having personally cut off their beards, and insisted they wear western clothes. "On one side the sea," bemoaned a court jester, "on the other sorrow, on the third moss, on the fourth a sigh." Tens of thousands of labourers were marched to the shores of the Baltic to work on the town. When these died by their thousands from scurvy, dysentery and drowning, myriad more were press-ganged into service. The city which would later become Russiaís "window on the west" was founded on bones.

Peter blew through his countryís history like a gale. He virtually single-handedly wrenched Russia into the Europe of the eighteenth century, and set in motion the countryís tendency to periodically turn itself inside out. The Academy of Arts and Sciences (now the Kunstkammer museum) on south bank of Vasilevsky Island sheds perhaps the most engaging light on the man whose city will celebrate its tricentennary next year.

On his second visit to the West in 1716 (on the first he went incognito), Peter purchased the anatomical collection of the Dutch Professor Ruysch and another of the wildlife of the East Indies. Peter was so fond of it that in summer he would visit the building at dawn several times a week. Determined that his countrymen should benefit from the collection, visitors were enticed to attend with a shot of vodka and some bread. Its collection of pickled deformed foetuses, babies, body parts and animals makes you wish theyíd revive the tradition.

Peterís original plan was for the heart of the city to be on Vasilevsky Island, and, ever the didactic patriarch, he refused to build bridges from the mainland (where the city later developed). He wanted his subjects to learn and enjoy seafaring. With this in mind, at first he even banned the ferrymen from using oars for the crossing. He only relented when his personal physician became one of the riverís more prominent victims. Only after Peterís death was a summer bridge finally erected. The first permanent bridge across the river was only completed in 1850.

Further along the banks of the Neva from the Kunstkammer stands the palace of Prince Menshikov. Menshikovís rise from humble stable boy to the richest and most powerful man in Russia after Peter is legendary, as is his greed and corruption.

In 1713, when most of the city was knee-deep in mud, and citizens regularly chomped by wolves, the prince began the construction of a massive stone palace. It was three stories high, roofed with iron plates painted red, and lavishly decorated. Peter used the palace for the extravagant parties that he and his "Jolly Company" would throw. Most involved huge fireworks displays, debauched scenes, copious drinking, and usually a fair amount of ribaldry. Few of them ended before dawn. But while Menshikov revelled in pomp and ceremony, Peter preferred the simple life. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his Summer Palace, on the southern banks of the Neva east of the Hermitage.

The houseís solid chimneys, steep gabled roof, low ceilings and latticed windows give the palace a Dutch feel from the start. And inside, the influence of the low-countries is apparent throughout the house: the blue and white tiles, the paintings of naval scenes, and the internal tap (the first to be installed in the city) and the hooded chimney in the kitchen. The palace has a wonderfully quotidian feel. Downstairs, Peterís love of science and the sea are evident in his lathe, instruments and colossal carved meteorological device, and his love of hot food in the hatch between dining room and kitchen.

The emperorís second wife Catherineís apartments grace the upstairs. Catherine ó born Martha Skavronskaya ó came from lowly Lithuanian stock, like Menshikov. Yet she captured Peterís heart, and by all accounts, they had an exceedingly happy and affectionate marriage. "The great reason why the Tsar was so fond of her," wrote a close friend of Peterís, "was her exceeding good temper; she was never seen peevish or out of humor; obliging and civil to all and never forgetful of her former condition." They had twelve children, but only two lived to adulthood.

The original gardens of the Summer Palace were Peter the Greatís pride and joy. He had his architect LeBlond lay them out in the popular French style of the period, complete with some 50 fountains, as well as topiaries, aviaries, orangeries, and bevies of statues. But Peter took even more interest in the gardens at his palace at Peterhof.

Before it became an eighteenth-century Disneyland, "Peter's Court" was born out of military necessity. It served as the tsarís operational base during construction on nearby Kotlin Island. But with two major naval victories (and a trip to Versailles in 1717) behind him, Peter decided to make the place a permanent summer residence.

Statues of the Peterhof fountains

With this, he entered into frenzied activity, ordering the construction of two parks, the fountains, the Monplaisir, and the Great Palace. The best way to arrive at Peterhof is by hydrofoil. From the dock, you make your way up the tree-lined Marine Canal, with the Great Palace rising on its bluff behind a sea of mist conjured by the dozens of arcing fountains ó surely one of the most dramatic approaches to any chateau in the world. At the foot of the palace lies the engineer-crazy Peterís pride and joy, the Grand Cascade, where row upon row of gilt statues pose amid yet more swoops, splashes and arcs of water. Though by far the most dramatic, the cascade is only one of the groundsí most endearing features, with tens of fountains scattered throughout the woods and palaces.

Peterís favourite hideaway was his small palace, Monplaisir. Here, from his Naval Study, he would gaze out to sea, plotting his next reform or building project, or dozing after yet another gargantuan meal. But Peter rarely relaxed, and loathed formality even more than inaction. Visiting ambassadors and foreign dignitaries were shocked to find themselves forced to dig trenches or fell trees when they came to visit. Failing that, they would be impelled to join the Tsar on one of his sailing jaunts.

Most people associate the Winter Palace with Peterís daughter, Elizabeth, or else with his great daughter-in-law Catherine the Great. But Peter laid its foundations, and one can still find faithful reconstructions of Peterís turnery (he made much of his own furniture) and private rooms. Best of all, thereís probably the most faithful portrait one can find of the great tsar: the Florentine Carlo Rastrelliís life-size wax figure, executed soon after Peterís death, complete with brown hair and faded clothing.

The figure, an effervescent and disturbing energy bubbling up beneath the tsarís frame ó despite its age ó sits on a large throne, but his presence is still overwhelming. You can almost feel the nervous tick across his eye which would regularly paralyse him, or serve as a warning for the violent rages to follow, and thereís a tension in his neck muscles which seems to communicate all the irrepressible, hyperactive, ungovernable and raw intensity of the man.

But, for me at least, Peter is best embodied by his boots ó he stitched them himself. This was, afterall, the most utilitarian and practical monarch the world had ever seen, whoíd beat iron, turn ivory, make furniture, build boats; whose hunger for ideas and solutions left his compatriots breathless; the man who set St. Petersburg on its glorious course. This is the man who, a day before dying aged 53, signed a decree regulating the sale of glue.

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© Dominic Hamilton