Little Waldingfield History Society was delighted to welcome our very well known county councillor Jenny Antill to talk to us on the history of St Petersburg, as reflected in two iconic artworks: a bronze statue of Peter (Alekseyevich Romanov) in Senate Square and the poem about the statue by Alexander Pushkin, the 19th century Russian Shakespeare. As expected, the thirty plus audience was enthralled with her account of the history of this great city in her comprehensive and copiously illustrated talk, which she began by reading the introduction to Pushkin's narrative poem:
On a deserted, wave-swept shore,
He stood - in his mind great thoughts grow -
And gazed afar. The northern river
Sped on its wide course him before;
One humble skiff cut the waves' silver.
On banks of mosses and wet grass
Black huts were dotted there by chance -
The miserable Finn's abode;
The wood unknown to the rays
Of the dull sun, by clouds stowed,
Hummed all around. And he thought so:
‘The Swede from here will be frightened;
Here a great city will be wrought
To spite our neighbourhood conceited.
From here by Nature we're destined
To cut a door to Europe wide,
To step with a strong foot by waters.
Here, by the new for them sea-paths,
Ships of all flags will come to us -
And on all seas our great feast opens.'
An age passed, and the young stronghold,
The charm and sight of northern nations,
From the woods' dark and marshes' cold,
Rose the proud one and precious.
Where once the Finnish fisherman,
Sad stepson of the World, alone,
By low riverbanks' a sand,
Cast into waters, never known,
His ancient net, now on the place,
Along the full of people banks,
Cluster the tall and graceful masses
Of castles and palaces; and sails
Hasten in throng to the rich quays
From all the lands our planet masters;
The Neva-river's dressed with rocks;
Bridges hang o'er the waters proud;
Abundantly her isles are covered
With dark-green gardens' gorgeous locks…
As Jenny commented, this is a romanticised history of the establishment of the city of Saint Petersburg in 1703, with Peter the Great standing at the edge of the River Neva conceiving the idea for a city which will threaten the Swedes and open a window to Europe. The poem describes the area as almost uninhabited; Peter can only see one boat and a handful of dark houses inhabited by Finnish peasants. Saint Petersburg was subsequently constructed on territory newly gained from Sweden in the Great Northern War, the site chosen because it provided Russia with a corner of access to the Baltic Sea, the Atlantic and Europe.
She then described the man behind the Tsar. Born in June 1672, he was 6' 7” tall with a small head who suffered from convulsions, probably from epilepsy; he was sadistic and brutal, with huge energy and bad manners, but with skills in all kinds of craftsmanship including carpentry, masonry, printing, blacksmithing and even dentistry. His childhood was unusual to say the least. Aged just three when his father Tsar Alexei died, Peter's half brother Feodor III then reigned for seven years until his death, when there was a coup by Peter's half sister Sophia Alekseyevna, who became Regent. Peter was not perceived a threat to Feodor and was given a personal tutor, Nikita Zotov, who subsequently became a stalwart drinking companion.
During the coup, the Streltsy - elite armed guards first established by Ivan the Terrible - massacred many of Peter's closest relations as well as their own commander and his father's former chief minister. Peter was appointed junior co-tsar, along with his retarded twelve year old half brother Ivan; Sophia's intention was to keep him well in the background so he did not become an adult tsar. His formal education was brought to an end and, allegedly for his own safety, Peter was kept in a remote hunting lodge on the river Yauza, along with his mother Natalya and his sisters; Peter's education was now completely in his own hands, which he grasped wholeheartedly.
Firstly we were told he enjoyed wandering the streets of Nemetskaya Sloboda, the foreign or dumb quarter, where Peter acquired his fascination and skill in all forms of craftsmanship. Secondly his boyhood playing with toy soldiers metamorphosed from simply drilling boys into mock battles with significant numbers of boyhood friends, training as members of real regiments and sometimes incurring real casualties and introducing him to fortification and artillery, as well as infantry techniques. Thirdly Peter developed a hobby of sailing, having a profound influence and creating a life-long yearning to come closer to Western Europe and win proper access to the Baltic Sea.
Peter gradually grew into the role of the true tsar and as Sophia wished to become tsarina, she attempted to induce the Streltsy into another uprising. When most of the Streltsy units deserted central Moscow to go to where Peter was living, Sophia asked Peter to join her in the Kremlin; he refused and soon after she was arrested and forced to withdraw to the Novodevichy Convent. Peter couldn't acquire control over Russian affairs as power was exercised by his mother Natalaya, but when she died in 1694 he became an independent sovereign, becoming sole ruler when his brother Ivan died in 1696.
Peter exercised sweeping reforms to modernise Russia, reorganising the army along modern lines with dreams of turning Russia into a maritime power. As noted, he sought to gain more sea ports; as the only maritime outlet at that time was the White Sea at Arkhangelsk, the Baltic Sea was controlled by Sweden in the north while the Black and Caspian seas were controlled by the Ottoman and Safavid empires in the south. He attempted to take control of the Black Sea, by waging war against the Crimean Khan and the Ottoman Sultan in the summer of 1695, his primary objective was the capture of the Azov fortress near the Don river, but his attempts ended in failure. He returned to Moscow in November to begin building a large navy, launching 30 ships against the Ottomans in 1696 and capturing Azov later in the year; in September 1698 Peter officially founded the first Russian naval base at Tanganrog.
In 1697 Peter travelled incognito to Europe on an 18 month journey, attempting but failing to drum up support for his actions against the Ottoman Empire. However, while visiting the Netherlands, he learned much about life in Western Europe, gaining practical experience in the largest shipyard in the world, belonging to the Dutch East India Company, for a period of four months, and helping with construction of an East Indiaman specially laid down for him - the Peter and Paul. In England, he met with King William III, visited Greenwich and Oxford, was painted by Sir Godfrey Kneller and saw a Royal Navy Fleet Review at Deptford; he also travelled to Manchester to learn the techniques of city building he would later use with great effect at St Petersburg. The visit was cut short early in 1698 due to a rebellion of The Streltsy, though this was crushed before he returned home; just one of the Tsar's troops was killed but Peter acted in typically ruthless fashion, torturing and executing 1200 rebels and ordering their bodies to be publicly exhibited as a warning to others.
Peter was impressed with European customs and subsequently commanded all his courtiers and officials to remove their long beards and to wear western clothing; he also attempted to end the practice of arranged marriage as he thought this was barbaric and lead to domestic violence. He made a temporary peace with the Ottoman Empire, which allowed him to retain control of the Azov fort, and sought to acquire control of the Baltic Sea, taken by the Swedish Empire fifty years before. Following numerous successes and setbacks, Peter founded his great new city of St Petersburg in 1703, now Russia's second largest, on wholly unsuitable marshy ground subject to frequent flooding, at the mouth of the river Neva on the Gulf of Finland. He replaced the captured Swedish fortress of Nyenskans and replaced it with his own Peter and Paul fortress, closer to the estuary and some 5 km inland from the gulf.
Peter died in February 1725 without naming a successor, and was succeeded by Catherine I who represented the interests of “the new men”; apparently she had no real claim to the throne but was in the right place at the right time.
Decades later Catherine II, later known as Catherine the Great, a German princess who married into the Romanov line, was anxious to connect herself with Peter the Great to gain legitimacy in the eyes of her people, having gained her position as the result of a palace coup without any legal claim to the throne. To do so, she ordered the construction of an equestrian statue of Peter, with the inscription “Catherine the Second to Peter the First, 1782”, expressing her admiration for her predecessor and her own view of her place in the line of great Russian rulers.
As Jenny noted, casting of the statue began in 1775 but at some point the mould broke, releasing molten bronze that started several fires. After re-melting and recasting, the statue was finally finished; it had taken twelve years to complete the Bronze Horseman, including pedestal, horse and rider. For the pedestal, an enormous boulder known as the Thunder Stone was used; it weighed some 1500 tons and because of this, the sculptor Falconet wanted to shape it in situ. Catherine ordered it to be moved before cutting, so perhaps the largest stone ever moved by man had to be transported four miles overland from a swamp in Finland to a waiting barge. After finishing, the stone weighed approx. 1250 tons, standing some 7 metres high with the statue another 6 metres on top.
Jenny then told us about the Pushkin narrative poem, about the equestrian statue in St Petersburg and the great flood of 1824, written in 1833 but not published, in its entirety, until after his death. Widely considered his most successful narrative poem, the “Bronze Horseman” has had a lasting impact on Russian literature, is one of the most influential works in Russian literature and one of the reasons why Pushkin is often called the founder of modern Russian literature.
Thus he did dream. And a great sadness
Embraced his soul in that night,
He wished the wind's weep to be lesser,
Rain's siege of windows - not so tight.
At last his sleepy eyes were closed...
And now the night is getting gray -
That night, so nasty and morose,
And it is coming - the pale day
The awful day! During the night
Neva had strived for sea ‘gainst tempests
But, having lost all her great battles,
The river ceased the useless fight…
And in the morn on her shores proud,
Stood people in a pressed in lot
And saw the tall and heard the loud
Fierce waters' mountains, it had brought.
But by the force of airy breathing
Blocked from the Gulf, the wide Neva
Came back - the wrathful one and seething -
And flooded islands, near and far;
The weather grew into the cruel,
Neva - more swelling and more brutal,
Like in a kettle boiled and steamed,
And then, as a wild creature seemed,
Jumped on the city. And before it,
All ran away from its strait path,
And all got emptied there; at once.
The waters flew into the cellars,
And raised up to the fence of canals -
And, like Triton, Petropol sails
Sunk in the water till his waist.
Siege and assault!
The evil waters
Thrust into windows, like slaughters.
The mad boats row into a glass.
The stalls are under the wet mass.
The wrecks of huts, the logs, roofs' pieces,
The stores of the tread, auspicious,
The things, carried the pale want from,
The bridges got away by storm,
The coffins from the graveyards - float,
Along the streets!
Sees God's great wrath and waits for death.
All is destroyed: bread and abode.
And how to live?
The monarch, blessed,
Tsar Aleksandr, in a good fashion,
Still governed Russia that year, dread,
And from the balcony he, sad
And pale, said: “Ne'er the God-made nature
Can be subdued by any tsars.”
And, in a thought, looked at the evil's
With his full of deep sadness eyes.
The streets turned into the fast rivers,
Running to made lakes, dark and grievous,
The Palace was an island, sad,
That loomed over the blackened waters.
The Tsar decreed - from end to end,
Down the shortest streets and longest,
On danger routs over the waves,
His generals set into the sailing -
To save the drawing and straining
On streets and in their homes-graves.
Jenny continued her Russian narrative right up to the time of Lenin, but this seems a good place to end this review; the audience were spellbound by Jenny's tour de force and we look forward very much to her returning with another spellbinding tale of Russian goings on.
Our next event will be on 21st September at 7.30 in The Parish Room, when Roger Green will regale us with his talk on ‘Rev'd Henry Watts Wilkinson - A Victorian Melodrama'. Rev'd Wilkinson was a Sudbury clergyman from 1807 to 1851 and Roger will tell the curious tale of his eldest daughter, deemed unable to conduct her own life but left a considerable sum of money. Despite four (male!) guardians, a deprived cousin kidnapped and bore her off to marry her! Do come along to hear the entire gripping narrative of times and customs now long past.
We look forward to welcoming guests new and old to the Parish Room for what is sure to be a most fascinating evenings entertainment, and between now and then, we will circulate our 2016 / 17 programme of events & membership application to members and houses in Little Waldingfield.
Andy Sheppard 24th June 2016