Monday, March 06, 2017

Mandatory Fun: Saint Petersburg and Its Despot



In opposing the “Great Man Theory” of historical causation, Leo Tolstoy also challenged one of the most obvious features of his own nation’s history: the prominent role played by autocratic, strong-willed monarchs in shaping Russia’s politics and institutions. One thinks of Catherine II, enlightened despot with countless paramours; Alexander I, statesman-mystic and defier of Napoleon; Alexander II, liberator and reformer; and Nicholas II, outstanding both in weakness and misfortune - not to mention the communist tsars of the twentieth century, Lenin and Stalin. Vladimir Putin, with his show-biz antics, dictatorial governing style and foreign adventures, follows the example of the Romanovs and the Bolshevik autocrats. As yet, though, he has not attempted to secure his fame by building a permanent monument in the form chosen by many of his predecessors: a city bearing his own name. Putin has not, in short, emulated the most outsized of Russian monarchs, Peter I, founder of Saint Petersburg.

Peter (1672-1725) identified more with western Europe than with his homeland. As tsar he sought to remake Russia into a Western state and society. There were limits to how far anyone, even an autocrat, could transform Russia’s vast peasantry, its ancient Church, or its social institutions. Peter could and did impose changes on the nation’s aristocracy (e.g. cutting off their beards) and its capital city. Rather than rebuild Moscow, the Romanov tsar decided to build a new capital, a city-sized model of the Russia he wanted to inhabit. Saint Petersburg, whose construction began in the spring of 1703, quickly grew into a center of power, commerce, and refinement. Peter invited French and Italian architects to design his city’s broad boulevards and cascading fountains. He encouraged foreign ships to call by offering favorable trading terms and bounties. Foreigners the tsar had to cajole and entice, but Russians he could simply command. Peter ordered a thousand noble families to build residences in Saint Petersburg, and directed 2,500 artisans and merchants to join them. In 1710 he moved the royal court there as well. Saint Petersburg remained Russia’s capital until the Revolution, and one of its largest cities thereafter.

Peter’s city combined grandeur with cruelty, incompetence, and farce. The tsar conscripted several hundred thousand peasant laborers to build his capital, but did not make adequate plans to feed or house them. Exposure, illness, and overwork killed workers by the thousands; 30,000 left their bones beside the Neva River. Russian nobles’ need to build new homes in the city, meanwhile, caused them to build in haste, and, as one historian observed “their new palaces were crumbling before they were completed,” their walls sagging and sinking into the marshy ground (Blanning, 231). Once the aristocrats arrived in Petersburg, Tsar Peter’s determination to turn the city into a center of culture caused him to place additional, absurd burdens on them. He obliged the resident nobles to learn yachting, organized mandatory sailing reviews and regattas, and obliged the high-born to attend a long series of balls and soirees - and, presumably, to pretend they were having a wonderful time. Enforced gaiety, “mandatory fun” as Weird Al calls it, signals quite clearly that one is living under a despot. In his demand that his aristos not only move to Saint Petersburg but publicly pretend they were happy, Peter resembled (to me at least) no-one so much as Ming the Merciless, villain of the film Flash Gordon (1980), who on the occasion of his wedding ordered “All will make merry on pain of death.” However romantic a monarchy seems in retrospect, actually living in one must have resembled life in Pyongyang more than Camelot.* 

Sources: Blanning, The Pursuit of Glory (Penguin, 2007), 231, 238; Stanley Elkins and Eric McKittrick, The Age of Federalism (Oxford UP, 1993), 185-186. 


*As Charles Stross has pointed out several times.

(Image above: The Palace Embankment from the Peter and Paul Palace, by Fyodor Alekseev)

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