How St. Petersburg became the capital of Imperial Russia

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St. Petersburg was founded in 1703. The city was the capital of Imperial Russia for more than two centuries. Today, St. Petersburg is the “cultural capital” of the Russian Federation.

How did St. Petersburg become the capital of Imperial Russia?

It all started with Peter the Great.

Peter the Great and his life in Moscow

In the 17th century, Romanov tsars ruled the Tsardom of Russia. The capital was at Moscow, the most spiritual city of Russian Orthodox Church. In 1672, a young prince named Peter was born.

Peter the Great was a son of Tsar Alexis and Tsaritsa Naryshkina. His mother was the second tsaritsa. Tsar Alexis married Peter’s mother after his tsaritsa died. This meant there were two families of the tsaritsas. The first tsaritsa’s family, the Miloslavsky, was one of the prominent nobilities in the Muscovites court, while the Naryshkin was a much less distinguished one. These two families were indeed rivals. The Miloslavsky were afraid of rising influences in the court of the Naryshkin especially after Tsaritsa Naryshkina gave birth to a son, Peter.

Tsar Alexis died relatively young when he was 46 years old. Fyodor, the tsar’s son born from the first tsaritsa, rose to the throne. The new tsar, Fyodor III or Feodor III was a kind monarch. He took care of his half-brother, Peter well. Unfortunately, his health was declining. His reign lasted only 6 years. Fyodor was only 20 when he died.

Young Peter the Great

Young Peter Traumatized

As Fyodor III died heirless, succession crisis erupted. There were two princes who could inherit the throne. Both were sons of the tsar but from different tsaritsas. The first choice was Ivan, who was a full brother of Fyodor III, but Ivan had severe mental and physical disabilities. The second choice was Peter, a prince born from tsaritsa of the Naryshkin family. The boyar council finally proclaimed Peter tsar and his mother regent for her own son.

This proclamation angered the powerful Miloslavsky. They secretly started a coup by stirring up riots and turning the elite Streltsy troops against the Naryshkin. No one could stop the Streltsy. As a result, many of Peter’s relatives were killed mercilessly. Although he was a tsar, Peter could not stop the Streltsy from taking his uncle away.

This event certainly traumatized a young tsar. Peter never forgot what happened in Moscow on that day.

Reforms

The alliance of the Streltsy and the Miloslavsky forced the duma to proclaim Ivan co-tsar with Peter. Tsarevna Sophia, Ivan’s older sister, became regent who exercised all power in the kingdom.

When Peter grew up, his passion for shipbuilding, sailing, and military emerged. The teenaged tsar loved to build up his mocked armies to fight each other. Sophia was alarmed by Peter’s interests, so she tried to get rid of Peter and his retainers.

After a clash between two sides, Peter succeeded in overthrowing Sophia in 1689. He remained co-tsars along with Ivan V until the latter’s death in 1696. As a sole ruler, Peter started his reforms. He always believed that Russia needed to modernize to become stronger. He started to appoint many advisers from the west, and initiate a reform of the Russian society. For example, Peter taxed any Russian who grew a beard and ordered every courtier to wear western clothes. The tsar faced strong oppositions, especially in Moscow but nothing could stop him.

The Streltsy rebelled against his rule in 1698. Many historians believed that the causes of rebellion were Peter’s reforms. Though Peter was in western Europe, Patrick Gordon, his Scottish adviser successfully crushed the rebels. The tsar ordered the torture and killing of these people when he returned to Moscow.

Morning of the Streltsy Execution drawn by Vasily Surikov

Overall, Peter’s life in Moscow was not a happy one. He saw a great tragedy before his eyes. He also grew up in the oppression of his enemies in this city. When he started his grand plan, these same people attempted to stop or even to dethrone him. There were so many treacheries against him and his family in the city. Moscow became a conglomerate of what Peter detested.

This was surely why Peter wanted to move his capital, but where should the new capital be?

Peter the Great’s dream

Peter was so passionate about western knowledge, especially shipbuilding. He decided to travel secretly to learn about this. Peter spent time as a worker in Dutch shipyards to learn more about shipbuilding. This experience enhanced the tsar’s desire of building Russia’s grand navy.


Peter the Great Meditating the Idea of Building St Petersburg at the Shore of the Baltic Sea, by Alexandre Benois, 1916

Peter believed that Russia had too few maritime outlets. In Peter’s time, Arkhangelsk, a city near the White Sea was a major port. Trades there were not available for five months because the sea was icebound. Peter realized that Russia needed a better port that ships can reach every period of the year. A new port would increase trading income, and allow him to build a navy.

The perfect location was the Ingria region, which possessed Baltic sea coast. The region was much closer to Europe and Moscow than Arkhangelsk. If Russia built a new port in Ingria, trades with Europe would flourish, benefiting the economy. Peter would fulfill his own dream of building a navy as well.

Thus, Ingria region was a definite choice for Peter to move his capital.

Construction of St. Petersburg

However, Ingria was under Swedish control. Sweden was a superpower in the 18th century. A war with Sweden was not going to be an easy one. Again, no one could stop Peter. The war with Sweden was inevitable. The Great Northern War against Sweden began in 1700.

After conquering Ingria from Sweden, Peter decided to build his new capital near Neva Bay in central Ingria. where Baltic trades could be facilitated. Peter named the city “Saint Petersburg.” The construction of St. Petersburg started in 1703. However, the new capital itself was not secured, as the war was ongoing.

Sweden agreed to cede Ingria region that included St. Petersburg to Russia in 1721. St. Petersburg remained a Russian territory ever since. It had been the Russian capital from 1712 to 1917 before the Bolsheviks moved the capital back to Moscow.

Sources:

  • Peter the Great: His Life and World by Robert K.Massie