St Petersburg
Home Up Life After Peter

Russia 2012 Information 1 - Early History 2 - Peter the Great 3 - St Petersburg 4 - Life After Peter 5 - Road to Moscow

Saint Petersburg

Written by Rick Archer
February 2012

Bitter Disappointment

The founding of Saint Petersburg must be considered one of Peter's greatest accomplishments.  However, Peter would first have to taste the bitter pill of an ignominious defeat.  Even worse, Peter's failed gamble would bring Russia to the very abyss of ruin. 

Only a lucky break saved Russia from destruction.  As Peter wept with anguish, little did he know there was a silver lining in the darkness.  As fate would have it, Peter's defeat contained the seeds that led to the creation of Saint Petersburg.  This is the story.  



The Great Northern War

On his return to Russia from his European adventure, Peter found himself obsessed with the dream of obtaining a maritime outlet.  Peter's trip to England had convinced him more than ever of the value of sea power.  Peter had learned first-hand how naval power had made England a mighty nation. He was certain that what his country required to move forward was an access route to the seas.  Sea access would be so valuable to Russia.  

Peter preferred the Black Sea. Unfortunately, he had failed in one of his main objectives.  During his trip to Europe, Peter had found no allies against the Turks among the Western powers.  Realizing Russia couldn’t fight Turkey alone, Peter begrudgingly gave up his dream of a Black Sea access. 

Instead, he turned his attention to the Baltic Sea. As you can see from the map, Russia was completely cut off from even a single port.  Russia could not hope to obtain her share of the trade and commerce of the world without a port. Possession of an ice-free port was critical to her economic development.

At this time, Russia’s route to the Baltic coast was blocked by powerful Sweden.  Sweden had pried away much Russian territory in the past hundred years due to Russia's military weakness during the Time of Troubles. 

Gustav Adophus was the brilliant leader who started Sweden's surge.  However, he had died in 1632 at the end of the Thirty Years War. He was succeeded by an equally adept leader in Charles X who continued his father's expansion. Sweden reached its largest territorial extent in 1658 under the rule of Charles X.  At the end of the 17th century Sweden was the third largest country in Europe, surpassed only by Russia and Spain.  Sweden was the dominant power in the region by a significant margin.

Russia may have been huge in size and population, but that meant little. Its people were servile, sullen and uneducated. There was almost no spirit of nationalism.   Furthermore, thanks to a century of weak leadership, its military had little tradition.  There was no military academy and few qualified officers.  Consequently the military was untrained and poorly organized.  Its commanders were all foreigners who weren't good enough to get a job in their own country. 

Peter knew all this. Russia had a lot of catching up to do if it wanted to challenge Swedish supremacy. Since Peter didn't think he could conquer Sweden on his own, to dislodge the Swedes, Peter allied himself to a three-way coalition: Russia, Denmark and Saxony-Poland.

All three states carried a grudge.  They had each lost significant territory to the Swedes and their brilliant leader Gustav Adophus throughout the 1600s.  Now they wanted it back and more.

Each country had an agenda.  Denmark's Charles V wanted to regain Scania and other territories on the Swedish mainland lost in 1658.

Augustus II of Saxony-Poland wanted Livonia back (lost in 1629) to put an end once and for all to Swedish economic predominance in the Baltic.

He wanted to develop Poland's industrial base by using Poland's raw materials and Saxony's economic know-how. However, he could not do this while Sweden remained a commercial rival in the Baltic.

Peter the Great simply wanted a foothold in the Baltic Sea.  Russia could never be great in the Baltic while Sweden was pre-eminent.  Sweden possessed three territories - Karelia, Ingria and Estonia (see map) - that completely blocked Russia's advance to the west.

The coalition saw an opening when a fifteen year old king - Charles XII - took the throne in 1697.  They figured this kid would be an soft target. They also had a shared belief that Sweden was a spent force by the 1690s.  This was the time when Sweden's territory was vulnerable to be cut up by a superior force. 

Now was the time to attack.

The Battle of Narva

The story of the Great Northern War can be summed up from the Russian point of view as the Tale of Two Battles

The war started badly for the Alliance.  The Denmark and Poland-Saxony opened hostilities in April 1700, striking at Sweden from several directions at once. 

Moving to meet the threats, 18-year old King Charles XII of Sweden elected to deal with Denmark first. Leading a well-equipped and highly trained army, Charles launched a bold invasion of Zealand, the Danish island where Copenhagen is situated.

The Danes folded fast.  This campaign forced the Danes out of the war right at the start.  That left the Swedes with Poland to deal with.

Russia was not in the war right at the start. 
Peter did not dare make war on Sweden until his peace with the Turks was secure.  The Russian army was far too weak to fight two fronts at once.  While Sweden took on Denmark and Poland, Peter swore to the Swedes that Russia had no intention of joining the fight.

That was a complete lie. 

Peter had targeted the city of Narva (see map) as his main objective.  Narva would give him the port on the Baltic that he so craved.  Narva had once been under Russian control from 1558 to 1581, but Sweden had ripped it away when Russia entered its "Time of Troubles".  Peter wanted it back.

Narva was the nearest Baltic port to Russian territory which made it supremely valuable to Peter.  Narva rested at the junction of the Gulf of Finland and the Narva River which drained massive Lake Peipus (see map), Europe's fifth largest lake.  Access to Narva would allow Russia to ship goods to the Baltic from as far away as 200 miles using the Velikaya River.

Peter was quite familiar with this area.  Lake Peipus was where he had learned to sail as a young boy, so he was well aware of Narva's value.  Peter figured that with Charles distracted far away by Denmark and Poland, he could seize control of Narva before Charles could possibly react. 

Peter delayed his attack till the dead of winter.  By attacking in November, he figured the weather would work to his advantage.  His forces only had to travel 50 miles while the Swedes would have to travel a considerable distance to defend this valuable possession. 

There was no conceivable way the Swedes would ever be able to react fast enough.  Narva was easy pickings. 

Arriving at Narva in early November, Russian forces began laying siege to the Swedish garrison defended by 2,500 men. The Swedes were badly outnumbered.  With 35,000 men, the Russian force was much larger.

Peter was supremely confident.  How hard could this be?  By the time the Swedes came to the defense of Narva, Peter would already have his port.

Peter's timing wasn't as good as he thought it was.  After concluding business with Denmark, Charles embarked across the Baltic with 8,000 men for Livonia in October with the intention of driving the invading Polish-Saxon army from the province. Landing in Livonia (modern day Latvia), Charles noticed that the Polish-Saxon army was now encamped for the winter. 

Seeing that the Poles were in hibernation, Charles decided instead to move east to aid the city of Narva which had just come under siege by Tsar Peter's Russian army three weeks earlier. 

Narva was only 150 miles away.  Charles was there in a matter of days.  The Swedes arrived outside the city on November 29.  It was a fortuitous break for Sweden which caught the Russians completely caught off guard. 

Even though the Russians still out-numbered the Swedish army by 3 to 1 (35,000 to 10,500), the Swedes were a fighting machine taking on an inexperienced army with mediocre equipment.  The Russian army had not yet been fully modernized by the tsar.

What was supposed to be an easy cherry picking romp had turned into a deadly threat. Peter's luck could not have been worse... but then it did get worse!  Upon the surprise landing of the Swedes, Peter decided he needed to head to Russia immediately and bring back reinforcements to meet the increased Swedish threat. 

Peter gambled that he had a couple days to round up more troops.  He never expected Charles would instantly go on attack. 

But that was exactly what Charles did.  Charles attacked one day after landing.

On the morning of November 30, a blizzard descendedDespite the foul weather, the Swedes still prepared for battle.  Meanwhile Croy, Peter's stand-in, invited the majority of his senior officers to a warm sit-down dinner.

Around midday, the wind shifted to the south, blowing the snow directly into the Russians' eyes. Spotting the advantage, Charles began advancing against the Russian center.  

Using the blinding snow as cover, the Swedes were able to approach to within 50 yards of the Russian lines without being spotted.

Surging forward, the Swedes quickly forced the surrender of the Russian center and captured Croy, the Russian commander.

The remaining Russians tried to retreat and regroup, but the weight of the panicking Russian forces led to the collapse of a temporary pontoon bridge over the Narva River.  Their escape route was destroyed.  In an instant, the bulk of the army was trapped.  It was either jump into the frozen waters of the river or fight to the death.  White-faced, the Russians turned back to look at the oncoming Swedes.

Seeing what happened and seeing the look on the doomed men's faces, the Swedes stopped in their tracks. The situation was so hopeless that the Swedish actually started laughing at the helpless Russians.

One of the Swedes made a suggestion.  Did the Russians wish to surrender or did they prefer to die?  Humiliated, the Russians surrendered on the spot.

It was over.  20,000 men had just been captured!  Only 5,000 men were able to escape back to Russia. 

The Battle of Narva was a stunning victory for the Swedes against overwhelming odds.  Furthermore, this wasn't any ordinary defeat.  It was a thrashing of historic dimensions. 

Indeed, the defeat was so thorough it should have ended Russia's involvement in the Alliance uprising once and for all.

In the fighting, Sweden lost 600 killed and 1,200 wounded. Russian losses were approximately 10,000 killed and 20,000 captured.

Just think about it for a moment.  How can any commander allow 20,000 men to be captured?  The level of incompetence involved was more than the imagination can even grasp.

This famous picture of the battle shows the Swedish Army disarming the 20,000 Russians.  In addition to the captured muskets, the Swedes captured all of Croy's artillery, supplies, and equipment.

The Russian army was so severely decimated that Sweden now had an open field to invade Russia. Charles could march into Russia to destroy what was left of the defenseless, disorganized ragtag enemy.

However, Charles did not pursue the Russian army.  Charles was so disdainful of the pitiful fight put up by the incompetent Russians that he decided to move first against Poland, the more dangerous opponent. 

Charles had missed his chance. By ignoring Russia when he had a sure-fire kill shot, Charles had just given Russia the break it needed to live for another day.  That which doesn't kill you makes you stronger.

Charles would one day regret his decision.  Had he chosen differently, the Swedish Empire might stretch all the way through to Siberia today.

Think about that for a moment.  There was no army capable of stopping Charles all the way to the Pacific.

Out of the Ashes

Peter was devastated at the news.  Imagine being informed that you have just lost practically his entire army and all of his equipment! 

This wasn't just Pearl Harbor.  This was much much worse!   Furthermore, unlike Pearl Harbor, Peter was completely responsible.

Peter went into shock.  How could this be possible? 

In his wildest imagination, Peter could not believe that his no-brainer attack on Narva could have ended so disastrously.  Peter had been so confident that he and his staff didn't even consider the most fundamental back-up contingencies and escape routes.  All in all, this defeat was a colossal, almost incomprehensible disaster.

Peter's reckless gamble had just left his country's soft underbelly totally exposed to counter-attack. 

With the Swedes literally at his doorstep, how could Peter possibly prevent Charles from attacking Russian soil?  Charles had most of his men and all of his equipment!  There was nothing between Narva and Moscow other than deep snow to stop Charles if he so cared to press his advantage.  If Charles moved as fast on Russia as he had moved at Narva, he could be dining at the Kremlin within a week. 

Who knows why Charles didn't move forward.  One possibility was that Charles did not realize the full extent of Russia's dilemma.  Did he not he realize there was no force left capable of stopping the Swedes?

Perhaps the deep snows concerned him.  However the Swedish were no strangers to snow.  It hadn't stopped them at Narva. 

Maybe Charles worried there was no food to feed his army in the cold of winter.  However, it is unlikely that Peter could have organized an effective food destruction effort back in those days of slow communication.  Charles could easily have been deep into Russia territory before the word even got out. 

The likeliest reason is that Charles assumed that Russia was decimated and not worth the further effort. Like Denmark, Charles may have decided that Russia had learned its lesson and would bother him no further.  Charles held the Russians in complete contempt.

He thought the Russians were imbeciles.  They were nowhere near the threat posed by Augustus and his German army.  Charles definitely did not want to leave a hostile German army at his rear while pushing deep into Russia.  Why not pursue Poland-Saxony, by far the more dangerous opponent, first?

Charles didn't know Peter.

Peter seethed at Russia's humiliation. Then it became personal.  Peter discovered that all of Europe was laughing at him too.  His decision to return to Russia on the eve of the attack looked to the world like he had turned and run from a little boy at the first sign of danger. 

Peter bristled at the world’s interpretation of his departure from Narva the night before the battle.  The victory for the Swedish Emperor brought him enormous praise and the respect of Europe.  On the other side, the Battle of Narva made Peter look like a weak monarch. Peter was labeled a coward and his army became a laughingstock.   

Considering Peter's thin skin and his need for European approval, the world's contempt must have eaten at his soul.

Humbled by his defeat, Peter knew he was lucky beyond his wildest imagination to be given a second chance.  He now set himself to the task of repairing his tattered army.

Peter decided he had blundered badly, but it would be an even worse blunder not to take advantage of the second chance offered to him by Charles' error in judgment.

With his army's weaknesses exposed, Peter knew exactly where to start.  He saw that his army was extremely unequipped and undertrained.  He set out right away to remedy this problem with the help of his boyar Shermetev, who oversaw much of the army’s modernization.

Russia adopted European battle tactics and bought updated artillery pieces.  Most important, they established a military academy in St. Petersburg to teach young men how to properly run the new army. 

Over the next few years, the Swedish army was never far away.  The enemy was a mere 400 miles away fighting Augustus in southern Poland.  With the constant threat of Swedish invasion looming over them, the Russians had a powerful incentive to work hard.  The safety of Mother Russia depended on it.


Nöteborg and Nyen - The Comeback Begins

After his devastating victory at Narva in 1700, Charles of Sweden had decided to pursue his Polish enemies deep into Poland.  While licking his wounds, Peter took note that the fortresses at Nöteborg
and Nyen (see map) at either end of the Neva River were vulnerable to attack. 

When the cat's away, the mice will play.  It was impossible for Sweden to protect every part of its vast territory.  Sweden simply didn't have the manpower to sufficiently guard far flung outposts like Nyen and Nöteborg.

It is important to note that Finland was part of Sweden back in 1700.  However, its people were not particularly loyal to Sweden and certainly not interested in dying by rushing to defend Swedish outposts under attack.

The Swedes had two strategies to defend their distant outposts. 

First, they made their forts strong enough to withstand enemy attack until reinforcements could come (that had worked like a charm in Narva).  Second, if the fortress fell, they would send an army, take it back and punish the aggressors.


As the pain of Narva receded into the background, Peter was determined not to quit.  In September 1702, Peter took a great risk by going back on the offensive.  It had only been two years since the defeat in Narva, but Peter was driven by his lust for revenge.  His new target was a fort situated on an island blocking the junction of the Neva River and Lake Ladoga.   

Peter assembled a force of 12,000 and marched for ten days to Lake Ladoga.  There he laid siege to Nöteborg.  It was a reckless move because it invited the return of the superior Swedish army.  If things went poorly for the Russians, Charles might decide to inflict severe punishment on his foes.

Just like Narva, the siege stalled.  In an act of defiance eerily similar to Greece's Thermopylae and the Alamo saga of Texas, the commander bravely refused to surrender even though the fort was guarded by only 400 men. 

Peter ordered the Russians to bombard the fort.  In this picture of the Siege, Peter is easily identified because he is the tallest person standing.

After two weeks of heavy bombing from the banks of the Neva, Peter decided he had waited long enough.  He had to take this place before the reinforcements showed up. If these people weren't going to give in, it was time to storm the fortress.

The Swedes put up a ferocious defense against the assault.  Despite receiving hits from an estimated 6,500 cannonballs, their fortress was still intact. Utilizing the fort to full advantage, the Swedes repulsed one wave of attack after another. 

The Russians were so discouraged they wanted to quit.  In desperation, their leader told the boats to leave.  Now the Russians would either have to fight or die.  This did the trick.  The tide turned.

After a brutal 13 hour fight, the Swedish commander finally agreed to stop.  Of the original 400, 250 were still alive.  The Russians, meanwhile, had lost 600 men in the fighting and 300 more were wounded. 

Considering the odds, it was not exactly an impressive victory, but Peter had his fort.


Next up was the fortress at Nyen which lay a mere 30 miles away at the other end of the Neva River. 

The Nienchanz fortress guarded the mouth of the Neva where it connected to the Gulf of Finland. 


The Founding of Saint Petersburg

Unlike Nöteborg, the Swedes didn't put up much of a struggle at Nienchanz.  After an 8-day siege, the Swedish garrison surrendered on May 1, 1703. 

At long last, Peter had his cherished access to the sea.  With Nyen under control, Peter was determined not to lose this valuable spot back to the Swedes.  To protect the newly conquered lands on the Neva delta, Peter the Great needed a better fortress.  The Nienchanz fort was no use.  It was small and badly damaged. Peter immediately began looking for a different way to fortify the area. 

Peter recalled how difficult it had been to attack the island fortress of Nöteborg.  The water had acted like a giant moat. Peter chose Hare's Island in the middle of the Neva to build the Peter and Paul Fortress.

Peter pushed his men to the limit.  His greatest fear was that the Swedes would return before he could adequately defend his new prize.

On May 27, 1703, the fortress was founded.  No one knew it at the time, but this day would come to be known as the official birthday of Saint Petersburg.

During the frantic construction of his new fortress, Peter became more and more intrigued with this area.  He realized that existing ports like Narva or Riga tended to be freer of ice in the winter. However to take these cities by force would surely invite massive retaliation by the Swedes.  What if he built a seaport from the ground up?

Peter looked around.  This desolate, barren area was scarcely populated.  It consisted of little more than the ruined Nienchanz Fortress.  There was a good reason why the area was abandoned - these were vast swamplands known as the Neva Delta.

The Neva River drained a vast Russian watershed into the Baltic Sea. During the rainy part of every year, the whole region was flooded by water.  There was little solid ground available to build the fort, much less an actual city.

Surely no one would be stupid enough to build a city here.

Or would they?

In real estate terms, this place did have one good thing going for it.
Location Location Location. 

Peter took one look at the Neva River and realized how easily this giant waterway could someday be used to transport goods in and out of Russia's interior.  Then he looked at the vast Gulf of Finland and saw what a fine port this spot would make.  Peter made up his mind.

The Neva would become the Volga of western Russia.  This new city would become Peter's Window looking out to Europe.

When he told his engineers of his plan, they blanched in terror.  They quickly exclaimed that it was sheer folly to be building on mud and quicksand.  Just in the brief time they had been working on the new fortress they had already encountered the infamous Neva floods. 

Peter was undeterred.  Peter ignored the criticism because he already knew it was possible to build a floating city. 

During his European Tour a few years earlier, by chance Peter had fallen in love with Amsterdam.  Like St. Petersburg, Amsterdam was built in a river delta area. 

The Dutch had brilliant engineers who knew just how to reclaim land from the sea. With 60 miles of canals, 90 islands, and 1,500 bridges, this Dutch city had become famous throughout Europe for its exquisite canal system.

Thanks to his unforgettable experience in Europe five years earlier, Peter had seen just the model he needed. 

He began to fashion his city in the image of Amsterdam.

It was insanity enough to build a major city upon what amounted to a floating base.  It was even more insane to build a city in such an exposed, vulnerable place in the middle of a major war.

One swift attack from the Swedes, a couple of torches in the right place, and the new city would go up in flames.  Peter lost a lot of sleep worrying about that exact scenario.  After all, his new fortress was makeshift at best.  It probably wouldn't stand up under attack.

Nonetheless, Peter’s opportunistic nature got the best of him.  War or no war, he was too impatient to wait.  So with the war in progress, Peter began to map out his new town.  

Peter began a race against time.  It is said he suffered constant nightmares from fear that Charles would come and rip it all away from him.  He constantly upgraded the construction of his Peter and Paul Fortress.   The original clay walls and bastions of the fortress were completed by the end of summer 1703 under Peter's careful supervision.

True to his decisive character, Peter ordered thousands of peasants brought to the area.  He ordered them to cover the swamp with tons of earth brought in on boats.  

Russia was not a modern country.  However, one thing it did have was plenty of dirt and countless slave-labor serfs to dig it up and drag it in.

Saint Petersburg was being built by nameless, hopeless people who received practically nothing in return for their sacrifice.  They worked because they were whipped if they didn't. 

The builders of the fortress were mostly soldiers and peasants who worked in very primitive conditions.  The climate was very cold and damp.  Even when they weren't being rained on, they worked in soggy, sloppy mud. 

They would shiver for practically the entire day. 

Good housing was nonexistent and food was in very short supply.  Furthermore the mosquito-infested swamps guaranteed disease.  Back in those days, the role of the mosquito in spreading disease was not known.  However, people did know that wherever there were swamps, there was a danger of disease. 

Sure enough, working from dawn to dusk, the men died in great numbers. Some died from disease; still others died from overwork.   Since the work never stopped, some people simply died right where they worked due to hunger, exhaustion and cold.  

These people were treated little better than slaves.

Peter never hesitated due to the death rate.  This place had too much strategic importance.  With the war looming in the background, the fort and other defenses had to be completed as soon as possible.  Peter continued constructing the city despite the losses and extra expenditures. 

Peter's obsessive attempt to build on the swampy land would eventually work out after years of work.  However, when one takes note of the countless deaths, that explains why St. Petersburg is sometimes called "The city built on bones".  There are said to be curses about the city.  Due to Peter's legacy of extreme cruelty, some believe there might be some sort of dark karma hovering over the city.

As for the intense suffering and the massive loss of life, concern for the welfare of others had never been one of Peter's strengths. It is unlikely he even noticed.

Meanwhile, Peter's vision was taking place.

In a move eerily similar to Dubai's creation of islands in the Persian Gulf 400 years later, Peter ordered vast amounts of earth brought in to shore up all the little islands in the delta. 

By filling in gaps, many small islands were combined to make larger ones.

The main body of the Neva was left alone, but the curves in the smaller streams were straightened somewhat and given embankments.  As the islands were raised, these streams were turned into narrow canals of standard width.

The design began to take shape.  Soon there were canals everywhere that carved Saint Petersburg into several large islands and many smaller ones. 

This modern-day map gives some idea of the scale of the accomplishment. 


Charles XII, King of Sweden, was well aware of what was going on.  He knew about the fall of Nöteborg and Nyen.  He knew about the new city under construction as well.

He sent several ships up the Gulf of Finland to check on the progress.  Each time the ships stayed just out of cannon reach as they inspected the construction.

Just months after the groundbreaking came the attack Peter was worried about. An army of 4,000 Swedes was spotted moving in from the north through Finland.  Peter had done his homework.  He had a system of sentries posted to provide early warning. 

At the first opportunity, Peter had established a military academy at St. Petersburg.  In addition, he always kept a regiment of army soldiers encamped nearby.  Furthermore he had a National Guard of sorts consisting of the men who supervised the serfs.  Most of the time these men were involved with building the city, but they all knew how to use weapons.  Peter made sure his back-up army went through frequent military drills "just in case".  

The news of the advancing Swedish force was straight out of Peter's nightmares.  On the spot, Peter assembled an army of 7,000 men to move against the Swedish menace.  He led the expedition himself.  To his relief, his men checked the Swedish threat without much trouble.  Disappointed that their sneak attack had no chance of success, the Swedes turned around at the first opportunity.

Peter was still worried.  He continued to monitor enemy troop movements in the area and naval activity in the Gulf of Finland.  Furthermore, while the city was under construction, Peter was having new warships built on the other side of the river

Peter was done attacking new territories.  All he wanted out of this war was a Baltic seaport.  Now that he had his prize, Peter intended to defend it with every possible resource at his disposal.  What he lacked was a navy, so he went to work on building one right on the spot.

Right across the River Neva from the fortress, Peter constructed the fortified Admiralty complex.  This was a shipyard where powerful ships of Russia's new Baltic Fleet were being built.  Many of these vessels would soon be involved in a series of naval skirmishes with Sweden during the course of the Northern War.  From all accounts, Peter's new Russian Navy acquitted itself well.

Charles did make one brief naval attack, but it too got nowhere.  The defenses were too strong.  It soon became apparent that Charles had waited too long.  By failing to attack during the infancy of the city, he had given Peter enough time to make his pet project virtually unassailable. 

For its first few years, the new city was limited to a small town around the fortress.  However, the work never stopped.  Every year hundreds of tons of earth were moved to the location. 

Slowly but surely the islands began to rise safely well above sea level.  As the islands were shaped and firmed up, more area became available for new buildings.  

Thanks to Peter's vision, this barren no man's land went from a swampy, scarcely populated area to the beginnings of a magnificent European-style city.

The finished product was a thing of beauty. 

By 1712, Saint Petersburg was ready to become the magnificent new Russian capital. 

After the city was completed,
in 1714 Peter ordered the rich merchants and intellectuals to move there from Moscow. Those who refused risked getting out of favor with the emperor, never a good idea (especially not with this emperor).

Most people took the hint and followed orders.  

The nobles were told to build on one side of the Neva River.  Merchants and artisans were told to build on the opposite side.

The new residents of St. Petersburg were ordered to pay for the building of avenues, parks, canals, embankments, bridges and other projects.  Huge government buildings, designed by foreign architects, were constructed.  Peter's grand Winter Palace became the official residence of the monarchs.

Nobles were obliged to build homes in St. Petersburg and to live in them most of the year. The more serfs a noble owned, the bigger his home had to be.  Everyone was told to buy a boat.  Overnight, the new city turned into Europe's biggest yacht club.

Everybody was amazed that Peter's architects had somehow managed to tame the waterlogged Neva Delta.  Gone were the swamps.  Gone were the muddy little islands that rose mere inches above water level.  Gone was the dirty, reeking water.  Gone were the mosquitoes.

The islands were high enough to provide solid embankments that kept the Neva in check no matter what the season.

With the erosion of the riverbanks checked, the muddy water was a thing of the past.  Now the water began to resemble the sparkling pure blue lake water flowing down from nearby Lake Ladoga.

The Neva quickly became the central focus of the city.  Dozens of small winding streams had been shaped into graceful smooth channels.  The waterways were simply exquisite.

Everyone agreed the canals of Saint Petersburg compared favorably to Amsterdam.  The second "Venice of the North" had emerged.


End Game

Following the destruction of the Russian army at Narva in 1700, Charles of Sweden controversially had elected to turn south into Poland-Lithuania rather than attack into Russia. The young king thereby missed a key opportunity to take Russia out of the war.

Charles wandered all over Livonia chasing Augustus of Poland-Saxony.  After two years of pursuit, in 1702 Charles finally cornered and defeated the Polish king Augustus and his Saxon allies at the Battle of Kliszow in southern Poland.

After the battle, Augustus fled to Germany.  Now Charles was forced to track him down again.  Charles finally caught up to Augustus again at Leipzig and Dresden in 1706, beating the Polish-Saxon leader handily both times.

At that point, Augustus surrendered and made peace on terms acceptable to Charles.  Only one problem - Charles had spent six years chasing Augustus around Eastern Europe.  That had given Russia six valuable years to prepare its military for Round Two.

Charles was still angry over Peter's impudent seizure of Nyen and Nöteborg.  Now it was time to teach the Russians another lesson.  After crossing Poland, early in 1708 the Swedes defeated a Russian force at Grodno.  Crossing the Niemann River, the Swedish army was now on Russian soil. 

Peter and the retreating Russians set fire to what they could. As the Swedes advanced across sparsely populated Lithuania they had difficulty finding food for themselves and adequate forage for their horses.

Charles settled in Minsk for several months of rest.  In the summer of 1708, the fighting resumed. Charles won a major battle at Holowczyn. Charles reportedly said he enjoyed this victory even more than Narva. It was time to head to Moscow.

The Russians were now in full retreat.  Worse, they were feeling quite demoralized. Holowczyn had been a rout.  It seemed like their six years of military build-up had accomplished very little. 

Peter grimly stuck to his scorched earth policy. Anyone who gave or sold food to the enemy, or knew of such an act and said nothing, was to be hanged.  Those villages from which food was given to the enemy were to be burned to the ground.

Peter's strategy began to work.  The Swedes reached Tatarsk only to discover the countryside between them and Smolensk was barren of whatever they needed to survive. 

Charles had one card left to play.  He was waiting for a supply train of several thousand carts plus reinforcements coming from Riga.  However, by mid-September the supply train and the reinforcements from Riga had still not yet arrived for Charles.  His army was in trouble.



Without the supply train, Charles and his men and horses faced starvation.

Charles was deeply worried.  It was absurd that he had never lost a battle to the Russian army, but now the Russian countryside was about to accomplish what the military could not do. 

In a situation eerily similar to Napoleon's fate waiting 100 years in the future, Peter was winning the war simply by making the food disappear. 

With the approach of winter and nothing but devastation waiting ahead on the road to Moscow, Charles had to abandon his Moscow strategy for the time being.  Charles decided to turn south.  He headed into the Ukraine which was more densely populated and likely held supplies of food and fodder. 

Now Charles got more bad news.  His lifeline, the supply wagon train from Riga, had been intercepted by the Russians.  An eight hour battle had been fought to a stand-off, but many Swedes had fled back to Riga at the end of the day.  With his passage blocked, the Swedish commander had no choice but to burn the supplies lest they fall into Russian hands.

Charles briefly got lucky. As he suspected, there was food to be found in the Ukraine.  Bunkering down near Kiev, his men discovered adequate supplies.  However the winter fighting took a toll on the Swedes.  Charles lost 1,000 men in January and more in another skirmish in February. 

Many of his troops suffered from frostbite. The army was down to 24,000. Local grain supplies and cattle were sufficient, but gunpowder was low, some of it having been damaged by the wet weather in February.

Even more maddening were the Cossacks who had taken to sniping from the forests as his men passed by.  This tactic was also used by the Russians during Napoleon's retreat.  This raises the question that perhaps the Russians of 1812 got their inspiration from Peter's campaign.

The loss of the supply train was devastating.  Charles was running out of time.  That's when an opportunity presented itself. 

The Crimean Khan situated just a couple hundred miles away contacted Charles about joining the fight. The Khan had some scores to settle with Peter.  Why not set a trap?

Charles was running so low on supplies that he accepted the risky gambit.  He laid siege to a castle in Poltava. It was his way of advertising "Here I am.  Come and get me".  The idea was to draw out the Russian army and engage in a full-scale battle. 

On the day of the battle, the Khan would appear out of nowhere and spring the trap.  One more victory like he had at Narva might just be the knock-out punch he needed. Charles knew a battle was nigh.  His scouts told him that Peter approached.

Just days before the battle, Charles got the bad news.  The Ottoman rulers that the Khan served had ordered him to stand down.

Charles would have to fight this one on his own.  As chance would have it, Charles was in great pain.  He had recently taken a rifle shot to his foot.  With the effective scorched earth policy, the loss of the supply train, the loss of this key ally and his own injury, Charles surely must have thought his luck was running out.  Charles surely concluded he should have taken out Peter when he had the chance.


In July 1709, Charles got the fight he had asked for, but his gamble of calling out Peter failed miserably. Poltava is sometimes known as the "Swedish Waterloo".  

Charles quickly realized it had been foolish to advertise his position. The whole idea was to lay a trap.  But when his Crimean Tatar ally decided not to participate at the last minute, Charles was the one who was trapped. 

Charles was appalled to discover he was confronted by a much larger and vastly improved Russian army who were determined to defend their homeland.

The Swedes who stood against the Russian army at Poltava in central Ukraine were outnumbered and outgunned.  They had taken the field with excitement, but soon realized this was a much different Russian army they were facing.

This time the Russians were far better equipped than at Narva.  The Swedes were swiftly battered into submission by the powerful Russian artillery.  Peter had used his home field advantage to bring every big gun he could find to use against the enemy.   Peter had also used the time to round up an enormous army. 

Peter, acting as commander, used 53,000 troops to handily defeat the Swedish army that had dwindled to 19,000 troops.  Charles was spirited off the field and took off fleeing for Turkey in fear for his life.  With bullets whizzing past him, Charles just barely escaped across a river by the skin of his neck.  Now the humiliation was his.  The shoe was on the other foot... probably the foot that wasn't shot.

The Battle of Poltava in 1709 represents one of the key victories in Russian military history. Interestingly, the military plan of operations at Poltava was of Peter’s own design. Peter had just gained his first significant victory against a tested opponent. 

Military historians view the swift defeat as a major turning point in the fortunes of the two countries involved.  In analyzing the seeds of the Swedish defeat, they concluded the Swedish troops were overextended.  Their years of chasing their opponents across Europe had worn them down. Their food supply problems had weakened them and their low supply of gunpowder caused serious problems on the battlefield.  But the biggest mistake of all was simply staying in one place too long so that Peter could take careful aim.


The Dawn of the Russian Empire

There was a great irony in Peter's victory at Poltava.  In Round One, Charles had used Peter's siege at Narva as an opportunity to pin him down. 

How ironic was it that in Round Two Charles had played right into Peter's hands with his own siege strategy.  Now that the tables were turned, the Swedish had turned into sitting ducks against the vast Russian artillery.

However, there was one difference in the outcome.  Peter showed absolutely no mercy.  No surprise there.

Peter reaped quick rewards from Poltava. For the next several years, Peter took advantage of several opportunities to snap up more Swedish territory. With Charles stuck in Turkey along with the remnants of the Swedish army, he was unable to come to the defense of Sweden's Baltic properties.  Peter was able to stage successful assaults on Sweden's valuable eastern Baltic ports, including Viborg, Riga, and Tallinn (Reval) in 1710. 

Peter even got Narva back!   Peter suddenly had more Baltic Sea ports than he knew what to do with.

The newly-powerful Russian army was able to advance on Livonia, Ingria and Karelia as well.  Sweden would never get these territories back.  From this point on, this once great nation would see its borders shrink dramatically.

The Battle of Poltava in 1709 spelled the end of the Swedish Empire and marked the rise of the Russian Empire. 

Oddly enough, Poltava did not mark the end of the hostilities.   Despite the Russian success, Charles stubbornly continued the war against the advice of his generals.  Then one day in 1721 Charles got shot in the head during a battle.

With its leader dead, Sweden immediately sued for peace.  In 1721 Sweden ceded the eastern shores of the Baltic to Russia (the striped areas were given to Russia).  The Great Northern War had finally ended.  Peter's victory in the Great Northern War radically altered the balance of power in northern and eastern Europe.

Winners and Losers

The defeat of Sweden and the loss of most of its overseas territories other than Finland and Stralsund rendered Sweden a minor power once again.

The events of the war revealed for the first time decisively the political and military weakness of Poland and Denmark.

Russia, by contrast, had defeated the former great power of the region, recaptured a valuable slice of Finland known as Karelia, acquired the Baltic provinces and part of Finland, and founded St. Petersburg as a new city and new capital. Without question, Russia benefitted greatly from this war. 

These acquisitions gave Russia a series of seaports to support both trade and a naval presence in the Baltic Sea, as well as a shorter route to Western Europe.  Russia had finally gained its long coveted window to the west. 

Victory in the war justified Peter's aggressive program of military, administrative, and economic reforms and the Westernization of Russian culture. It also enormously reinforced his personal prestige and power.

In November 1721, to celebrate the long-coveted conquest, Peter officially assumed the title of Emperor of Russia.  Peter simultaneously declared Russia had now become the Russian Empire.  This proud moment was quite different from Peter's dark nights of the soul after Narva 20 years earlier. 

Peter would live only four more years, but on his deathbed he surely considered himself fortunate to have lived long enough to see that his life projects had brought Russia so much success. 

As for Sweden, the Finnish War of 1809 between Sweden and Russia saw control of Finland go to the Russians.  This was the final nail in the coffin of the Swedish Empire.  Sweden's days as Europe's third largest country were long gone. 

And all because a teenager blinked when given the opportunity of a lifetime.


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