Illustrated Description Of Russia

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The site of the modern capital of the Russian empire is one of the most singular that has ever been voluntarily selected for the foundation of a great metropolis ; and yet, owing mainly to the genius and perseverance which have been displayed in overcoming natural disadvantages, St. Petersburg has, within a comparatively short period, acquired a magnitude and splendor which justly entitle it to rank among the first of European cities.

The Neva, on approaching the termination of its course, turns first north and then west. After proceeding a short distance in the latter direction, it divides into three main branches ; the first of which, under the name of the Great Nevka, proceeds northward; the next, or central branch, flows west-northwest, under the name of the Little Neva; and the third, forming properly a continuation of the main stream, and therefore called the Great Neva, flows southwest, and encloses a large tract or peninsula surrounded by water on three sides, and contiguous to the mainland only on the south. The branches form a number of islands, the two largest of which, separated from the peninsula by the main stream and Great Nevka, are the Aptekarskoi or Apothecaries' island on the north, and the Vasiliestrov or Basilius island on the west. In the northwest, subordinate arms of the river form a number of smaller islands, of which the more important are the Petrof-skoi, Krestofskoi, Kammenoi, and Elaghinskoi. These islands, particularly the two largest, a small portion of the right bank, and the whole of the peninsula on the left bank (forming a series of flats which, taken as a whole, have nearly an oval shape, and are so low as to be constantly exposed to inundation), constitute the site of St. Petersburg.

Inundation of St. Petersburg in 1824

Inundation of St. Petersburg in 1824
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The Neva, though a broad, lively, and pellucid stream, is generally shallow; and at its mouth is encumbered by a bar with not more than nine feet water, so that the large vessels which are built at the city docks can only be transported as hulls, to be fitted out at the great naval station of Kronstadt, about sixteen miles below. Though an attack of the city by sea may be all but impossible, the approach by land presents no obstruction to an invading force, except a deep ditch or canal, stretching across the southern part of the peninsula, and a citadel, situated on a low island, so near the centre of the city, that its guns, so far from defending, could not be used without demolishing it.

The larger and finer part of St. Petersburg being built on the peninsula, takes the name of the Bolshaia Storona, or Great side; all the rest to the north, on the islands and right bank, is designated the Petersburg side. The communication between the former and the latter is maintained only by one cast-iron and three boat bridges, but the deficiency is supplied by numerous ferry-boats of uncouth shape and fantastic coloring, which are constantly plying to and fro.

The iron bridge was built as late as 1850, and is a beautiful embellishment to the city. It being the first permanent structure ever thrown across the Neva, deserves more than a passing mention. The building of it was an engineering work of great difficulty; the unstable nature of the mud-bed of the river having thitherto been an insurmountable obstacle to the very necessary formation of a permanent communication between these two portions of the city. This was, however, effected by driving piles into the river-bed, and filling up the interstices with stones. Thus a solid foundation was obtained to support the weight of the granite piers, and to resist the pressure of the vast and rapid volume of water which, by the contraction of the river, has here a depth of thirty feet. The entire length of the bridge is about eleven hundred feet, the centre arch being one hundred and fifty-six feet span. The arches at one extremity rest on a massive pier constructed at one hundred feet from the northern shore, with which it is connected' by two bridges moving on pivots, to allow the craft to pass up and down the river.


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The bridge was completed on the 21st of November, and was opened by the emperor in person, after the priests had performed the ceremony of consecration, &c. In the accompanying view the artist has shown the bridge during the act of consecration. With the broad and lofty buildings on the quay, it forms a very effective coup d'eil. It is remarkable that this day was the twenty-fifth anniversary of the accession of Nicholas to the throne — a day considered fatal to Russian monarchs — and yet his confidence was so great, that he ventured without an escort, and attended only by his staff, who were almost immediately separated from him by the throng; not a soldier was to be seen in the neighborhood.

The boat-bridges, previously mentioned, consist merely of boarded carriage-ways resting on pontoons, and are so constructed that they may be easily taken to pieces and quickly be put together again, which is necessary to be done every season, to protect them from destruction when the Neva is filled with ice.

Map of The St.Petersburgh

Map of The St.Petersburgh
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Owing to the lowness of the site of St. Petersburg, though the loftier pinnacles and domes are seen at a considerable distance, the city, whether approached by land or water, can not be said to become distinctly visible before it is actually entered, and hence the general impression produced is greatly heightened by a feeling of surprise. The stranger suddenly finds himself between noble granite quays, bordered by edifices of almost unrivalled splendor, or in spacious streets of apparently interminable length, straight as an arrow, unbroken by the slightest unevenness, and lined with lofty buildings of uniform structure, often lavishly adorned, and, in color at least, resembling marble. It is true that the impression is somewhat weakened by a narrower inspection, the greater part of the houses proving to be only of wood or brick, garnished with plaster.

As it is impossible to obtain a complete view of the city from without, recourse is often had to the numerous towers, on which watchmen stand sentinel day and night, to give the alarm of fire; but by far the best station is the tower of the Admiralty, centnically situated on the northwestern part of the peninsula and the left bank of the Great Neva, and provided with galleries, from which all parts of the city may be seen in succession to the greatest advantage. Looking southward over the peninsula from this commanding position, three canals—the nearest called the Moika, next the Catharina, and last the Fontanka—may be traced, stretching circuitously from east to west, and dividing the whole space into three quarters, called respectively the first, second, and third Admiralty sections.

Nevskoi Prospekt, St. Petersburg

Nevskoi Prospekt, St. Petersburg
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Radiating immediately from the tower, intersecting these canals, and spanning them by beautiful granite bridges, are the three principal streets—the Nevskoi Prospekt, or Neva Perspective, on the right; the Gorokhovaia Oulitza, or Pease street, in the centre ; and the Vosnosenskoi Prospekt, or Resurrection Perspective, on the right. The eye wanders along these splendid streets from end to end without obstruction. They are all of great length, width, and beauty ; but the finest every way, and the greatest thoroughfare of the city, is the Nevskoi Prospekt, which is two miles long, and one hundred and fifty feet in width, and has a double carriage-way, with footpaths paved with granite, or avenues shaded with lime-trees. Beyond the Fontanka canal, both on the south and east, and bounded in the former direction by the city fosse, and on the latter by the main stream of the Neva, is a large space, almost entirely covered with buildings, and forming, in addition to the three Admiralty sections already mentioned, the Narva, Karetznoi, Kojestvenskoi, and Foundry quarters. Considerably to the east, on the right bank of the river, may be seen the large villages of Great and Little Okhta.

Turning now to the opposite side of the town and looking north, the busy scene presented by the river immediately below first attracts the eye, which then wanders along the splendid quay which lines the south side of the Vasiliestrov, and is bordered by a succession of noble edifices. The buildings of this island are chiefly confined to its southern and eastern portions ; the western and northwestern, forming the far larger portion of the whole, is covered with trees or is under garden-cultivation. On the northeast the most conspicuous object is the citadel, situated chiefly on the small island of Petersburg, but also possessing an extensive outwork on the island of Aptekarskoi, from which it is only separated by a narrow channel. On the north of this outwork another quarter of the city commences, and takes the name of the Petersburg quarter. It is much less compactly built than the Admiralty sections, the buildings gradually becoming more isolated, and giving place to extensive parks and gardens. The same remark is still more applicable to the islands of the northwest, which are chiefly occupied by places of amusement, public gardens, villas, and country-seats. On the northeast, beyond the Nevka, and on the right bank of the river, is the Yiborg quarter, which has already acquired considerable extent, and is rapidly advancing in importance.

A century and a half ago, the locality of St. Petersburg was inhabited only by a few scattered Finnish fishermen. But commanding the entrance to Lake Ladoga, it was a military position of some importance, and the Swedes had long maintained there a fortress, the possession of which had been unavailingly contested by the Russians, up to 1703, when Peter the Great made himself master of it. He determined to found upon this desolate spot the future capital of his vast empire ; and at once commenced the task, without waiting for peace to confirm the possession of the site. He assembled a vast number of the peasantry from every quarter of his empire, and pushed forward the work with the energy of an iron will armed with absolute power. The surrounding country, ravaged by long years of war, could furnish no supplies for these enormous masses, and the convoys which brought them across Lake Ladoga were frequently detained by contrary winds. Ill fed and worse lodged, laboring in the cold and wet, multitudes yieldedto the hardships ; and the foundations of the new metropolis were laid at the cost of a hundred thousand lives, sacrificed in less than six months!

With Peter, to will was to perform: he willed, that a capital city should be built and inhabited, and built and inhabited it was. In April, 1714, a ukase was issued, directing that all bnildings should be erected in a particular manner; another, three months later, ordered a large number of nobles and merchants to erect dwellings in the new city. In a few months more another ukase prohibited the erection of any stone mansion in any other portion of the empire, while the enterprise of the capital was in progress ; and, that the lack of building-materials should be no obstacle, every vessel, whether large or small, and everypeasant's car, which came to the city, was ordered to bring a certain specified number of building-stones. The work undertaken with such rigid determination, and carried on with such remorseless vigor by Peter, was continued in the same unflinching spirit by his successors; and the result was the present St. Petersburg, in its aspect more imposing than that of any other city on the globe, but bearing in its bosom the elements of its own destruction, the moment it is freed from the control of the iron will which created and now maintains it—a fitting type and representative of the Russian empire.

The whole enterprise of founding and maintaining St. Petersburg was and is a struggle against nature. The soil is a marsh, so deep and spongy, that a solid foundation can be attained only by constructing a subterranean scaffolding of piles. Were it not for these, the city would sink into the marsh, like a stage-ghost through the trap-door! Every building of any magnitude rests on piles; the granite quays which line the Neva rest on piles. The very foot-pavements can not be laid upon the ground, but must be supported by piles. The remark was made by an English resident of St. Petersburg that larger sums had been expended under ground than above. A great commercial city is maintained, the harbor of which is as inaccessible to ships, for six months in the year, as the centre of the desert of Sahara! In the neighboring country no part produces anything for human sustenance save the Neva, which furnishes ice and fish. The severity of the climate is most destructive to the erections of human hands ; and St. Petersburg, notwithstanding its gay summer appearance, when it emerges from the winter frosts, resembles a superannuated belle at the close of the fashionable season; and can only be put in proper visiting order by the assiduous services of hosts of painters and plasterers. Leave the capital for a half-century to the unrepaired ravages of its wintry climate, and it would need a Layard to unearth its monuments.

But sure as are the wasting inroads of time and the climate, St. Petersburg is in daily peril of an overthrow whose accomplishment would require but a few hours. The gulf of Finland forms a vast tunnel pointing eastward, at the extremity of which stands the city. No portion of the city is fifteen feet above the ordinary level of the water. A strong westerly wind, blowing directly into the mouth of the tunnel, piles the water up so as to lay the lower part of the city under water. Water is as much dreaded here, and as many precautions are taken against it, as in the case of fire in other cities. In other cities, alarm-signals announce a conflagration; here, they give notice of an inundation. The firing of an alarm-gun from the Admiralty, at intervals of an hour, denotes that the lower extremes of the islands are under water, when flags are hung out from the steeples to give warning of danger. When the water reaches the streets, alarm-guns are fired every quarter of an hour. As the water rises, the alarms grow more and more frequent, until minute-guns summon boats to the assistance of the drowning population.

So much for the lower jaw of the monster that lies in wait for the Russian capital; now for the upper: Lake Ladoga, which discharges its waters through the Neva, is frozen over to an enormous thickness during the long winter. The rapid northern spring raises its waters and loosens the ice simultaneously. When the waters of the gulf are at their usual level, the accumulated ice and water find an easy outlet down the broad and rapid Neva. But let a strong west wind heap up the waters of the gulf just as the breaking up of Lake Ladoga takes place, and the waters from above and from below would suffice to inundate the whole city, while all its palaces, monuments, and temples, would be crushed between the masses of ice, like " Captain Ahab's" boat in the ivory jaws of " Moby Dick." Nothing is more probable than such a coincidence. It often blows from the west for days together in the spring; and it is almost a matter of certainty that the ice will break up between the middle and the end of April. Let but a westerly storm arise on the fatal day of that brief fortnight, and farewell to the " City of the Czars !" Any steamer that bridges the Atlantic may be freighted with the tidings that St. Petersburg has sunk deeper than plummet can sound in the Finnish marshes from which it has so magically risen!

It is said that Peter the Great was warned of the danger to be apprehended from the rising of the Neva, but that he would nevertheless persist in his enterprise. The following incident is related on this subject. He had already laid a part of the foundation of his new city in the marshes of Ingria, when he accidentally perceived a tree marked around the trunk. He approached a Finnish peasant, and asked him what that mark was intended to indicate. " It is the height to which the inundation rose in the year 1680," said the man, with naive simplicity. " You lie!" cried the czar in wrath, " what you have uttered is impossible !" and with his own hand he cut down the warning tree.

But, alas ! neither the wrath nor the incredulity of the monarch changed the habits of the waters. During the life of Peter, the river seemed, indeed, to respect his new creation; but scarcely was the founder of St. Petersburg laid in the tomb, when the inundations succeeded one another quickly. There were terrific ones in 1728, 1729, 1735, 1740, 1742, and above all in 1777, a few days before the birth of Alexander. In the last instance, the waters of the Neva rose ten feet higher than their ordinary level.*

* One of the unhappy victims of this frightful disaster was the princess Tarakanoff, daughter of the empress Elizabeth and of the count Alexis Rasoumoffski, who had been for ten years confined in the fortress, after having been seduced from Rome by Alexis Orloff.

A catastrophe of the same kind, but still more fearful, was to close the life of that sovereign. On the 17th of November, 1824, a wind blowing from the west and southwest with extreme violence, heaped the waters of the gulf up into the narrow funnel of the Neva, and poured them, slowly at first, along the streets. As night began to close in, the waters continued to rise higher and higher—came streaming through the streets—lifted all the carts and equipages from the ground—rushed in mighty cataracts through the windows and into the cellars, and rose in huge columns from the common sewers. On Vasiliefskoi island and on the St. Petersburg side the suffering was greatest, particularly on the latter island, where many of the poor were lodged in tenements of no very solid construction. Some of the wooden houses were lifted from the ground, and continued to float about, with all their inhabitants in them, without going to pieces. Equipages were abandoned in the streets, and the horses, unable to disengage themselves from their harness, were miserably drowned, while their masters had sought safety in some more elevated spot. The trees in the public squares were as crowded with men as they had ever before been with sparrows. Still the water kept rising, and toward evening had attained such a height, that it was feared the storm would tear the men-of-war from their moorings, and drive them in among the houses. The calamity was the more destructive, as it had come so noiselessly upon the city, that none had imagined the danger so great as it really was. The emperor speedily gathered a few resolute men around him, sent some of them with assistance in all directions, and with others got into a bark, visited the spots where the suffering was most appalling, and did not hesitate to expose his life to a thousand dangers, in order to rescue all whom he could reach, and to whom he could afford aid. The worst effects of the inundation were those that were operated unseen. Many houses fell in only on the following day, when the river had already returned into its' accustomed bed; but from those that remained standing, it was long before the damp could be expelled. Sickness became general, and deadly epidemics continued to rage in some quarters for many weeks afterward.

The night was terrible. The waters had continued to rise until the evening, and should they continue to do so, there seemed to be no chance of escape during the pitchy darkness that might be looked for. Thousands of families, the members of which were separated, spent the night in torturing anxiety.

Even the most serious things have often a ludicrous side on which they may be viewed, and, along with the gloomy recollections of that calamitous day, a variety of amusing anecdotes have also been preserved. A gardener had been busy clipping some trees, and had not noticed the rising of the water till it was too late for him to attempt to seek refuge anywhere but on the roof of an adjoining garden-pavilion, where he was soon joined by such a host of rats and mice, that he became apprehensive of being devoured by them. Fortunately, however, a dog and a cat sought refuge in the same place. With these he immediately entered into an offensive and defensive alliance, and the three confederates were able to make good their position during the night.

A merchant was looking out of his window on the second floor, when there came floating by a fragment of a bridge, with three human beings clinging to it. They stretched out their hands to him for help. He threw out a rope, and, with the assistance of his servant, succeeded in rescuing all three from their perilous position. The first whom they landed was a poor Jew, who trembled like an aspen-tree; the second was a bearded believer in the orthodox Russo-Greek church; the third was a bareheaded Mohammedan Tartar; and the rescuer himself a protestant, who supplied his drenched and motley guests with dry clothing and a supper.

Many believe that, what with merchandise spoiled, houses destroyed, furniture injured, damage to the pavement, &c., this inundation cost the city more than a hundred millions of roubles, and that directly and indirectly several thousands of the inhabitants lost their lives on the occasion. In every street the highest point attained by the water is marked by a line on the sides of the houses. May the house-painters never again be employed in so melancholy an office ! Every inch that they might have had to place their marks higher, would have cost the city several millions in addition, and would have plunged at least a hundred more families into mourning.

The climate of St. Petersburg oscillates continually between two extremes. In summer the heat often rises to one hundred degrees of Fahrenr heit,* and in winter the cold as often falls to forty degrees below zero. This gives to the temperature a range of one hundred and forty degrees of Fahrenheit, which probably exceeds that of any other city in Europe. It is not merely in the course of the year, however, but in the course of the same twenty-four hours, that the temperature is liable to great variations. In summer, after a hot, sultry morning, a rough wind will set in toward evening, and drive the thermometer down thirty degrees immediately. In winter, also, there is often a difference of thirty or forty degrees between the temperature of the morning and that of the night. The winter is considered to begin in October, and end in May; and in the beginning of October every man puts on his furs, which are calculated for the severest weather that can come, and these furs are not laid aside again until the winter is legitimately and confessedly at an end. The stoves, meanwhile, are always kept heated in winter, that the house may never cool. Inconsiderate foreigners attempt sometimes to follow the caprices of the climate, and often pay for their termerity with illness and death.

* Throughout the present work, Fahrenheit's thermometer must always be understood to be the standard by which the temperature is measured. Ench degree of Reaumur (zero or 0 being at the freezing point) is equivalent to two and a quarter degrees of Fahrenheit, and each degree of Centigrade equal to one and four fifths of Fahrenheit.

When the mercury is at its lowest point, faces are not to be seen in the streets, for every man has drawn his furs over his head, and leaves but little of his countenance uncovered. Every one is uneasy about his nose and his ears; and as the freezing of these desirable appendages to the human face divine is not preceded by any uncomfortable sensation to warn the sufferer of his danger, he has enough to think of if he wish to keep his extremities in order. " Father, father, thy nose !" one man will cry to another as he passes him, or will even stop and apply a handful of snow to the stranger's face, and endeavor, by briskly rubbing the nasal prominence, to restore the suspended circulation. These are salutations to which people are accustomed, and as no man becomes aware of the fact when his own nose has assumed the dangerous chalky hue, custom prescribes among all who venture into the streets a kind of mutual observance of each other's noses—a custom by which many thousands of these valued organs are yearly rescued from the clutches of the Russian Boreas.

In this temperature, ladies venture abroad only in close vehicles, of which every aperture is closed by slips of fur. There are families who at this season will spend weeks without once tasting a mouthful of fresh air, and, at last, when the cold has reached its extreme point, none are to be seen in the streets but the poorest classes, unless it be foreigners, people in business, or officers. As to these last, the parades and mountings of guard are never interrupted by any degree of cold; and while the frost is hard enough to cripple a stag, generals and colonels of the guard may be seen in their glittering uniforms moving as nimbly and unconcernedly about the windy Admiralty square as though they were promenading a ballroom. Not a particle of cloak must be seen about them ; not a whisper of complaint must be heard. The emperor's presence forbids both, for he exposes himself unhesitatingly to wind, snow, hail, and rain, and expects from his officers the same disregard of the inclemencies of the season.

The Russian stove is built in a partition-wall, of either brick or stone, and therefore heats two rooms. These stoves are frequently faced with the glazed Dutch tile, which increases their power as to heat, as well as improves their appearance. On one side there is an iron door, inside which is placed a large quantity of split wood; and after this has been thoroughly burnt through, the man, whose business it is to look after all the stoves in the house, rakes the ashes well over to ascertain that every particle of wood is literally calcined, and then shuts the yushka, a plate of iron which closes the chimney, and thereby prevents the heat of the embers from escaping: thus the mass of brickwork is kept hot for many hours. The utmost care is required to ascertain with accuracy that not the smallest piece of wood is left burning when the yushka is put on; for, should that be the case, a poisonous gas is emitted by the wood, and fatal consequences may ensue to those who are exposed to its influence. It is by no means an uncommon circumstance to hear of people being suffocated by the fumes of their stoves.

The temperature maintained by these stoves over the whole of a Russian house is remarkably constant and even—so much so, that, in spite of the great external cold, there is a perpetual summer in-doors. No additional blankets are necessary, and no shivering and shaking is to be dreaded on turning out in the morning. Almost the only wood used in St. Petersburg as fuel is that of the birch-tree. It is the cheapest to be had in the neighborhood, and its embers are more lasting than those of the pine or fir.

The double windows, which are universal at this season in the houses of the rich, and common in those of the poor also, contribute in a great degree to keep them warm. Early in the autumn every crack and cranny is closed with either putty or paper, save and except a single pane in each room, constructed so as to open like a door; this is called a forteshka. The interstice between the inner and outer windows is covered to the depth of a few inches with sand or salt, to imbibe the moisture, The salt is* piled up in a variety of fanciful forms, and the sand is usually formed into a kind of garden decorated with artificial flowers. These bloom and blossom through the winter in their glassy cases, and as in these arrangements every family displays its own little fancies and designs, it furnishes amusement, to those who are not above being amused by trifles, to walk the streets on a fine winter-morning, and admire the infinite variety of decorations presented by the double windows.

Quite as much care is expended upon the doors as upon the windows. It is a common thing to pass, not merely two, but three doors, before you enter the warmed passage of a house ; and this is the case, not only in private houses, but also in public buildings, such as theatres, churches, &c.

In the imperial palaces there are English grates, but 'these would be poor substitutes indeed for the peetch (stove) in such a climate; still they are very agreeable accessories to comfort. In the large riding-schools and public buildings the stoves are of gigantic proportions, and highly ornamented with trophies and warlike decorations. The heat emitted by these peetches is tremendous, and the sudden change from the intense frost without to the close atmosphere of a room thus incessantly heated, and never ventilated for months, must be enough to try the hardiest frame. In the cottages the whole family sleep on or round the stove in their clothes, and without any bedding; this is also the case with the servants in some gentlemen's houses.

The poor suffer far less from cold in St. Petersburg than in cities under a milder heaven. In different parts of the town there are large rooms, which are constantly kept warm, and to which every one has at all times free access. In front of the theatres, large fires are kept burning for the benefit of coachmen and servants ; but the furs and warm apparel in which even beggars are sure to be clad, and the air-and-water-tight construction of their houses, are the chief security of all classes against the severity of their climate. As soon as the thermometer falls some fifteen or twenty degrees below zero, the sentinels all receive fur cloaks, in which they look grotesque enough, when marching up and down in front of the palaces. With all these precautions, however, the intense cold that sometimes pre vails for weeks together converts many a specimen of living humanity into a senseless statue of ice. This is owing more to the manners of the people than to the want of suitable protection; to drunkenness and idleness among the poor; and to inconsiderateness among the rich.

The Neva in Winter

The Neva in Winter
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Sears, Robert. An Illustrated Description of the Russian Empire. New York: Robert Sears, 1855