One man's single-minded determination built this city on a swamp, on territory claimed by the enemy. Years later, Hitler decreed it should be wiped off the face of the earth. The name of the city? St. Petersburg, Russia's Window on Europe, Venice of the North, City of Light, is quite simply the most beautiful city I've ever seen. It overwhelms the eye, and the soul.
It was conceived in the mind of Peter the Great, aptly named, as he stood 7'2" tall and cast an even longer shadow, and born by his will, built, as they say, with the bones of thousands of serfs, and built where no city could or should be built.
"The history of the city," writes the BBC, "is a story of the triumph of human will over the elements." It was the Russian winter, after all, that finally defeated Napoleon, and St. Petersburg is nearly parallel to Helsinki.
It is said that one day the tsar of Russia, who, determined to make Russia a country in its own right, not the colony of one of the super powers busy at the time dividing the world amongst them, single-handedly dragged his country into the appropriate century, galloped across the swamp to where the Neva River meets the Gulf of Finland, dismounted, plunged his saber into the mire, and declared, "Here shall be a city."
Not only was it built on a swamp, it was built on a swamp that Russia didn't own. Perennially at war with Sweden, the land was at the time claimed by the Swedes. Early settlers immediately experienced floods, and it was considered inhabitable ... none of which mattered to Peter.
Or perhaps it did. The man had a vision and a statement to make, and it was a politically strategic location.
Peter's mission was to drag the Russian people, kicking and screaming, into the modern world. For what's a city with no people in it? Peter commanded the boyars to move from Moscow to St. Petersburg, to dress and behave like Westerners, and to shave their beards. In the Russian Orthodox religion, the longer one's beard, the greater the likelihood he would enter heaven. Peter the Great didn't care.
St. Petersburg was a political statement, and so was its reconstruction for its 300th anniversary two years ago. With roads and houses in disrepair, the people watched as hundreds of millions of dollars were poured into reconstruction of the presidential palace and other cultural treasures. The total for renovation was said to be $2 billion.
Of the restoration, Bob Parsos, BBC, wrote: "The people of this, the most European of Russian cities, are proud of the city's cultural heritage...But the hundreds of pensioners whose country cottages and gardens were razed to the ground to make way for the restoration of the Konstantinovsky Palace are seething with rage." It was done without their input or consent, so as not to be an embarrassment when dignitaries visited for the celebration.
Like most of us, about many things, they were "grudgingly happy" with the outcome. Shall we say ambivalent?
Does the city, does the world, need The State Hermitage, one of the world's great museum, which is comprised of six buildings and sprawls along the Neva in the heart of the city?
The city has its history. Stalin's purges in the 1920s included as many as a quarter of the city's inhabitants, and more than a million died while the Germans held siege to the city for 900 days during World War II. That's three years.
Standing inside the Hermitage, we saw pictures of the devastation. On the Hermitage website, you can read an excerpt from the instructions of Hitler's high command on the destruction of Leningrad, dated September 29, 1941:
"...2. The Fuehrer has decided to wipe the city of St Petersburg from the face of the earth. We have no interest in the preservation of even a part of the population of that city.
4. It is proposed to tightly encircle the city and by shelling from artillery of all calibres and constant aerial bombing to raze it to the ground..."
Nearly two million civilians, including about 400,000 children, plus troops were trapped inside the city. According to 'The History of St. Petersburg.':
"Food and fuel supplies were very limited (enough for 1 or 2 months only). All public transportation has stopped. By the winter of 1941-42 there was no heating, no water supply, almost no electricity and very little food. In January 1942, in the middle of an unusually cold winter, the lowest food rations in the city were only 125 grams (about 1/4 of a pound)..."
Just down from the Heritage is the Peter and Paul Fortress, the first stones Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia, laid. We toured this as well. Over the years it housed Russia's most famous political prisoners.
We human beings are not reasonable creatures. If we were, half the wonderful things in the world would not exist. But we are capable of being reasonable. If we were not, the tilting at windmills would have broken us eons ago.
It requires the wisdom of Solomon to know and be both, and to choose when and in what proportion.
"The reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions that surround him, "wrote George Bernard Shaw. "The unreasonable man adapts surroundings to himself. All progress depends on the unreasonable man."