St. Petersburg, at the eastern extremity of the Baltic, was a colossus, but it did not rest on firm foundations. It had been built over a swampy region which the Finns and Swedes had used only for forts and fisheries. It was constantly menaced by floods. Pushkin, Gogol, and other writers of the late Imperial Period were fascinated with the defiance of nature inherent in the creation of the new capital.

The history of European culture in this city is rather like that of the extraordinary palm tree in a story by Vsevelod Garshin. Artificially transplanted from sunlit southern regions to the greenhouse of a northern city, the plant restlessly seeks to bring the expansive freedom of its former habitat to all the docile native plants confined in the greenhouse. Its brilliant growth upward toward the elusive sun attracts the fascinated attention of all, but leads ultimately to a shattering of the enclosure, and a killing exposure to the real climate of the surrounding region.

By the end of 1762 St. Petersburg had a population about equal to that of Moscow and a culture similar to that of the leading capitals of Europe. It was already one of the strangest, loveliest, most terrible, and most dramatic of the world's great urban centers. The high northern latitude, the extreme slant of the sun's rays, the flatness of the terrain, the frequent breaking of the landscape by wide, shimmering expanses of water: all these combine to accent the horizontal at the expense of the vertical and to create everywhere the sense of immense space, distance, and power.

Cleaving the city down the center, the cold waters of the Neva move silently and swiftly, like a slab of smooth grey metal, bringing with them the tang of the lonely wastes of forest and swamp from which they have emerged. At every hand one feels the proximity of the great wilderness of the Russian north---silent, somber, infinitely patient.

The setting was completed by the bleak seasons of the north: the dark winters, the long, damp springs, the "white nights" of June, with their poetic iridescence, and, finally, the brief, pathetic summers, suggestive rather than explicit...passionately cherished by the inhabitants for their very rareness and brevity. In such a city the attention of man is forced inward upon himself. Human relationships attain a strange vividness and intensity, with a touch of premonition.

The city is, and always has been, a tragic city, artificially created...geographically misplaced, yet endowed with a haunting beauty, as though an ironic deity had meant to provide some redemption for all the cruelties and all the mistakes.

--- Excerpted from The Icon and the Axe:
An Interpretive History of Russian Culture

by James Billington.
Vintage Books (Random House), 1970

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