Peter the Great had become Tsar in 1682 and his rule is characterised by immense cultural and political changes in Russia that saw the country transformed into a modern world power. Keen to replace Sweden as the leading power in the Baltic, Peter began the Great Northern War that was fought from 1700 to 1721.
In 1703 Peter’s forces captured Swedish possessions at the mouth of the Neva river, and it was here that he laid the foundation stone for the Peter and Paul Fortress on Zayachy Island. This marked the beginning of the construction of St. Petersburg, although the first residential building to be completed was a small log cabin built for the Tsar that stands today inside a protective pavilion. Peter wanted his new city to be built entirely of stone and brick, so he ordered this first house to be painted red with white detailing to appear like brick.
The construction of St. Petersburg at the mouth of the Neva was an enormous undertaking. The Tsar had to hire large numbers of European engineers and architects to drain the marshland and develop the city. He banned the creation of other stone buildings in Russia so that all the country’s stonemasons and artisans could be used to construct its buildings, and he ordered the conscription of 40,000 serfs a year to work as labourers in the harsh conditions.
St. Petersburg went on to become the capital of Russia for two centuries, and was the location for numerous notable events that helped to shape world history. Its historic centre is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, and it houses one of the world’s largest art collections in the Hermitage Museum that was founded by Catherine the Great in 1754.