- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 26, 2001

By W. Bruce Lincoln
Basic Books, $35, 419 pages, illus.
Tsar Peter was great in size and vision. Of this six-feet nine-inch autocrat, Aleksandr Sergeyevich Pushkin wrote "His will was fate." Thus Peter ordered his capital built on marshy islands still claimed by Sweden. Nothing would stand in his way, not danger, not tradition, not even family — for he seized the crown from his half-sister and he would later arrest and execute his own son. Such was the man, Peter the Great, founder of St. Petersburg.
"Sunlight at Midnight" is the biography of the city. It is a sad book both for its story and for the fact that its author, C. Bruce Lincoln, died before its completion. Mr. Lincoln's previous 11 books have shown the strength of his scholarship and his aesthetic sensitivity. Able associates have cobbled together a useful and imformative history from Mr. Lincoln's manuscripts, but the book only suggests what Mr. Lincoln himself might have made of it.
The location of St. Petersburg at the mouth of the River Neva, Peter's "window on the West," violated most of the principles for a city site. "It had no reliable source of fresh water, and soil around it was too barren to grow crops needed to feed its people." From November to March, the River Neva was usually frozen. Scientific records show 260 occasions when the Neva's waters have risen more than five feet above flood stage. Tsar Peter himself narrowly escaped drowning during one such flood. Yet Peter continued, ordering between 10,000 and 30,000 serfs, prisoners of war, and common criminals marched into the delta to drain marshes, drive piles, and erect the first buildings. "It would be difficult to find in the annals of military history any battle that claimed more lives" than the building of St. Petersburg, wrote a 19th-century Russian historian.
Peter, of course, had travelled and worked in the West. His fascination with Amsterdam influenced the building of St. Petersburg. For an architect, he chose Dominico Trezzini, a 33-year-old Italian-Swiss who had worked in Denmark and was familiar with he problems of marshy subsoils. Just as Peter had turned his back on the onion domes and ancient pieties of Moscow, his new capital looked West, a mariner's city reaching out to the world. When Peter the Great died in 1725 his city boasted 19 churches, 14 imperial palaces and residences, two theaters, and some 6,000 other buildings. Diplomats, artists, merchants, and courtiers settled there.
When Peter's teenage grandson inherited the throne, he moved the capital back to Moscow, but a fatal case of smallpox ended the young tsar's reign in 1730, and Russia's new empress, Anna Ivanovna, brought the court back to the chilly banks of the Neva. With her, the city developed its own Russian style with Russian architects. Gradually the city grew more feminine.
When the daughter of Peter the Great, Elizabeth, seized the throne in 1741, the city's architecture turned again toward Europe. Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli had begun his work in the days of Anna, for whose birthday Rastrelli had decorated the old winter palace "with orange trees and myrtles his gardners had brought to full flower in the midst of the nothern winter." Under Elizabeth, he "turned St. Petersburg into an architectural jewel that reflected all the frivolity" of the age.
Mr Lincoln's enthusiasim for architecture — and all the arts — has been well documented in his splendid book "Between Heaven and Hell: The Story of a Thousand Years of Artistic Life in Russia." So it is unsurprising that here he views his subject through the eyes of painters and poets. When an obscure German princess becomes the consort of Peter III, then seizes the crown herself in 1762, Mr. Lincoln turns to Pushkin, writing long afterward, to expalin the power of the remarkable Catherine the Great. "Her brilliance blinded, her friendliness attracted, and her generosity attached. The very voluptuousness of this clever woman confirmed her majesty."
Catherine ruled for 34 years, and became the most energetic builder of St. Petersburg. "The more you build, the more you want to build," she confessed. Thus, notes the author, "More than two hundred years after her death, St. Petersburg still remains more the city of Catherine the Great than of any other Russian ruler."
To link her own rule to the great Russian traditions, Catherine marked the centennial of the royal succession of Peter the Great by commissioning the sculptor Etienne-Maurice Falconet to produce the statue that has become the virtual logo of the city, the Bronze Horseman. Furthermore, Falconet found a colossal granite stone in a Finnish marsh that he insisted be the base of his statue. But the stone measured some 30 feet high and weighed no less than three million pounds. A military engineer noted that "it seemed well beyond the forces of men and machines to move it." But the Empress commanded that the colossus-stone be moved.
And moved it was. The stone was put in place to the cheers of the Petersburgers in September, 1770, a monument to the power of men, muscle, and Russian autocracy.
Catherine's grandsons, Alexander I and Nicholas I, reigned as conquering heroes, vanquishers of Napoleon, rulers of the greatest power in Europe. Their capital began to take on the trappings of Imperial Rome with a parade ground, triumphal arches and columns. Meantime, a bureaucracy was growing in the city — and textile mills, quickly followed by heavy industry. A proletariat had arrived, and with it the discontents of a worker's movement. Pushkin wrote poems inflamed with the words for freedom.
In December, 1825, several hundred officers of the Imperial Guards revolted. Rallying round the statue of the Bronze Horseman, the young nobles demanded human rights, a constitution, and the end of autocracy. The Decembrists, as they were called, failed. Five were hanged, a hundred banished to Siberia. But the idea of freedom was afoot in St. Petersburg.
So were other discontents. Floods came again; epidemics of cholera took 12,000 lives in one year alone. A generation of writers began to complain.
"The devil himself lights the street lamps only in order to show that everything is not really as it seems," wrote the tormented Nikolai Gogol. The engineer-turned-novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky and the poet Andrei Belyi added their own dark shadows to the Nevsky Prospect.
During the 62 years between the Crimean War in 1856 and the Bolshevik move in 1918, "the Russian Empire freed nearly 50 million serfs and state peasents, faced the full force of the Industrial Revolution, lived through three foreign wars, and endured three revolutions." Poverty turned St. Petersburg into the most unhealthy capital in Europe. Not even the tsar was safe.
In 1881, terrorists tossed a bomb at the tsar's armored carriage. As soon as the smoke cleared, the tsar got out to inspect the damage — and another terrorist threw a bomb directly between the tsar's feet.The legless autocrat died an hour later. At least a thousand others died in January, 1905, on Bloody Sunday, as the day came to be known. Workers, marching to the Winter Palace to bring their problems to the tsar himself— "the Little Father" as he had been affectionately known — encountered the guns of the Russian army.
Unrest would simmer— strikes, grenades, assassinations — until the disasters of World War I brought an end of the monarchy. But Mr. Lincoln does not neglect the rich intellectual life that he calls the Silver Age. "Elegant, tattered, rock solid, yet built on shifting sands, St. Petersburg seemed to hold equal measures of exaltation and despair as the twentieth century began." And thus we meet Aleksandr Benois, Sergei Diagilev, Andrei Belyi, Aleksander Blok, Igor Stravinsky, George Balanchine — the list is a long one.
Mr. Lincoln's narrative of the October Revolution restores Leon Trotsky to center stage (while V.I. Lenin wears a wig in hiding), and contrasts the city's restive night life with the dithering Duma and the nearly farcical coup which brings the Bolsheviks to power. Then the capital of the Soviet Union goes to Moscow, and the renamed Leningrad becomes something of a backwater. It is not easy to make boredom interesting.
World War II begins, and with it the 900-day Nazi siege of the city. The author has wisely leaned on the reporting of Harrison Salisbury and the memoirs of participants like the great Josephy Brodsky, the first foreign-born poet laureate of the United States. The cruel, heroic, tragic years of the siege forever change the ambience of the city. With peace, new residents swarm in to Leningrad, and the city is rebuilt with shoddy Soviet materials. And finally, after the fall of Communism, the city reclaims its natal name, St. Petersburg.
It is easy to make a wish list of topics uncovered in this remarkable, incomplete book. Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleyev, the great chemist and author of the periodic table, gets less than one sentence. The mystic monk Grigori Rasputin, whose presence in St. Petersburg so damaged the monarchy, gets no mention at all. An author's untimely death excuses all omissions.
In his last chapter, Mr. Lincoln's own voice sounds strong and clear. "In 1909," he writes, "the discovery that more than 300 gallons of water had somehow collected inside Falconet's Bronze Horseman seemed to indicate that the very element that 18th-century builders had been obliged to harness … had now found a way to attack it from within."
The author adds a final observation: "For the better part of three hundred years the question of how to blend a preference for east or west with the forces of despotism and servitude has dominated an ongoing conversation that Russia has carried on with itself …" And the world still waits for an answer.

Bart McDowell is a former editor of National Geographic.

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