- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 16, 2003

Long before there was a Greenbelt or a Columbia, Md., there was St. Peters- burg, perhaps the ultimate "planned city."
Founded by Czar Peter the Great in 1703 as a military outpost for his war against Sweden, St. Petersburg quickly grew into one of the biggest and most important cities in the world.
Over the last 300 years, the city has been the home of some of the world's greatest artists, poets, writers and sculptors. The State Hermitage, one of the world's biggest museums, is in St. Petersburg. Alexander Pushkin wrote "The Bronze Horseman" there. Russian musical theater and the Kirov Ballet were born there.
So when St. Petersburg's tercentenary approached this year, it provided a ripe opportunity for arts and cultural institutions worldwide to join hands and enterprises, and Baltimore and Washington were no different.
This year, especially through April, there will be a gold mine of opportunity for lovers of Russian dance, literature and music to get acquainted with, or sample anew, everything St. Petersburg has contributed to the arts in the last 300 years.
In Washington, Hillwood Museum is coordinating "St. Petersburg at 300 Years: Golden and Glorious," a year-long series of seminars, performances and exhibitions involving the Smithsonian Associates, the Washington Performing Arts Society, the Kennedy Center and the National Museum for Women in the Arts, among others.
Baltimore has its own tribute to St. Petersburg called "Vivat! St. Petersburg," bringing together the city's five major arts and cultural groups the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Baltimore Opera Company, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Center Stage and the Walters Art Museum. The festival runs from Feb. 13 to March 2.
Why such interest in St. Petersburg here?
"The founding of St. Petersburg is a milestone in European history," says Carol Bogash, director of educational and cultural programs for the Smithsonian Associates.
"It made a bridge between Europe and Russia. St. Petersburg is the center of the great arts of Russia writers, musicians, architects, painters. Its anniversary was an opportunity for all of us to celebrate the tremendous cultural tradition that all of us across the world enjoy."

For a city that has brought such aesthetic beauty and grace to the world's culture and arts, St. Petersburg's birth was one of death, misery and brutality.
Peter the Great, who ruled Russia from 1682 to his death in 1725, founded the city as a means to gain access to the Baltic Sea. Peter the Great is known for his efforts to Westernize Russian culture and society, and St. Petersburg is perhaps his signature accomplishment in that regard, but according to Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, a Russian scholar, the city was "built on the bones of the people who died building it."
"[Peter the Great] set a model for cruelty," says Mr. Billington, who has written numerous books on Russia and is an elected member of the Russian Academy of Sciences. "Twenty-five thousand people died building it. Everything about it was artificial."
St. Petersburg was built on a swamp on the Neva River delta, not the high ground that most city planners sought. Peter had spent many years in Europe as he grew up and envisioned a city modeled after Amsterdam, one of his favorite cities.
He imported thousands of workers, many of them captured Swedes, and drove them mercilessly. The workers were besieged by mosquitoes and rain, and began to die by the thousands from disease, starvation and overwork. But the city was quickly established and Peter named it the capital of Russia in 1717. Eight years later it had more than 40,000 residents, according to Solomon Volkov in his book "St. Petersburg: A Cultural History."
"The greatest expression of Peter's sovereign willfulness, his Russian maximalism, and his addiction to the supersymbolic gesture was, ultimately, the founding of St. Petersburg," Mr. Volkov wrote.
"Retrospectively, this feat became loaded with a multitude of interpretations and explanations; but the idea of establishing a new city just then and on just that spot seemed in fact to be no more or less than the act of an incredibly rich, reckless and sometimes lucky gambler risking it all in one supreme wager. Peter wanted to astonish Russia and the entire civilized world, and he succeeded."

Architecturally, Peter's great achievement at St. Pe- tersburg was building a city based on geometric patterns instead of the conventional "organic" system of the day, Mr. Billington says.
"All cities had grown up organically and in slow degrees," he says. "Take Moscow and the Kremlin. There was an outer ring, and another outer ring, all like the great defensive cities on the great steppe and plain of Russia. St. Petersburg was a naval base built on geometric patterns artificially imposed on a swamp. It was the first example of a great crash project and it really set the model for all crash building projects in Russia."
Before his death in 1725, Peter also built a library in St. Petersburg, considered by many to be the first modern library, and established an academy of sciences. He also imported Italian artists, musicians and architects, and set in motion the reputation St. Petersburg would soon develop under Catherine the Great as a world center for artistic creativity.
With St. Petersburg now the capital of Russia, the country's rulers and aristocrats quickly moved to the city. Russian artists, poets and musicians followed and they were inspired by the beauty and history they found there.
"You see the great prints of the middle 18th century under Elizaveta and you see a city where people would take gondolas from one place to the other, going under archways to inner courtyards," Mr. Billington says of the city under Elizaveta Petrovna, daughter of Peter the Great, who ruled Russia from 1741 to 1761.
"It was a special city, and everybody right through to early [U.S.] ambassadors like John Quincy Adams were fascinated with the city as a kind of unique cultural experience."
Mr. Billington says the city's northern locale it is on the same latitude as Oslo also inspired artists and writers over the years. St. Petersburg's location leads to long, lingering sunsets and the "White Nights" phenomenon; during the summer, the sun barely makes it under the horizon and for about three weeks the nighttime can be as bright as the day.
On top of it all was the pervasive fear of flooding. Before St. Petersburg, Russians lived in fear of fire, Mr. Billington says. But St. Petersburg's location drew constant floods. "The Bronze Horseman," one of Russia's greatest poems, was written by Pushkin in 1833 and was set in St. Petersburg during a great flood nine years earlier.

The idea for a massive tribute to the founding of St. Petersburg seems to have started with Yuri Temirkanov, director of both the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the St. Petersburg Philharmonic. According to Joan Davidson, executive director of "Vivat! St. Petersburg," Mr. Temirkanov approached Baltimore's cultural institutions when he arrived in Baltimore in 1999 about creating a cultural arts festival similar to the Art Square Winter Festival he had just organized in St. Petersburg.
"The five major organizations here said, 'That's a good idea,'" she says. "Then he said, 'Why, I have a great subject for you that you might be able to get your arms around. St. Petersburg's 300th anniversary will be in a few years.' And that's how it began. The five major arts organizations took it from there and I believe they began meeting off and on for the next six or eight months."
In Washington, the idea for a citywide tribute to St. Petersburg seems to have started at Hillwood Museum and Gardens, the Washington residence of the late Marjorie Merriweather Post, the breakfast cereal heiress, collector and philanthropist. Mrs. Post developed a taste and passion for Russian art during her stay in the country in 1937-38 with her third husband, Joseph E. Davies, then the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union.
Hillwood already had one of the most extensive collections of Russian imperial art in this country, and when curators there realized the anniversary of the founding of St. Petersburg was coming, they decided that an exhibition featuring Mrs. Post's collection would be almost a natural decision.
The result, "The Myths of St. Petersburg: Impressions of the City from the Hillwood Collection," will be on display throughout the year, starting Feb. 4. It features two of Hillwood's most important objects, a gold box decorated with a profile portrait of Catherine the Great as Minerva, and a chalice by Iver Wildfeldt Buch. There is also a collection of Faberge eggs created by Russian court jeweler Peter Carl Faberge that were commissioned every Easter during the early 20th century.
"I think the exhibit will really show not just beautiful objects, but it will tell a story, too," says Karen Kettering, associate curator for Russian art at the Hillwood Museum.
"St. Petersburg is such an important city not just culturally, but politically and historically. It's hard to tell all of St. Petersburg's stories in one art exhibit, but we have a lot of items here that have a lot to say about where Russia came from as a country."
The Smithsonian Associates has more than 30 events planned for the first three months of the year, too. Among those scheduled to participate in the Smithsonian's programs are Russian physicist Zhores Alferov, who shared a Nobel Prize in 2001 for his work in semiconductor physics and electronics; poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, famed for "Babi Yar"; and Mikhail Piotrovsky, director and curator of the Hermitage, the world-famous museum in St. Petersburg.
Mr. Billington says the Library of Congress has no formal celebrations of St. Petersburg along the lines of "Vivat! St. Petersburg" or "St. Petersburg at 300 Years," but it has been working with the National Library of Russia in St. Petersburg for the last few years in an attempt to digitize and put on microfilm some of the great and rare opera scores and other musical items in Russia.
"It's not easygoing, because we've had problems getting access to things," Mr. Billington says. "But we're hoping we can bring some things back here and then take them back to them."

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