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Big city on the water. Why is St. Petersburg different to other seaside cities?

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Another paradox of St. Petersburg. We are “a naval capital”, but with a “river mentality”. Pavel Nikiforov tried to find out why

Pavel Nikiforov, reporter: “The very end of Fontanka. The last buildings. But you cannot see even a glimpse of the sea, You walk down the street, but cannot reach the seaside. The great French enlightener Denis Didraux always admired Peter the Great, but was still bewildered – why would you build a new capital not in the middle of the country, but right on the seaside. He even invented a special term for St. Petersburg – “heart at the tip of a finger”

This is how we lie – by the sea, yet you’d probably get lost in industrial zones and suburbs until you reach that sea. And we can look at many other port cities – from Yalta to Vladivostok, from Sevastopol and Marseille to Nakhodka – and see that those are centered around the sea, not tucking it away to the outskirts. One of the first to take notice of this peculiarity was the chief bibliographer of St. Petersburg Nikita Eliseev.

Nikita Eliseev, chief bibliographer of the Russian National Library: “St. Petersburg is the only naval city in the world which did not actually embrace the sea. The center of which is not by the sea, but by a huge river, which is also like a lake in its essence”.

And its true – Peter the Great laid the foundation of a fortress, which became St. Petersburg, not on the seaside, but hiding it on an island some six kilometers off the bed of Bolshaya Neva. And all further construction was aimed not at turning St. Petersburg towards the sea, but inwards. Writer and philologist Andrey Astvatsaturov noticed long time ago that literature coming out of St. Petersburg almost never had naval heroes or naval subjects.

Andrey Astvatsaturov, writer: “To my mind, this is connected to the fact that the sea in St. Petersburg is insignificant. Its shallow and it does not have storms – like, for instance, in Vladivostok. We don’t have tsunamis or other major disasters. Really, is it worth praising? Almost like a small fish. Neva is another story – St. Petersburg is a river city. First of all, Neva balances things out here. Secondly, it’s been heavily traumatizing our city for 200 years”

Neva, not the Baltic Sea, is our driving force. Seven percent of St. Petersburg is water. 28 kilometers is the overall length of all rivers and channels of the city. 60 embankments. And this is how the first one looked like.

Pavel Nikiforov, reporter: “The wooden embankment of Peter the Great’s era, at the beach of the Petropavlovskaya Fortress. There are hundreds of thousands of pillars like that installed into the shores of St. Petersburg. And while many cities across the world are now reverting back to wooden boardwalks, St. Petersburg began with those. In 1715, Peter the Great signed an order so that every owner of a seaside dwelling had to reinforce the shores with the maximum possible number of pillars”

Knowing these numbers, you don’t get surprised when you see things like that. My colleague filmed this with her phone by the Kryukov canal. A man in a quality business suit taking the water out of his boat. Where would he go next – to a business meeting or downstream, to the office?

St. Petersburg is the birthplace of yachting. The world’s first yacht club – “Nevskaya poteshnaya flotiliya” – was founded upon Peter the Great’s decree on Neva. And today, the descendant of those first yacht captains, internationally acclaimed yacht captain Sergey Timoshkov, sits at the top of his “Rus” yacht and explains why St. Petersburg turned away from the sea, unlike Stockholm.

Sergey Timoshkov, general director of International Baltic Yacht Center: “If we look deeper – it’s a mentality issue. We are not a naval nation. Despite our major achievements in sea navigation and global naval culture, deep inside we are still not a naval nation. And its worth mentioning that when Peter built St. Petersburg, he sincerely wanted to fix that, first and foremost. Lets not talk about the methods”

Why not, since those methods were incredible. Peter presented every noble person moving to St. Petersburg with boats, under one condition – so that they use it to sail down the city’s rivers. The nobles ignored Peter’s demands, as if confirming Sergey’s thoughts. Well, what about the Naval Façade – a huge passenger port on alleviated lands at the western part of Vasilievskiy Island? Here’s the proof of our naval essence, not the river one

Architecture critic Maria Elkina walks bare-footed down the main desert of Neva – the alleviated lands, which do not look like St. Petersburg, but, rather, Dubai. You can see the port from far away – our naval pride, which hosts huge oceanic cruise ships every day. This scene reminds of a resort town, but unspectacular suburbs, which are rapidly closing in on this area, are destroying this feeling.

Maria Elkina, architecture critic: “Yes, unfortunately. What’s going on is a catastrophe. We can see a classic suburb, maybe even worse than a classic suburb, We, unfortunately, have taken an easy path”

“A catastrophe” – is too strong of a word. Its just that the alleviated lands are fencing themselves off from the sea through these apartment complexes. And that is very natural for us. Even the crest of St. Petersburg has two anchors on it - a river one and a sea one. We are located by the sea, but we are a city of rivers. And its important to understand that – for self-identification. We are “the heart at the tip of a finger”, and it is far more accurate than “just another imaginary city”.

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