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Why do we build cities on swamps?

One man’s resolute determination built this city on a swamp, in territory claimed by the enemy. Years later, Hitler decreed that it must be wiped off the face of the earth. The name of the city? Saint Petersburg, Russia’s Window to Europe, the Venice of the North, the City of Light, is simply the most beautiful city I have ever seen. It overwhelms the sight and the soul.

It was conceived in the mind of Peter the Great, aptly named, when he was 7’2″ tall and cast an even longer shadow, and was born of his will, built, as they say, from the bones of thousands of serfs, and built where no city could or should be built.

“The history of the city,” writes the BBC, “is the story of the triumph of the human will over the elements.” After all, it was the Russian winter that finally defeated Napoleon, and Saint Petersburg is almost parallel to Helsinki.

It is said that one day the Tsar of Russia, who, determined to make Russia a country in its own right, not the colony of one of the superpowers then busy dividing the world among themselves, single-handedly dragged his country into the century appropriate, he galloped across the swamp to where the Neva River meets the Gulf of Finland, dismounted, stuck his saber in the mud, and declared, “Here will be a city.”

It wasn’t just built on a swamp, it was built on a swamp that Russia didn’t own. Always at war with Sweden, the land was at that time claimed by the Swedes. The first settlers experienced immediate flooding, and it was deemed uninhabitable…none of which mattered to Peter.

But maybe he did. The man had a vision and a statement to make, and it was a politically strategic place.

Peter’s mission was to drag the Russian people, kicking and screaming, into the modern world. What is a city without people in it? Peter ordered the boyars to move from Moscow to St. Petersburg, to dress and behave like Westerners, and to shave off their beards. In the Russian Orthodox religion, the longer the beard, the greater the chance that it will enter heaven. Peter the Great did not care.

St. Petersburg was a political statement, and so was its rebuilding for its 300th anniversary two years ago. With roads and houses in disrepair, people watched as hundreds of millions of dollars were poured into rebuilding the presidential palace and other cultural treasures. The total for the renovation was said to be $2 billion.

Of the restoration, the BBC’s Bob Parsos wrote: “People in this most European of Russian cities are proud of the city’s cultural heritage… But the hundreds of pensioners whose country houses and gardens were razed to the ground to make way for the restoration of the Konstantinovsky Palace are filled with rage.” It was done without their input or consent, so as not to be an embarrassment when dignitaries visited for the celebration.

Like most of us, about many things, they were “grudgingly happy” with the result. Shall we say ambivalent?

Does the city, the world, need The State Hermitage, one of the world’s great museums, which is made up of six buildings and stretches along the Neva in the heart of the city?

The city has its history. Stalin’s purges in the 1920s included up to a quarter of the city’s inhabitants, and more than a million died as the Germans laid siege to the city for 900 days during World War II. That’s three years.

Standing inside the Hermitage, we saw images of the devastation. On the Hermitage website you can read an extract from the instructions of Hitler’s high command on the destruction of Leningrad, dated September 29, 1941:

“…2. The Führer has decided to wipe the city of St. Petersburg off the face of the earth. We have no interest in preserving even a part of the population of that city.

4. It is proposed to closely surround the city and devastate it by artillery bombardment of all calibers and constant aerial bombardment…”

Nearly two million civilians, including some 400,000 children, as well as troops were trapped inside the city. According to ‘The Story of Saint Petersburg’:

“Food and fuel supplies were very limited (enough for only 1 or 2 months). All public transport stopped. In the winter of 1941-42 there was no heat, no water supply, almost no electricity and very little In January 1942, in the midst of an unusually cold winter, the lowest food rations in the city were just 125 grams (about 1/4 pound)…”

Just below the Heritage is the Peter and Paul Fortress, the foundation stones of Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia, ugly. We toured this too. Over the years, it housed Russia’s most famous political prisoners.

Human beings are not reasonable creatures. If we were, half the wonderful things in the world wouldn’t exist. But we are capable of being reasonable. If we weren’t, the tilting of windmills would have ripped us apart eons ago.

Solomon’s wisdom is required to know and be both, and to choose when and in what proportion.

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions around him,” writes George Bernard Shaw. “The unreasonable man adapts the environment to himself. All progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

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