Purpose of this Blog...

You may have noticed that not all books are equal in capturing children's imaginations and in cultivating those innocent, tender souls. My goal is to help you find the ones that do!
(Painting by Mary Cassatt: "Mrs Cassatt Reading to her Grandchildren" -1888)

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Peter the Great and St. Petersburg

Diane Stanley has written and illustrated a "great" introduction for children to the man "Peter the Great" and his Westernized Russian city, St. Petersburg...

Peter was the grandson of Tsar Michael Romanov.  In 1682, in Moscow (the city of his birth), Peter was proclaimed Tsar at the tender age of 10. And he believed that whatever he wanted, he should have, and the sooner the better.

Peter wanted two things most of all: for Russia to be like Europe, and for his country to have a naval port full of beautiful ships. So when he was grown, he travelled West - the first tsar ever to leave Russia! Wherever he went, he asked, "What does this do?" and "How does this work?" When he returned a year and a half later, he brought with him modern ideas (not all welcome) and equipment and over eight hundred specialists to work in his country.

Russia was vast, the largest nation on earth...but the Russians did not wish to change...Peter produced a razor and began removing the noblemen's long beards. To these men their beards were a symbol of their religious belief. God made men with beards; it was therefore a sin to shave them off.  No matter!...He passed a law that all men, except priests and peasants, must share. If a man insisted on keeping his beard, he could pay a yearly tax on it..."

In Europe, Peter had met women who dined and danced with their husbands and even joined in conversation. He felt ashamed of the women of Russia. Shut away from the world like caged birds, they were ignorant and helpless...

Peter brought Western customs and clothing back with him, and commanded women to come forward and dine with the men.

And he began work on his second dream - to build a naval port and glittering capital city...rising out of a swamp!

In the war with Sweden Peter had captured a marshy strip of land on the Gulf of Finland [1703]. And although it was far to the north, freezing cold, and little more than a swampy wilderness, Peter planned to build there, not just a port and a fortress to protect it, but a whole city. It was to be called St. Petersburg after his patron saint, and it would become the new capital of Russia! [1712]

The Peter and Paul fortress was the first structure to be
built in the new city as a protection from an attack by
the Swedish army.

Below is how the Peter and Paul fortress - with the Cathedral of Ss. Peter and Paul in the middle - looks today (my photo was taken on a cloudy Russian winter day!)  The cathedral is the oldest church in St. Petersburg. It is intimately linked to both the history of the city and to the Romanov dynasty, as it is home to the graves of nearly all the rulers of Russia since Peter the Great!

Peter wanted his city overnight. An army of workers was ordered to the frigid, desolate place...Because picks and shovels were scarce, in the early years workers were forced to dig the foundations with their bare hands. Through floods in summer and unbearable cold in winter the work went on. Thousands of men lost their lives. The Russians called it a "city built on bones".

Originally the city had no bridges, and people had to be ferried between the banks by boat, leading to St. Petersburg's name the "Venice of the North." Bridges were eventually built, joining the nineteen islands to the shore.

The view across the Neva looking from Vasilevsky Island
over to St. Issac's Cathedral.

On January 16, 1725, while he was busy with the building of his city, Peter fell ill...January 28, after days of hovering between life and death Peter died. He was fifty-three years old...Though his life was ended and other tsars would sit on his throne, what Peter began went on and on, and Russia was changed forever.

The Bronze Horseman is a monument to Peter the Great from Catherine the Great. It stands on Senate Square, facing the Neva River and surrounded by the Admiralty, St Isaac's Cathedral and the Senate and Synod buildings. The statue, created by the famous French sculptor Etienne Maurice Falconet, depicts Peter the Great as a Roman hero on horseback, pointing the way for Russia, while his horse steps on a snake, which represents the enemies of Peter and his reforms.

Go here for a photo virtual tour of the sights of St. Petersburg!
Read my past post about author/illustrator Diane Stanley, here. You can see all her books on her website, here.


  1. This is really interesting! Peter the Great is such a controversial man. I do love the illustration style of this book!

    Not too long ago I read a (grown up) novel called The Winter Palace which was told through the viewpoint of a palace servant and later lady in waiting through the time when Catherine the Great came to Russia and later seized the thrown. That whole succession after Peter the Great is an interesting tale in itself! Not sure if I'd have the guts to illustrate it though, lol! Lots of dark tales and intrigue....

    1. Yes - he was very controversial. This picture book goes into much more detail about his life then what I shared, but the author focuses mostly on PTG's positive attributes - they did call him "Great", after all. He was very ambitious! When he travelled throughout Europe he learned the trade of a carpentry, ship building, cobblery, and even studied anatomy - all while living in simple accomodations. Even when he got back to Russia, he didn't care much for luxury - he was all about working hard - and since he did, he expected everyone around him to as well!
      Stanley only quickly mentions that PTG would punish savagely those who abused their office in the government he set up ("even if he were Peter's closest friend"). But he helped the people become educated, he built a system of canals...built up a navy and city...unfortunately, at the cost of many lives. He was in a hurry, and that took its toll on his life as well!
      When I read about history, much of it is hard to relate to through my 21st Century eyes! Glad I didn't live back then, but it's fascinating stuff! Monarchy life - as you say - "had lots of dark tales and intrigue" - I think I'd have been happier as a peasant??? That life was cruel too - but I like to picture it as cottages at sunrise, pastures full of sheep, and children romping everywhere - (not quite!) haha!

    2. Yes! I think I would have preferred somewhere very remote and not in the middle of all the politics, illness, and upheaval! I'd just like in my little cottage with my family and some sheep ;)