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The river Neva and the imperial façade: Culture and environment in nineteenth century St. Petersburg Russia

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Title: The river Neva and the imperial façade: Culture and environment in nineteenth century St. Petersburg Russia
Author(s): Dills, Randall
Director of Research: Randolph, John W.
Doctoral Committee Chair(s): Randolph, John W.
Doctoral Committee Member(s): Koenker, Diane P.; Steinberg, Mark D.; Sobol, Valeria
Department / Program: History
Discipline: History
Degree Granting Institution: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Degree: Ph.D.
Genre: Dissertation
Subject(s): Neva Rivers Water Engineers Floods St. Petersburg Russia Nineteenth Century Professionalism Culture Environment
Abstract: My dissertation seeks to understand how the Neva River, the most important artery connecting St. Petersburg to the rest of the Russian Empire and Europe to the west, affected the political and social life of the imperial capital at the beginning of the nineteenth century. I imagine the river Neva as the lifeblood of an imperial capital, a river city in which I will examine the relation of water to historical actors that experienced it socially, culturally, and environmentally. I argue that the river had a paramount role in shaping life and events in the city even as generations of engineers attempted to convert it into a stately built environment, a watery counterpart to the capitals granite palaces, prospects, squares, and markets while at the same time enabling a capitalist transformation to occur along the banks. There is no question that the river defined Russia’s capital—physically and symbolically. Ever since the founding of Peter the Great’s “paradise” on the banks of the Neva in 1703, the foundations of the city, both physical and intellectual, have been anything but solid, as a volatile mix of social groups interacted with the inhospitable natural environment. I propose that the river is a prism through which to examine the intersection of agendas of the Emperors and the new urbanites. The river is a site of struggle between state efforts at technological, social, and cultural control, and a burgeoning city population determined to claim the river as their own through work and leisure as they formed a new urban identity. This interdisciplinary history of the environmental and social spaces on and around the Neva will illuminate the nature of power and the power of nature at work in the city. The environment has wreaked havoc on the city that grew around the islands that form the city’s center. Officials bent on conquering nature and empire with rational and systematic planning combated the river with flood controls, granite embankments, canals and bridges. These contests with nature provided the city with essential features of its image and made it a livable and productive, though dangerous site of commerce and transportation. Upon this precarious physical foundation, the river, frozen in the winter and free-flowing in warm months, gave rise to what I call a “river culture.” Sources show that the different social groups in the city invested experiences within the city with radically different meanings that reveal the fault lines of local identity and imperial power. Thus, various groups of citizens and the state sought to define the city through competing narratives, actions, and technologies that included grandeur, modernity, and doom. My contribution to the historiography of Russian history is to use water as the lens to chart the transformation of St. Petersburg from the model city of the eighteenth century to the to a more cosmopolitan, capitalist city of the nineteenth. As the government sought to maintain its hold on the shape and order of the city, new groups of urban actors, including residents, entrepreneurs and engineers, inserted their specialized experience and knowledge into the public arena to shape the city that had been set out to imperial specifications. These battles were fought again and again in disputes about the meaning, use, and delivery of water in the city. Chapter 1 explores the patterns of river use in the water network of the city, demonstrating the reasons why the river and waterways of the city reveal social, political, and cultural relationships of groups in the capital. Chapter 2, “The Mountain Came to Us: St. Petersburg and the Flood of 1824” serves as a case study of the November 7, 1824 flood that became seared in the memory of Petersburgers. The chapter considers not only the tumultuous events of that day, but the aftermath in which the government sought to redefine its notions of what Petersburg was and the contested memories that resulted. Chapter 3 examines the interaction between the state and key non-state groups at one particular site, the settlement at Galernaia Harbor near south end of Vasilevskii Island as the government sought to relocate the village after the 1824 flood. Chapter 4 follows a new professional class of engineers that maintained a lived city by engaging the saturation of water, and how they helped the state to define the river. These engineers were agents of the state, yet saw themselves as apart from the state at the same time, as they built the infrastructure that made the city functional and supported imperial claims of grandeur. Chapter 5 is the story of the haphazard, convulsive history of sanitation, piping, and water delivery in the city as professional and private initiative came into conflict with state interests in defining the needs for water and sanitation networks in the city. Public disputes show engineers engaged in a fragile civil society and actively participating in defining what was modern, moral, and clean.
Issue Date: 2011-01-14
URI: http://hdl.handle.net/2142/18391
Rights Information: Copyright 2009 Randall Dills
Date Available in IDEALS: 2011-01-14
Date Deposited: December 2
 

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