History of Future Cities by Daniel Brook
This book explores planned cities over the centuries, built in the not-west to emulate western iconic cities: St. Petersburg, Mumbai, Shanghai, and Dubai. The whole east-west distinction is a bit funny, and the author disparages it by the end. The selection of cities is also a bit arbitrary.
I usually read books linearly, having never quite mastered the art of skimming. However in this book, each chapter covers one period of each city's history, and I decided to read the St. Petersburg sections first. I learned a lot about my birth-city, piecing together little stories that I'd known into a grander narrative, and filling in new ones. The architectural tour aspect of the book also pleasantly surprised me.
But there were also shortcomings. First, there are strange factual errors. For example, Kunstkamera was not the first public museum in the world, which the author claims (twice!). Second, liberties are taken to shoehorn the history of St. Pete into a very slick narrative centered around an idea that St. Petersburg is a fake city, a Potemkin village. This vantage point is somewhat disparaging, and profoundly western. I don't think Потёмкинские деревни have nearly the same cultural significance in Russia.
Ultimately I won't read the whole book, and can't broadly recommend this one unless you have personal ties to one of the cities.
St. Petersburg: 1703 - 1825
German - немец shares a root with немой - mute. A general shorthand for all foreigners.
Peter I traveled incognito 🥸 thru Amsterdam as Peter Mikhailov. He got an internship at a shipyard and truly lived that life for four months.
Amsterdam was a kind of factory for creating modern people… just as a well designed sawmill could transform rough timber into uniform usable planks so too a city, if properly designed could shape even the toughest hewn barbarians into civilized men and women.
(Very Le Corbusier: A house is a machine for living in)
Witnessing the parliament of William III shortly after the glorious revolution, Peter remarked that it was good that the ruler was given counsel, but to be bound by any of it was an outrage.
Peter concluded his trip to Holland with realization of importance of sea port. But Russia was landlocked, so he conquered St. Petersburg which was Swedish at the time.
As a modernization means, Peter forced all men to shave their beards and cut off the flowing sleeves of their caftans.
St. Petersburg was built by serfs on 6 month tours of duty. Peter ordered 40,000 a year. And they didn't even have wheelbarrows. Known as a “city built on bones”. Peter boasted 100,000 died building it. Reminds me of Roman slaves were cheaper than machines
Peter mandated travel by boat, but banned oars to force his people to learn how to sail by the wind alone. Nobles were gifted sailboats whose size corresponded to their rank. Peter built canals throughout the city to facilitate travel by water, but neglected to consider that they would freeze in winter.
Peter imported books on architecture and employed hundreds of foreign architects. His lead was Dominico Trezzini. The city arose out of imported theory rather than locally rooted processes, and tended towards extremes.
The Kunstkamera, constructed in 1727 was the first public museum in Russia (author claims the world, but AFAICT it's The Ashmolean in Oxford, c. 1683), where Peter hoped to educate the general public. When his aides suggested he charge for entry, he even provided visitors with vodka and snacks.
Peter began hosting concerts of instrumental music, which was illegal in Moscow because god had to be praised by the human voice alone. He imported French salons as “assemblies” which he observed in Paris.
In Moscow, the German quarter was cordoned off from the rest of city out of fears that foreigners would corrupt the Russians with their unorthodox ways. In St. Petersburg, the немцы were integrated and were allowed to build non-orthodox churches and even conduct services in foreign languages.
By 1720 st. Pete had population of 40,000. Thirty years before, it was a swamp.
Peters son Alexis did not approve of St. Petersburg, thinking it was too western facing. He attempted a coup and vowed to return the capital to Moscow. Peter sentenced his own son to death in 1717.
Peter was succeeded by Anna, an empress and intellectual lightweight who did little and reverted to frivolity. She built the worlds largest ice palace. But she also commissioned the winter palace (hermitage) done by Bartolommeo Rastreli. Was she all that useless?
Catherine married Peter's grandson Peter III and took the throne in 1762. By then the city's population was 100,000. She followed in Peter's footsteps, turning it westward again. She hired Giacomo Quarenghi. All architects seemed to have been inspired by Palladio.
Catherine amassed European art. Her collection of 4000 paintings rivaled what generations of French kings collected in the Louvre for four centuries.
Catherine corresponded with Voltaire, who wrote a hagiography of Peter I. She imported Voltaire's works and invited Diderot to Russia. His stay was short lived since he had some radically egalitarian ideas. He saw Russia as a blank slate that was easier to reform than Europe. (Prescient given the communist revolution to come). Ultimately Diderot was booted for suggesting to dismantle Russian serfdom, a system of “masters and slaves”, which was the last straw.
Not only was the empress seeking advice from foreign experts when Peter had vowed that Russia would “show Europe its ass”, but when they offered advice to empower the people, the empress refused to take it.
Catherine did take some advice. And attempted to bring open debate by running public salons in the winter palace. But the French Revolution of 1789 changed this openness. And her lieutenant Radischev wrote a French Revolution inspired “Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow”, highly sympathetic to the plight of serfs, including plans for abolition. This closed the window for Catherine and Russia was firmly an autocracy.
Open debate would reign within the winter palace even as autocracy prevailed outside its walls.
When Alexander I, grandson of Catherine, defeated napoleon and entered Paris in 1814, Peter the Great's vision of modernity without democracy was fulfilled. Russia was compared to Rome and Alexander I went on a building spree, rapping Carlo Rossi, who trained in Rome. He was most famous for the general staff building and an arch.
French influences were still prominent even after 1814. Auguste de Montferrand redesigned the St. Isaac's cathedral. In his bid he presented oil paintings of many possible styles: Indian, Chinese, Byzantine, green etc. but the choice was obvious: giant gilded neoclassical dome. Just like the best of Europe!
As the Russian army marched through Europe pursuing the fleeing armies of Napoleon, they saw what Europe was like, and how much more advanced it was than Russia economically, socially, educationally and politically. St. Pete’s in contrast began to seem like a “Giant Potemkin village”.
This planted the seeds of the Decembrist revolt, organized by six members of the imperial guard, who wanted to bring constitutional government to Russia. Waiting for a succession, they vowed to make a move during the chaos that would ensue. Instead, they were massacred in front of the Hermitage.
Subsequently, to tamp down future rebellions, Nicholas I instituted a secret police to watch dissent, suggested that European travelers come back with criticism, and pared back liberal arts education to focus on technical subjects instead. The window to the west was closing.
St. Petersburg: 1825 - 1934
Mind blowing connection of the Russian word вокзал named after the first train station in Tsarskoe Selo, modeled after Vauxhall station in London. “A permanent reminder of Russia's cribbed modernity at its most blatant”.
Fittingly, the first railway line connected the capital with the tzar's residence, a vanity project. Meanwhile, a national railway network was nixed out of fear that “frequent purposeless travel would foster the restless spirit of our age”. Reminds me of the crackdown on Parasitism in Soviet Russia.
Funny: when European fashions changed to wearing facial hair, Petersburgers followed suit, reversing Peter's decree. Gogol mocks this in “Nevsky prospect”.
The Crimean War loss at the end of Nicholas I's rule was a wake up call. His son Alexander II took the reigns and undid many of the harshest policies of his predecessors. He freed the serfs in 1861, freeing 22 million people and set Russia up for an industrial path.
Sept 1 1861: St. Petersburg University Rebellion demanding a democratically elected leader not a tzar. I've never heard of this, nor had dad, and so I dug in a bit. The author claims "the university was closed outright for two years", while Wikipedia says "it was temporarily closed twice during the year".
Narodniks were student intellectuals that went to the people (народ) to try to spread revolutionary ideas. First they tried with pamphlets but the peasants were illiterate (hmm... really?). Then they tried with speeches and the peasants reported them to the tzar. By 1877, 1600 students were imprisoned in Peter and Paul fortress.
The radicals adopted another strategy. A new organization, The People's Will began to assassinate key regime officials. Alexander II had his liberal interior minister draw up plans to ease censorship, abolish secret police and allow elected representatives to vote in national affairs. Alas, the peoples will succeeded after six attempts to assassinate the tzar.
Instead of triggering a revolution, they triggered succession, and Alexander III was far more conservative than his father. Rather than moving the capital back to Moscow, he brought Moscow to St. Petersburg by erecting a large cathedral: Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. This structure designed by an archimandrite (orthodox title) with no architectural background, stood out like a sore thumb in the middle of the city. “A deliberate intrusion of the real Russia onto the Petersburg scene”.
Alexander II spurred economic development and sent his finance minister Michael von Reutern to pitch Russia as an emerging market with western conveniences and convenient labor practices. Workers were cheap, had no rights, no ability to speak freely, publish, march, or vote. This was a resounding success and Russia grew at 8% per year from 1860-1900. The Russia American red triangle rubber factory 🔺🏭 was built then. My grandparents worked there for decades. That's where they met.
Meanwhile the city was densifying as more and more peasant workers were moving in. Soon it was twice as crammed as Paris, Berlin, or Vienna. The death rate was highest of all European cities in 1870. Peterburgers topped the nation in vodka consumption, crime was rampant, prostitution was legal and ubiquitous.
Mass education was one of the rare successful social endeavor in St. Petersburg around this time. By 1910, 80% of the population was literate, and this mass literacy was a social innovation the elite would come to regret.
Singer Sewing Machine an example of another company establishing Russian HQ. The Singer Building was architecturally notable. One of many, though.
Putilov Works was a giant ironworks employing 12,000 people, operated by the richest merchant oligarch family of the era. Attempts were made to control them by building incongruous churches adjacent to the plant, but this failed. Eventually, under Gregory Gapon, workers organized and went on strike when four of them were fired for joining the union. In 1905, a general strike extended to 120,000 Petersburgers. A petition was extended demanding freedom of speech, press and assembly, free public education, minimum wage, an eight hour work day, and legalization of unions.
Five thousand protesters led by Gapon were joined by curious sympathizers as they marched along Nevsky prospect. By the time they converged onto the Winter palace, 60,000 men, women, and children awaited. What followed was a massacre claiming 1,000 lives called “Bloody Sunday”, when Tzarist troops opened fire. What followed was a revolution in which the weak tzar Nicholas II, recently defeated by Japan, escaped to Tsarskoe Selo. Eventually the people got what they wanted: autocracy was abolished and a parliament (the Duma) was founded.
However this democratic stint was short lived. In 1906, nearly half of the Duma’s representatives were rural peasants, underscoring Russia’s backwardness (really?). Further, Nicholas II dissolved the Duma and called for new elections. He did this repeatedly to limit the socialists in its ranks.
Nicholas II became increasingly insular, hiding from the people in Tsarskoe Selo. He pined for the Russia before Peter the Great turned westward, adopting the title tzar (instead of emperor, preferred by Peter and used by many Russian monarchs). He wore a beard, a caftan with long impractical sleeves, and commissioned his architects to build the Feodorov village, a mini walled town modeled after the 17th century.
In St. Petersburg, he built the Romanov Tercentenary to commemorate the 300 anniversary of Romanov rule.
World War I gave Nicholas the opportunity to turn populist. A crowd of 250,000 sang “боже царя храни”, and then burnt the German embassy to the ground. He renamed the city to Petrograd since “burg” was viewed as too German. No matter that it was named after Holland.
But the jubilation was short lived, and massive casualties begat draft dodgers, crowds chanting “Down with the autocracy”, singing the Marseillaise, and rioting. Police stations, prisons, courthouses were torched. Protesters were killed by the dozens, and soon the army refused to fire on more people.
Nicholas abdicated the throne and gave up power to his brother, who also refused it. A temporary government was set up under Kerensky.
Some concessions were given to the labor movement: an eight hour work day. But real wages plummeted and unemployment skyrocketed.
Lenin’s Bolsheviks called for national transformation, echoing Peter the greats conviction he could autocratically wrench Russia into the modern world without having to wait for more organic development from below.
After the successful October revolution, Lenin found himself in a civil war which erupted against an alliance of opponents aided by anti-communist western powers like Britain, France, and the USA. The capital was moved from Petrograd to Moscow for military strategic reasons.
In the Kremlin centuries ago, a bearded theocratic elite ruled Russia following eternal truths of church teachings. Now a new class of grey men would rule according to the holy canon of official Bolshevik doctrine. (Really?)
After the civil war was won and the whites were crushed, major changes came to St. Petersburg. Originally the gateway through which European ideas including Marx’s flowed into the country. When Lenin came to power, new ideas became a threat. Lenin quickly set up the Cheka secret police to stifle Petrograd's “embittered bourgeoisie intelligencia”. Meanwhile wages fell and food became scarce and Petrograd dropped from 2.3 million in 1918 to 0.7 million in 1920 (!!) as workers returned to their villages and became peasants again. (Shocking drop— was it due to foreign divestment?)
Worker strikes spread to the naval installation of Kronstadt, and 10,000 sailors rose up against Bolshevism. The rebellion was crushed violently but made Lenin lay off Petrograd and give the city a bit of breathing room. When Lenin died in 1924 the city was renamed in his honor.
Meanwhile Russia felt to the exterior world like once again a promising blank slate as under Catherine the great. This time there were more talented Russians to lead the charge.
The Bauhaus movement found eager home in the Soviet state. Tatlin's Tower was an ambitious modern example of such a project but was never built for lack of funds.
Constructivism became Russia's distinctive style of modernism integrating obsession with geometry and perspective. Example: Palace of Culture. Tractornaya Ulitsa homes were a tasteful update on classic Petersburg forms. I'm reminded of Palaces for the People by Eric Klinenberg, just making the connection from the name.
Erich Mendelssohn was brought to design red banner factory in 1925, which looked like a giant ocean liner ready to set sail.
This period of early soviet avant-garde was short lived as cultural conservatives gained the upper hand, chief among them Stalin.
As in the Age of Enlightenment, Russia’s window on the west birthed dreams of a glorious future only to smother them.
St. Petersburg: 1934 - 1985
Using Kirov’s murder as pretext, Stalin issued an order expediting political investigations. The soviet constitution did guarantee some civil liberties, but these no longer applied. It’s now widely believed that Kirov was killed on Stalin’s orders too. Anyway, the result was a giant supposed conspiracy in which thousands of Russians were accused of being in cahoots with western capitalist powers.
The Great Purge ultimately took millions of people. Not just active party cadres, but anyone politically or intellectually active, including my great grandfather. “Black Ravens” would come by night in black vans and disappear “enemies of the people”. And most of these were in Leningrad, a gateway to western ideas which helped launch the revolution, and was now such a threat to the new regime.
Stalin likely admired Hitler’s June 1934 Night of the Long Knives, in which he orchestrated murder of his fellow Nazi Party founders.
During his decades of rule, Stalin hardly ever set foot in Leningrad, made many attempts to downgrade it to just another city. Even in the first five year plan in 1928, Stalin focused on industrializing the rest of the country, divesting from Leningrad. The Bolsheviks renamed the streets around Спас на Крови after the names of the murderers of Alexander II, but Stalin changed the names back, to ensure those that rise up against their leaders were not glorified.
Stalinist architecture was built with neoclassical facades, replacing modernist avant-guard of the old soviet state. These structures were massive and imposing, a return to order reminiscent of the Romanovs, but also epitomizing high modernism. An example of this is House of the Soviets, and everywhere, giant statue of Lenin loomed.
Hitler called Leningrad “the poisonous nest from which, for so long, Asiatic venom has spewed forth into Europe”, and aimed for full destruction. Awesome!
Head of Hermitage Iosif Orbeli, anticipating German invasion, packed half a million objects and sent them east to Sverdlovsk just before the Germans severed the rail connections, as the city was falling apart.
By 1941, the Germans had fully cut off food supplies from Leningrad. Once the crumbs were consumed, tens of thousands of died a month. People survived eating binding glue from books, boiling belts into thin soup, eating mysterious meat patties. Over a million died in the 900 day siege. And this is not ancient history — my grandfather lived through this.
Stalin may have been deliberately slow to stop the siege, as he watched the city he hated be crushed by Nazi air raids. The Smolny party headquarters were camouflaged, while great buildings like St. Isaac’s and the Admiralty were not. And party members were not starving like the commoners. Their only wartime rule was: no seconds of meat!
Throughout all this in 1941, a strike broke out at Kirov Works (formerly Putilov Works), where strikers demanded an end to Stalin’s Russia. This in the context of being fully cut off from the rest of Russia was a fascinating political threat from within.
The history associated with this period did not jive well with the party line. The curator of the Blockade Museum, which opened a few months after the end of the war, was promptly shot, and museum closed. Even the official Monument to the Defenders of Leningrad did not open until the 70’s.
Stalin's personality cult continued, and globalism was further curtailed. The Internationale, which called for universal proletarian solidarity was replaced with the soviet anthem, which name dropped Stalin. International Prospect was renamed after Stalin too.
In menial jobs there was no pressure to join the Party, so people took them, punched in, and spent the workday writing music and poetry. 1949 confiscation of saxophones. What.
Never heard of "Санкт Петербург" the punk band, actually pretty good, look up Владимир Рекшан.
St. Petersburg: 1985 - ~now
Under Gorbachev the city turned westward again and people made great strides in civil rights, especially of speech and assembly.
Angleterre Hotel, a historical landmark was due to be razed in 1987. A crowd gathered to protest and the leader was told by officials that no such thing would happen. Half an hour later the hotel was demolished. A sign of the times, rather than dispersing the crowd stood its ground and formed an “information point”, dissenting in public. Known as Battle of the Angleterre.
In the Mikhailovsky Garden, Peter's assemblies and Catherine’s salons were revived on Saturday afternoons. This “Hyde Park” was shutdown and then moved to Nevsky prospect!
I didn't know the new name of the city was decided by popular referendum in June 1991. Choices were Leningrad and St. Petersburg. Solzhenitsyn wanted Svyato-Petrograd which is a bit awkward, and never made ballot.
Anatoly Sobchak, former head of Leningrad Soyuz was elected as head of Leningrad mayor of St. Petersburg. He aimed to turn the city into a special economic zone after China. He established ties with us universities and mega corps like Coca Cola and Gillette began opening offices in St. Pete.
Rather than a China-style transition to market economy slowly weaning unproductive industry from subsidies, St. Pete endorsed immediate removal of price controls, calling it “shock therapy”. The result was skyrocketing prices, "all shock and no therapy". Interesting debate about Shock Therapy between Joseph Stiglitz (against) and Jeffrey Sachs (in favor). Look into it later.
Major industries were converted into private companies and Russians were given a share worth 20$ of the new companies. Ownership was soon concentrated by those that had secretly accumulated money, taking advantage of cash strapped Russians. These new oligarchs rather than build up the companies, decided to sell everything and, and make out like bandits, literally. The St. Petersburg economists that endorsed this were so taken by the beauty of their theories that they were blinded by the damage on the ground. They became known as "Market Bolsheviks".
Western firms found that they needed to be headquartered in Moscow, since that is where the clique in power was based. Even Maersk, the Dutch shipping giant, moved their Russian headquarters to landlocked Moscow.
The early 90s were extremely rough: from 1990 to 1995, the number of Russians living on $4 a day or less went from 2M to 60M. Life expectancy went from 68.5 to 64.5. "everything Marx said about communism was wrong, but everything he said about capitalism was right"
By 1998, the ruble had collapsed. This economic chaos began to be associated with democracy in the Russian mind, and the people pined for a strong leader. Putin's Russia would be autocracy reborn. The next bits go into Putin's biography, mostly a rehash of Nothing is True and Everything is Possible. Notably Putin consolidated TV networks under state control. Gasprom, the giant government owned conglomerate, benefited greatly from spikes in oil demand in the early 21st century.
The last St. Pete gubernatorial election was in 2003. In 2004, a law was passed that makes heads of all "federal subjects" (provinces, republics, territories, federal cities like St. Pete) appointed directly by the President of Russia. In the west we have checks and balances. In Russia we have check and mate (I made that up)
Valentina Matviyenko, Putin's puppet established the city as a Potemkin village, polishing the center but letting the heart rot. Russian visas are hard to come by, but it's very easy to get a 48 hour visa if you're coming to St. Pete on a Baltic cruise. Just enough time to get the "wow feels so european" vibe, spend some Euros, and get the fuck out.
- Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Alexander II, Lenin and Gorbachev all embraced western ideas, and brought foreign influence to Russia and St. Pete.
- But this spurred on a powerful countervailing force administered by rulers like Alexander I, Nicholas I, and Stalin that wanted Russia to look inwardly.
- Even the western facing rulers avoided embracing political freedom and democracy. The trend continues to this day.
- Great architecture, often built by foreign architects or under the auspices of some great Italian or French designs.
- The Russians cribbed from the French. But the Germans cribbed from the Romans, and the Romans cribbed from the Greeks.
That the Romans copied doesn't mean that history is nothing but copying, but it does mean that copying is an integral part of history. [...] The US too, like the Germans and the Romans, consciously wrote itself into the western tradition.
Great artists steal. 🎤👇