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St Petersburg, Russia

 St Petersburg was the creation of one man, Peter the Great (1672-1725), who founded the city at the beginning of the eighteenth century on land newly conquered from Sweden. He wanted to create a 'window on Europe', a new capital city symbolising his aim to change Russia from a medieval country steeped in tradition to a modern, European superpower. It was Russia's capital from 1712-1917.

The city was built with forced labour, using tens of thousands of serfs, many of whom died in the process. Its location on marshy land on the River Neva meant that it was prone to catastrophic floods. These facts gave the city a sinister reputation, one best evoked in Pushkin's poem The Bronze Horseman, in which the famous statue of Peter the Great comes alive during a flood and terrorises the city's inhabitants. (Read it online here.) At the same time, in the nineteenth century St Petersburg was the city to which writers and artists flocked in search of inspiration. Tolstoy, however, fell out with the literary scene in St Petersburg during his youth and saw the city as shallow and inauthentic; he preferred Moscow, although as he got older he grew increasingly unhappy in any city environment.