March 26, 2016
This is one of my favorite maps. Drawn up between 1635 and 1645, it is a snapshot of my hometown seventy years before it was supposedly founded by Peter the Great. In reality, it has been founded by the Swedes way back in 1611 and consisted of the town Nyen (i.e., the Swedish name for the Neva River) and Nyenskans Fortress, situated on the right bank of the Neva. In the late seventeenth century, Nyen’s population had climbed to two thousand. It had a town hall, a hospital, and two churches (Swedish and German). On the other side of the Neva, where the Smolny Monastery is now, there was also an Orthodox church. Nyen had a number of good sawmills, and sturdy ships were built in the town. Merchants from all across northern Europe came to Nyen for the traditional three-week fair held in August. Rye, oats, peas, pork, beef, bacon, butter, salmon, tar, resin, hemp, flax, and timber were brought here from Novgorod, Tikhvin, and Ladoga. The Oriental fabrics (silk, plush, damask) that were all the rage in Europe, as well as skins, leather, fur, and canvas, came via Novgorod. Metals (iron, copper, lead) were shipped from northern Europe, as well as mirrors, English and Dutch cloth, German wools, velvet, and hats.
The Greater Nyen area encompassed forty villages, both Izhorian and Russian, and several Swedish estates. The village of Hirvisaari was situated on Vasilyevsky Island, where I grew up, on the shores of the Little Neva River. We can assume that by the time Russian imperial troops showed up, the population of the Greater Nyen area was at least four to five thousand people, which was quite a lot at that time.
Russian historiography has preferred to efface ninety-two years of the city’s history and has presented the matter in such a way that, when the Russian imperial troops arrived, the Neva estuary was a deserted “forlorn shore,” on which stood Peter, who, “rapt in thought,” had decided to found the capital city of Sankt-Peterburkh there. Despite the “desertedness” of the Neva’s shores, the newly arrived Russian nobles settled in homes previously owned by the local Swedish aristocracy (e.g., the estate of Swedish Major Eric Berndt von Konow was turned into the Summer Garden); the bricks used to build the Peter and Paul Fortress had been produced right there, in Nyen; and produce was delivered from the villages of the Greater Nyen area. Subsequently, Peter ordered Nyenskans destroyed, apparently in a bid to destroy his rival in the battle over historical primogeniture. The remains of the fortress were unearthed during archaeological digs in the late 1990s in the vicinity of Krasnogvardeyskaya Square.
The paradox lies in the fact that every city tries to find the roots of its origins and takes pride if it is able to prove its lineage was even a dozen years more ancient than had been previously thought. On the shores of the Neva, however, an entire chapter of the city’s history has been pitilessly expunged, robbing it of ninety-two years of life, at least. Personally, I refuse to recognize 1703 as the year the city was founded. The founding of the Peter and Paul Fortress by the Muscovites in 1703 was an event no more meaningful than the founding of Nyenskans Fortress by the Swedes in 1611.
P.S. The map is aligned from south to north (as was customary in those days) or, to be more precise, from northeast to southwest. To make it easier to recognize the locale, I realigned the image. Thus, in order to read all the inscriptions on the map, you must turn the image around again [as I have in fact done, above—TRR]. You can find Russian translations of the Swedish inscriptions here. The same website also contains a description of the maps’s history and the principles by which it has been dated.
P.P.S. For more information about Nyen and the pre-Petrine history of our city, see also [in Russian]:
- Alexander Sharymov, The Prehistory of Saint Petersburg
- Daniil Kotsyubinsky, “The City on the Neva Is 400 Years Old,” Fontanka.ru, June 8, 2011
Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to the nearly indispensable Comrade AK for the heads-up