A River for People: What Makes the Neva Tick?
November 29, 2019
All my photo projects are somehow connected with nature, with long walks and studying the environment. I think that without a clear understanding of nature’s role in our lives, we to some extent deprive ourselves of support.
My project The Neva: A River for People, People for the River is an attempt to find a balance between harmony and destruction in the relationship between humans and nature. The role of nature is played by the Neva River, thanks to which my hometown of St. Petersburg was built over three hundred years ago.
Nature has always only been raw material for the builders of cities, and the Neva’s resources were used at the expense of its gradual destruction. In accounts of the city’s history, the Neva has served as an inert backdrop for heroic conquest. For ordinary people, however, the river has always symbolized the individual’s path in life, her destiny. In my project, the Neva is a metaphorical life line for St. Petersburg and the three towns situated along its 74-kilometer course—Shlisselburg, Kirovsk, and Otradnoye.
The importance of rivers and canals for the city used to be strongly underscored. Russians were instilled with a love of water. Under Peter the Great, every householder was obliged to have a boat, and every home on the waterfront had to have a pier. Even the scanty trade by which many boatsmen in old Petersburg supported themselves—the extraction of firewood, logs, and boards for subsequent sale or use—was practiced with gratitude to the Neva as a benefactress. In old Petersburg, these accidental finds had their own name: “gifts of the Neva.”
People nowadays have an ever more aggressive and consumerist attitude to the Neva. On the other hand, there is no doubt the people who live in the Neva basin love their river. This contradiction is one of the subjects of my project.
An incident occurred in the skies over Leningrad on August 21, 1963, resulting in the emergency landing of a Tu-124 passenger plane on the Neva near the Finland Railroad Bridge. The river is around 400 meters wide at this point. A passing steam tugboat towed the plane to the Neva’s right bank. The windshield in the nose of the plane was broken to secure the tow cable. The passengers were evacuated and sent to Moscow.
Peter the Great was a big fan of the national pastime. During his reign, hockey matches on the ice of the frozen Neva could attract as many as several thousand spectators.
Shlisselburg. In 1912, the Finnish archaeologist Julius Ailio recorded the following tale in the village of Mikulainen on the shore of Lake Ladoga: “The Neva River used to be tiny. If a tree fell, it would lodge between one bank and the other, and you could cross the river by walking over it. Then fifty or sixty years later, the river widened. Shepherds would toss burning brands across the river to each other to make campfires. But then the river eroded the land at its source and became quite broad.”
In 1716, by decree of Peter the Great, fishermen from Russia’s northern provinces were settled on the left bank of the Neva between its tributaries, the Murzinka and the Slavyanka, to supply residents of the capital with fish. Originally, the settlement was called just that—the Fishery Settlement [Rybnaya sloboda]. The name was later changed to Fishermen’s Village [Rybatskoye]. The locals still call the ravine in modern Rybatskoye Pike Harbor.
The Neva smelt [koryushka] has long been considered a symbol of Petersburg. In 1705, Peter the Great issued a decree to support fishermen who caught smelt. According to legend, Peter called the smelt the “tsar fish,” since it could feed the growing population of his new capital city as it was built.
St. Petersburg ranks among the top per-capita consumers of water in Russia. Every twenty-four hours, the city “drinks” the equivalent of a lake one square kilometer in size and three meters deep. Despite the official ban, industrial waste continues to be poured into the river.
The origin of the name Neva is not completely clear. Some historians think it comes from the Finnish word neva, which translates as “bog” or “fen.”
Thanks to Ekaterina Vasilyeva for her permission to reproduce excerpts from her project here. You can look at her entire photo essay about the Neva on her website or on Republic. Translated by the Russian Reader