The pre-history of St. Petersburg

The lands along the Neva River have belonged to the Ancient Russian state since at least the 9th century AD. However, throughout history these lands have harbored a mixed population of Slavs, Finns and other ethnic groups. From the 9th century onwards this area was part of the Principality of Novgorod. The ancient city of Novgorod was an important center of domestic and international trade and craftsmanship. Novgorod merchants traded with Western and Northern Europe and later with the towns of the Hanseatic League and used the Neva River and Lake Ladoga to transport their goods.

The capture by the Russians of Landskrona in 1301
The capture by the Russians of Landskrona in 1301

In 1240, whilst most of Southern and Central Russia was fighting the Mongol invasion, a Swedish invasion landed on the banks of the Neva River. The Novgorod troops of Prince Alexander went out to meet the foe and on July 15, 1240 fought the Battle of The Neva (Nevskaya Bitva). The Russians successfully launched a surprise attack on the Swedes and were victorious. This battle became a symbol of Russia's dramatic fight for independence and Prince Alexander was given the name Alexander Nevsky (i.e. Alexander of the Neva) and was later declared a Saint of the Russian Orthodox Church for his efforts to protect Russia and its Christian faith. Later, in the 18th century, he was also proclaimed the patron saint of St. Petersburg - Peter the Great's great European city built on the banks of the Neva.

In the 16th century the power and prosperity of Novgorod was subdued by Moscow and the lands along the Neva River became part of the centralized Russian state - Muscovite Russia. However, at the beginning of the 17th century serious unrest began to brew in Russia, after the last Tsar of the Riurik dynasty - Fiodor Ioanovich (the son of Ivan the Terrible), had died leaving no heirs to the throne. The new ruler, Vasily Shuisky, invited the Swedes to fight on his side. The Swedes realized how weak Russia was, and decided instead to occupy a significant portion of North-Western Russia. Even after the new Romanov dynasty was established in 1613, Russia had to admit some territorial losses. A new border between Russia and Sweden was established by the Stolbovo Treaty of 1617. For the remainder of the century the Neva River area became a part of Sweden, and the Swedes effectively cut off Russia from all Baltic trade routes.

By the end of the 17th century Peter the Great was determined to change the status quo, regain access to the Baltic Sea and establish stronger ties with the West. In the hope of achieving these goals he embarked on the Northern War with Sweden (1700-1721). In 1703 the Russians gained control over the Neva river and on May 16, 1703 (May 27 - by the modern calendar) he founded the city of St. Petersburg on the banks of the river.