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Urban Planning v. Organic Cities

Anthony Eagan at City Journal

Photo by Hiep Duong / Unsplash

Legend has it that in 1703, during the early stages of the Great Northern War, when Russian troops captured the Swedish fortress of Nyen along the River Neva, Peter the Great leaped from his horse, slashed the muddy ground with his saber, and exclaimed, “Here will be a city!” Peter, Russia’s Westernizing czar, was eager to establish an urban seaport that would give his vast country access to European trade routes. Situated at the southeastern corner of the Gulf of Finland, the marshy delta where Nyen stood provided an easy approach not only to Finland and the other Baltic states but also to Poland, England, Germany, and Denmark. Soon after the territorial acquisition, Peter tore down Nyen and erected a new, superior stronghold, which he called Peter and Paul Fortress. And whether or not the tale of his saber-wielding edict is fabricated, he did issue a decree on May 27, 1703, that a city be built on that spot. He named it Saint Petersburg. Within nine years, he would declare it the new capital of the Russian Empire.

Though a fine location for seafaring to points west, the nascent city was not suitable for urban development. Consisting of some 42 islands as well as a stretch of mainland floodplain, the area was basically a subarctic morass: excessively cold, dark, and inhospitable in the winter, unbearably hot and mosquito-infested in the summer, and subject to massive floods every autumn. These issues did not deter Peter the Great (“Russia’s sinister Prometheus,” as the scholar Michael Holquist called him). A proponent of Enlightenment principles, and something of a utopian, Peter believed that rationality, science, and, especially, Western engineering could tame the harshness and unpredictability of nature. To accomplish his aims speedily, he commanded every Russian landowner with more than 500 serfs to build a two-story edifice on the new site. He hired European architects and engineers and commissioned a rectilinear city plan that Fyodor Dostoyevsky, in Crime and Punishment, would liken to a grid on the marsh—a facade of perfect form and control superimposed upon an ungovernable, shifting, waterlogged pseudo-terrain.

In several other works, Dostoyevsky highlights Saint Petersburg’s harsh environment and generally unstable infrastructure. In his second novel, The Double, the city becomes almost eerily hostile to human consciousness. “It was a terrible November night—wet, foggy, rainy, snowy, fraught with fluxes, colds, agues, anginas, fevers of all possible sorts and kinds, in short, with all the gifts of a Petersburg November. The wind howled in the deserted streets, heaving the black water of the Fotanka higher than the mooring rings and perkily brushing up against the skinny streetlamps of the embankment, which in their turn seconded its howling with a thin, shrill creaking, which made up an endless, squeaking, rattling concert, quite familiar to every inhabitant of Petersburg.” The man-made objects here, designed according to the European specifications, fail to subdue the environment—and somehow resonate with its violent pulsations.

According to historians, some half a million serfs and Swedish prisoners of war were impressed into the construction of Petersburg. Confronting disease, those infamous mosquito swarms, exhaustion, hypothermia, frostbite, starvation, and ravenous wolves, the indentured workers expired with astonishing speed, and were often left where they had fallen. Thousands received anonymous burials beneath the rapidly laid cobblestones and buildings. Hence Petersburg’s nickname, “the city built on bones.” Rough estimates put the number of deaths resulting directly from the city’s construction anywhere between 40,000 and 100,000, an inauspicious beginning to a site that would host three major revolutions and incur a second occasional nickname for that reason: “the cradle of revolutions.” As the literary critic Philip Rahv wrote,

Petersburg was erected on the Finnish marshland with cruel haste and at the cost of many lives by the edict of Peter the Great, who undertook, with the savage rationality typical of belated and alien converts to progress, to transform his backward domain all at once into an efficient state militarized along modern lines. The self-will and precipitate style of this operation brought into being a city without roots in the past or in the vast rural hinterland, the center of alienation and of everything novel and foreign violating the national traditions. . . . It was in Petersburg that, in a fashion peculiar to it, the imperial bureaucracy exerted itself to Westernize the country from above.

Rahv, here, is noting another problem with Petersburg, unrelated to the brutality of its construction and the city’s unwelcoming geological and meteorological features: the fact that, unlike most cities, which emerge organically over hundreds and often thousands of years, Petersburg was conceived and erected without regard for any preexisting human settlement, and with brutal precision.

Early in Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, the so-called underground man, maligner of all Enlightenment hopes and values, accuses Petersburg of being “the most abstract and intentional city on the entire globe.” Adding that cities “can be intentional or unintentional,” the underground man considers it a great misfortune to be the inhabitant of an intentional city. In part, his antirational narrative develops as a lament over all the freedom, subjectivity, social integration, and human connection that such a city chokes out of its inhabitants. He may be the first literary figure to highlight the dangers of excessively calculated urban design. Nowadays, we have caught on to his point, and what the underground man calls “intentional,” we would call “top-down.”

In the history of urban poetics, from Baudelaire and Balzac to Dickens and Dreiser, Dostoyevsky stands out as the writer most concerned with the ill effects of top-down planning on the city-dweller’s psychic reality. This is fitting, partly because, at least as far as Europe is concerned, Petersburg is indeed the singular “intentional” city, the only one founded upon authoritative planning and totalizing organization. Though several of Dostoyevsky’s more famous novels, including The Brothers KaramazovThe Idiot, and Demons, have little to do with the urban milieu or the specific problems imposed upon Petersburg residents, the former Russian capital does take on characterological proportions not only in The DoubleNotes from Underground, and Crime and Punishment, but also in several classic short stories and novellas such as “White Nights” and The Eternal Husband. As Richard Pevear writes in the introduction to his translation of Crime and Punishment, “Petersburg is not a backdrop for the events Dostoyevsky narrates, but a constant participant in them. . . . The enigma of the city and the enigma of the hero are one.”

If Dostoyevsky likened Petersburg to a grid on the marsh, so, too, does he associate the vicious rationality of Crime and Punishment’s murderous hero, Raskolnikov—his excessive faith in utilitarian, statistical thinking—with a superficial grid on the marsh of his own subconscious. Raskolnikov’s learning and his abuse of reasoning overwhelm his potential for companionship, artistry, spontaneity, empathy, and love. His morality is abstract, not particular or concrete. Even his crime is intentional, overdetermined by logical brainwork, not passionate or inspired. Like Peter the Great before him, but on a smaller scale, Raskolnikov believes that he can overwhelm (human) nature with intellectual willpower and, in so doing, achieve utopian results. In the novel, Petersburg’s similarity with a swamp-prison conditions Raskolnikov’s mentality as a solitary human who can achieve freedom only negatively—through rebellion against the established moral order. Urban life intensifies the alienation of the city’s inhabitants in Crime and Punishment. Proximity begets anonymity, intellectualism inhibits social integrity, and architecture exposes, rather than protects, the populace. Improvisational interactions, communal gatherings, and all the other joys of human engagement are tainted by dark, superficially rational egoisms.

As far back as the 1860s, Dostoyevsky was describing issues that have grown only more relevant to today’s sociologists, psychologists, archaeologists, city planners, and network theorists. For, like Peter the Great and his mercenary architects and engineers, Raskolnikov tries to constrain the unpredictability and chaos of social interaction; yet these very attempts, unsurprisingly, lead to an intensification of the messiness he seeks to overcome. Just as the czar’s vision of a Russian utopia bordering the West resulted in a hell for those tasked with its construction and early inhabitancy, so does Raskolnikov’s vision of a world without guilt, shame, poverty, accountability, or suffering lead to his murderousness, madness, and self-destruction. From the start, Petersburg “was a totally rationalized city,” as Holquist explained—one that, unlike Europe’s other cities, “did not develop so much out of its national history, as did London or Paris, but against that history.” One can say something similar about Raskolnikov as an individual working against the promise of his own interpersonal continuity.

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