In response to this question on Quora: Which city has the bloodiest history through out the recorded history of humankind?
Saint-Petersburg, Russia (aka Leningrad, USSR) – in it’s short 300 year history it can claim the dubious honor as the swamp that claimed the most lives. From founding to 3 revolutions to World War II to the criminal wars of the 90’s Russia’s second capital built on swamp land kept sucking people’s lives in. As best as I can estimate roughly around 4 million people lost their lives in a premature or violent way in it’s brief 300 year history.
Currently a city of about 5–6 million people it was built on a river Neva on the shore of Baltic Sea, in very inhospitable land surrounded by marches, swamps, rivers, lagoons and lakes (add northern Russian winter on top). It is poetically known as the Venice of the North because of many canals. As can be seen in this picture – there is water all around.
Saint-Petersburg had a bloody history from the beginning as it was built on bones. When Peter the great decided to “cut the window in Europe” he started by trying to get territory in the Baltic by wrestling it from the Swedish crown. The little conflict known as Great Northern war of Denmark-Norway & Russia vs Swedish Empire. More people jumped in once the ball got rolling – Prussia, Saxony, Poland, Ottoman Empire, the Dutch and Great Britain (yeah on both sides of the conflict), and a score of smaller principalities and duchies. It’s hard to estimate how many people were actually involved in the capturing of territory of Saint-Petersburg, but the conflict around it took the lives of around 20,000 to 30,000 soldiers. Nobody really kept track of civilians back then.
Once the territory was captured, thousands of Russian peasants and governments serfs lost their lives building Saint-Petersburg – drying marches, building defenses, bringing wood by land, etc. The town was built on bones. Again since they were serfs ( essentially slaves) nobody really kept track of how many people died.
Historians believe the remains of some 100,000 18th-century serfs are buried beneath its wide Parisian-style avenues and grand Italianate palaces. Source: St Petersburg: Paris of the North or City of Bones?
This is a map Map of St. Petersburg in the 1720s by Johann Homann. Notice the Big green rectangle on the large island – the Summer garden. One of the first things built.
Later on various other Empresses and Emperors built more impressive palaces and gardens that cost thousands of lives as well.
City of Three Revolutions
Also Saint Petersburg is often referred to as the City of Three Revolutions in Russian literature, as 3 revolutions started there.
The Decembrist Revolt (while not one of the 3 revolutions, referred to by the poetic name – is worth mentioning) was surprisingly not that blood, mostly because it was an uprising of the aristocracy not of the masses. Several hundred aristocrats were executed and the rest were sent to Siberia. While it was profound in Russian Society as a general, it was routed so fast that it was mostly an event for spectators.
Revolution of 1905 started here and briefly spread into provinces. The effect was mostly seen in the provinces but the number of executions is reported in thousands.
Revolution of 1917 or the Red Revolution or October Revolution (some people don’t realize there was actually another revolution in February of the same year) – is the bloodiest revolution and civil war of the 20th century that led to millions of deaths in Russian Empire. That whole year was very unstable and saw several thousands of casualties in several unrests, demonstrations and uprisings.
Bolsheviks storm the Winter Palace
World War II – The Siege
In the recent history it is known as a place with roughly 5 million casualties, 2.5 million of them lost their lives during the siege that lasted 2.5 years during WWII from 1941 to 1944 , another 2.5 million – sick, wounded, maimed.
The exact figures are hard to come by, there was not a lot of record keeping during the siege itself, but the best we have are these:
- 1,042,000 – civilians including kids and women (642,000 during the siege, 400,000 during evacuation over a frozen lake)
- 3,436,066 – Soviet soldiers lost in the North Front – in and around Leningrad. 1,017,881 killed & MIA. 2,418,185 – wounded and sick from disease, cold and malnutrition
- 579,985 – German soldiers – MIA & KIA. No figures on sick and wounded.
There are many horrible pictures of people starving, fighting and surviving from that time, but I would like to illustrate this with a picture that gives hope surrounded by horror.
Survivors credited the symphony for giving the city hope in the worst of times. Though thousands died that winter and into the next, the orchestra’s performance (which was blared through loudspeakers all throughout the city) was a turning point for Leningrad.
Source: The Symphony That Saved a City
Poster reads: Shostakovich, 7th Symphony
This is not the only example of heroism of city’s defenders, but one that struck me the most somehow – that people found strength to inspire other people through the most difficult of times ( and I’m not even a fan of classic music) .
The most recent episode in Saint Petersburg bloody history occurred in the 90’s – known as the Wild 90’s in Russia. Petersburg became the criminal capital of Russia. The city became known for contract killers, mafia “razborki” – bloody sit downs, corruption. It’s estimated that Wild 90’s took about 2 million people in Russia, a significant portion of them in St Petersburg, but there is no hard statistic that I could find. This is anecdotal evidence but 1 of the 2 most popular criminal series about 90’s was set there – Bandits’ Petersburg ( the other being Brigade was set in Moscow).
I love Saint-Petersburg, and it is a beautiful and very cultural city ( let’s just mention that – Hermitage – one of the top 5 museums of the world is there ) , but we should always know and remember the history. The plaza where the Decembrists were routed is about 2 blocks away from Hermitage.
Also posted by me on Quora