The history and development of Sennaya ploshchad’, located on the mainland of the city but away from the old centers of power, serves as an excellent microcosm for the history and development of the Russian state. Peter the Great’s creation of a new capital, coupled with his obsession for westernization provided for the perfect opportunity to transform Russia. However, the practical realities of everyday life and centuries old traditions made it difficult or impractical for all to embrace his changes and plans for Saint Petersburg and Russia.
The building of the new capital required a great deal of workers who, in turn, required goods for their own survival. Naturally, this led to the creation of a market to meet the needs of the growing city. Sennaya ploshchad’, meaning hay market square in Russian, became the economic epicenter for the countless workers and other new arrivals to the city. This market resembled the traditional markets that had existed for millennia throughout not only Russia but the world. It was a chaotic, raucous and crowded market, the antithesis of Peter’s desire for a well ordered, Europeanized capital free from what he considered the backwards and Eastern elements common throughout his Empire. Peter detested Moscow with its provincialism and “semi-Asiatic” character (Cracraft, 66). He wished for a Venice of the North, to leave behind all these old elements, but the necessity for a market made this impossible.
The location of the square, away from the water front, tells a great deal about Peter’s feelings towards the market and its patrons. The land surrounding the Neva was reserved for the homes of the nobility and royalty as well as the buildings for the newly professionalized government. Peter, the consummate naval booster desired to have the Neva as the focal point of his Northern capital. He did not even allow for bridges to span the length of the Neva, instead desiring for all members of the city to cross by boat. The square and the market’s conspicuous absence from the main apex of the city would be unthinkable in any other Russian city. But, this occurrence in St. Petersburg demonstrates the severe changes and abrupt Westernization that Peter brought back with him from his travels around Europe. He did not stand for allowing Russia to maintain its quirky, partially eastern, partially western attitude. The west, in his mind, was the way of the future and of progress and he would bring Russia there by any possible means (Richardson, 391).
As the city developed and grew, the contrast between the lower classes living in and around the square and the upper classes who resided in the palaces near the river grew ever greater. While the neighborhoods are not geographically distant from one another, the lives of their inhabitants could not have been more different. Life in Sennaya ploshchad’ in the second half of the nineteenth century was encapsulated best by Fyodor Dostoevsky in Crime and Punishment. He wrote of the overcrowding, filth and rampant prostitution (George, 329). This was the neighborhood that spawned cholera epidemics, petty crimes, starving children and any other terrible aspect of life (Buckler, 174). While those living in the palaces built gilded rooms and attended balls on the Fontanka, hundreds of people lived impoverished lives just a couple of blocks over (Buckler, 175). Sennaya ploshchad’ presented the perfect microcosm to see the great economic issues that gripped the lives of many Russian all while remaining within the imperial capital. Here one sees the conditions first hand that led many to embrace the Revolution and the promises of the new Soviet state. Sennaya ploshchad’ was a perfect symbol for the juxtaposition between the lives of the rich and the poor in Russia and the need for a change in the Russian Empire.
The square remained a scene for observing Russian history on the micro-level into the Soviet period. Soviet ideology demanded a constant push for the industrialization, collectivization and the modernization of the Russian state. Furthermore, it held rationality to be above all else and imposed the rules of logic on all things including city planning. For the crowded, overrun market and square this meant a complete dismantling of the way it was prior to the October Revolution.
The Soviets called for wide open spaces and especially large squares. Sennaya ploshchad’ fit the description perfectly for a region that could be transformed into a model for the Soviet mentality regarding urban planning. The creation of an orderly, aesthetically pleasing square out of the decrepit commercial environment that used to exist would come to stand as a shining symbol of the strength and supremacy of Soviet ideology and communist values.
Further goading the Soviets into wanting to change Sennaya ploshchad’ came from the very nature of the square. This was a marketplace where people were able to buy and sell goods and get what they needed to survive or make a living. This concept was of course anathema to Soviet ideology. Aside from modest allowances for private enterprise all trade was strictly controlled by the government. The market at Sennaya ploshchad’ however was quite the opposite, totally unregulated and away from the gaze of the state. Thus by eliminating the market and opening up the square the Soviets were able to remove opposition to their ideology in a very symbolic location, and of course eradicate the bacillus of capitalism.
The clearing of the main market area and opening of the square worked to remove one of the strongest reminders of the old system from the minds of the residents of the city (Buckler, 249). People throughout St. Petersburg knew this location as one of the busiest, most bustling market locations in the city. By severely limiting it and in many parts destroying it the Soviets sent a clear message about what was going to be acceptable and advanced in the new Soviet state.
The building of the metro station to the square further solidified the ideas of modernism and industrialization. One of the crowning achievements of the Soviet regime was transforming Russia from an agricultural backwater to a developed industrial economy. The placement of a metro station in Sennaya ploshchad’ makes a very clear statement about Soviet dominance. In a place that once held an almost eastern bazaar, there now stood a monument to the new technological age, no one could miss the impact of this new means of conveyance in what was one of the oldest market places. Furthermore, the metro is the physical representation of efficiency and sterility attributes that the marketplace at Sennaya ploshchad’ could never even dream of claiming.
For many years an orthodox church stood on Sennaya ploshchad’, providing spiritual respite for the downtrodden that lived in the area. The Soviets, with their expressly atheistic ideology found in this church another symbol with which they could dominate and destroy the old system. The destruction of this church once again demonstrated to people the power of the new rationalist ideology over the faith and superstitions of the past. This church’s destruction mirrored the countless other church destructions and closings that occurred throughout the Soviet Union. Again, this reiterates the notion of Sennaya ploshchad’ as a microcosm for the history of Russia.
Of course the removal of the church was not only for ideological purposes it also served to open the square. Soviets adored large open squares due to their rational elements (Sennaya ploschad’). Also, as the students of other revolutions throughout the world, the Soviets knew that opening up public areas would make it extremely difficult for the citizenry to create barricades against the state if another uprising ever happened. The opening up of these large areas in cities was not just done in St. Petersburg, but repeated throughout the country. This push for a more rationalist design in cities also held an ulterior motive, that of controlling the population. Visitors to Sennaya ploshchad’ to this day can see a physical representation of the ways in which the Soviet government wished to keep tabs and control its people.
Another example of the impact of Soviet ideology on the square and thus on Russian history appears as the metro station that now stands as the centerpiece on the square. At the time of the October Revolution, Russia was far behind the rest of Europe when it came to industrialization. The Soviet revolution broke one of the central tenets of Marxism, namely that revolution could only happen in a highly industrialized late capitalist system. Aware of this fact and also to make their country relevant on the world stage the Soviets, especially under Stalin engaged in a massive push to have Russia be on par with the rest of the industrialized powers. The creation of metro systems in the major cities of the Soviet Union was meant to act as symbols of the strength of the new regime to bring Russia into the future. Placing a metro station in the center of where the old dirty market full of the most downtrodden residents once stood sends a clear message about the goals and aspirations of the Soviet system (Sennaya ploschad’). This will be a place of modernity and progress, physically and psychologically replacing what came before it. Sennaya ploshchad’ appears almost as a model and museum piece for the changes that have happened over the history of Russia. The metro station of course provides sundry practical benefits to the city and its citizens, but it is important to look beyond the material benefits. The Soviets were experts of symbolism and the way their cities were laid out was no exception. One must be mindful of the changes that they imposed on Sennaya Ploshchad’ in order to fully grasp the magnitude of their cultural alterations on Russia and its people.
One of the most stunning alterations that the Soviets engaged in over Sennaya ploshchad’ was the wholesale renaming of the area. The Soviets began referring to it as Peace Square (Grigorovich, 72). This is yet another instance of the Soviets trying to erase almost anything that came before the Revolution. Soviet ideology held that anything that existed before the Revolution was inherently anti-revolutionary and was slowing the progress of the Revolution. Thus, one sees wholesale renaming of cities, streets and nearly anything else that might have a name that could be construed as being in line with the old Imperial order. In the case of Sennaya ploshchad’, like with many other places across Russia it destroys the history and lineage of the place. The old name of course connotes the market and economic activities that used to occur in this space. But, this activity was totally against Soviet teachings so everything about that old use, including the name had to be removed. This creation of new Soviet names was another very important move in their systematic program to bring about a total break with the past and further the ideological underpinnings of the revolution.
Now renamed, opened up and containing a metro station, the entire landscape has been changed. No longer was this the Sennaya ploshchad’ of Dostoevsky’s time full of prostitutes, grifters and the impoverished. It was now a “proper” Soviet socialist square. Sennaya ploshchad’ represented the perfect paragon of Soviet city planning. This once deprecated area was completely transformed and revived as a result of Soviet planning and ideology. The Soviets’ ability to take an established location with its own history and background and work to completely change it into something different stands as a testament to the audacity of their ideology. By observing the categorical changes that occurred to Sennaya ploshchad’ during the reign of the Soviets one comes to understand the practical implications of their philosophical framework. The mould that was employed in transforming Sennaya ploshchad’ was the same mould that was used to bring Russia from its nearly feudal state in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to the precipice of world supremacy that it reached during the Cold War.
The Soviet Union did not last however, and this sea change in Russian history produced more alterations to Sennaya ploshchad’ that act as reminders of the time period. With the fall of the USSR 1991 came the declaration of an independent Russian state free from the ideological chains that socialism imposed upon every aspect of Soviet policy. Now in this new capitalist Russia there existed a great deal more freedom for markets once again. Of course markets, the reason for Sennaya ploshchad’”s very existence, would play a great role in the transformation of the square in this new era and thus be reflected in importance in Russia’s history.
In Sennaya ploshchad’ today one sees the resilience of markets and their ability to take hold all over the square, as if reclaiming the land they once held. The visitor who visits the square today is still first confronted by the enormous monument to Soviet achievement, the metro station. However, looming even larger behind the station is a brand new shopping mall complete with both Russian and Western chainstores demonstrating the new position of Western culture in every day Russian life (Richardson, 102). Walking around the square one sees a plethora of electronics boutiques selling everything from cell phones to DVDs, catering to Russia’s new appetite for modern technology. Closer to the street one sees a visitors’ booth giving out maps of the area alongside countless ice cream and souvenir stands. In the time since the Soviet Union ended tourism has exploded in Russia and the amount of activity on the square definitely mirrors what is happening in the major centers across the nation.
Finally, after walking deep into the square one seems to be transported to a different time. There one sees the past of Sennaya ploschad’, a crowded, chaotic market. Here innumerable vendors hawked their various wares, mostly produce or clothing to the visitors. Amongst the shouts one hears conversations in many different languages reflecting the new immigrants that have streamed in from the old Soviet republics and elsewhere since the end of the USSR looking to make a living. Interestingly, on the benches lining the periphery of Sennaya ploshchad’ there are metal replicas of wheels from goods carts from the founding of the city, a homage to the early days of the square.
Also, the market here is reminiscent of not only the market that once stood in this place but also the bazaars of the east. While Russia may have embraced the west on the surface in the new modern shopping complex, in the heart of the market one sees the more eastern elements of Russian culture and society. Even after all this time there still seems to be no resolution to the classic issue of whether Russia belongs to the east or the west. Russia resides in a no man’s land between east and west, artfully dodging the application of one or the other.
It is very interesting to see that the Sennaya ploshchad’ of the present day is far closer to the square of the Imperial era than to the square of the mid-twentieth century. In many ways both the square and Russian history have come full circle. The resurgence of the traditional market presents the innate human need to acquire goods for survival and to produce goods to acquire other goods. No amount of ideology, state planning was able to change this once the authoritarian structure of the polity was removed. This is the most organic of societal structures due to its necessity for survival, in a Russia that now has an open economy it is entirely fitting that this is one of the strongest elements to return to the area.
Another fascinating development in the square is found when one explores the periphery of Sennaya ploshchad’. Here one comes face to face with the urban degradation that is becoming so rampant in parts of Russia. While the liberalization of the economy may have brought great gains for some, many have been left behind. The state no longer guarantees full employment or good pensions for the elderly and many have fallen by the wayside. In line with this many of the older Soviet era buildings have started to show their age as people neglect to take care of them as new state of the art high rises go up. This new dilapidation hearkens back to earlier times on Sennaya ploshchad’ (Richardson, 102). Even though the square may be a bustle of activity now, that does not preclude it from once again attracting some of the seedier elements of society. Sennaya ploshchad’ may soon reclaim its place as the domain for crime and prostitution in the city.
Another addition in the new Sennaya ploshchad’ involved the placement of a large peace column for the 300th anniversary of the city, complete with the word for peace written in multiple different languages all around the structure. Again, one sees a conscious rearrangement of geography that is meant to reorient passersby and residents alike to a new way of thinking about Sennaya ploshchad’ and the new Russian future. The column is a symbol of a new open and international character of Russia. Furthermore, it designates the area as respectful and dignified to be allowed to house such an object. Sennaya ploshchad’ for almost the entirety of its history was home to some of the less privileged elements of society and this addition works to break that memory from people’s minds.
However, this patina of modernity cannot mask the full story. The markets and the degradation returned to Sennaya ploshchad’, the Orthodox Church is making a revival as well. While not as large or opulent as the church that once stood in Sennaya ploshchad’, the small religious shop/chapel that now stands sends an important message. In this country that once declared its official ideology to be atheism there has been a great resurgence for the Orthodox Church. Many people have taken up the Orthodox faith in recent years as the restrictions on it have been lifted and people search for something stable in their lives. In many ways the Church is replacing the dominant role that the state once held over the people of Russia. Famous figures such as Prime Minister Putin have declared that they are believers in the faith. Once again one sees the trends of greater Russia imprinted on Sennaya ploshchad’. It seems that this square encompasses almost every aspect of Russian history and culture since the founding of the city.
Observing Sennaya ploshchad’, one can see the tropes of Russian history all laid out in one location. This square holds the story of the Russian state from the time of Peter the Great the present with many different time periods occurring simultaneously, operating in the same space. The result is a somewhat disjointed location that does not seem to fully understand how it should stand or what its purpose is at this point but endures due to its unique ability to preserve the story of Russia.