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

In 1240, when most of Southern and Central Russia was fighting the Mongol invasion, a Swedish force landed at 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 Neva (Nevskaya Bitva). The Russians successfully launched a surprise attack 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 Neva). Prince Alexander was then 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 proclaimed the patron saint of St. Petersburg - Peter the Great's "paradise" on the Neva).

When in the 16th century Novgorod was subdued by Moscow, 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 started in Russia, after the last tzar 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 set 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 the Baltic trade.

By the very end of the 17th century that was no longer to be tolerated. Peter the Great was keen on regaining access to the Baltic Sea and establishing strong ties with the West. In the hope of achieving these goals he had started the Northern War with Sweden (1700-1721). In 1703 the Russians gained control over the Neva river and on May 16, 1703 (May 27 - modern calendar) St. Petersburg was founded.

Next: When and how was St. Petersburg founded?

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