The imperial “northern capital” of Russia, Saint Petersburg is a city of many names such as Venice of the North for its many canals. On its northern side is a hidden waterway with a rich history whose name in English translates to “Black River.”
The river has a place in history as a dueling site where Russia’s most famous poet was fatally wounded. That makes its name appropriate from a poetic viewpoint.
Where it Flows
Prior to the founding of Sankt-Peterburg in 1710, the river was known for centuries to the indigenous Finn and Ingrian people as Vihojoki and Mustajoki. The watershed was comprised mainly of forests and swamps, the largest source of the river’s water being Dolgoye Ozero (Pitkäjärvi to the Finns, or Long Lake in English).
Its Russian name is a common toponym, often used to describe murky streams flowing through marshland. There is another Black River to the city’s east near Schlisselburg, another in the Regions of Perm, Khabarovsk, Tver, Moscow, Murmansk, Vladimir, Yaroslavl, and in Crimea.
With the founding of the city, lands around it were awarded to the officers of the Petropavlovskaya Fortress who built their countryside estates along the Chyornaya Rechka. As a result, the watershed area was named the Kommandants’ Dachas during the imperial period.
On the 1860 map above, the delta islands of Saint Petersburg are on the bottom, with lands along Chyornaya River labeled as the countryside estate of the Commandant of the Petropavlovskaya (Peter and Paul) Fortress.
The Great Duel
When the dachas were not used for farming or residence, their owners rented them to guests. One such dacha belonged to Fyodor Miller, chef to Peter the Great.
Among the guests of the Miller dacha was Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin, who had elevated the poetic expression of the Russian language to its highest point. Think of Shakespeare and Byron to the British, or Longfellow and Hawthorne to the Americans and you can imagine a fraction of Pushkin’s talent and what it means for Russians. Throughout his eventful life, Pushkin received the support of the tsar but was also censored by him. In a time when one’s honor meant one’s life, he heard rumors of Georges-Charles de Heeckeren d’Anthès flirting with his wife Natalia and spreading rumors in local society that Natalia was cheating on Pushkin.
To deflect rumors and save his own reputation, D’Anthes married Natalia’s sister Yekaterina, while continuing to flirt with Natalia. On the evening of January 27, 1837, they met on a field facing the Chyornaya River. D’Anthès fired first, mortally wounding Pushkin in the stomach. Pushkin, who rose and shot D’Anthes in his right arm. On his deathbed, he forgave his murderer and requested a pardon from the tsar as duels were illegal by then. “If God will not allow us to have to meet in this world, I send you my forgiveness and my last piece of advice to die a Christian,” the tsar replied in a letter. “About the wife and children do not worry, they are in my hands.”
An obelisk marks the site of the duel that silenced Russia’s great poet, novelist and playwright. Devotees of his work continue to place flowers here.
It wasn’t the last duel to take place in this field. On December 5, 1909 poets Nikolai Gumilyov and Maximilian Voloshin fought a duel over another poet, Yelizaveta Dmitriyeva. She had rejected Gumilyov and he made some insulting remarks about her. Voloshin stepped in to defend her honor. The duelists used the same pistol model as Pushkin. Both men survived. Gumilyov was later executed by the Bolsheviks on trumped-up charges, while Voloshin survived to die of natural causes.
In 1910, a sizable chunk of the dacha fields on the north bank of the river was developed as the Kommandants Aerodrome, the first airport in Saint Petersburg. As I enjoy making New York comparisons, this early airport is akin to Brooklyn’s Floyd Bennett Field as it was the site of many pioneering flights, including the first night flight in Russia. Above is a photo of Igor Sikorsky‘s four-engine Russian Knight in 1913 taking off from Kommandants Aerodrome.
It was a proving ground for experimental planes and was used to launch biplane bombers in the First World War. The last flight took off in 1963 and the airport was subsequently abandoned in favor of residential development.
Below are a 1988 and 1993 planning maps of the city’s northern side. Paper streets planned back in 1973 atop the sources of Chyornoye River become reality by 1993, covering the stream north of Bogatyrskiy Prospect. Dolgoye Lake appears near the top of both maps below. Not shown on the map excerpts are the toponym changes. The planned Zhdanov district was renamed Primorskiy (seaside) and Leningrad reverted to Saint Petersburg.
The airport site and surrounding wetlands were redeveloped in favor of hundreds of prefabricated residential apartments. The Corbusian-style project envisioned towers situated on superblocks of open space, connected by wide boulevards. In a nod to the site’s past, the streets carry names relating to aeronautics: Kommendantskiy, Tupolev, Ilyushin, Aerodromnaya, Parachute, Korolev, Baikonur, and Ispytatel’ (test pilot) Inside the Commandants’ Prospect subway station are mosaics commemorating early Russian aviation. Above the station is a shopping center named Atmosfera (atmosphere).
What’s There Today: Dolgoye Lake
Once enveloped by forests and marshland, Dolgoye Lake is a fraction of its original size and surrounded by apartments built in the early 1990s. It has the appearance of an oversize puddle. Since 2014, its shores are being redesigned into a park serving local residents.
Chyornaya’s Present Sources
This block contains retail establishments, most notably the OK Supermarket, which offers American-style food shopping. Russian cities are known for their diverse modes of public transportation: ferries, buses, subways, railroads, streetcars, and trolleybuses as seen above. They look like buses but rely on above electric cables to power them. Considering the ample open spaces in this district, sections of the river can be revived here, collecting runoff from rooftops and parking lots, similar to the bioswales in New York.
To the southeast of the OK Supermarket (background left above) near the intersection of Bogatyrskiy and Baikonur, Chyornaya River appears on the surface as a year-round stream. It flows beneath Bogatyrskiy and widens through the Novaya Derevnya (New Village) neighborhood. It flows past car repair shops and older apartment complexes.
Out of view for quick motorists, the river flows under the Karelskiy Place overpass. The bridge is the first across the river after Bogatyrskiy Prospect. The neighborhood ahead is Staraya Derevnya (Old Village) which has the first Buddhist temple in the city, built in 1909 for the city’s Kalmyk and Buryat residents. During Stalin’s reign, the temple was closed and its monks murdered.
250 meters to the east, Kolomyazhskiy Prospect crosses the river and its shores take on an appearance familiar to residents, that of a managed waterway that is at sea level, navigable by small boats, but rarely used.
As the river flows closer to the city’s historic center, prewar apartments give way to pre-revolution dwellings. On the water’s edge is Cafe Prichal, whose name translates to “dock.” A cafe during the day, it offers performances with a meal at night.
Behind the cafe is a peninsula bound the Chyornaya River and the Neva where the N. G. Kuznetsov Military-Naval Academy is located. The palatial campus is situated inside the verdant Stroganoff Gardens, remnant of a larger estate of the aristocratic Stroganov family. Established by Count Sergey Stroganoff in 1743, the property featured a pavilion designed by Antonio Rinaldi, a statue of Neptune, a replica ancient Egyptian gateway, ponds, and trails. It was a Rococo landscape in art and real life. The “face” of the estate was on the Neva, seen from the city, while the Chyornaya side of the peninsula estate was an afterthought.
An exception is the Stroganov Bridge, a graceful pedestrian crossing leading into the park. Following the revolution in 1917, the family fled the country for their lives. Their property was nationalized and became a park. One familiar legacy of the family is the Beef Stroganoff, believed to have originated with a member of this family.
The cafe, naval academy, and park can be reached by the Chyornaya Rechka subway station, named after the river. On its platform is a statue of Pushkin by Mikhail Anikushin, in recognition of the station’s proximity to his duel site.
Condos at the Confluence
Approaching its confluence with the Neva river, the Chyornaya makes a bend around Stroganoff Park with the Ushakov Embankment as the last crossing on this river. On the right above is Riverside, a recent development designed for the nouveau riche of our time. Built in a semicircle overlooking both rivers, it has all the luxury amenities expected of its class.
In a way, history has come full circle for the Chyornaya River. Once a retreat of aristocracy, it welcomes today’s oligarchs as local residents. Its source at Dolgoye Lake is being restored to a naturalistic appearance. Accessible by subway, it has never been easier for travelers to visit the site of Pushkin’s duel and reflect on what could have been, had he survived.
Also in Russia:
As part of my out of town coverage of urban streams, I had earlier written about the Clean Ponds of Moscow. As Russia’s two leading cities have plenty of hidden waterways within their borders, I shall return with another example in the near future.
In the News:
Indian Express reports on the polluted waterways in the city of Pune.
The Guardian reports on efforts to revive swimming in the urban rivers of Australian cities.