man hole, Leningrad, 1930sManhole, Leningrad, 1930s


St P

Where to stay?

40,000 cesspits

Paris started building an extensive sewage system as early as 1805 (the city’s first underground sewer, though, dates to 1370). In London, where the country’s parliament had been overwhelmed by faecal fumes from the Thames (the so-called ‘Great Stink’) in the summer of 1858, a highly effective sewerage system was built by Joseph Bazalgete in 1859-1865. Berlin got off to a slightly later start, but made up for it by the thoroughness with which it constructed its decentralized system from scratch (1873-1909). As for St Petersburg, it acquired its sewerage system likewise in the 60s and 70s – only an entire century later. The story of how it did so is interesting enough to deserve a few paragraphs of its own.

It was not that Petersburg was oblivious to the problem of sewage or had been entirely without sewerage arrangements. A primitive system of shallow-lying pipes had existed under some of the city’s central streets since the 1770s. These pipes – initially of brick, then of wood, which was cheaper – were primarily designed to carry away rainwater; they emptied into the city’s many rivers and canals. Nevertheless, to save the expense of paying for the contents of their cesspits to be removed by cart, house-owners started connecting the pits to the public pipes. Although expressly forbidden by a law of 1845, this practice continued only slightly abated. The city’s waterways turned into open sewers; and when, as often happened, the wooden pipes rotted and collapsed, faecal liquid soaked the ground. Cholera epidemics were, not surprisingly, frequent.

Concerned, the Petersburg City Duma started mulling over the problem in the 1860s. Then in 1876 it commissioned English engineer Lindley to design a combined drainage and sewerage system. When Lindley submitted his project in 1880, the Duma spent the next three years having the document translated and the following 10 years after that having it assessed by experts – before finally rejecting it in 1898. This left the city facing the oncoming 20th century with a rapidly growing population pouring ever increasing quantities of excrement into 40,000 cesspits situated in the yards or basements of houses, backed up by an increasingly dilapidated system of wooden pipes. Fresh cholera outbreaks followed in 1908 and 1918, when the city’s mortality rate rose to a terrifying 77/1000 per annum. In 1917 detailed plans for a city sewerage system were approved by the Petersburg Duma, but immediately swept aside by the Revolution and Civil War. As the wood in them rotted, the pipes under the streets collapsed, causing the road surface above them to do likewise.

photo of damage to Nevsky prospekt (prospekt 25-go Oktyabrya) following the flood of September 23rd, 1924 prospekt 25-go Oktyabrya (Nesvky prospekt) following the flood of 23.11.1924
Then came the flood of 1924, which washed away anything that remained of the city’s road surfaces. At the beginning of the 1930s “530 streets with a total length of 300 km had no sewerage at all – only open ditches. The existing sewerage system […] was designed to take rainwater, but not faecalia. And was constantly becoming blocked with the latter.” In 1940 fresh plans for a city-wide sewerage system were again approved (a limited system had by this time been built on Vasilievsky Island) and a start was made on construction. But World War II intervened. “During the siege of Leningrad house pipes, street pipes, and collectors froze. Dozens of kilometres of networks went out of order.”

And so it was the end of the 1960s before the centre of the city finally gained a proper sewerage system and the end of the 1970s before a sewage-purification plant was built.
construction of a sewer on a street in Leningrad, 1920s Construction of a sewer, early 1920s (?)