In the opening decade of the eighteenth century Czar Peter the Great decided to build a new capital city for imperial Russia and picked for his site the swampy estuary of the Neva River where it flowed into the Baltic Sea. There he built the city named after his patron saint, officially establishing it as his capital in 1712. The extraordinary dimensions of this achievement were still retailed with awe by the end of the century when the 4th edition of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica (1797) dwelt at length on the founding of St. Petersburg. Only in the second half of the century, however, did it achieve the grandiose dimensions we now associate with the city. The major impetus to its development was the building of the Winter Palace, the official home of the Czars of Russia, begun by Peter III in 1754. In a palace coup that seems to have been universally praised, the Czar's wife Catherine seized power from Peter III in 1762, inaugurating the development of Russia into a modern and formidable nation. German by birth, Catherine aspired to make her country not just a major European political power but, more, one of its principal cultural centers. In her thirty-four years on the imperial throne she amassed an extraordinary collection of art to supplement and eventually supplant the Dutch-Flemish collection of Peter the Great: beginning in 1764. She had the fancifully named but grandly outfitted Hermitage built to house these treasures. Likewise, she gathered a major library of over 30,000 books, whose crowning glory was the acquisition of the entire library of Voltaire after his death in 1778. In his later years he had been a frequent correspondent with Catherine, as was Denis Diderot, the leading figure in creating for the French Enlightenment a compendium of all that was known, the Encyclopédie. Diderot became her chief advisor on the acquisition of art and in 1774 was himself persuaded to remove to St. Petersburg where he had the singular duty of providing Catherine with an hour of learned conversation every afternoon. Autocrat that she was, by the end of her life in 1796 Catherine had repented of her patronage of the leading philosophical forces that had spawned the French Revolution.
That the novel is first set in St. Petersburg may be, then, not a mere curiosity, but a careful signal of its intellectual and cultural dimensions. Through it the reader of Mary Shelley's novel is to understand that it begins intellectually where it stands geographically, in the shadow of Catherine's enlightenment vision of a modernized culture. Robert Walton's thrilling sense of scientific discovery, detailed throughout this first letter, and Victor Frankenstein's endeavor to create a new being both share that ambience. The open question subtly articulated by this initial postmark is whether the dream of the new city or of the new human can alter the conditions that have determined the old. Will the novel, like Catherine, repudiate the world it brings forth?