There are few cities with a richer literary history than St. Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest city and the former capital of the Russian Empire. The birthplace of Vladimir Nabokov, Joseph Brodsky and Ayn Rand, and famous home of such luminaries as Nikolai Gogol and Fyodor Dostoevsky, the city was, in its early literature, the site of mythical tales and surreal, supernatural storytelling before taking on a more politicised role after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. Dostoevsky would come to deem it “the most abstract and intentional city in the world”, a symbol of modern disorder that reflected a changing world.
Today, St. Petersburg is widely referred to as Russia’s capital of culture. If you’re thinking of visiting, here are some crucial reads to understanding and immersing yourself in it.
St Petersburg: Three Centuries of Murderous Desire by Jonathan Miles (2017)
For a more wide-reaching understanding of the city, Jonathan Miles’ St Petersburg: Three Centuries of Murderous Desire weaves together cultural history with vivid, cinematic storytelling that traces the city’s founding in 1703 by Peter the Great through its years as Petrograd, Leningrad and, once again, St. Petersburg.
Non-fiction isn’t usually as compelling as this, but it’s Miles’ boundless enthusiasm and deep knowledge base that make his book a standout. For a thorough understanding of the city’s history and culture – from its authors to the musical likes of Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich, to its ballet and beyond – St Petersburg is a good place to start.
Aetherial Worlds by Tatyana Tolstaya (2018)
Today, Tatyana Tolstaya – not just a novelist and essayist but a television host, too – continues the legacy of the Tolstoy family (yes, that Tolstoy). Born in St. Petersburg, Tolstaya’s work evokes the best of Russian literature, and her short stories and novels have been compared not just to those of her familiar forebear but to Nabokov, Gogol and Anton Chekhov, too.
Her latest short story collection, Aetherial Worlds, explores the relationship between memory and imagination, where reality and subjectivity blend, and infuses it with humour and absurdity. It’s a great companion to take with you through the city, ideal for a quick read at lunch or during a short tram ride.