A reading list for anyone travelling to St. Petersburg.

Ryan MacEachern/Penguin

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.

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1866)

St. Petersburg’s most famous writer is inarguably Fyodor Dostoevsky, and none of his works bring St. Petersburg to life quite like his masterpiece of morality and psychology, Crime and Punishment.

The novel follows the trials of ex-student and beggar Rodion Raskolnikov, who murders an unsavoury pawnbroker for the chance to make a better life, then unravels with guilt and anguish as the seriousness of his actions reveals itself to him. Meanwhile, Raskolnikov wanders the streets of St. Petersburg, mapping out the city as Raskolnikov contemplates his ill-gotten freedom. It’s not the most flattering portrayal of the city, but Dostoevsky’s masterful exploration of morality and the human psyche more than make up for it. Plus, you’ll be exploring the city on a clear conscience.

‘The Overcoat’ by Nikolai Gogol (1842)

Nikolai Gogol is one of Russia’s most formidable writers, but his short story ‘The Overcoat’ arguably looms just as large as his name: St. Petersburg-based literary critic Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé once said of its influence that “We all come out from Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’”; Nabokov referred to it as “the greatest Russian short story ever written”.

Gogol’s tale follows a poor government clerk in St. Petersburg who becomes obsessed with replacing his overcoat after its shabbiness makes him a target at work. When its replacement is stolen, which ultimately leads to his death, the clerk haunts the town, stealing citizens’ overcoats until he finds closure.

It’s a poignant example of both the surrealism that defined early literature from the country and the short story work upon which Gogol made his name.

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.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1878)

While Tolstoy only spent portions of his life in St. Petersburg, his masterpiece Anna Karenina is largely set there, and it felt remiss to omit Russia’s most recognised author from a list of must-reads.

Tolstoy’s 1878 epic, roundly considered one of the best novels of all time, remains a perfect time capsule of Imperial Russia, exploring life as it was in the late 19th Century, as dictated by the government, industrialisation, the Church, and, of course, love and lust. But, at almost 900 pages, you might want to start this one early and finish it when you arrive.

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