We followed Anna Karenina and took the train from Moscow to St Petersburg. It is the tourist route. The countryside of Russia was flat, spacious, dominated by coniferous woods, rivers and dachas, occasionally interrupted by communities of brutalist concrete blocks of flats before quickly giving way again to the dark green trees.
I had less idea of St Petersburg from books than my out of date image of Moscow (see earlier post To Moscow with Books ). But this is the city of Anna Karenina and of Peter and Catherine the Greats. In the nineteenth century in this city the aristocracy spoke French, they lived a glittering life of an elite more distant from the serfs (emancipated only in 1861) than from the upper classes in Europe within which the royal famiiy was intermarried.
Unexpected bookish things in St Petersburg
In my hotel room I found two books, part of the rather racy décor which twinned sage and lime green, pasted bordello-like wallpaper on the corridors, and rich round colours on the uncomfortable seating in the foyer (cherry red, bubble-gum pink, royal purple etc). Books in the bedrooms? My books were Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain. Books were a feature of every room, but apart from an opera libretto I didn’t find out what other guests had been given.
One evening we dined in The Idiot restaurant. How could we not? I expect there are pubs in London named after Dickens’s novels, but can you imagine Pride and Prejudice Café, or Middlemarch Diner? It was a good experience. The décor was suitably writerly and the lighting very low and gloomy. I was disappointed to hear a tourist ask the waitress how it got its odd name.
History in St Petersburg
You expect to find a city’s history written on its buildings: the wide boulevards of Paris that prevented revolutionary activity; Amsterdam defined by its canals; Berlin’s triumphal Brandenburg Gate. Although Moscow was full of monuments to the three great Russian victories (over Napoleon, and Germany in the two world wars) I expected to see and hear more of St Petersburg’s history.
On the face of it St Petersburg wears its history proudly. Its buildings in the centre of St Petersburg still present the city of Peter and Catherine the Greats and the deposed Romanovs. The French influence is everywhere, in the pastel buildings, the wide spaces, the palaces.
This city saw some of Russia’s most significant 20th Century events: the square of the Winter Palace was the scene of the Bloody Sunday Massacre in 1905. A peaceful demonstration of striking workers came to meet the Tsar, and were fired upon at will be the troops. This event lead to the first Russian Duma (parliament) and the beginning of the end of Romanov power. The Palace was stormed by the Bolsheviks in 1917.
The Siege of Leningrad (the name of St Petersburg at that time), we were told, lasted nearly 900 days (8th September 1941 to 27th January 1944) and that most of the centre was destroyed. We were given no idea about the human damage. Despite huge destruction the city was reconstructed and rebuilt within three years rather than modernised. So all those marzipan buildings are reconstructions?
The façade of St Petersburg presents a very modern European city then, a reconstruction where the difficult events of the 20th Century are laid aside. There is more people’s history in the novels I read.
- The Ice Road by Gillian Slovo
The Ice Road is more than 500 pages long, and covers the story of several characters, told with different voices and points of view, from the early ‘30s to end of the siege of Leningrad. It follows their lives through the pogroms of Stalin and the fear that followed, including the outbreak of war and the siege. Their stories interweave as characters influence the outcomes of each others’ lives.
One theme of the novel is the corruption of ideals through the apparatus of the state and through the urge to survive. People make compromises for each other, make mistakes, love and care even when it jeopardises them.
The Ice Road by Gillian Slovo (2004) published by Virago 541pp
Shortlisted for Orange Prize for Women’s Fiction.
- The Siege by Helen Dunmore
This novel is tough, as fits its subject. It is less to do with the politics of the city more about individuals and what happens when they struggle to survive in extreme circumstances. We follow four people as their lives become smaller and smaller as a result of hunger and cold. As the siege persists their focus recedes from the higher aspects of human life, love, work, beauty, care for the family to brutal survival preoccupations, and surviving means letting go of loved ones and ideals. What matters is the search for food and for wood.
The Siege by Helen Dunmore published in 2001 by Penguin Books 320pp
Shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize and the Orange Prize for Women’s Fiction
- Subtly Worded by Teffi
The early short stories in this collection date from Teffi’s life in St Petersburg before the Revolution. She fled to Paris, as so many White Russians did, and continued to write there. Her story about meeting Rasputin reads as if it were an actual experience of encountering this mythic man (mythic even at that time). Perhaps it is an imagining in order to understand the phenomenon that got so close to the Tsar’s family and whose death is the stuff of legends.
Another story I enjoyed is called Tolstoy and it is an account of the author as a young girl calling on Tolstoy to ask him not to kill off Prince Andrei Bolkonsky in War and Peace. I had heard the story on Radio 4 in April 2015 (no longer available) and been charmed by it. It reflects the power of fiction upon a young.
Subtly Worded by Teffi published in 2014 by Pushkin Press 301pp
Translated from the Russian by Anne Marie Jackson with Robert and Elizabeth Candler, Clare Kitson, Irina Steinberg and Natalia Wase.
Check out tripfiction.com for recommendations for reading in different locations.
The Goodreads list of Books set in St Petersburg is headed by Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, with War and Peace fourth on the list. Other classics are included, The Idiot by Dostoyevsky, The Queen of Spades and Eugene Onegin by Pushkin, The Overcoat by Gogol, and Fathers and Sons by Turgenev.
That list reminds me of how many Russian classics I have yet to read.
Previous travel and book related posts on this blog are:
Judenplatz, Vienna (March 2013)
Tales from the Vienna Streets (July 2013)
Berlin Stories (Oct 2014)
Amsterdam Stories (Dec 2014)
Bookword in Alsace (May 2015)
To Moscow with Books (Sept 2015)
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