From its glittering heights as the imperial capital of Russia to the harrowing blows delivered by the Siege of Leningrad in the Second World War, St Petersburg is a city of extremes. Its bright, domed roofs and gilded palaces soar with imperial splendour, while its history crawls through bleak spells of despair and tragedy. Perhaps it’s this kaleidoscopic, multifaceted quality that has established St Petersburg as the star of so many literary treasures. From great Russian classics to more recent tributes, here are the St Petersburg novels to pack on a visit.
No recommended list of novels about St Petersburg would be complete without a nod to the don of Russian writers, Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The author lived and wrote in the city, and moulded the plot of epic murder story Crime And Punishment to its streets. His love-hate relationship with the “intentional and abstract city” is apparent throughout. Dostoyevsky’s St Petersburg is a place that’s “so vulgar and ordinary that it almost borders on the fantastic.”
Dostoyevsky himself proved too tempting a subject to overlook for South African Nobel Prize winner J M Coetzee, who writes about the Russian heavyweight’s quest to discover the reason behind his stepson’s death in The Master of St Petersburg. This is no beach read. True to Coetzee’s oblique, stratified approach to his subjects, the novel is complex, dense, and veiled behind period language. Nevertheless, it’s a rewarding read, akin to cracking a secret, literary code.
The love story that triumphs over all others, Doctor Zhivago is an iconic Russian novel set between the revolution and the germinating Soviet Union. The timeless romance between poetic physicist Yuri Zhivago and the exquisite Lara Guichard floats fragile upon the chaotic tides of Russia’s reinvention. The book offers dazzling descriptions of Russia’s vast and hostile landscapes, portraying this as a country that begs to be explored. It was so good that Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for it.
Brush up on Russian history with British writer Helen Dunmore’s historical novel about the 900-day Siege of Leningrad by the Germans. It was a defining moment in St Petersburg’s chequered history, and The Siege, which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize and Whitbread Novel of the Year, describes the first – and worst – winter through the eyes of 23-year-old Anna Levin.
Before crafting City of Thieves, David Benioff followed George R R Martin in co-writing the remaining scripts for epic television series Game of Thrones. This novel is a polite step away from the huge-scale fantastical drama that Benioff is better known for. It’s a gritty, realistic coming-of-age tale of two youths hunting down a dozen eggs during the Siege of Leningrad so that the Soviet officer’s daughter can bake a wedding cake. It’s garnished with beautiful descriptions of the Neva and, of course, ice skating, which continued despite the difficulties faced by its starving residents.
Murder, intrigue, crime and punishment… St Petersburg has it all. Those fascinated by the more ghoulish side of history will love these significant spots from fiction, and real life.