St Petersburg is widely known as Russia’s capital of culture, and it lays every claim to its unofficial accolade. The city has seen a confluence of spectacular creative genius since celebrated poet Alexander Pushkin flooded its literary banks with his poetry in the early 19th century. Many erudite and learned talents followed suit, with the artists of St Petersburg surfing the creative tide well into the modern day. From the early 19th century to the present, here, we trace the journey of Piter’s rising stars.
Alexander Pushkin undoubtedly sired Russia’s reputation as a literary trailblazer, and he is commonly accoladed as the grandfather of Russia’s written word. Born in Moscow, the poet published his first piece at 15 while studying at the Imperial Lyceum near St Petersburg. However, it was his first epic, the romantic fairy tale of Ruslan and Ludmila, penned in St Petersburg in 1820 at the tender age of 21, that established Pushkin as the leading poet of his age. His innovative approach to the Russian lexicon inspired the likes of Leo Tolstoy and Ivan Goncharov, and his poetry continues to feature on the national syllabus.
Pushkin is perhaps best known for his lyrical classic Eugene Onegin, whose eponymous hero is a St Petersburg socialite struggling to recapture the heart of the woman he once spurned. The tale went on to inspire Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s 1879 opera of the same name. Himself a celebrated artist of St Petersburg, Tchaikovsky trained at the illustrious St Petersburg Conservatory. The school’s alumni reads as a star-studded roll call of international musical greats, including controversial composer Sergei Prokofiev, US classical pianist Don Shirley and French baritone David Serero.
Pushkin also influenced the erudite style of St Petersburg’s most famous author, Fyodor Dostoevsky, whose iconic Crime and Punishment won him notoriety the world over. The cult novel details a St Petersburg that can still be glimpsed today. Similarly inspired, Vladimir Nabokov, who was born in St Petersburg at the turn of the 20th century, honoured his poetic predecessor with a controversial translation and commentary on Eugene Onegin. This came nearly a decade after his seminal Lolita established the modern Russian writer as one of the most eminent—and risqué—novelists of his time.
While perhaps more recognised for its literature and music, St Petersburg’s visual arts scene is as prolific. Sowing its earliest seeds, Ukranian Ilya Repin trained at St Petersburg’s Imperial Academy of Arts to become Russia’s finest realist painter. His nostalgic, nautical Sadko, illustrating the folk tale of a pioneering musician appeasing the sea king with a bounty of treasure, is one of the most arresting exhibits at the Russian Museum. A contemporary of Repin who represented art of a more three-dimensional order, Karl Fabergé created the gilded, gem-encrusted eggs so favoured by the tsar.
Fast forward to the 21st century, and the concentration of St Petersburg artists, writers and contemporary galleries continues to intensify. With Erarta, Anna Nova Gallery and Marina Gisich Gallery at the cutting edge of the creative scene, there are plenty of developing and established names to watch in the visual arts. Meanwhile, the likes of poet Aleksander Skidan Vladimovich and novelist Andrei Astvatsaturov fly the flag for St Petersburg’s contemporary literature.
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.