Peter the Great, astride his bronze horse, stands on the desolate Baltic shore on the northwest borders of his domain and gazes off into the distance. The very landscape around him seems unformed, unclear: the land soft and marshy, the sun shrouded in mist, the Finnish huts flimsy and temporary. Peter’s design, however, is quite clear. Here, on the delta of the river Neva, out of nothing, he will build St. Petersburg, a fortress against the powerful Swedes, a new capital, a magnet to ships of all nations, a “window into Europe.”
One hundred years passed, according to the narrator, and the city grew into a busy port, into a strategic fortress, and into a network of granite-faced rivers and canals lined with palaces, parks, and gardens, a metropolis whose power and elegance put dowdy old Moscow, the “dowager” capital, decidedly in the shade. It is all Peter’s creation: the majesty of the architecture, the vast expanses of the city lit by the “white nights” of early summer, the sounds of winter—of sleighs and lavish balls—the sights and sounds of imperial troops on parade. Let the city flaunt its beauty, and let Peter’s eternal sleep go undisturbed, says the narrator. However, there is a certain, terrible time and a sad story to be told.
On a dark November evening in 1824, a young man named Evgeny lies in his rented rooms in an unfashionable suburban quarter and listens to the rain and wind. He cannot sleep, and he thinks idly that it would be nice to have more brains and money or at least to have someone else’s better luck. However, he does not bother mourning his more illustrious ancestors or envying them,...
(The entire section is 675 words.)