The story of St. Petersburg is one of glittering achievement and untold suffering. Founded by Peter the Great in 1703 to be a showcase for his obsession for westernization, the city was built at the expense of thousands of lives, which were lost creating the capital along the inhospitable swamplands of the Neva River. At the heart of St. Petersburg’s ambivalent and contradictory mythos is its dual charge of serving both as Russia’s window to the west and as the political center and cultural arbiter of a self-assertive Russian empire. Already in the eighteenth century, by which time it had become known as the Venice of the North, the city’s resplendence and grace were contrasted with the iron will that had created it and governed its institutions. In the nineteenth century, that theme found its classic formulation in Pushkin’s narrative poem “The Bronze Horseman,” inspired by Etienne Falconet’s equestrian statue of Peter the Great, which since its unveiling in 1782 has been the symbol of the city.
With the Russian Revolution and the return of the capital to Moscow, St. Petersburg, whose name was changed to Petrograd during World War I and to Leningrad in 1924, lost much of its luster. The city reached its nadir during Stalin’s Great Terror of the 1930’s, in which Leningrad’s intellectuals suffered heavily, and the brutal 900-day siege by Hitler’s armies during World War II, in which evacuation, bombardment, and starvation decimated the city’s population.
Volkov’s flowing and expertly translated narrative devotes loving attention to the scores of artistic personalities (including Nikolai Gogol, Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Alexandre Benois, Aleksandr Blok, and Sergei Prokofiev) who helped establish the city’s characteristic tone of elegance, classical restraint, cosmopolitanism, irony, and spirituality. He centers each of the book’s six lengthy chapters around a few representative figures (Pushkin and Dostoyevsky; Tchaikovsky; Anna Akhmatova; Igor Stravinsky, Vladimir Nabokov, and George Balanchine; Dmitri Shostakovich; and Joseph Brodsky) to focus the story of St. Petersburg’s contributions to Russian and World literature, poetry, art, music, dance, and theater. A selection of illustrations, extensive annotations, and a detailed index make this compelling chronicle an invaluable resource of Russian cultural history.