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St Petersburg From Peter the Great to Putin this is the unforgettable story of St Petersburg – one of the most magical menacing and influential cities in the worldSt Petersburg has always felt like an impossible metropolis risen from the freezing mists and flooded marshland of the River Neva on the western edge of Russia It was a new capital in an old country Established in 1703 by the sheer will of its charismatic founder the homicidal megalomaniac Peter the Great its dazzling yet unhinged reputation was uickly fashioned by the sadistic dominion of its early rulersThis city in its successive incarnations – St Petersburg; Petrograd; Leningrad and once again St Petersburg – has always been a place of perpetual contradiction It was a window on to Europe and the Enlightenment but so much of the glory of Russia was created here its literature music dance and for a time its political vision It gave birth to the artistic genius of Pushkin and Dostoyevsky Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich Pavlova and Nureyev Yet for all its glittering palaces fairytale balls and enchanting gardens the blood of thousands has been spilt on its snow filled streets It has been a hotbed of war and revolution a place of siege and starvation and the crucible for Lenin and Stalin’s power hungry brutalityIn St Petersburg Jonathan Miles recreates the drama of three hundred years in this absurd and brilliant city bringing us up to the present day when – once – its fate hangs in the balance This is an epic tale of murder massacre and madness played out against sualor and splendour It is an unforgettable portrait of a city and its people


10 thoughts on “St Petersburg

  1. says:

    35 Stars“The fortress was completed in five months The bodies of workers killed by malaria scurvy dysentery or Swedish attack were wrapped in muslin sacks and packed into cavities in the foundations Reasonable estimates for the human cost of the initial building of St Petersburg run to 30000 deaths”How is that for symbolism? Someone once described it as “A city created by a drunken man trying to walk a straight line” Many books on Russian history like so many Russian novels can often appear a bit daunting especially when you hold that weighty doorstop in your hands for the first time it can seem like your own crime and punishment your only crime to open the first page and your punishment being to read it to the last but thankfully this is another one of those entertaining and accessible pathways to a rich surreal and fascinating world of the city of St Petersburg“Loaded rifles were placed all over the Winter Palace so that Anna on a sudden whim could fling open a window and pick off the sparrows cranes and magpies soaring overhead”As well as all the monarchs dictators and other clowns posing as leaders we see appearances from the likes of Rasputin Nijinsky Stravinsky Tchaikovsky Trotsky Tolstoy Dostoyevsky Gogol and Gorky as well as many others who helped contribute to the renowned culture of the cityWe see that like most over privileged elites anywhere in the world they really are just like bratty spoiled children who are too used to getting their own way pin balling between tantrums debauchery ennui and random acts of cruelty Life was incredibly cheap in this part of the world and every time we hear that ominous phrase “They caught a chill” We know that another death is just around the corner“Peter developed a great lust for the Countess Elizabeth Vorontsova who spat stank had a suint and was covered with smallpox scars More positively she loved to drink and exhibited a great eagerness for sex with the high pitched lank haired grand duke” I’d love to see such a frank and amusing examination on the current circus of royals who haunt Buckingham Palace and beyond But its random passages like this which make this really entertainingPeter the Great’s many horrendous acts and crimes are picked out in here possibly the most shocking of all is the description we get of him torturing and killing his own son?We learn that sometimes wolves could be seen roaming in broad daylight thirty to forty strong In 1715 a woman was devoured by a pack of wolves within sight of Prince Menshikov’s palace The settlement also suffered three sizeable floods within its first three years of existence with water rising than two and a half metres“It was there that Casanova saw children being baptised in a hole cut through the ice below He watched horrified as a baby slipped through the priest’s hands into oblivion and was much surprised to find the parents in ‘an ecstasy of joycertain that the babe had been carried straight to heaven”This gives us a telling insight into how appealing the place was to live in Though it’s hard to fathom just how insane the idea of building such a large settlement in what is now St Petersburg To try and put it in some perspective the city lies around 599 latitude The city of Glasgow is around 558 So St Petersburg lies somewhere between the Orkneys and the Shetland islands at the far end of the British Isles which gives us some idea of just how inhospitable the climate really isMiles really captures the turbulent and surreal origins of the city with a warm mixture of slapstick humour and bewildering facts He has a gift for good story telling within the historical frame which makes this glide along nicely from the opening pages We get a real sense for the absurdity and the obsession which drove Peter the Great towards the founding of St Petersburg The sheer scale and extent of the madness violence cruelty and decadence which reigned for so long over St Petersburg is absolutely incredible This book conjures up scenarios that fall somewhere between the darker passages of The Bible and Hieronymous Bosch with a hangover Towards the end of the book he shifts focus and takes a broader approach looking at Russia as a whole and ties it back to the city A most eye opening read


  2. says:

    Yes perhaps it was the three centuries of murderous desire that caught my eye a subtitle I hope one day to borrow for my first autobiography But this is exactly the sort of non fiction I enjoy a detailed study of an unknown unknown Sure I was dimly aware of Russia's sometime capital in its capacity as literary and revolutionary backdrop and some of its name changes but otherwise it had never even occurred to me that I didn't know much about it And while the book is littered with the typos and glitches apparently endemic to modern publishing Miles does an excellent at capturing the alternate sualor and grandeur of the city and at bringing to often revolting life those who inhabit it or merely intersect with those who do so while I knew that van Leeuwenhoek was a pioneer in the investigation of microscopic life I was not aware uite how ready he was to make himself his own spectacularly gross laboratory We open inevitably on the city's founder Peter the Great What kind of man builds a 'window on the West' on land that's frozen half the year and swampy the rest? A new modern face for Russia which is founded on 30000 corpses with plenty to come? Well I already knew a little of Peter from his London sojourn but he sounds like the archetype of the large adult son This is a nightmare version of The Windsors' take on Prince Harry happy to turn mass executions into a drinking game #bantz or fatally inflate a guy's bowels with a bellows #madman or pursue an envoy who didn't want to down a litre and a half of vodka up a ship's rigging booze at his belt and giant cup in hand #absoluteledge A nightmare in most respects uixotic in his siting of his new cityand yet still somehow not wholly dislikeable After all for all his sins he was as happy to take up an axe himself in making a ship as slaying an enemy Menshikov his right hand man and chief kleptocrat was a pieman promoted to the highest office on account of having a smart yet respectful riposte when he met Peter in the street For the monarch delighted in promoting drinking buddies and the manifestly unsuitable to great offices sometimes with surprisingly good results and other times not One wonders briefly whether Theresa May's cabinet is inspired by a copy of Management Secrets of Peter the Great See also the bit where Peter is outraged by corruption and plans to execute all peculating officials but the Procurator General explains we all steal Some take a little some take a great deal but all of us take something' How things change or notA recurring note in the story is the way that the city represents Russia's doomed efforts to catch up with the West who like the mean kids at school keep changing the rules on what's in whenever Russia has just bought a new bag or calendar I knew about Russia having Julian long after we went Gregorian but not that only under Peter had they even gone Julian 1700 would otherwise have been 7208 dated of course from the creation of the world meaning even that date didn't match the not remotely ridiculous calculations of the notorious Bishop Ussher The modern oligarchs' attempts to spend their way to taste turn out to have a long history with even the great Hermitage gallery initially stuffed by vulgar over purchase of art And as grand collections are assembled and mighty edifices erected wolves roamed the streets devouring the citizenry many of whom had only moved there under compulsion At the smaller level giardia was endemic with other epidemics joining in fairly freuently and roughly one major flood a year the site was as the poet Anna Akhmatova later put it 'particularly well suited to catastrophe'Not that it was enough for the environment to be hostile Peter's successors were mostly at least as terrible as he was when considered as bosses Consider the jealous empress Elizabeth shaving heads of the other women at court and then giving them shit wigs like the Blackadder take on her namesake Nor did the spirit of drunken excess ever take much of a break between Peter's All Joking All Drunken Synod of Fools and Jesters and the later antics of Rasputin surveillance reports of whom measured his intoxication on a four point scale 'very' 'absolutely' 'completely' and 'dead drunk' I was particularly taken with the Neapolitan violinist who married a goat for a lark The overall effect is often piratical grand buildings crumbling elegant outfits grown old and tatty a society desperate to keep up appearances but without the economical base to do so in any sane way Again one might suggest that little has changed though the picture is much less gender normative than recent reinventions of Russian history might suggest casual homosexual dalliances were unremarkable for either sex; the female rulers and aristocrats were as voracious in their consumption of lovers and booze as the men and as into antics which are fun to read about but would have been a right pain in practice Still I suppose deceit and autocracy have also their fashions and even among the tsars you'd get the odd one who was inflexible and sober and as such every bit as much of a danger as the manic pissheads Then too consider how seldom any of their paranoia was well directed; long before Stalin decided that the only person he did trust was Hitler you have Empress Anna leaving loaded firearms all over the palace because the risk of assassins was less significant to her than the chance to take impromptu potshots at wildlifeAnd so we stagger through the decades of palace coups Decembrists repression and unrest The Romanovs give way to the Communists and then to the new breed of kleptocrat but one suspects that a few centuries down the line this distinction will be considered as niche and specialist a distinction as one ancient Egyptian dynasty giving way to the next For those at the bottom of the heap little changes unless it's going from bad to worse The city's Second World War siege must be the nadir though encapsulated in the note regarding the two different Russian words for cannibalism depending on whether or not you killed them specially And yet set against that the heroism the Shostakovich symphony played over the loudspeakers which convinced awed German soldiers that they could never take this city I think this was the point where I most understood why Miles had written a book about a city which a lot of the time he really doesn't seem to much like Indeed he's seldom shy about expressing his sentiments in terms which verge on the uncomfortably pseudo objective In his defence it's often at least amusing for instance the description of Chernyshevsky as positively the worst significant novelist in Russian literature Elsewhere thoughlook I realise this is an odd thing to say regarding one of the absolute worst people in history but there were times when I felt Miles might have been overdoing the anti Stalin sentiment Still there are harder crimes to forgive and I did like the uotation from Koestler within the short span of three generations the Communist movement had travelled from the era of the Apostles to that of the BorgiasSo where do those three centuries leave us? I have a note the ineuality at least as grave as under the old regime Which I think was about the transition from hereditary to Party autocrats but works just as well for the shift to whatever you want to call the current system in Russia And while Miles obviously makes note of the city's role as Putin's nursery there's always that problem of ending a non fiction book whose story is still clearly ongoing Still it's hard to think of a better place at least to pause it than the uote on the last page referring to Chaadaev's celebrated statement that Russia exists simply to alert the world that its way of doing things should be avoided whatever the cost Just a shame that their bots and fake news factories now seem to have snookered the world into doing exactly that


  3. says:

    In St Petersburg Three Centuries of Murderous Desire Jonathan Miles has taken up a remarkable task to describe St Petersburg form the birth of the city until the present day The idea itself is of course fantastic I have always seen cities especially grand cities that St Petersburg surely is like living organisms Ever changing always reflecting the happiness and state of its inhabitants Always greater than the sum of their parts A single house can tell you so many stories let alone the whole city itself Of course 560 pages the English edition I read it in Estonian is not nearly enough for three centuries of St Petersburg history Perhaps one 500 page volume for each century would have been sufficient Also this book is not written by a historian specialised in Russian history and you could tell that when reading Despite that I found it succeeded in what it aimed to do It gave a general overview touching all the tsars the better known ones got chapters and all the major historical events in St Petersburg It also always tried to give a brief overview of the cultural history of the city some information on writers artists musicians who were active during that time And most importantly it gave a pretty good idea what the overall atmosphere vibe and conditions were for regular people on each century This I think was what made the made the book good enough to forgive the very generalised approach As a reader I got to know about the conditions of daily life during the time when the city was built when the tensions were building up and what it was like under a totalitarian regime All the information was not new to me for example the part of building the city I was familiar with before thanks to Robert K Massie's fantastic Peter The Great biography I read a few years ago Also the Soviet time's hardships were nothing new as I have heard about that from a very direct source my parents And about the revolutions I just read a book about Still it was good to have one continuous narrative written in a readable style that manages to keep the readers' attention throughout the book Miles' book will probably be a bit repetitive for those well versed in Russian history but I think it is a good read for those with not much background information It is also not the best book to give you an idea of the Russian spirit for example Helen Rappaport who writes about Russian history extensively has grasped it better as a foreigner The only things I thought missing was the general overview of the current state of Russia was in before Peter started building the city just a few pages would have been enough


  4. says:

    Excellent story about St Peterburg and Russians with insights humour and facts I think I will read it again soon


  5. says:

    Good book marred by factual errors Pearl Harbor in 1942 seriously? Lenin’s mislabeling the Mensheviks repeated as truth Tsar’s abdication site incorrect Too bad because otherwise a good read


  6. says:

    After visiting St Petersburg last year I became fascinated by this beautiful and tragic city built on marchland of the river Neva at the cost of thousands of lives constantly threatened by flooding and revolutions and yet home of the most stunning palaces and churches as well as the birthplace of artistic genius like Pushkin Dostoyevsky Tchaikovsky and Nureyev The book of Jonathan Miles shows us three centuries of fantastic history to the present day where the future of St Petersburg is endangered by the sinking of the city Apparently even worse than Venice


  7. says:

    This book is a great introduction to the tale of St Petersburg It moves from the city's founding in 1703 up to 2017 The sweep is broad covering everything from political history to architecture music literature art living standards scandals crime and glorious skullduggery The content is generally strong albeit with a few weak spots minor historical errors and typos The writing however is engaging throughout In short it is a loving and joyous romp Well worth your time


  8. says:

    A lively tale about a remarkable city Miles has a gift for dredging up odd details and taking us on a wild ride through the past and gives us a course in Russian history From the czars to Rasputin to Stalin to Putin you'll get a glimpse of some of the horrors the city has endured as well as the art inspired A surprisingly enjoyable read


  9. says:

    Good for a basic overview of the city's history It is really interesting and touches on a lot but doesn't go into anything in depth There were also a couple parts that were a little misleading Still a good read


  10. says:

    I'm trying to read non fiction and as I'm going to St Petersburg soon I thought I'd try it I'm glad I did; it was a bit dense in detail in places but it traces St P history clearly had traces history from the Tsars to Putin almost a microcosm of Russian history And a lovely cover


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