Travel book recommendation: City-pick St. Petersburg

I haven’t been to St. Petersburg (yet) but I am fascinated by this city, mostly due to my literary wanderings together with authors like Andrei Belîi or Daniil Kharms. I am not a great fan of Raskolnikov, but I do love Oblomov. The city has all the ingredients to attract tourists interested in history and arts and the City Pick Guide edited by Heather Reyes and James Rann answers perfectly my curiosities and confirms my thoughts about the city. 

Founded relatively recently at the scale of history, in 1703, and aimed to be Russia’s Western window to the world, St. Petersburg was inspired by Amsterdam and a bit of London. ‘Architects in Amsterdam and Rome were cramped for room in which to slot their buildings. But in Petersburg they were able to expand their classical ideals’. (p. 20, The Cultural History of Russia). Vasilevsky Island, for instance, was designed by Le Blond ‘as an ideal citadel town which would incorporate all life’s essentials’. (p. 28)

Russian and world famous literati – Truman Capote, Theophile Gautier, Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre, among others – were there and wrote their memories about the city, with love, admiration or realism. ‘(…) sometimes this city gives the impression of an utter egoist preoccupied solely with its own appearance’, said Joseph Brodsky. Belîi’s St. Petersburg is a Chagall world, when the characters seem to fly brought by the fast forward movement of the busy century. 

A city of splendour and great expectations, cruel and loveable, the St. Petersburg of the literary world is either the result of short visits, long-term interaction with the city and its inhabitants or purely the result of literary imagination. As in the case of other guides edited by Oxygen books, it is based on a selection of relevant fragments from important authors, covering the architecture, different stages of history – I was expecting a more detailed presentation of the city today, including by the mention of the details of contemporary literary life; the fragments dedicated to the city under siege moved me to tears though -, main personalities and cultural benchmarks – as the world of music and dance.

For a long time, it was a serious competitor to Moscow, and it succeeded to be in cultural terms for a long time. Here, for instance, was opened the first public museum in Russia by the Russian Academy of Sciences. Nowadays, it is a source of resources for the political establishment and a city most sought by curious cultural tourists.  

Reading the description of the grandiose welcome and attendance for the Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony in 1942, in the middle of the siege of the then Leningrad, with a mass of people in locks, sometimes without other proper eating than the neighbour’s cat made me more curious about at least seeing the city once in my lifetime. Understanding is as challenging as some of Belîi’s stories. 

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