A Window on Europe

How a tsar turned a fetid bog into an imperial capital

Photochrom of the Place Snamjensky, taken between 1890 and 1900 (Library of Congress)
Photochrom of the Place Snamjensky, taken between 1890 and 1900 (Library of Congress)

St. Petersburg: Madness, Murder, and Art on the Banks of the Neva by Jonathan Miles; Pegasus, 560 pp., $29.95

When Raskolnikov, the antihero of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, meditates on the brutal murders he has committed, he wonders whether the city in which he lives, St. Petersburg, was somehow responsible. Perhaps, without realizing it, he served as the inhuman city’s agent? In much the same spirit, the repulsive hero of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground attributes his psychology to it as “the most intentional city in the world.” From Pushkin to the present, Petersburg has been a symbol as much as a place.

Petersburg is “intentional” because instead of growing up organically over centuries, like Moscow, it was created as a planned city essentially overnight. Tsar Peter the Great, who wanted a “window onto Europe” so as to modernize backward Russia, simply ordered artisans to build (and noblemen to move to) his new capital. Founded in 1703 where the Neva River enters the Gulf of Finland, Petersburg could hardly have been placed in a less hospitable location. As cultural historian Jonathan Miles remarks in his new history of the city, “the choice was … ridiculous. Nearly sixty degrees north, the site was—as the poet Anna Akhmatova later put it—‘particularly well suited to catastrophes.’ For half the year the Neva delta was ice-bound, and for the rest, the ‘newa’—Finnish for swamp—was a mosquito-ridden marsh.” One English visitor suggested that the city defied the four elements: “The earth is all a bog, the air commonly foggy. The water sometimes fills half the houses, and the fire burns down half the town at a time.”

As always in Russia, the inconvenience to individual people counted less than the interests of the state. Tens of thousands died in the construction of the city, mostly from malaria and frostbite, and even a dozen years after its founding, packs of marauding wolves, 30 or 40 strong, roamed the city. Within sight of the house belonging to Peter’s favorite, Prince Menshikov, wolves devoured a woman. Sentries suffered the same fate.

Then there were the flash floods, a constant in the city’s history. Three years after its founding, the water rose two and a half meters. In 1726, a French visitor reported that he had to take refuge in his attic because “distinct channels of the river united in one vast sea, from which the tops of buildings emerged like lighthouses.” The most influential literary work about the city, Pushkin’s narrative poem “The Bronze Horseman,” deals with a flood that carries away the hero’s beloved. When he vents his anger on Falconet’s famous statue of Peter on horseback, it comes to life and pursues him through the streets.

For Pushkin, the city represented the conflict between the state and the individual. For Dostoevsky, it represented sheer rationality over everything human. Utopian architects had long been designing supposedly perfect cities, but Petersburg was the first one ever built. Its unlivability suggested that autocratic central planning was a formula for disaster.

The opposition of Petersburg and Moscow generated many themes in Russian thought. Petersburg stood for everything Western, modern, new, and artificial, while Moscow embodied Slavdom and tradition, the time tested and the natural. Moscow was about slow, organic development, Petersburg about sudden change, and so Moscow meant “history” while Petersburg was “revolution” and “utopia.” Petersburg was government, Moscow was the people and specific social groups. For Muscovites, the ruler was “tsar,” for Petersburgers he was “emperor,” a European title Peter adopted. The story of Russian literature and thought can be, and often has been, narrated in terms of these contrasts.

In addition to describing floods, Miles returns again and again to typically Russian themes, like drinking, bureaucracy, and repression. We learn, among other extraneous facts, that in contemporary Russia, the average male consumes a bottle of vodka a day. For centuries, Russians have long been mired in red tape. “By 1850,” Miles writes, “the Ministry of the Interior dealt annually with up to 165,000 sheets marked ‘Urgent.’ A simple sale of land spawned 1,351 separate certificates.” Tsar Alexander I’s chief adviser, Mikhail Speransky, bemoaned Russia’s perpetual lack of freedom. Everyone is a slave, he explained—peasants are the slaves (or serfs) of noblemen, who are in turn the slaves of the tsar. “There are no truly free people in Russia,” Speransky famously quipped, “apart from beggars and philosophers.” And philosophers had to watch their step, too.

Then there is the level of corruption, which staggered foreign visitors. When Peter the Great told one top aide to execute anyone who stole from the state, the aide replied, “We all steal. Some take a little, some take a great deal, but all of us take something.” In Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Children, one official says he loves the spring, when every bee takes a little bribe from every flower.

Although he is not a specialist and evidently knows no Russian, Miles has written a readable and entertaining history of the city from its founding to the present. We learn how each important building and institution, from the Academy of Sciences to the tradition of great ballet dancers, was established. Miles is best when he describes the reactions of foreign visitors to the city, who express the astonishment that he himself feels.

Yet the book is often pitched at a low level, as if meant for high school students. The comments about literature are superficial at best. More disturbing, Miles takes as fact the mythology that various groups, especially the Russian radical intelligentsia, constructed. There has rarely been a more intensive period of reform than the reign of Alexander II, who in a few years freed the serfs, replaced Russia’s appalling judicial system—which even a famous Slavophile said made his hair stand on end—with a Western one, extended rights to Jews, modernized the army and economy, and much more. But Miles accepts the maximalist view of the radical extremists, who eventually assassinated the tsar, that the changes didn’t amount to much. He calls the young populists—soon to conduct a series of bloody assassinations, including bombings that took many innocent lives—“gentle.” Given the tens of millions of executions, deliberate starvations, tortures, imprisonments, and sentences to frozen labor camps under Lenin and Stalin, one wonders how Miles could blithely say that “Revolution was a good idea that [somehow] went horribly wrong.” He seems to think that Stalin killed people because they were real or imagined oppositionists, whereas hundreds of thousands were arrested by quota, entirely randomly, and countless others simply because they were married or distantly related to someone else who had been arrested. Wives were routinely incarcerated for “nondenunciation” of their husbands.

In short, Miles not only describes but also accepts the clichés and truisms that have shaped the tradition. Since these clichés are entertaining, and truisms are, after all, based on truth, the book can nevertheless serve as a good first approach to a riveting history. All great cities are interesting, but few have suffered like Petersburg. As Miles concludes, “the sum of all the misery sustained in its 300-year history weighs heavily in the balance against its myriad joys and triumphs.”

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Gary Saul Morson is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and teaches Russian and world literature at Northwestern University. His latest book, Wonder Confronts Certainty: Russian Writers on the Ultimate Questions and Why Their Answers Matter, will be published next year.


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