Architecture

Peter the Great’s intention was to build a city that rivalled Paris and Rome for architectural splendour. He envisioned grand avenues, weaving waterways and magnificent palaces. His successors, especially Empresses Anna, Elizabeth and Catherine the Great, carried out their own even more elaborate versions of their forebear’s plan. Today, the historic centre of St Petersburg is a veritable museum of 18th- and 19th-century architecture, with enough baroque, neoclassical and empire-style extravagances to keep you ogling indefinitely.

Petrine Baroque

The first major building in the city was the Peter & Paul Fortress, completed in 1704 and still intact today. Peter recruited Domenico Trezzini from Switzerland to oversee early projects. It was Trezzini, more than any other architect, who created the style known as Petrine Baroque, which was heavily influenced by Dutch architecture, of which Peter was enamoured. Trezzini’s buildings included the Alexander Nevsky Monastery, the SS Peter & Paul Cathedral within the fortress and Twelve Colleges on Vasilyevsky Island.

Initially, most funding was diverted to the war against Sweden, meaning there wasn’t enough money to create the European-style city that Peter dreamed of. Once Russia’s victory was secured in 1709, the city began to see feverish development. In 1711, the Grand Perspective (later Nevsky pr) was initially built as a road to transport building supplies from Russia’s interior. Nevsky pr was supposed to be a perfectly straight avenue heading to Novgorod. The existing kink (at pl Vosstaniya) is attributed to a miscalculation by builders.

Stone construction was banned outside the new capital, in order to ensure that there would be enough masons free to work on the city. Peter ordered Trezzini to create a unified city plan designed around Vasilyevsky Island. He also recruited Frenchman Jean Baptiste Alexandre LeBlond from Paris. The two architects focused their efforts on Vasilyevsky Island, even though most people preferred to live across the river on the higher ground of Admiralty Island. The eponymously named Menshikov Palace, the home of Peter's best friend and St Petersburg's first governor, was the finest in the city, and far grander than Peter’s Winter Palace.

The Age of Rastrelli

Empress Anna oversaw the completion of many of Peter’s unfinished projects, including the Kunstkamera and Twelve Colleges. Most significantly, she hired Italian Bartolomeo Rastrelli as chief architect, a decision that more than any other influenced the city’s look today. His major projects under Anna’s reign were the Manege Central Exhibition Hall and the Third Summer Palace (since destroyed). Rastrelli’s greatest work, however, was yet to come.

Anna left her mark on the face of St Petersburg in many ways. She ordered all nobles to pave the street in front of their properties, thus ensuring the reinforcement of the Neva Embankment and other major thoroughfares. A massive fire in 1737 wiped out the unsightly and run-down wooden housing that surrounded the Winter Palace, thus freeing the historic centre for the centralised city planning that would be implemented under Elizabeth.

Elizabethan St Petersburg was almost entirely the work of Rastrelli, whose Russian baroque style became synonymous with the city. His crowning glory, of course, was the construction and remodelling of the Winter Palace, completed in 1762, shortly after Elizabeth’s death.

Rastrelli’s second major landmark was Anichkov Palace. After that creation, he became the city’s most fashionable architect. Commissions soon followed to build the Stroganov Palace, Vorontsov Palace, Kamennoostrovsky Palace, Catherine Palace at Tsarskoe Selo and the extension of LeBlond’s Grand Palace at Peterhof. The sumptuous Smolny Cathedral is another Rastrelli landmark. His original design included a massive bell tower that would have been the tallest structure in Russia. The death of Empress Elizabeth in 1761 (1762 by the Gregorian calendar) prevented him from completing it, however.

Rastrelli’s baroque style would go out of fashion quickly after Elizabeth’s death. But his legacy would endure, as he created some of the most stunning facades in the city, thus contributing to the Italianate appearance of St Petersburg today.

Catherine’s Return to Classicism

Despite her fondness for Elizabeth personally, Catherine the Great was not a fan of her predecessor’s increasingly elaborate and sumptuous displays of wealth and power. Catherine’s major philosophical interest was the Enlightenment, which had brought the neoclassical style to the fore in Western Europe. As a result, she began her long reign by departing from baroque architecture and introducing neoclassicism to Russia.

The first major neoclassical masterpiece in Catherine’s St Petersburg was the Academy of Arts on Vasilyevsky Island, designed by Jean-Baptiste-Michel Vallin de la Mothe. Catherine employed a wide range of architects, including foreigners such as Vallin de la Mothe, Charles Cameron, Antonio Rinaldi and Giacomo Quarenghi, as well as home-grown architects such as Ivan Starov and Vasily Bazhenov.

Catherine’s plan was to make the palace embankment the centrepiece of the city. To this end, she commissioned the Small Hermitage by Vallin de la Mothe, followed by the Large (Old) Hermitage and the Hermitage Theatre on the other side of the Winter Canal. These buildings on Dvortsovaya pl were followed by Quarenghi’s magnificent Marble Palace. Catherine also developed the embankment west of the Winter Palace, now the English Embankment (Angliyskaya nab), creating a marvellous imperial vista for those arriving in the city by boat.

The single most meaningful addition under Catherine's reign was the Bronze Horseman by Etienne-Maurice Falconet, an equestrian statue dedicated to Peter the Great. It is perched atop an enormous 1500-tonne boulder, known as Thunder Stone, which is from the Gulf of Finland and is supposedly the largest stone ever moved.

Other notable additions to the cityscape during Catherine’s reign included the new Gostiny Dvor, one of the world’s oldest surviving shopping centres. Elizabeth had commissioned Rastrelli to rebuild an arcade that had burned down in 1736, but Catherine removed Rastrelli from the project and had it completed by Vallin de la Mothe, who created a more subtle and understated neoclassical facade. The purest classical construction in St Petersburg was perhaps Ivan Starov’s Tauride Palace, built for Prince Potemkin and surrounded by William Gould’s expansive English-style gardens.

Russian Empire Style

Alexander I (r 1801–25) ushered in the new century with much hope that he would see through Catherine’s reforms, becoming the most progressive tsar yet. His most enduring architectural legacy would be the new Alexandrian Empire style, a Russian counterpart of the style that had become popular in prewar Napoleonic France. This style was pioneered by a new generation of architects, most famously Carlo Rossi.

Before the Napoleonic Wars, the two most significant additions to the cityscape were the Strelka, the ‘tongue of land’ at the tip of Vasilyevsky Island, and Kazan Cathedral, prominently placed on Nevsky pr by Andrei Voronikhin. The Strelka had long been the subject of designs and proposals as a centrepiece to St Petersburg. Thomas de Thomon finally rebuilt Quarenghi’s Stock Exchange and added the much-loved Rostral Columns to the tip of the island. The result was a stunning sight during summer festivities when the columns lit the sky with fire, a tradition that still continues today. Kazan Cathedral is a fascinating anomaly in St Petersburg’s architectural history. It was been commissioned by Tsar Paul I and reflected his tastes and desire to fuse Catholicism and Orthodoxy. As such it is strikingly un-Russian, borrowing many of its features from the contemporaneous Italian architecture of Rome and Florence.

Following the Napoleonic wars, Carlo Rossi initiated several projects of true genius. This Italian architect defined the historic heart of St Petersburg with his imperial buildings – arguably even more so than Rastrelli. On Palace Square, he created the sumptuous General Staff Building, which managed to complement Rastrelli’s Winter Palace without outshining it. The building’s vast length, punctuated by white columns, and its magnificent triumphal arch make Palace Square one of the most awe-inspiring urban environments in the world. The final touch to Palace Square was added by Auguste Montferrand, who designed the Alexander Column, a monument to the 1812 trouncing of Napoleon. Rossi also completed the Mikhailovsky Palace (now the Russian Museum) as well as the gardens behind it and pl Iskusstv (Arts Sq) in front of it.

Rossi’s genius continued to shine through the reactionary rule of Nicholas I. In fact, Nicholas was the last of the Romanovs to initiate mass municipal architecture, and so Rossi remained in favour, despite Nicholas’ personal preference for the Slavic Revival style that was very popular in Moscow at the time.

Rossi’s largest projects under Nicholas were the redesign of Senate Sq (now pl Dekabristov) and Alexandrinskaya Sq (now pl Ostrovskogo), including the Alexandrinsky Theatre and Theatre St (now ul Zodchego Rossi). The Theatre St ensemble is a masterpiece of proportions: its width (22m) is the same height as its buildings, and the entire length of the street is exactly 10 times the width (220m).

Imperial St Petersburg

Although Rossi continued to transform the city, the building that would redefine the city’s skyline was Montferrand’s St Isaac's Cathedral. An Orthodox church built in a classical style, it is the fourth-largest cathedral in Europe. Montferrand’s unique masterpiece took over three decades to construct and remains the highest building in central St Petersburg.

Nicholas I’s reign saw the construction of St Petersburg’s first permanent bridge across the Neva, Blagoveshchensky Most (Annunciation Bridge), and Russia’s first railway (linking the capital to Tsarskoe Selo to get the royal family to their summer palace quickly). A more useful line to Moscow began service in 1851, and the Nikolaevsky Station, now known as the Moscow Station (Moskovsky vokzal), was built to accommodate it.

The reigns of Alexander II and Alexander III saw few changes to the overall building style in St Petersburg. Industrialisation under Alexander II meant filling in several canals, most significantly the Ligovsky Canal (now Ligovsky pr). A plan to fill in Griboyedov Canal thankfully proved too expensive to execute and the canal remains one of the city’s most charming.

The main contribution of Alexander III was the Church of the Resurrection of Christ, better known as the Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood, built on the site of his father’s 1881 assassination. Alexander III insisted the church be in the Slavic Revival style, which explains its uncanny similarity to St Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square in Moscow. Architects Malyshev and Parland designed its spectacular multicoloured tiling, the first hints of Russian Style Moderne, which by the end of the 19th century would take the city by storm. Painters such as Mikhail Nesterov and Mikhail Vrubel contributed to the interior design.

Soviet Leningrad

As in all other spheres of Russian culture, the collapse of the tsarist regime in 1917 led to huge changes in architecture. In the beleaguered city, all major building projects stopped; the palaces of the aristocracy and the mansions of the merchant classes were turned over to the state or split up into communal apartments. The title of capital returned to Moscow and the city went into a decline that was to last until the 1990s.

The architectural form that found favour under the Bolsheviks in the 1920s was constructivism. Combining utilitarianism and utopianism, this modern style sought to advance the socialist cause, using technological innovation and slick unembellished design. Pl Stachek is rich with such buildings, such as the Kirov Region Administrative Building on Kirovskaya pl and the incredibly odd Communication Workers’ Palace of Culture on the Moyka Canal.

Stalin considered the opulence of the imperial centre of renamed Leningrad to be a potentially corrupting influence on the people. So, from 1927, he began to relocate the centre to the south of the city’s Historic Heart. His traditional neoclassical tastes prevailed. The prime example of Stalinist architecture is the vast House of Soviets, which was meant to be the centrepiece of the new city centre. Noi Trotsky began this magnificent monstrosity in 1936, although it was not finished until after the war (by which time Trotsky had died). With its columns and bas-reliefs, it is a great example of Stalinist neoclassical design – similar in many ways to the imperial neoclassicism pioneered a century earlier. The House of Soviets was never used as the Leningrad government building, as the plan to relocate the centre was shelved after Stalin’s death in 1953.

WWII saved many buildings of great importance: the Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood, for example, was slated for destruction before the German invasion of the Soviet Union intervened. Many other churches and historical buildings, however, were destroyed.

During the eras of Khrushchev and Brezhnev, St Petersburg’s imperial heritage was cautiously respected, as the communist leadership took a step back from Stalin’s excesses. Between the 1950s and 1970s, a housing shortage led to the construction of high-rise Soviet apartment buildings, which would cover huge swaths of the city outside the historic centre. For many visitors, this is their first and last view of the city. Examples of archetypal post-Stalinist Soviet architecture include the massive Grand Concert Hall, near pl Vosstaniya, and the classically inspired Finland Station (Finlyandsky vokzal), on the Vyborg Side.

Contemporary St Petersburg

Following the demise of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, efforts were focused on the reconstruction of imperial-era buildings, many of which were derelict and literally falling down due to 70 years of neglect. Between 1991 and St Petersburg’s tercentennial celebrations in 2003, much of the historic heart was restored at vast expense. Efforts are ongoing, and include the total regeneration of New Holland.

The governorship of Valentina Matvienko (2003–11) was marked by a shift from preservation to construction, and the city saw a large growth in new building projects during this time, not always to the delight of campaigners for the protection of St Petersburg’s architectural heritage, or Unesco, who awarded St Petersburg’s historic centre World Heritage status in 1990.

The most noteworthy of contemporary architecture projects in St Petersburg are the Mariinsky II Theatre, the airy, light-filled New Stage of the Alexandrinsky Theatre, the Krestovsky Stadium and the 462m Lakhta Center (http://lakhta.center) which, when it's completed in 2018, will be both the tallest building in Russia and Europe. This twisted spire, funded by the petrochemical company Gazprom, replaced a controversial plan for the Okhta Centre which was slated to be built opposite Smolny Cathedral. After worldwide condemnation and a strong local protest movement the project was relocated to the north of the city facing the Gulf of Finland.

Feature: St Petersburg goes Style Moderne

Industrialisation during the latter part of the 19th century brought huge wealth to St Petersburg, which resulted in an explosion of commissions for major public buildings and mansions, many in the much-feted style of the time – art nouveau, known in Russia as Style Moderne.

You only have to walk down Nevsky Prospekt to see several of the key results of this daring architectural departure: the Singer Building and Kupetz Eliseevs, both of which have been restored to their full glory in recent years, are ostentatious in their decorative details. Also in the Historic Heart, search out Au Pont Rouge, a revival of the old department store Esders and Scheefhaals, which combines Moderne and Italianate features, and DLT, finished in 1909 as the department store for the elite Petersburg Guards regiments, and still operating as the city's most luxurious fashion house. The romantic interior of the Vitebsk Station (Vitebsky vokzal), crafted at the turn of the 19th century, offers up stained glass, sweeping staircases and beautiful wall paintings in its spacious waiting halls.

But it is over on the Petrograd Side, the most fashionable district of the era, that the majority of Style Moderne buildings can be found. Highlights include the Troitsky Bridge, the fabulous mansion of the ballet dancer Mathilda Kshesinskaya (now the Museum of Political History) and much of Kamennoostrovsky pr, which is lined with prime examples. Poke around the district's backstreets to discover many gems from the early 20th century, including Chaev Mansion and Leuchtenberg House.

Sidebar: Top Five Architectural Sights

  • Winter Palace (Historic Heart)
  • Singer Building (Historic Heart)
  • Chesme Church (Smolny & Vosstaniya)
  • Smolny Cathedral (Smolny & Vosstaniya)
  • House of Soviets (Smolny & Vosstaniya)

Sidebar: Anichkov Bridge

While wandering down Nevsky pr, don’t miss the beautiful equestrian sculptures on Anichkov Bridge and check out for yourself the local legend that the sculptor portrayed a man he didn’t like (some say it was Napoleon, others that it was his wife’s lover) on the testicles of one of the stallions.

Sidebar: Arthur George

Arthur George’s St Petersburg is the first comprehensive popular history of St Petersburg and is a superb read for anyone interested in the city’s architectural development. Taking the reader from Petrine Baroque to Stalinism, George is an expert guide to the differing styles that so define the city.

Sidebar: Western High Speed Diameter

The best view of the Lakhta Tower and of Krestovsky Stadium are when you're driving over the suspension bridges of the Western High Speed Diameter, arguably the city's most impressive recent infrastructure project.

Arts

Despite the evident European influences, St Petersburg’s Russian roots are a more essential source of inspiration for its artistic genius. Musicians and writers have long looked to Russian history, folk culture and other national themes. That St Petersburg has produced so many artistic and musical masterpieces is in itself a source of wonder for the city’s visitors and inhabitants today, and it’s no coincidence that St Petersburg is often referred to as Russia’s cultural capital.

Ballet

First introduced in the 17th century, ballet in Russia evolved as an offshoot of French dance combined with Russian folk and peasant dance techniques. In 1738, French dance master Jean Baptiste Lande established the Imperial Ballet School in St Petersburg – a precursor to the famed Vaganova School of Choreography.

The French dancer and choreographer Marius Petipa (1819–1910) is considered the father of Russian ballet, acting as principal dancer and premier ballet master of the Imperial Theatres and Imperial Ballet. All told, he produced more than 60 full ballets, including the classics Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake.

In 1907, Petipa wrote in his diary, ‘I can state that I created a ballet company of which everyone said: St Petersburg has the greatest ballet in all Europe’. At the turn of the 20th century, the heyday of Russian ballet, St Petersburg’s Imperial Ballet School rose to world prominence, producing superstar after superstar. Names such as Vaslav Nijinsky, Anna Pavlova, Mathilda Kshesinskaya, George Balanchine, Michel Fokine and Olga Spessivtzeva turned the Mariinsky Theatre into the world’s most dynamic display of the art of dance.

Sergei Diaghilev graduated from the St Petersburg Conservatory in 1892, but he abandoned his dream of becoming a composer when his professor, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, told him he had no talent for music. Instead he turned his attention to dance, and his Ballets Russes took Europe by storm. The Petipa-inspired choreography was daring and dynamic, and the stage decor was painted by artists such as Alexander Benois, Mikhail Larionov, Natalya Goncharova and Leon Bakst. The overall effect was an artistic, awe-inducing display unlike anything taking place elsewhere in Europe.

Under the Soviets, ballet was treated as a natural resource. It enjoyed highly privileged status, which allowed schools such as Vaganova and companies such as the Kirov (as the Mariinsky was renamed) to maintain a level of lavish production and no-expense-spared star-searches. Still, the story of 20th-century Russian ballet is connected with the West, to where so many of its brightest stars emigrated or defected. Anna Pavlova, Vaslav Nijinsky, Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov, George Balanchine, Natalya Makarova, Mathilda Kshesinskaya, to name a few, all found fame in Western Europe or America, and most of them ended up living there.

The Kirov is once again known by its pre-revolutionary name and has its home at the Mariinsky Theatre where it has been rejuvenated under the fervent directorship of artistic director Valery Gergiev. The Mariinsky’s calling card has always been its flawless classical ballet, but in recent years names such as William Forsythe and John Neumeier have brought modern choreography to this establishment. The Mariinsky’s credibility on the world stage has been bolstered by the 2013 opening of the Mariinsky II, built adjacent to the original theatre on the Kryukov Canal.

Music

St Petersburg has a rich musical legacy, dating back to the days when the Group of Five (Mily Balakirev, Alexander Borodin, César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov) and Pyotr Tchaikovsky composed here. Opera and classical music continue to draw crowds, and the three Mariinsky theatres and Philharmonia regularly sell out their performances of home-grown classics. Surprisingly, earlier music, such as baroque and medieval, is not as well known or as well loved, though the city's Early Music Festival has long campaigned to change that.

Music lovers come in all shapes and sizes, however. Even when rock-and-roll was illegal it was played in basements and garages. In the post Soviet world, St Petersburg is the centre of russky rok, a magnet for musicians and music lovers, who are drawn to its atmosphere of innovation and creation.

Classical Music & Opera

As the cultural heart of Russia, St Petersburg was a natural draw for generations of composers, its rich cultural life acting as inspiration for talent from throughout Russia. Mikhail Glinka is often considered the father of Russian classical music. In 1836 his opera A Life for the Tsar premiered in St Petersburg. While European musical influences were evident, the story was based on Russian history, recounting the dramatic tale of a peasant, Ivan Susanin, who sacrificed himself to save Mikhail Romanov.

In the second half of the 19th century, several influential schools formed in the capital, from which emerged some of Russia’s most famous composers and finest music. The Group of Five looked to folk music for uniquely Russian themes. They tried to develop a distinct sound using unusual tonal and harmonic devices. Their main opponent was Anton Rubinstein’s conservatively rooted Russian Musical Society, which became the St Petersburg Conservatory in 1861. The competition between the two schools was fierce. Rimsky-Korsakov wrote in his memoirs: ‘Rubinstein had a reputation as a pianist, but was thought to have neither talent nor taste as a composer.’

Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840–93) seemed to find the middle ground, embracing Russian folklore and music as well as the disciplines of the Western European composers. In 1890 Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades premiered at the Mariinsky. His adaptation of the famous Pushkin tale surprised and invigorated the artistic community, especially as his deviations from the original text – infusing it with more cynicism and a brooding sense of doom – tied the piece to contemporary St Petersburg.

Tchaikovsky is widely regarded as the doyen of Russian national composers and his output, including the magnificent 1812 Overture, his concertos and symphonies, ballets (Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker), and opera (Yevgeny Onegin) are among the world’s most popular classical works.

Following in Tchaikovsky’s romantic footsteps was the innovative Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971). He fled Russia after the revolution, but his memoirs credit his childhood in St Petersburg as having a major effect on his music. The Rite of Spring (which created a furore at its first performance in Paris), Petrouchka and The Firebird were all influenced by Russian folk music. The official Soviet line was that Stravinsky was a ‘political and ideological renegade’; but he was rehabilitated after he visited the USSR and was formally received by Khrushchev himself.

Similarly, the ideological beliefs and experimental style of Dmitry Shostakovich (1906–75) led to him being alternately praised and condemned by the Soviet government. As a student at the Petrograd conservatory, Shostakovich failed his exams in Marxist methodology, but still managed to write his first symphony before he graduated in 1926. He wrote brooding, bizarrely dissonant works, as well as accessible traditional classical music. After official condemnation by Stalin, his seventh symphony (Leningrad Symphony) brought him honour and international standing when it was performed during WWII. The authorities changed their mind and banned his anti-Soviet music in 1948, then ‘rehabilitated’ him after Stalin’s death. These days he is held in high esteem as the namesake of the acclaimed Shostakovich Philharmonia.

Since becoming its artistic director in 1988, Valery Gergiev has revitalised the Mariinsky. The Russian classics still top the list of performances, but Gergiev is also willing to be a little adventurous, taking on operas that had not been performed in half a century or more. Gergiev is also responsible for initiating the Stars of White Nights Festival, an annual event that showcases the best and brightest dancers and musicians.

Rock

Russian music is not all about classical composers. Ever since the ‘bourgeois’ Beatles filtered through in the 1960s, Russians both young and old have supported the rock revolution. Starved of decent equipment and the chance to record or perform to big audiences, Russian rock groups initially developed underground. By the 1970s – the Soviet hippy era – rock music had developed a huge following among the disaffected, distrustful youth in Leningrad.

Although bands initially imitated their Western counterparts, a real underground sound emerged in Leningrad in the 1980s. Boris Grebenshchikov and his band Akvarium (Aquarium; www.aquariumband.com) caused sensations wherever they performed; his folk rock and introspective lyrics became the emotional cry of a generation. Yury Shevchuk and his band DDT emerged as the country’s main rock band. The god of Russian rock was Viktor Tsoy and his group Kino. His early death in a 1990 car crash ensured his legend would have a long life. On the anniversary of Tsoy’s death (15 August), fans still gather to play his tunes and remember the musician, especially at his grave at the Bogoslovskoe Cemetery, which is located a short distance from the Piskaryovskoe Cemetery. A former boilerhouse bunker where Tsoy and his Kino bandmates once worked as caretakers is now a shrine-cum-concert-venue (Kamchatka) on the Petrograd Side.

One local band to watch out for is Leningrad (http://leningrad.top), who play contemporary rock and dance music with a strong brass section.

Visual Arts

It should come as no surprise that St Petersburg is an artistic place, having been designed by the leading artists of the day. In the early years, aristocrats and emperors filled their palaces with endless collections of paintings and applied arts, guaranteeing a steady stream of artistic production. These days, millions of visitors come here to see the masterpieces that hang in the Hermitage and the Russian Museum.

But St Petersburg’s artistic tradition is not only historical. The city’s winding waterways, crumbling castles and colourful characters continue to inspire creative types and in recent years the city has become a nurturing space for artists to work, with plentiful studios, gallery spaces and new museums interested in modern work. Anyone interested in the state of contemporary art in the city should head to Erarta Museum of Contemporary Art, the Kuryokhin Centre (in temporary digs at present) and the Street Art Museum. St Petersburg has always been a city of artists and poets, and that legacy endures.

Academy of Arts

This state-run artistic institution was founded in 1757 by Count Ivan Shuvalov, a political adviser, education minister and longtime lover of Empress Elizabeth. It was Catherine the Great who moved the Academy out of Shuvalov’s home, commissioning the present neoclassical building on Vasilyevsky Island.

The Academy was responsible for the education and training of young artists. It focused heavily on French-influenced academic art, which incorporated neoclassicism and romanticism. Painters such as Fyodor Alexeyev and Grigory Chernetsev came out of the Academy of Arts.

The Wanderers

In the 19th century, artist Ivan Kramskoy led the so-called ‘revolt of 14’ whereby a group of upstart artists broke away from the powerful but conservative Academy of Arts. The mutineers considered that art should be a force for national awareness and social change, and they depicted common people and real problems in their paintings. The Wanderers (Peredvizhniki), as they called themselves, travelled around the country in an attempt to widen their audience (thus inspiring their moniker).

The Wanderers included Vasily Surikov, who painted vivid Russian historical scenes, and Nicholas Ghe, who favoured both historical and biblical landscapes. Perhaps the best-loved of all Russian artists, Ilya Repin has works that range from social criticism (Barge Haulers on the Volga) to history (Cossacks Writing a Letter to the Turkish Sultan) and portraits.

By the end of the 19th century, Russian culture was retreating from Western influences and looking instead to nationalistic themes and folk culture for inspiration. Artists at this time invented the matryoshka, the quintessential Russian nesting doll. One of the world’s largest collections of matryoshki is on display at the Toy Museum.

Mikhail Vrubel was inspired by Byzantine mosaics and Russian fairy tales. Painters such as Nikolai Roerich and Mikhail Nesterov incorporated mystical themes, influenced by folklore and religious traditions. All of these masters are prominently featured at the Russian Museum.

Avant-Garde

From about 1905 Russian art became a maelstrom of groups, styles and ‘isms’, as it absorbed decades of European change in a few years. It finally gave birth to its own avant-garde futurist movements.

Mikhail Larionov and Natalya Goncharova were the centre of a Cézanne-influenced group known as the Knave of Diamonds. This husband-and-wife team went on to develop neo-primitivism, based on popular arts and primitive icons. They worked closely with Sergei Diaghilev, the founder of the Ballets Russes, designing costumes and sets for the ballet company that brought together some of the era’s greatest dancers, composers and artists.

The most radical members of the Knave of Diamonds formed a group known as Donkey’s Tail, which exhibited the influences of cubism and futurism. Larionov and Goncharova were key members of this group, as well as Marc Chagall and Kazimir Malevich.

In 1915 Malevich announced the arrival of suprematism. His abstract geometrical shapes (with a black square representing the ultimate ‘zero form’) freed artists from having to depict the material world and made art a doorway to higher realities. See one of his four Black Square paintings, and other examples of Russian avant-garde, at the General Staff Building.

Soviet Art

Futurists turned to the needs of the revolution – education, posters, banners – with enthusiasm. They had a chance to act on their theories of how art shapes society. But at the end of the 1920s abstract art fell out of favour. The Communist Party wanted socialist realism. Images abounded of striving workers, heroic soldiers and healthy toiling peasants, some of which are on display at the Russian Museum. Two million sculptures of Lenin and Stalin dotted the country; Malevich ended up painting portraits and doing designs for Red Square parades.

After Stalin, an avant-garde ‘Conceptualist’ underground group was allowed to form. Ilya Kabakov painted, or sometimes just arranged, the debris of everyday life to show the gap between the promises and realities of Soviet existence. Erik Bulatov’s ‘Sotsart’ pointed to the devaluation of language by ironically reproducing Soviet slogans or depicting words disappearing over the horizon. In 1962 artists set up a show of ‘unofficial’ art in Moscow: Khrushchev called it ‘dog shit’ and sent it back underground. Soviet underground art is particularly well represented in the collections of the excellent Erarta Museum of Contemporary Art and Novy Museum, both on Vasilyevsky Island.

Neo-Academism & Non-Conformist Art

As the centre of the avant-garde movement in Russia at the turn of the last century, St Petersburg never gave up its ties to barrier-breaking, gut-wrenching, head-scratching art. After the end of communism the city rediscovered its seething artistic underbelly.

Much of St Petersburg’s post-Soviet contemporary art revolved around the artistic collective at Pushkinskaya 10, where artists and musicians continue to congregate and create. This place was ‘founded’ in the late 1980s, when a bunch of artists and musicians moved into an abandoned building near pl Vosstaniya. The centre has since developed into an artistic and cultural institution that is unique in Russia, if not the world, even if its heyday has long now passed.

In the early 1990s Timur Novikov founded the Neo-Academic movement as an antidote to ‘the barbarism of modernism’. This return to classicism (albeit with a street-level, junk-shop feel) culminated in his foundation of the Museum of the New Academy of Fine Arts, which is housed at Pushkinskaya 10. Although he died in 2002, he continues to cast a long shadow on the city’s artistic scene.

More commercial ventures currently dominate the St Petersburg art scene, however, with such so-called 'creative spaces' as Loft Project ETAGI, Tkachi and Artmuza blurring the lines between commerce and art. Smaller, private galleries in the centre of town also showcase contemporary art, while the commerical galleries at the Erarta Museum remain the best place to look at St Petersburg's current artistic output.

Cinema

The Lenfilm studio on the Petrograd Side was a centre of the Soviet film industry, producing many much-loved Russian comedies and dramas – most famously, Sergei Eisenstein’s October (1928). Lenfilm has continued in the post-communist era to work with some success as a commercial film studio both for cinema and television.

Ever since Russian Ark (2002), St Petersburg native Alexander Sokurov has been recognised as one of Russia’s most talented contemporary directors. The world’s first unedited feature film, Russian Ark was shot in one unbroken 90-minute frame. Sokurov’s films have tackled a wide range of subjects, most significantly the corrupting influence of power, which was explored in a tetralogy of films observing individual cases, including Hitler (Molokh), Lenin (Taurus), Japanese Emperor Hirohito (The Sun) and Faust (Faust). Another Sokurov production that was critically acclaimed is Alexandra (2007), the moving tale of an elderly woman who visits her grandson at an army base in Chechnya. The title role is played by Galina Vishnevskaya, opera doyenne and wife of composer–conductor Mstislav Rostropovich.

Another star of the St Petersburg film industry was Alexey German, who gained attention with his 1998 film Khrustalyov, My Car! Based on a story by Joseph Brodsky, the film tells the tale of a well-loved military doctor who was arrested during Stalin’s ‘Doctors' Plot’. German died in 2013, leaving his final film, Hard to Be a God, which tells the story of a planet trapped in the dark ages, almost finished. It was completed with the help of his son and wife, and garnered excellent reviews from critics.

Other Lenfilm successes include Alexey Balabanov’s Of Freaks and Men (1998), the joint project of Boris Frumin and Yury Lebedev, Undercover (2005), and Andrei Kravchuk’s The Italian (2005), all of which enjoyed some critical acclaim in the West. They also worked on the international co-production of Anna Karenina, directed by Bernard Rose, in 1996.

Theatre

While it may not be completely accessible to most travellers due to language barriers, theatre plays a major role in St Petersburg performing arts. At least a dozen drama and comedy theatres dot the city streets, not to mention puppet theatres and musical theatres. As in all areas of the performing arts, contemporary playwrights do not receive as much attention as well-known greats and adaptations of famous literature. Nonetheless, drama has a long history in Russia, and St Petersburg, as the cultural capital, has always been at the forefront.

In the early days, theatre was an almost exclusive vehicle of the Orthodox Church, used to spread its message and convert believers. In the 19th century, however, vaudeville found its way to Russia. More often than not, these biting, satirical one-act comedies poked fun at the rich and powerful. Playwrights such as Alexander Pushkin and Mikhail Lermontov decried the use of their art as a tool of propaganda or evangelism. Other writers – Nikolai Gogol, Alexander Griboyedov and Alexander Ostrovsky – took it a step further, writing plays that attacked not just the aristocracy but the bourgeoisie as well. Anton Chekhov wrote for St Petersburg newspapers before writing one-act, vaudevillian works. Yet it is his full-length plays that are his legacy.

Towards the end of the 19th century Maxim Gorky represented an expansion of this trend in anti-establishment theatre. His play The Song of the Stormy Petrel raised workers to a level superior to that of the intellectual. This production was the first of what would be many socialist realist performances, thus earning its author the esteem of the Soviet authorities.

The futurists had their day on the stage, mainly in the productions of the energetic and tirelessly inventive director Vsevolod Meyerhold, who was one of the most influential figures of modern theatre. His productions of Alexander Blok’s The Fair Show Booth (1906) and Vladimir Mayakovsky’s Mystery-Bouffe (1918) both caused a sensation at the time. Both Anna Akhmatova and Dmitry Shostakovich cited Meyerhold’s 1935 production of The Queen of Spades by Tchaikovsky as one of the era’s most influential works.

During the Soviet period, drama was used primarily as a propaganda tool. When foreign plays were performed, it was for a reason – hence the popularity in Russia of Death of a Salesman, which showed the inevitable result of Western greed and decadence. However, just after the revolution, theatre artists were given great, if short-lived, freedom to experiment – anything to make theatre accessible to the masses. Avant-garde productions flourished for a while, notably under the mastery of poet and director Igor Terentyev. Artists such as Pavel Filonov and Kazimir Malevich participated in production and stage design.

Even socialist theatre was strikingly experimental: the Theatre of Worker Youth, under the guidance of Mikhail Sokolovsky, used only amateur actors and encouraged improvisation, sudden plot alterations and interaction with audience members, striving to redefine the theatre-going experience. Free theatre tickets were given out at factories; halls that once echoed with the jangle of upper-class audience’s jewellery were now filled with sailors and workers. The tradition of sending army regiments and schoolchildren to the theatre continues to this day.

Today theatre remains important to the city’s intellectuals, but it isn’t at the forefront of the arts, receiving little state support and, unlike the ballet or opera, unable to earn revenues from touring abroad. If you’re interested in the state of contemporary Russian theatre, the Maly Drama Theatre, Baltic House and the Priyut Komedianta Theatre are particularly worth checking out.

Feature: Sergei Kuryokhin

A key figure in the Leningrad undergound and a national star of the avant-garde in post-Soviet Russia, Sergei Kuryokhin (1954–96) is little known outside his homeland, but he casts a long shadow over St Petersburg's music and art scene. As an accomplished musician, activist, actor, artist and writer Kuryokhin became a big star during the years of glasnost, even collaborating with local supergroup Akvarium on several albums, and starring in several popular countercultural films. He remains perhaps best known for scandalising Soviet society during the last days of the USSR by claiming on a TV show to have evidence that Lenin had been a mushroom. He died suddenly in 1996 from a heart condition, but his legacy of nonconformism and artistic originality is continued at the Kuryokhin Centre, temporarily located in the city centre while its original home in an old cinema on Vasilyevsky Island is rebuilt, and in the annual Sergei Kuryokhin International Festival (SKIF), a celebration of avant-garde music, performing and visual arts.

Sidebar: Best Artist House-Museums in St Petersburg

  • Rimsky-Korsakov Flat–Museum (Smolny & Vosstaniya)
  • Chaliapin House–Museum (Petrograd & Vyborg Sides)
  • Anna Akhmatova Museum at the Fountain House (Smolny & Vosstaniya)
  • Brodsky House–Museum (Historic Heart)

Sidebar: Five Classic Petersburg Albums

  • Kino – Gruppa Krovi
  • Leningrad – Piraty XXI Veka
  • Akvarium – Peski Peterburga
  • DDT – Chorny Pyos Peterburg
  • Dva Samolyota – Ubitsy Sredi Nas

Sidebar: Leningrad

One of the city's top rock bands in recent decades has been Leningrad (http://leningrad.top), a 14-piece ensemble led by Sergey Shnurov and playing what has been described as gypsy punk.

Sidebar: Romeo & Juliet

Of the huge range of productions it’s possible to see at the Mariinsky Theatre, Prokofiev’s thoroughly modernist ballet Romeo and Juliet is perhaps one of the most enjoyable. It premiered on this very stage in 1940 and has changed little since – a true classic.

Sidebar: The Nose

For a surreal night at the opera, treat yourself to tickets to the Mariinsky’s production of Shostakovich’s The Nose, based on the satirical short story by Nikolai Gogol about a socially aspirant bureaucrat who wakes up one morning to find his nose has left him and is gadding around town.

Sidebar: Shostakovich & Stalin

For an engaging account of how culture and politics became intertwined during the early Soviet period, read Solomon Volkov’s Shostakovich and Stalin, which examines the fascinating relationship between two of the main representatives of each field.

Sidebar: The Stroll

A charming and whimsical film, Alexey Uchitel’s The Stroll (Progulka, 2003), follows three young Petersburgers as they wander around the city getting into all sorts of situations, from a soccer riot to an argument between friends and a rainstorm. Great for St Petersburg local colour.

Sidebar: Russian & Soviet Theatre

For a comprehensive rundown of the history of drama from classical staging to the revolutionary works of Meyerhold and Mayakovsky, see Konstantin Rudnitsky’s excellent Russian and Soviet Theatre: Tradition and the Avant-Garde.

Literature

St Petersburg’s very existence, a brand new city for a brand new Russia, seems sometimes to be the stuff of fiction. Indeed, its early history is woven into the fabric of one of Russia’s most famous epic poems, Pushkin’s The Bronze Horseman, which muses on the fate of the city through the eyes of Falconet’s famous equestrian statue of Peter the Great. In just three centuries the city has nurtured more great writers than many cities do over a millennium.

Romanticism in the Golden Age

Among the many ways that Peter and Catherine the Great brought Westernisation and modernisation to Russia was the introduction of a modern alphabet. Prior to this time, written Russian was used almost exclusively in the Orthodox Church, which employed an archaic and incomprehensible Church Slavonic. During the Petrine era, it became increasingly acceptable to use popular language in literature and this development paved the way for two centuries of Russian literary prolificacy, with St Petersburg at its centre.

Romanticism was a reaction against the strict social rules and scientific rationalisation of previous periods, exalting emotion and aesthetics. This was the dawn of what is known as the Golden Age of Russian literature. Nobody embraced Russian romanticism more than the national bard, Alexander Pushkin (1799–1837), who lived and died in St Petersburg. Most famously, his last address on the Moyka River is now a suitably hagiographic museum, its interior preserved exactly as it was at the moment of his death. The duel that killed him is also remembered with a monument on the likely site.

Pushkin’s epic poem Yevgeny Onegin (Eugene Onegin in English) is partly set in the imperial capital. Pushkin savagely ridicules its foppish aristocratic society, despite being a fairly consistent fixture of it himself for most of his adult life. The wonderful short story The Queen of Spades is set in the house of a countess on Nevsky pr and is the weird supernatural tale of a man who uncovers her Mephistophelean gambling trick. Published posthumously, The Bronze Horseman is named for the statue of Peter the Great that stands on pl Dekabristov. The story takes place during the great flood of 1824. The main character is the lowly clerk Yevgeny, who has lost his beloved in the flood. Representing the hopes of the common people, he takes on the empire-building spirit of Peter the Great, represented by the animation of the Bronze Horseman.

Dostoevsky & Gogol

No other figure in world literature is more closely connected with St Petersburg than Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821–81). He was among the first writers to navigate the murky waters of the human subconscious, blending powerful prose with psychology, philosophy and spirituality. Born in Moscow, Dostoevsky moved to St Petersburg to study in 1838, aged 16, and he began his literary and journalistic career there, living at dozens of addresses in the seedy and poverty-stricken area around Sennaya pl, where many of his novels are set.

His career was halted – but ultimately shaped – by his casual involvement with a group of young freethinkers called the Petrashevsky Circle, some of whom planned to overthrow the tsar. Nicholas I decided to make an example of some of these liberals by having them arrested and sentencing them to death. After a few months in the Peter & Paul Fortress prison, Dostoevsky and his cohorts were assembled for execution. As the guns were aimed and ready to fire, the death sentence was suddenly called off and the group was committed instead to a sentence of hard labour in Siberia. After Dostoevsky was pardoned by Alexander II and returned to St Petersburg, he wrote Notes from the House of the Dead (1861), a vivid recounting of his prison sojourn.

The ultimate St Petersburg novel and literary classic is Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866). It is a tale of redemption, but also acknowledges the ‘other side’ of the regal capital: the gritty, dirty city that spawned unsavoury characters and unabashed poverty. It’s a great novel to read before visiting St Petersburg, as the Sennaya district in which it’s largely set retains its dark and sordid atmosphere a century-and-a-half later.

In his later works, The Idiot, The Possessed and The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky was explicit in his criticism of the revolutionary movement as being morally bankrupt. A true believer, he asserted that only by following Christ’s ideal could humanity be saved. An incorrigible Russophile, Dostoevsky eventually turned against St Petersburg and its European tendencies. His final home near Vladimirskaya pl now houses the Dostoevsky Museum, and he is buried at Tikhvin Cemetery within the walls of the Alexander Nevsky Monastery, a suitably Orthodox setting for such a devout believer.

Amid the epic works of Pushkin and Dostoevsky, the absurdist short-story writer Nikolai Gogol (1809–52) sometimes gets lost. But his troubled genius created some of Russian literature’s most memorable characters, including Akaki Akakievich, tragicomic hero of The Overcoat, and the brilliant social climber Major Kovalyov, who chases his errant nose around St Petersburg in the absurdist masterpiece The Nose. Gogol came to St Petersburg from his native Ukraine in 1829, and wrote and lived here for a decade before spending his final years abroad. He was not impressed by the legendary capital: in a letter to his mother he described it as a place where ‘people seem more dead than alive’ and complained endlessly about the air pressure, which he believed caused illness. He was nevertheless inspired to write a number of absurdist stories, collectively known as The Petersburg Tales, which are generally recognised as the zenith of his creativity.

Symbolism in the Silver Age

The late 19th century saw the rise of the symbolist movement, which emphasised individualism and creativity, purporting that artistic endeavours were exempt from the rules that bound other parts of society. This was the start of Russian literature's Silver Age and the outstanding figures of this time were the philosopher–poet Vladimir Solovyov (1853–1900), novelist Andrei Bely (1880–1934) and poet Alexander Blok (1880–1921) as well as the poets Sergei Yesenin (1895–1925), Nikolai Gumilev (1886–1921) and Anna Akhmatova (1889–1966). The Stray Dog Café, an underground bar just off pl Iskusstv (Arts Sq), was a popular meeting place where symbolist writers, musicians and artists exchanged ideas and shared their work; it's still there today.

Blok and Bely, who both lived in St Petersburg, were the most renowned writers of the symbolist movement. While Bely was well known and respected for his essays and philosophical discourses, it is his mysterious novel Petersburg for which he is remembered. The plot, however difficult to follow, revolves around a revolutionary who is hounded by the Bronze Horseman (the same statue that harasses Pushkin’s Yevgeny) and is ordered to carry out the assassination of his own father, a high-ranking tsarist official, by his revolutionary cell. Many critics see Bely’s masterpiece as a forerunner of Joyce’s far later modernist experiments in Ulysses, even though Petersburg wasn’t even translated into English until the 1950s.

Blok took over where Dostoevsky left off, writing of prostitutes, drunks and other characters marginalised by society. Blok sympathised with the revolutions and he was praised by the Bolsheviks once they came to power in 1917. His poem The Twelve, published in 1918, is pretty much a love letter to Lenin. However, he later became disenchanted with the revolution and consequently fell out of favour; he died, sad and lonely, in 1921, before his fall out with the communists could have more serious consequences. In one of his last letters, he wrote, ‘She did devour me, lousy, snuffling dear Mother Russia, like a sow devouring her piglet’. The flat where he spent the last eight years of his life is now a museum.

Revolutionary Literature

The immediate aftermath of 1917 saw a creative upswing in Russia. Inspired by social change, writers carried over these principles into their work, pushing revolutionary ideas and ground-breaking styles.

The trend was temporary, of course. The Bolsheviks were no connoisseurs of culture; and the new leadership did not appreciate literature unless it directly supported the goals of communism. Some writers managed to write within the system, penning some excellent poetry and plays in the 1920s; however, most found little inspiration in the prevailing climate of art ‘serving the people’. Stalin later announced that writers were ‘engineers of the human soul’ and as such had a responsibility to write in a partisan direction.

The clampdown on diverse literary styles culminated in the early 1930s with the creation of socialist realism, an art form created to promote the needs of the state, praise industrialisation and demonise social misfits. While Stalin’s propaganda machine was churning out novels with titles such as How the Steel Was Tempered and Cement, St Petersburg’s literary community was secretly writing about life under tyranny. The tradition of underground writing, which had been long established under the Romanovs, once again flourished.

Literature of Dissent & Emigration

Throughout the 20th century, many talented writers were faced with silence, exile or death as a result of the Soviet system. Many accounts of Soviet life were samizdat (literally ‘self-publishing’) publications, secretly circulated among the literary community. The Soviet Union’s most celebrated writers – the likes of Boris Pasternak, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Mikhail Bulgakov and Andrei Bitov – were silenced in their own country, while their works received international acclaim. Others left Russia in the turmoil of the revolution and its bloody aftermath, including perhaps St Petersburg’s greatest 20th-century writer, Vladimir Nabokov.

Born to a supremely wealthy and well-connected St Petersburg family in 1899, the 18-year-old Nabokov was forced to leave St Petersburg in 1917 due to his father’s previous role in the Provisional Government. Leaving Russia altogether in 1919, Nabokov was never to return to his homeland and died in Switzerland in 1977. His fascinating autobiography, Speak, Memory, is a wonderful recollection of his idyllic Russian childhood amid the gathering clouds of revolution, and the house he grew up in now houses the small, but very worthwhile, Nabokov Museum.

No literary figure is as inextricably linked to the fate of St Petersburg-Petrograd-Leningrad as Anna Akhmatova (1889–1966), the long-suffering poet whose work contains bittersweet depictions of the city she loved. Akhmatova’s family was imprisoned and killed, her friends were exiled, tortured and arrested, and her colleagues were constantly hounded – but she refused to leave her beloved city and died there in 1966. Her former residence in the Fountain House now contains the Anna Akhmatova Museum, a fascinating and humbling place.

Akhmatova was well travelled, internationally feted and an incorrigible free spirit who, despite having the chance after the revolution, decided not to leave Russia and go abroad. This decision sealed her fate: within a few years her ex-husband would be shot by the Bolsheviks, and decades of harassment and proscription would follow as Akhmatova’s work was denounced by Communist Party officials as ‘the poetry of a crazed lady, chasing back and forth between boudoir and chapel’.

However, as a reward for her cooperation with the authorities in the war effort, Akhmatova was allowed to publish again after WWII. Nonetheless, she was cautious, and she worked in secret on masterpieces such as Requiem, her epic poem about the terror. Through all this, her love for her city was unconditional and unblinking. Despite unending official harassment, Akhmatova outlived Stalin by over a decade. Her sad life is given a very poignant memorial opposite the Kresty Holding Prison, where the poet queued up for days on end to get news of her son following one of his many arrests.

When Nikita Khrushchev came to power following Stalin’s death in 1953, he relaxed the most oppressive restrictions on artists and writers. As this so-called ‘thaw’ slowly set in, a group of young poets known as ‘Akhmatova’s Orphans’ started to meet at her apartment to read and discuss their work. The star of the group was the fiercely talented Joseph Brodsky (1940–96), who seemed to have no fear of the consequences of writing about what was on his mind. In 1964 he was tried for ‘social parasitism’ (ie being unemployed) and was exiled to the north of Russia. His sentence was shortened after concerted international protests led by French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. He returned to Leningrad in 1965, only to immediately resume his thorn-in-the-side activities.

During Brodsky’s absence, Khrushchev had been overthrown and replaced by a more conservative Brezhnev. It was Brezhnev who came up with the plan to silence troublemaking writers by sending them into foreign exile. Brodsky was put on a plane to Germany in 1972, and the second wave of Russian émigré writers began.

Postcommunist St Petersburg Writing

The post-glasnost era of the 1980s and 1990s uncovered a huge library of work that had been suppressed during the Soviet period. Authors such as Yevgeny Zamyatin, Daniil Kharms, Anatoly Rybakov, Venedict Erofeev and Andrei Bitov – banned in the Soviet Union – are now recognised for their cutting-edge commentary and significant contributions to world literature.

Surprisingly, however, St Petersburg is not a magnet for Russian writers in the 21st century (unlike artists and musicians). The contemporary literary scene is largely based in Moscow, and, to some degree, abroad, as émigré writers continue to be inspired and disheartened by their motherland.

Action-packed thrillers and detective stories have become wildly popular in the 21st century, with Darya Dontsova, Alexandra Marinina and Boris Akunin ranking among the best-selling and most widely translated authors. Realist writers such as Tatyana Tolstaya and Ludmilla Petrushevskaya engage readers with their moving portraits of everyday people living their everyday lives.

Hearteningly, love of literature is an integral part of St Petersburg culture: ask any Petersburger what books they like to read and they’ll no doubt begin to wax rhapsodical on the Russian classics without any hesitation. Anyone with any degree of education in the city will be able to quote freely from Pushkin or Akhmatova, and reference a clutch of Dostoevsky novels or Nabokov short stories they’ve read.

Sidebar: Four Statues of Pushkin in St Petersburg

  • pl Iskusstv (Historic Heart)
  • Pushkin House (Vasilyevsky Island)
  • Pushkinskaya ul (Smolny & Vosstaniya)
  • Site of Pushkin’s Duel (Petrograd & Vyborg Sides)

Sidebar: The Sexual Labyrinth of Nikolai Gogol

If you want to get inside the mind of St Petersburg’s most surreal writer, try Simon Karlinsky’s explosive The Sexual Labyrinth of Nikolai Gogol, which argues that the key is understanding that the writer was a self-hating homosexual. Strongly supported by textual analysis, the book is convincing, if rather polemical.

Sidebar: Dostoevsky

Crime and Punishment may be on everyone’s reading list before they head to the northern capital, but another (far shorter) St Petersburg work from Dostoevsky is White Nights, a wonderful short story that has been adapted for cinema by no less than nine different directors.

Sidebar: Nikolai Gogol

An original interpretation of Gogol can be found in Vladimir Nabokov’s wonderful 1944 biography, Nikolai Gogol. Written in English by the polyglot Nabokov, it discusses in English the impact of much of Gogol’s Russian language – something quite inaccessible to most readers!