And though Moscow may lead the way in those three things it’s the northern capital, Saint Petersburg, that arguably has the better books – and they do argue over it. The rise of Petersburg, the window onto Europe built in 1703 on a swamp where no city should ever have been, coincides with the era of classic Russian literature, and this cultural city has a wealth of works written in it, about it, and for it. Here are five of the best.
Nikolay Gogol’ – Nevskiy Prospekt (1835)
The Gogol’ short story Nevskiy Prospekt takes its name from the city’s main street; it recalls the tales of messrs Piskaryov and Pirogov, who each espy a woman walking there. Here though is where the similarities end, and what follows – who they think their respective woman is, who she turns out to be, and what fate has in store for them – reveals itself as something not quite the same, with consequences both entertaining and tragic. Petersburg is a city of contradictions and juxtapositions and its literature is no different: Gogol’ will tell us to never trust that Nevskiy Prospekt! Everything is an illusion, a dream, and nothing is as it seems.
Sergey Dovlatov – The Suitcase (1986)
In 1979 dissident writer Dovlatov left the USSR for America with one suitcase. This cycle of stories is him unpacking it and telling episodes of his old Petersburg life through the items of clothing he took with him, much of which fell off the back of a lorry. Not the best book to debunk your myths about the Soviet Union and definitely the funniest work on this list, with Dovlatov the Russian writer you would most want to go for a drink with. Indeed, The Suitcase is a brilliant entry point to Russian literature as a whole.
Andrey Belyy – Petersburg (1913)
One of the things with Russian literature is that everyone has read everyone else’s work; traditions run strong, and writers work off and develop them. Thus when in 1913 a Russian writer, Andrey Belyy, actually wrote a book called Petersburg, about the 1905 Revolution and one particular revolutionary given the task of assassinating his own Tsarist father, you could expect it to draw heavily on the Petersburg genre in Russian literature. And it does, with the ever-present theme of an unnatural man-made construction at odds with the world, but with a modernist twist and Belyy – a poet writing prose – lends a style to the work that makes it unlike anything else here.
Nikolay Gogol’ – The Overcoat (1842)
Another from Gogol’, who found Petersburg so interesting he wrote a series of five stories dedicated to the place, the so-called Petersburg Tales, another of which deserves a place here. Copy clerk Akakiy Akakievich sees the coat, wants it, gets it, loses it, and comes upon it again. This tale is the Petersburg motif of the little man up against forces bigger than him, the supernatural, the weather, the city itself. The Overcoat with all its creative potential exerted a huge influence on future Russian writers. We all came from Gogol’’s overcoat, said Dostoevskiy. Speak of the devil.
Fyodor Dostoevskiy – Crime and Punishment (1866)
Rodion Raskol’nikov is unusual for a student in St Petersburg in that he is driven to murder. Or more correctly drives himself. Dostoevskiy, who lived in the city for much of his life, tells a detective story that is not a detective story: an account of conviction, guilt, madness and humanity, all in the streets, alleys and buildings of Saint Petersburg. There’s a joke among the work’s detractors that the crime was to write it and the punishment was to read it. In fact, the crime was to tell jokes like that, and the punishment is you’re missing out on a really good book.
The Bronze Horseman, The Queen of Spades (both Pushkin) The Nose, The Portrait, Diary of a Madman (all Gogol’), Notes from Underground, The Idiot (both Dostoevskiy), Requiem (Akhmatova)