Reflections on reading in St Petersburg

By | August 11, 2013

I’ve recently returned from a Baltic cruise on P&O’s Arcadia– a wonderful holiday, with the highlight being the two days we spent in St Petersburg. The Peterhof Palace, the Hermitage and Winter Palace, the Catherine Palace at Tsarskoye Selo – these are all settings that have all featured in so many of the books I’ve read over the years, and it was wonderful to finally experience the city itself and the restored opulence of the royal palaces.

I always try to read something suitable for the place I’m visiting, and this time I chose The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons.  It was really far too long, and took me over a fortnight to read, but I thought the descriptions of the siege of Leningrad were exceptionally well done and really brought the city to life for me. At one point we passed a tram, preserved as a memorial to those who lost their lives in the siege of Leningrad – the day the trams stopped running was the day the residents of Leningrad lost hope of survival. In the novel, hope was restored when tulips and cabbages started to grow in front of St Isaac’s cathedral: on the tour, we also saw the roof garden at the Hermitage where they continued to grow vegetables to help survive. It was also easy to understand how Leningrad could be so isolated and vulnerable – on a spit of land between Lake Ladoga, the Neva river and the Baltic Sea, with a hill behind… Sadly, I was less engaged by the love story – I found some of the long conversational exchanges a bit slow (and skip read) and some of the adventure/action sequences left me a bit cold too. I’m glad I’ve finally got round to reading it, but I don’t think I’ll be tackling the rest of the trilogy.

So what would I recommend as reading for anyone making a similar trip?  The book that kept coming to mind as I wandered the sumptuous royal palaces was The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak.  I enjoy novels with historical settings but not those about real historical characters, but this novel had an original twist by telling the story of the young Catherine the Great through the eyes of the fictional character Varvara, the bookbinder’s daughter, who becomes a “tongue” in the Winter Palace. It’s full of rich detail about life in the palace, clearly backed up by extensive research, and features a really engaging and likeable lead character. I’d highly recommend it to bring the history to life – and it’s a beautifully written easy read.

Another, rather different, one I’d recommend would be The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean.  As the German army approaches Leningrad in 1941, Marina is working as a tour guide at the Hermitage when the staff are instructed to remove all the artworks for removal and safe keeping, but leaving the frames behind as a symbol of hope for their return. To keep a grip on reality during the long siege, she constructs a “memory palace”, her own mental Hermitage where she can retreat to escape hunger and terror. This book is, I think, something of an undiscovered gem, and a perfect read for such a trip.

Another book I loved was The House of Special Purpose by John Boyne.  Anything with a focus on Nicholas and Alexandra always does it for me, and

this one was a fantastic read. There are two story lines, a modern story working backwards and a conventional historical story working towards the time of the revolution. It really does have it all – a terrifying Rasputin, the luxury of the royal palaces, superb portrayal of a life of privilege, and an all-consuming love story. The last line – “So this is what it means to be alone” – had me sobbing my heart out. Superb writing and highly recommended.

One thought on “Reflections on reading in St Petersburg

  1. Marie Monaghan

    I am so glad to hear you had a great trip! I absolutely love St Petersburg, it's probably my favourite ever holiday destination and I can't wait to go back some day. I'm actually reading a book set there now, too, although it's an old classic rather than anything contemporary – Oblomov.

Comments are closed.