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Jonathan Miles: St Petersburg review - culture and calamity | reviews, news & interviews

Jonathan Miles: St Petersburg review - culture and calamity

Jonathan Miles: St Petersburg review - culture and calamity

'Murderous desire': a visceral history of Peter the Great's city

Lord of all he surveys: Peter the Great in the heart of his city

Talk about survival: St Petersburg, Petrograd, Leningrad, now again St Petersburg, all the same city, has it nailed down. It was founded through the mad enthusiasm, intelligence, determination and just off-the-scale energy of Peter the Great in 1703, built on the bodies of around 30,000 labourers (not the 300,000 that later rumours have suggested) at the whim of an Emperor.

You can visit his original wooden cabin there today; the nobles he ordered, on pain of forfeiting titles and wealth, to come and live in his new city had to build in stone.

It has been at times the capital of Russia. Its tenaciously stubborn population ensured the city survived endless Stalinist purges in the 1930s (estimate: a third of the population gone) and the appalling siege of Leningrad (estimate: some 700,000-1.5 million dead of disease and starvation over nearly 900 days in 1941-1944). One of the most stirring pieces of music ever, premiered in the stricken city by dying musicians, is Shostakovich’s Seventh, the Leningrad. And what did Leningrad do after the war, bankrupt and bereft, but rebuild all the burnt and destroyed Tsarist palaces in and around the city, from Peterhof to Tsarkoye Selo? The story of Russia and St Petersburg is of a country and a city scarred externally, yes, but often with self-inflicted wounds.

Jonathan Miles: St PetersburgThe rather melodramatic sub-title of this exhaustive history, "Three Centuries of Murderous Desire", is perhaps just a crude attempt to explain, or at least lay out, the enormous contradictions of this magnificent city. Even after the dissolution of the USSR, Russia is still the largest country in the world, with some 143 million people today but fighting against population decline. St Petersburg, its second largest city, is less than half the population of Moscow. For centuries Russia has punched above its weight both politically and culturally, its shadowy influence inescapable. On all such terms St Petersburg, although situated on Russia’s western edge, has been at its centre.

The political story is about the Romanovs, including that colossus, the minor Prussian princess who would become Catherine the Great. Surrounding characters range from Potemkin, Catherine’s youthful military lover, to the mad monk Rasputin centuries later. One can hardly get one’s head round the cultural roll call: Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Prokofiev, Diaghilev, Rachmaninov, Stravinsky, Anna Akhmatova, to name but few (although some would go west). It was to the city’s Finland Station that Lenin returned from exile in Switzerland in April 1917, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Recently there has been a plethora of new books on Russian history in all its guises, from the Romanovs to Communism, partly because western scholars have had access to hitherto closed archives. Such scholarship in book form has been complemented by a host of exhibitions of Russian art, and indeed biographies like that of The Hermitage, St Petersburg’s great museum, as well as new guide books and anthologies.

So why more? And Jonathan Miles’ narrative is a lot of more, nearly 500 pages of narrative, 50 pages of notes, and 50 pages of bibliography which as well as books – including 18th century diaries – and articles takes in significant films, documentaries and television. His history has a substantial foundation, but what makes it special is the sheer inescapable momentum of Miles’s prose, powered by the captivating intensity of his attachment to his subject. This is a story told by a writer enthralled – and disillusioned, as he sees no redemption in sight. The conclusion is bleak: “Peter [the Great] wanted a window onto Europe. He aspired to Western style – he was left with Russia. Now the riches of that country are all tied up in offshore accounts, and 143 million citizens have been buried in the enterprise.” (Jonathan Miles, pictured below)

St Petersburg Jonathan MilesThe underlying conceit of this torrential flow of picturesque, absorbing fact is clarified: the sheer nerve of creating a city where none should have been built on an unnatural site of the Neva flood plain, with little strategic value in itself. As an early English visitor remarked, it had been built in spite of all the four elements: The earth is all a bog, the air is commonly foggy, the water sometimes fills half the houses, and the fire burns down half the town at a time.” As any visitor will know, the freezing climate is a challenge over the long winter, while the White Nights of the summer are all too brief.

Perhaps Peter the Great did more than found the city – he set the tone, described here in horrifying detail: the brutality, the Assembly described as “All-Mad, All-Jesting, All-Drunken”, its freaks and dwarves essential elements in spectacles fuelled by oceans of alcohol, all while one of the most beautiful cities in the world was being built. Jean-Jacques Rousseau suggested that Peter wanted to civilise the Russians, “when he should only have checked their brutality. He wanted to make them at once Germans and Englishmen, whereas he ought to have begun by making them Russians.” It is a story of the permutations of the secret police and spies, set alongside artists and architects, composers and literati imported from all over Europe to shape a new culture.

We are never quite told what Miles’s phrase “murderous desire” means, although violence and passion are the leading components of his city biography. His overwhelming concatenation of fact, observation and opinion is a dazzling history of a dazzling city over centuries of physical and political challenge. A survivor, yes: but Miles ends on a note of pessimism for its future within a country in such perpetual turmoil.

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