A Literary Introduction to St. Petersburg, Russia

by Elena on February 7, 2011

Literary Guide to St Petersburg“This is a city of half-crazy people.  If we had any science, then physicians, lawyers, and philosophers could do the most valuable research on Petersburg, each in his own field.  One seldom finds a place where there are so many gloomy, sharp, and strange influences on the soul of a man as in Petersburg.”  

Sridrigailov, in Crime and Punishment 

St. Petersburg’s wonderful architecture, history, ballet, opera, and museums are not the only things drawing visitors to this popular tourist city; St. Piter also attracts its fair share of literary buffs.  Described as ‘The most abstract and intentional city in the world’ by Dostoyevsky, this great Russian city has provided the stylized backdrop for many a classic and modern literary tome including work by Anna Akhmatova, Pushkin, Blok, and Gogol.  Fecund with political and cultural history, visitors can see the prison that inspired Akhmatova’s poetry in the Requiem cycle, the Statue of the Bronze Horseman that came to life in Pushkin’s eponymous poem, and the Hermitage Museum in which a young Vladimir Nabokov wooed his teenage sweetheart.     

St. Petersburg has long been used as a symbol in art and literature of the modern disorder of a rapidly changing Russia, with its complex streets a metaphor for a jumbled murderous mind in Crime and Punishment, and its neo-gothic architecture providing menacing and grotesque imagery in the stories of Gogol.  For Dostoyevsky fans there are a wealth of sites to visit in St. Petersburg as two-thirds of his oeuvre is set in the city.  A tour to St. Petersburg following in Dostoyevsky’s footsteps would not necessarily take you to the popular tourist spots as the writer concentrated more on the lower-class residents of the great city rather than the stylish promenades of the Nevsky Prospekt. 

Alexander Pushkin Statue

Statue of Pushkin at the Russian Museum

Focusing on the area bordered by the Moika river, and the Haymarket (Sennaia Ploshchad), Dostoyevsky‘s anti-hero Raskolnokov lived in Carpenter Lane and walked around the Chapel on the Nikolaevsky bridge.  The pawnbroker’s house is at 104 Ekaterinninsky chanel and Sennaia square is where Raskolnikov falls to his knees to ask for salvation.  At the end of an exhausting day of literary sightseeing you can head to the Idiot cafe for a well deserved drink and pirozhki, with the cafe packed full of antiquarian furniture and books of the great writer’s era; the food’s a little fresher, thankfully.     

Clerks and Axe-Murderers in St Petersburg’s Literary Canon

Many a poor clerk worrying away at his work in a hierarchy-obsessed society has pounded the streets of St. Petersburg and scurried across the pages of a Pushkin volume.  And in more modern literary works, these famous scribes have come back to haunt the residents of the city and, perhaps, remind them that little changes in the world of politics and societal unrest.  In J.M. Coetzee’s 1995 work, ‘The Master of Petersburg’, Dostoyevsky embarks on a spiritual quest to locate his stepson who died in a peculiar fashion in 1869.  Other modern works include Valentina Luellen’s ‘The Countess’, published in 1980 but set in Tsar Peter III’s 1760 court of St. Petersburg and documenting the love affair between a countess and a lowly Cossack.  If you’ll pardon the pun, the attraction of St. Petersburg to the curious writer comes to a head, perhaps, in R.N. Morris’s ‘The Gentle Axe’ (2007).  This story set in 19th Century St. Pite’s details the discovery in a city park of a dead man hanging from a tree with a blood-soaked axe tucked in his belt and then a case is found, containing a dwarf, seemingly killed by an axe. I won’t spoil the ending…    

Classic Russian Literature – Courtesy of Peter the Great.

The origins of the Russian literary canon can be traced back to the crowning of Peter the Great in 1862 which inaugurated a prosperous period in art and culture for the residents of St. Petersburg.  Prior to his reign there was no real literary language in Russia and the illiteracy of all but the religious members of society and the odd aristocrat or two meant that Russia had an awful lot of catching up to do.  Gathering ideas from the rest of Europe, Peter the Great ushered in a secular press and the foundations of a literary movement to rival any of the Western countries he so admired.  St. Petersburg was at the forefront of this movement, with literary salons popping up, philosophical questions thrashed out in smokey rooms, journals founded covering literature and politics, and philosophical traditions and tenets imbibed, digested and turned on their head by some of the most respected minds of the 19th and 20th centuries.    

St Petersburg’s Writers


turgenev statue st petersburg

Manezhnaya Ploshchad is home to the statue of Turgenev, who lived, loved, and worked in the area nearby.

Some of the writers whose work is connected with St. Pite’s include:    

  • Anna Akhmatova
  • Andrei Bely
  • Aleksandr Blok
  • Joseph Brodsky
  • Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • Nikolai Gogol
  • Daniil Kharms
  • Vladimir Mayakovsky
  • Osip Mandelstam
  • Vladimir Nabokov
  • Alexander Pushkin
  • Leo Tolstoy
  • Ivan Turgenev
  • Yevgeny Zamyatin
  • Mikhail Zoshchenko

Literary Influences

Even writers, such as Leo Tolstoy and Andrei Bely, who did not live in St. Petersburg for any length of time have had cause to write extensively about its influence and importance to them.  The Nobel Prize-winning author Joseph Brodsky has written numerous essays on life in St. Petersburg as both and insider and an outsider with key works including “A Guide to a Renamed City” in the selected essays entitled ‘Less Than One’.     

With Stalinist era poetry by Akhmatova, and the broody and grotesque works of Dostoyevsky, St. Petersburg is sure to continue to inspire writers the world over and is high on the list of must-see cities for budding scribes.  If Baron von Munchausen had such incredible adventures on his way to the city in Rudolf Raspe’s work of 1785, just imagine the delights that await you now!    

To learn more about visiting the “Venice of the North” and seeing all the splendor of St Petersburg, Russia please contact Ulkotours today!

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