St. Petersburg: Madness, Murder, and Art on the Banks of the Neva
by Jonathan Miles
Pegasus Books, 2018
Jonathan Miles, author of The Wreck of the Medusa, concentrates in his new book on the long and flamboyantly storied history of one city – St. Petersburg: Madness, Murder, and Art on the Banks of the Neva unfolds the biography of the complex founded in 1703 by Peter the Great and re-named half a dozen times in the ensuing centuries.
It's an appealingly elastic framework in which to retell the outsized stories that feature in the city's history, and Miles is a first-rate storyteller. He gives readers large chunks of energetic prose about Peter the Great, large chunks of energetic prose about Catherine the Great, and large chunks of energetic prose about Lenin and Stalin, all the while tracing the lives of the city's ordinary inhabitants through times of prosperity and famine, cosmopolitan comfort and siege.
The prose can occasionally be oddly flat-footed, particularly when Miles is scene-setting instead of detail-digging; “Catherine was Peter the Great's worthy heir,” he writes at one point, for instance, “and, in the last years of her reign, the empress sat confidently in her palace, while the cannonading between the Swedish and rehabilitated Russian fleets off Kronstadt rattled the windows and rifled her ears.” But the reach of the narrative is impressive and uniformly welcoming to the general reader, and the team at Pegasus Books has loaded the book with illustrations to further make this a volume non-specialists can read to acquaint themselves with the history of the place.
Things can occasionally get just a trifle too welcoming, with passages like this one about contemporary St. Petersburg:
Freedom of speech was under attack, as democracy was edged out by the Putin machine. One of his first acts as president was to silence independent television. In April 2015, a building on Shavushkina Street in north-west Petersburg was pinpointed as the HQ of Russia's Internet trolls, who spend their days slipping praise for Putin and defamation of Western democracy across Internet forums and social networks. While the strengthening state successfully restrained the gang culture of a decade earlier, its officials engaged in protection and extortion.
That anonymous building on Shavushkina Street gets a simple declarative sentence that isn't even conclusive; the nest of Russian Internet trolls is merely “pinpointed,” with precious little more said about it and with that semi-approving mention of curtailing gang activity coming so hard on its heels that it seems almost folded into the passage, one thing among many – even though that nest of trolls wasn't merely “pinpointed” but identified in great detail, a grey place of round-the-clock shifts bent solely on undermining democracy in the West and especially the United States. That troll HQ is still in operation on Shavushkina Street, fully funded and protected by the Putin government, and every week the West learns more about the extent of the damage it's wrought and is wreaking.
It's possible that this hint of detachment is intentional, that Miles is trying to take a more distanced, historian's view of this one city that is his subject. But for some readers less distanced, the book's final pages have a “and now we take our leave of scenic Petersburg” flavor that can be more than a little sour in light of the day's news. “Whether it is a break-dancer who bursts into a metro carriage and begins to gyrate as the train starts to move,” Miles writes in farewell, “a ghostly street artist promenading the nighttime Nevsky or the architecture renovated for the tercentennial celebrations, St Petersburg remains truly theatrical.”
Those theatrics get a full and colorful staging in St. Petersburg, and they're well done. And for the rest of the story, well, readers have plenty of more ephemeral daily sources.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.