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10 Books to Read Before Visiting St Petersburg

Picture of Anastasiia Ilina
Updated: 15 January 2018
Understanding the culture of St Petersburg is a challenge that would take times to undertake. With the help of books written by locals, by passionate historians or just by people who simply love the city, one can try to see the different cites of the city that once held the title of Russia’s capital and has been through 300 years of turbulent historical events.

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Doestoevsky

Courtesy of Penguin Random House

This timeless classic from Fyodor Doestoevsky basically maps out all of St Petersburg as the reader follows Radion Raskolnikov, who commits a murder then lives with the consequences. As he questions his life choices and struggles to overcome the guilt of his crime, in despair he wonders through the streets of St Petersburg. With every turn he takes, Raskolnikov maps out the city, step by step, all the while contemplating about confessing his crimes.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Courtesy of Penguin Random House


Although many begin their acquaintance with Leo Tolstoy’s work by reading War and Peace, when en route to St Petersburg, it is best to immerse yourself in Anna Karenina. The main character, Anna Karenina, seems to have everything she could ever wish for: a wealthy home, a caring husband and a son. Yet she falls into a scandalous affair leading to her demise and judgement of society. The novel opens the doors of Russia’s noble homes and closely explores the concept of family, all against the backdrop of 19th-century St Petersburg.


Peter the Great: His Life and World by Robert K Massie

Courtesy of Penguin Random House

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel delves into the life of one of Russia’s greatest, yet controversial rulers. Massie’s novel explores the early years of the tsar, his early coming to power, anonymous travels around Europe and the ideas that he brought back that shaped the future politics of Russia. The book will help better understand the mind of the man, who built a city on a soggy marsh, making St Petersburg the grand capital of the Russian empire.


Plays and Petersburg Tales by Nikolai Gogol

Courtesy of Oxford University Press

A number of short stories written by Nikolai Gogol, Russia’s pioneer of the horror genre, in the 1830s and ’40s, were first included into a larger compilation of his works called the ‘Arabesque’. Later, a selection of these stories, namely Nevsky Prospekt, The Nose, The Portrait, The Overcoat, The Carriage, Diary of a Madman and Rome, were later independently completed into the Petersburg Tales series. What unifies these short stories is their exploration of the theme of ‘the little man’, an insignificant person just like many others in the streets. Gogol takes the reader through the streets of Saint Petersburg, introducing its inhabitants and their dreams and disappointments.

Petersburg by Andrei Bely

andrei bely

Set in the years leading up to the Russian Revolution, Petersburg tells the story of Nikolai Ableukov who was ordered by the radical group he is part of to murder his bureaucratic father. Nikolai is facing an internal dispute of disagreement with his father’s ideas and the love he feels for his father. Meanwhile, he is handed a bomb and forced to make a choice. Alongside the main plotline, the author also reflects on the history of St Petersburg and the city’s cultural past.

Midnight in St Petersburg by Vanora Bennet

Courtesy of Thomas Dunne Books

Midnight in St Petersburg tells the story of Inna Feldman who, following the anti-Jewish pogroms in 1911 in the south, flees her home to join her family in the former capital city of St Petersburg. She finds a job at a violin-making workshop and is instantly drawn by the city, which is engulfed in the rising tensions of revolution, as society is falling apart. Meanwhile, Inna falls in love with Yasha, an avid revolutionary, and at the same time becomes engrossed with one of St Petersburg’s most mysterious figures, Grigori Rasputin.


The Siege by Helen Dunmore

Courtesy of Penguin Random House

The Siege explores one of the most challenging times in Russia’s history. The Siege of St Petersburg lasted 872 days and the stories of survivors have found interpretation in various forms of art. Helen Dunmore’s novel is not a personal account, but is a touching story of the Levin family, who despite the terrors of the German invasion and the hardships of life, fight for survival in a desperate city. Dunmore focuses on how people managed to maintain their humanity in one of the cruellest sieges in the history of the world and how they managed to survive it all despite all odds.



St Petersburg: A Cultural History by Solomon Volkov

Courtesy of Free Press


Acclaimed Russian historian Solomon Volkov creates a cultural biography of the city in St Petersburg: A Cultural History. The reader is transferred to the city of the talented people who live and work there and who have shaped modern St Petersburg. Among them are as poets, such as Akhmatova and Brodsky, the composer Shostakovich and choreographer Balanchine. Volkov’s portrait of St Petersburg tells the stories of many citizens of the old capital, bringing them together to shape a portrait of St Petersburg culture.


The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons

Courtesy of Harper Collins

The story of The Bronze Horseman starts on the 22 June 1941, on the day Germany declares war on the Soviet Union, which changes the lives of two sisters and their family forever. While looking for food, one of the sisters, Tatiana, meets a young Red Army soldier, Alexander, and they fall in love, but their love has a secret that could mean death to anyone who finds it out.



The Suitcase by Sergei Dovlatov

Courtesy of Alma Books

When Sergei Dovlatov emigrated from the Soviet Union to the United States in 1979, he was allowed to take just one suitcase. Years later, he opens this suitcase to find eight items inside which bring back a surge of memories. Dovlatov dedicates a chapter of The Suitcase to each item and the story that comes with it. Thus each of these mini stories reveals a part of the author’s past and gives the reader a glimpse into the life of Soviet St Petersburg, then Leningrad, and its people.