Leningrad

The latest review on my website is of Sarah Quigley‘s The Conductor, set in Leningrad during the siege of that city by the Germans. Though I did not mention it in my review there was one minor annoyance with the book. The characters used plays on words in English which would not work in Russian. For example, Karl Eliasberg states that he is a conductor (as in orchestral conductor) but the lady he is speaking to thinks he means bus conductor. However, in Russian, an orchestral conductor is дирижер, while a bus conductor is кондуктор. A minor point but mildly annoying (to me, at least).

Anna Akhmatova

Amber Room

The blurb on the back points out rightly, that many of the cultural elite left Leningrad during the siege. This is certainly the case, particularly as regards musicians but two did stay behind, at least initially – Olga Bergholz and Anna Akhmatova. Akhmatova was born near Odessa but grew up in Tsarkoye Selo, about fifteen miles from St. Petersburg, home of an imperial palace, the Catherine Palace, famous for its Amber Room (which may have been destroyed or stolen by either the Germans or the Soviets but has since been restored). She lived in St Petersburg but was hounded by the authorities. Her first husband was shot and her second husband died in the gulag. Her son spent many years in the gulag but did survive. Her poetry was censored and, for many years, only circulated in samizdat. She is considered to be one of Russia’s greatest poets and certainly Russia’s greatest woman poet.

But Akhmatova is not the only writer associated with St. Petersburg. Though born in Moscow, Dostoyevsky spent much of his adult life in St. Petersburg, at least when not in exile. There are a couple of novels on my site which feature Dostoevsky and St. Petersburg – Leonid Tsypkin‘s Лето в Бадене (Summer in Baden-Baden) and J M Coetzee‘s The Master of Petersburg. Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, Mayakovsky, Blok, Mandelstam, Brodsky, Zamyatin and Nabokov are just some of the writers associated with St. Petersburg (Petrograd, Leningrad).

The Bronze Horseman

However, my favourite and the one who, for me, typifies St. Petersburg, is Andrei Bely and his novel Петербург (Petersburg). This novel which, amazingly enough, has been translated four times into English, has as its main characters a city (St. Petersburg) and a bronze statue – the Bronze Horseman and the poem written about it. If you have ever been to St. Petersburg, you will know that the photo does not and cannot do justice to the magnificence of Falconet’s statue, set by the River Neva. Bely’s novel is, in my view, one of the great novels of the twentieth century and is on my list of the ten best Russian novels of the century and would be top if I did my lists in numerical order. It is also on my list of the best novels of the century and while it would not be top, it would certainly be high up.

There are a few other novels on my site where St. Petersburg appears – Angela Carter‘s Nights at the Circus, David Mitchell‘s Ghostwritten, Kathy Acker‘s Don Quixote as well as Sarah Quigley‘s The Conductor, all, of course, very different novels. I haven’t read Metro Stop Dostoevsky but it had good reviews and seems to sum up St. Petersburg well from the point of view of an outsider.

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