Magazine article The Spectator

Sunlight at Midnight

Magazine article The Spectator

Sunlight at Midnight

Article excerpt

ST PETERSBURG AND THE RISE OF MODERN RUSSIA by W. Bruce Lincoln The Perseus Press, L19.99, pp. 419, ISBN 0330487949

It is not easy to write a bad book about St Petersburg and even Bruce Lincoln, who wrote an unreadable biography of Nicholas I, has not managed it; somehow the city's peculiar glamour always comes through. But it was a near thing. His writing is repetitious, which makes its omissions even more inexplicable (no reference to Charles Cameron or Rasputin, for example). He uses unconventional transliterations which look a bit silly on the page -- Tchaikovsky becomes 'Chaikovskii', Nijinsky 'Nizhinskii' etc. He also unforgivably perpetuates the myth that Tchaikovsky committed suicide, which has now been disproved. He is prudish - in an account of the Empress Elizabeth's love of celebrations he overlooks their most unusual feature, the transvestite balls. In fact the erotic life of St Petersburg is not dealt with at all, beyond saying that there were a lot of brothels.

He is essentially a political historian and his account of the arts is external, with a reliance on gosh-type statistics.

Each of the 48 columns that supported its four gigantic porticoes weighed over 110 tons, and its interior required 900 pounds of gold, a thousand tons of bronze, and 16 tons of rare Siberian malachite ...

This is St Isaac's Cathedral. That the Winter Palace was painted red before the Revolution is the sort of thing that's never mentioned.

More confident is his handling of economic and historical matters. There is a fascinating chapter on Nevsky Prospekt and a superb one on the siege of Leningrad, the best short account I've read. He teases out detail to inform us that Peter the Great freed women from social bondage and brought them for the first time into Russian court life; that St Petersburg had the highest mortality rate of any European capital; that the growth of French among its upper classes was less the pursuit of gentility and more to avoid eavesdropping by servants; that jazz was an important feature of its life in the 1920s; that the sale of artworks from the Hermitage by Stalin (especially to Calouste Gulbenkian and Andrew Mellon) only ceased in the early 1930s after the Depression had wrecked the art market. It is good to be reminded that only five people were executed in the 30-year reign of the famously autocratic Nicholas I and that the epitaph for the revolution was written as early as 1921 by the local Kronstadt sailors: `It has become impossible to breathe,' they declared, before being snuffed out. …

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