St Petersburg by Jonathan Miles – ‘300 years of murderous desire’

A compelling history of Russia’s northern capital features the deaths of countless serfs, the Nazi siege, post-Soviet crime – and tourist glamour

In 1811 the French woman of letters Madame de Staël arrived in St Petersburg to find herself enchanted by a city in which “a wizard with a wand had conjured all the marvels of Europe and Asia in the middle of a wasteland”. From the windows of the house she rented on the edge of Senate Square, De Staël could look down on the wizard himself. Étienne Falconet’s statue of Peter the Great, commissioned by Catherine the Great as a homage to her predecessor (and as a means of cementing her own claims to legitimacy), is the very embodiment of autocratic resolve. Peter bestrides a horse that tramples the serpent of Sweden beneath its hooves as it rears up on its hind legs at the edge of its ...