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 vast granite plinth, the “thunder rock”. With arm outstretched, the imperious horseman urges his steed into the void.
The sculpture remains to this day the preeminent symbol of the city that Peter founded in defiance of nature on the freezing marshes of the Neva delta in 1703. It was immortalised in Alexander Pushkin’s narrative poem “The Bronze Horseman”, which tells the story of the great flood of 1824 that engulfed entire neighbourhoods and washed away the lives and the homes of many of the city’s poor. Ever since, Falconet’s statue has represented one of the great fractures that runs through Russian history: the conflict between the ambitions of the rulers and the aspirations of the ruled. The bronze horseman emerges as the central motif, the “manifestation of the spirit of St Petersburg”, in Jonathan Miles’s cinematic telling of the 300-year history of Russia’s northern capital.
Link : St Petersburg by Jonathan Miles – ‘300 years of murderous desire’