In 1873, Fyodor Dostoevsky sat down at his desk to write a few impressions of everyday life in his home town of St. Petersburg. Read today, these sketches come as something of a shock. Few of the great figures of Russian literature are so closely identified with Petersburg as Dostoevsky, and yet, as his observations demonstrate, he was far from being a booster for the city. In his youth, as his biographer Joseph Frank points out in Dostoevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet, 1871–1881, Dostoevsky had regarded Petersburg’s mélange of architectural styles as inspiring proof that the Russian capital had succeeded in absorbing the best of European culture. But now, as his mental eye roams over the cityscape, all he can see is the “lack of character of the idea and all the negativity of the essence of the Petersburg period from its very beginning to its end.” The architectural aspirations of generations of aristocrats and emperors, tirelessly striving to imitate the best European models, Frank writes, have resulted in nothing but

an enormous, modern hotel…. Here we see the businesslike approach, Americanism, hundreds of rooms, an immense commercial enterprise; one sees immediately that we, too, have railways and we have suddenly found ourselves to be businessmen.

Then as now, needless to say, accusing something of American commercialism was not exactly to award it one’s vote of confidence. Elsewhere around the same time, in his letters and in his magnificent serial self-exploration called Diary of a Writer, Dostoevsky expands on his diagnosis of his city’s fundamental alienation from “Russianness.” He rails against the “corrupted Petersburg intelligentsia,” a sorry lot who stand at odds with “incomparably more genuinely Russian people.” He recalls his youthful sighting of a government courier, clad in Western clothes and “polished Petersburg boots” as he sat in his carriage on a Petersburg street, brutally beating his peasant driver. “The son of such a courier may be a professor, perhaps—a patented European,” notes Dostoevsky sarcastically. Again and again he obsessively circles back to the primal cause of this fatal schism in Russian national life, which turns out to be embodied in a single man, the eponymous founder of the imperial capital. It was none other than Peter the Great, Dostoevsky argues, who struck the fatal blow against the nation’s cultural continuity with his decision to impose European-oriented modernization on traditional society.

In so doing, Peter opened up a profound divide between the peasantry and an upper class who adopted the accoutrements of European culture and society as a way of sealing their own claim to rule. It was Peter’s institutionalization of serfdom that made peasants the property of their masters, stripped them of their freedom of movement and action, and provided the precondition for the comfortable life of the social elite. “We lack culture (which exists everywhere),” Dostoevsky writes in a letter, “and we lack it because of the nihilist Peter the Great.” The nihilist Peter the Great? Small wonder that Dostoevsky reserved such sentiments for his private correspondence. Surely the royal family of the Romanovs, whom Dostoevsky was otherwise eager to please, would have taken offense at this identification of their most illustrious ancestor with the rootless socialists of the late nineteenth century.

Dostoevsky was not alone in accusing St. Petersburg of embodying the soullessness of a country that had lost its primal way. The habit of badmouthing the city started almost the day it was born. No sooner did Peter announce his decision to build the new capital than his traditionalist foes began denouncing it as a creation of the “Antichrist” who was determined to destroy God’s chosen path for Orthodox Russia. For these critics, the floods that frequently threatened the young St. Petersburg were well-justified manifestations of the dawning Apocalypse. But conservatives weren’t the only ones. Some of the deepest doubts came precisely from the new caste of Europeanized intellectuals who emerged from Peter’s capital. Alexander Pushkin’s poem “The Bronze Horseman”—in which the city’s talisman, the famous bronze equestrian statue of Peter cast by Etienne-Maurice Falconet, comes to life and terrorizes a run-of-the-mill Petersburger who dared to indict the works of the Tsar—seized on a paradox that would preoccupy future generations of Petersburgers. By opening his “window on to Europe,” the poem suggests, Peter heroically defied the forces of nature in a grandiose display of imperial will, and in so doing laid the groundwork for a glorious synthesis of sophisticated European forms and tumultuous Russian creativity. But precisely in the vastness of its ambition this was a project that left little room for the vagaries of individual fate. Those who lived in Petersburg rarely forgot that the construction of the city that began in 1703 had claimed the lives of thousands of slave laborers through malnutrition, disease, and ill-treatment.


A few years later Nikolai Gogol wrote bitterly of Petersburg that the “idea of the city is emptiness taken to the highest degree.” W. Bruce Lincoln, in Sunlight at Midnight: St. Petersburg and the Rise of Modern Russia, writes that in a willful subversion of the rationalist instincts that governed the city’s design, Gogol saw instead a malevolent surrealism, a nasty flicker of false appearances. “The devil himself lights the street lamps only in order to show that everything is not really as it seems.” A half-century later the Symbolist Andrei Bely, in his brilliant novel St. Petersburg, used the same themes to transform his version of the city into the perfect avatar of modernist estrangement.1 Again and again, in a leitmotif that remains strikingly stable through the ages, its critics describe Petersburg as a stage set, a virulent abstraction, a string of European façades populated by actors aping European mores.2 By the turn of the twentieth century the disquiet inspired by St. Petersburg had even reached the Tsar himself. Nicholas II, the last emperor to inhabit the capital, detested the city for reasons quite similar to Dostoevsky’s: it was too European, too far from the country’s peasant roots.3 Ironically enough, Vladimir Lenin despised Petersburg precisely as the seat of tsarist tyranny—which didn’t stop his heirs from renaming the city in his honor.


These bad reviews are unlikely to be repeated much during this year, when St. Petersburg will mark its official tercentenary amid grand pomp and, one fears, rather tacky circumstance. Leaders from the G-8 countries (including the US president) and the European Union will arrive for summits and schmoozing during the official ceremony in May. They will convene at the Konstantinovsky, a one-thousand-room tsarist monstrosity just outside the city that President Putin has transformed into an “international conference center” at an estimated cost of $200 million. The grounds include a man-made island, a network of canals, and a pier on the Gulf of Finland. Putin recently appointed a special overseer to monitor the project after allegations that much of the money was being misappropriated. There will be visits by dignitaries from the countless cities that have planned associated cultural events, from New York to London to the European Cultural Capital of Graz, Austria. The only people missing, perhaps, will be the Petersburgers themselves. (In a wonderful reenactment of Petrine arrogance, the mayor of the city has already informed his citizens, or subjects, that they would be better off getting out of town during the festivities.) And we can be sure that all the well-wishers, as befits any benchmark birthday celebration, will have only good things to say about the city and its history.

They will almost certainly dwell on its history of immense cultural achievement, invoking the imposing buildings of the Hermitage, one of the world’s great art museums (and not only that); the Mariinsky Theater, with its surfeit of superior opera and ballet; and the seductive enfilades of the great rococo and neoclassical palaces rambling along granite-paved canals or the steep embankments of the immense Neva River. They will point out that most of what we think of as the Russian musical canon—the names of Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich all come to mind—emerged from Petersburg conservatories and concert halls. They will recall, perhaps, how Russian literature got its start as St. Petersburg literature, and how the two, indeed, largely overlap: first the early pathbreakers, Lomonosov and Derzhavin; then Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky; the luminous Silver Age poets Aleksandr Blok, Anna Akhmatova, and Osip Mandelstam; and the two great talents of postwar Russian letters, Joseph Brodsky and Andrei Bitov.

Tony Blair might dwell approvingly on the Anglomania of Petersburg’s cosmopolitan elite in the late nineteenth century or, more adventurously, on the English mercenaries and con artists who made their way to the place under Peter and his successors. Jacques Chirac could choose to talk about Di-derot’s sojourn in the city under Catherine the Great. And—though it is hard to imagine him doing so—George W. Bush could ruminate about the impossibility of imagining twentieth-century American culture without the contributions of Brodsky, George Balanchine, Igor Stravinsky, Vladimir Na-bokov, and Mikhail Baryshnikov—all Petersburgers who capitalized on their home city’s inbred cosmopolitanism to launch new careers abroad.

All of which is true enough. One would hope, though, that some of the well-wishers will at least consider the costs of this extraordinary output. The natural catastrophes—the floods and the fires and the vicious storms—that so unnerved Petersburg’s early citizens paled in comparison with later famines, wars, and tyrannical caprice. Often it is the political tragedies that stand out. For all his enlightening intentions, Peter’s own management style had its share of psychopathy. He loved putting his friends and subordinates through ritual humiliations, and he had his own son tortured to death.4


Catherine’s era exulted in artistic magnificence and international intercourse (in every sense of the word), but it also presented a brutal spectacle of government as organized crime. First the philosopher-empress seized power from her own husband in a putsch, then later acquiesced in his murder.5 President Chirac would be well advised to skirt the touchy subject of his countryman the Marquis de Custine, whose mid-nineteenth-century visit to Petersburg produced an analysis of Russian despotism that still remains eerily topical.6 World War I pushed Petersburgers into starvation, strikes, and revolution, but the losses would be even greater in the civil war that followed. By 1920 the city’s population had fallen to 35 percent of pre-revolutionary levels. Yuri Annenkov, an avant-garde Petersburg artist who later emigrated to Paris, recalled:

It was an era of endless hungry lines, queues in front of empty “produce distributors,” an epic era of rotten, frozen offal, moldy bread crusts, and inedible substitutes. The French, who had lived through a four-year Nazi occupation, liked to talk of those years as years of hunger and severe shortages. I was in Paris then, too—an insignificant shortage of some products, a lowering of quality in others, artificial but still aromatic coffee, a slight reduction in electric energy and gas. No one died of hunger on icy sidewalks, no one tore apart fallen horses, no one ate dogs, or cats, or rats.

And even this was tame compared with what was to come. The nine-hundred-day siege that began in 1941, when most of the population of the city then known as Leningrad found themselves trapped by Hitler’s invading forces, would take around one million lives. People endured horrors so nightmarish that open discussion of the details (concerning cannibalism, for example) would be banned for decades after the war.7

The temptation is to write off these cases as random breakdowns, the brutal tricks of history played on an undeserving victim. But one of the reasons for the persistence of the polemic over Petersburg, and the tenacity with which it clings to the city’s cultural products, is precisely the sense that this dark side was an intrinsic part of the city’s history. St. Petersburg wasn’t just an exercise in urban planning. It was a party program, a utopian mission, a work of political performance art. War was a prerequisite of the city’s founding, and casualties were factored in from the start.8 By putting his new capital on territory captured from a great European power, Sweden, on the shore of a European sea, Peter gave radical form to his plans to transform his hitherto marginal and cloistered country into a modern, expansionist empire. The construction of his capital was also an act of nation-building. The forms of the city would reflect the aspiration behind its creation—hence its strenuous gigantism, its copycat French and Italian architecture, its ministries and academies and museums tailored to examples borrowed from the Prussians or the Dutch.

To be sure, high culture had less of a part in the Tsar’s calculations than his determination to use European technology—and particularly military know-how—to improve Russia’s economy and boost its international status. His Westernizing impulses were not always benign. Compelling his citizens to shave off their beards and wear Western-style clothes was relatively harmless; but his reforms also subordinated the aristocracy to the patrimonial state, intensified state supervision of the Orthodox Church, and (as bemoaned by Dostoevsky) deepened and codified serfdom—all measures, one might argue, that would prevent the growth of European-style institutional arrangements for centuries to come. In so doing, Peter set a pattern of authoritarian modernization that would offer inspiration to many of his heirs. Subsequent Russian leaders from Catherine the Great to Stalin would cite Peter’s example to legitimize their own modernization efforts—and to undermine their opponents, invariably to brutal effect.

Still, for Russians who thought that the West had something positive to offer their country, Petersburg was the lodestar of their hopes. If visiting Europeans were often dazzled by the city’s beauty and the extravagance of its self-celebration, Russians tended to feel challenged but often also inspired by its rampant cosmopolitanism. Not surprisingly, where you stood on the question of Petersburg often reflected where you stood on Russia. As Orlando Figes argues in Natasha’s Dance,

The opposition between Moscow and St. Petersburg was fundamental to the ideological arguments between the Westernizers and the Slavophiles about Russia’s cultural destiny. The Westernizers held up Petersburg as the model of their Europe-led ideas for Russia, while the Slavophiles idealized Moscow as a centre of the ancient Russian way of life.

Petersburg became a fulcrum of Russia’s endless self-examination and struggle to define a stable identity—and that is a story that is not over yet.


Recently I went to see a senior Moscow politician, a former aide to Boris Yeltsin who was deeply involved in the first Chechen war. As we sat in the huge, sparsely furnished office in the headquarters of his tiny political party, the Muscovite told me that it was hopeless to expect today’s government officials to find an end to the current war in Chechnya. It was, he insisted, a matter of biography. “I went to college with people from the Caucasus. I have family ties to the region. I lived there for a while. So I understand how Chechens and other people in the area think.” But this was not true, he argued, of Vladimir Putin and his entourage. “These people who are in power now have no idea about that part of the country. They don’t understand that you can only comprehend the Caucasus with the heart. And how could they? They’re all Petersburgers. They’re people who think and don’t feel.” He snorted. “What else can you expect from a bunch of soulless robots?”

Comments of this sort are frequent in Russia these days, and the reason is clear enough. Today, for the first time since Lenin moved the capital to Moscow in 1918, St. Petersburg is once again preeminent. Thanks to the presidency of Vladimir Putin, a St. Petersburg native, the city has been experiencing an extraordinary political rehabilitation. When Putin returned to Russia in 1990, after his years of service in East Germany as an officer of the Soviet KGB, he made a quick career as the right-hand man of the city’s reformist mayor, Anatoly Sobchak. Putin would remain in the city until 1996, when Sobchak failed to be reelected, and it is safe to say that Putin learned most of his lessons about practical politics during his stint in St. Petersburg’s city government.

Since his rise to the presidency a little more than three years ago, Putin has been diligently working to shore up his hold on power by bringing in trusted allies from home. Today his Petersburg cronies hold virtually every key position in the national government—to the extent that it’s almost easier to list the positions they don’t occupy than the ones they do. The heads of most of the “force” ministries—the Federal Security Service (the former KGB), the police, the army—are all Petersburgers. Petersburgers also run the national electricity monopoly, the natural gas giant Gazprom, the Central Bank, and the Finance Ministry, the Economics Ministry and associated reform think tank. In the Kremlin itself, Petersburg is represented by Putin’s personal economic adviser and a young lawyer entrusted with legal and administrative reform—but also by a group of career KGB officers who serve as Putin’s gatekeepers and political fixers. And the list doesn’t end there.

One could, perhaps, bend the rules a bit and include two people who have not made the move to Moscow, instead using their positions in Petersburg to recast themselves as Russia’s most formidable cultural impresarios. Mikhail Piotrovsky, the director of the Hermitage, has brought his bewildering mountain of a museum to new vitality by embracing Western corporate sponsors as well as home-grown oligarchs, and he has done so with a ruthless adaptability that has yet to find its equal elsewhere in the country. The only cultural figure to come close to his entrepreneurial élan is Valery Gergiev, the brilliant conductor and artistic director of the Mariinsky Theater (the erstwhile Kirov). In the course of the 1990s Gergiev used his musical skill and manic organizational talents to transform the Mariinsky into Russia’s premier musical theater. More recently he has set off a huge public debate in Petersburg with his plans to entrust the theater’s urgently needed renovation (and the parallel construction of a huge new cultural center on a nearby island) to the extravagantly avant-garde American architect Eric Owen Moss. Forced to compromise after the original plans met with harsh criticism, Gergiev agreed earlier this year to a new competition that will include several international architects. But no one doubts that Gergiev will get his project in the end—not least because he enjoys Putin’s personal support.

The rise of the Petersburgers has already become the stuff of sarcastic commentary. One hears sly references to the “Northern Alliance” or the “Varangians” (i.e., the Scandinavian princes invited to restore good governance in chaotic Rus in the Middle Ages). Some of the talk reveals a mixture of envy, fear, and scorn. In one joke, a man enters a crowded Moscow trolleybus. Another passenger turns to him and asks, “Do you work in the Kremlin?” “No.” “Did you ever work in the KGB?” “No.” “Are you by any chance from St. Petersburg?” “No.” “Well, in that case, get off my foot.” Muscovites trade vengeful stories of the newcomers’ provincialism. “Petersburg was a cosmopolitan place before the revolution,” a Moscow friend insists, “but in Soviet times it might as well have been the deepest backwater.” There were no dissidents worth the name in Leningrad, say the Petersburg skeptics (ignoring that the poetry of Mandelstam and Akhmatova, among others, was implacably dissenting by its originality); others point out that the local KGB was particularly famed for its brutishness. The last Soviet show trial of dissidents took place in the city in 1986, and the KGB officer who handled the case, Viktor Cherkesov, has just been appointed by Putin to head a new federal anti-drug agency.

If you ask members of the “Northern Alliance” themselves, needless to say, they will treat you to long, loving disquisitions on why they represent a more refined species of Russian. They will explain to you why their city’s geography—just a few miles from Russia’s only direct border with the European Union—has left internationalism in their blood. Chronologically they prefer to focus on the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Leningraders, and then Petersburgers, supplied important inspiration for Russia’s democratic revolution.9 It is only logical, says this camp, that their soignée aristocrat of a city, the home of Russia’s last two Nobel Prize winners, would give birth to people like the reformer Sobchak or Dmitry Likhachev, the elegant professor of literature and Gulag survivor who served as a distinguished model and inspiration for Russian intellectuals, or prominent liberal economists such as Anatoly Chubais and Sergei Vasiliev, who were important in formulating the privatization efforts of Boris Yeltsin.10

Those who adopt this argument tend to skate over the point that Sobchak, Chubais, and some other putative democrats later became implicated in the general climate of mid-1990s malfeasance, and were accused of acts of corruption. Similarly, these days Petersburg is known less as a bastion of Westernizing cosmopolites than for its reputation as Russia’s “criminal capital,” a place where residents discuss mob hits with the blasé connoisseurship of soccer fans. The current administration of Governor Vladimir Yakovlev has a wide reputation for venality and corruption. Some rumors even implicated him in the 1998 murder of Galina Starovoitova, a much-beloved liberal politician from the city. Typically, the months preceding the tercentenary have been marked by widespread reports that budget funds earmarked for the restoration of architectural landmarks have been misused. The extent to which Putin himself had dealings with gangsters during his Petersburg period remains a subject of lively but inconclusive dispute.

And yet perhaps both sides—Petersburg’s fans as well as its critics—have a point. In the world beyond stereotypes, of course, it is entirely possible to be both a Nobel Prize winner and an anti-democrat (such as Zhores Alferov, a physicist and unrepentant Communist who was the last Petersburger to win the prize11 ). It is also possible to look toward Europe and admire its economic power while retaining deep skepticism about the extent to which European-style political institutions can be transplanted into a Russian setting—especially if, like the Petersburg political elite, your economic pragmatism has been tempered by a deep aversion to political risk ingrained by the long history of Stalinist purges specifically targeting the city.12

One former Petersburg dissident, the journalist Lev Lurie, described to me his own brushes with the Leningrad KGB in the 1970s and 1980s. The secret policemen all understood, he explained, that the Soviet Union’s economy was a total failure, and some of them spoke openly of the need to move toward a market system—right down to the creation of private restaurants and shops, heresy by the standards of the time. But, he added, their attitude was motivated by purely pragmatic considerations. “It had nothing to do with democracy. Democracy didn’t interest them at all.” What interested the secret police was efficiency and, perhaps, the opportunity to make some money for themselves on the side.

Now, after the turmoil of the 1990s, that same version of “pragmatism” is embodied in Putin and his Petersburg team. Question them a little more closely, and you won’t hear many of the “Westernizers” in his entourage pleading for greater democratic freedoms—just as the “Chekists,” the KGB veterans, seem to have few problems embracing neoliberal economics. After all, both sides understand perfectly well that they can only make Russia strong and prosperous by establishing an efficient market economy. But they also believe that trying to conduct political liberalization at the same time will lead (as it arguably did over the last decade) to corruption, administrative chaos, and organized crime that will conspire to subvert economic reform. Confronted by this dilemma, they have resorted to an updated version of the Russian model of top-down modernization exemplified by Petersburg itself. They have given priority to economic reform while going slow in improving democratic institutions; they have supplanted what some Petersburgers describe as the messy “romanticism” of the Yeltsin period, its improvisations and messy compromises, with a cool and ruthless “managed democracy” that has little time for such apparent luxuries as press freedom, independent parliaments, or peace in Chechnya. Still, there is one significant difference this time around, and one could describe it with a single word: modesty. Russia is beset by ecological disasters, mismanagement, and a decline in transport facilities and other infrastructure. It is threatened by AIDS and a dwindling birthrate, and dramatically dependent on trade with an interconnected world. In those conditions there can be no talk of sublime new ambitions of the kind that once inspired Peter to found his new capital on the shores of the Baltic Sea. A pity, some might argue. Still, perhaps it is not a bad thing that, nowadays, someone has to think about the costs, and not only indulge in dreams of grandeur.

This Issue

May 29, 2003