The best books about modern St Petersburg

Catriona Kelly Author Of St Petersburg: Shadows of the Past
By Catriona Kelly

The Books I Picked & Why

City-pick St Petersburg

By Heather Reyes, James Rann, Marina Samsonova

City-pick St Petersburg

Why this book?

This is a great anthology in the City Picks series, with lots of different literary and essayistic texts about St Petersburg, including recent and offbeat ones as well as the classics. You can get lost in the place even if, for the moment, you can’t travel there!


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The Akhmatova Journals: Volume 1, 1938-1941

By Lydia Chukovskaya, Milena Michalski, Sylva Rubashova

The Akhmatova Journals: Volume 1, 1938-1941

Why this book?

Akhmatova was one of the most important poets in the city’s history, and here she is brought to life by an exceptionally talented diarist: elusive, but at times extremely frank, hesitant, vulnerable, while at the same time demanding. It is a riveting portrait. Chukovskaya also draws a fraught picture of Leningrad during the Stalinist Great Terror, as evoked in Akhmatova’s famous cycle of memorial poems, Requiem. Look out also for Chukovskaya’s novel about the Terror, Sofia Petrovna.


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Notes from the Blockade

By Lydia Ginzburg

Notes from the Blockade

Why this book?

You can’t understand modern St Petersburg without an awareness of its wartime history, and among many searing accounts of the Siege of Leningrad, this has the greatest philosophical depth. The translation by Alan Myers is excellent, and there are helpful notes by Emily van Buskirk.


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Leningradsky Photo Underground

By Valery Valran

Leningradsky Photo Underground

Why this book?

It’s hard these days to get a sense of what Leningrad looked like back in the 1960s and 1970s, and these photographs are also a tribute to the alternative art of that era: grainy black-and-white-images of stray dogs on rubbish tips, drunks in backyards, dilapidated façades stretching along the eerie silver of canals. The photographers included (such as Boris Smelov, Lev Zviagin, Slava Mikhailov, Boris Kudryakov and Olga Korsunova) aren’t nearly as well-known as they should be, and are as interesting in their way as the ubiquitous Boris Mikhailov. For a comparable figure who isn’t included in Val’ran’s book because her work was only discovered recently, see this site with Masha Ivashintsova’s work, curated by her daughter.


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One Hot Summer in St. Petersburg

By Duncan Fallowell

One Hot Summer in St. Petersburg

Why this book?

An extraordinary, high-pitched, Munchausenesque account of a visit to only-just-post-Soviet Leningrad during an especially overheated period of recent history. Not at all like the genteel memories of champagne receptions at the Mariinsky Theatre followed by strolls down the Moika during the White Nights that one gets in other travelogues.


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