St. Petersburg: Three Centuries of Murderous Desire

Written by Jonathan Miles
Review by Elizabeth Hawksley

I read this riveting book in horrified fascination. Founded in 1703 by Tsar Peter I, St Petersburg became famous for its magnificent buildings, fabulous art collections, and cultural achievements. Hundreds of thousands of serfs were forced to build the city on swampy and malaria-infested land; they lived in hovels and died in their thousands. There was little infrastructure, so buildings flooded each spring when the Neva burst its banks. The 18th-century tsars and tsarinas who ruled Russia from St Petersburg had unlimited wealth and absolute power, and advancement was granted at their personal pleasure. They were all alcoholic, sexually diseased, and several were murderously unstable. Revolutions in the 19th century forced European rulers to democratize but, in Russia, successive tsars chose to repress the serfs (90% of the population). Rather than risk revolution, the State Police sought out dissent and crushed it. When revolution finally hit St Petersburg in 1917, it was cataclysmic. During the subsequent Civil War, millions starved or were murdered by Soviet secret police; the terrible Siege of Leningrad in World War II; and Stalin’s megalomania. The repercussions are still with us. Miles brings us up to 2016, and his conclusions are not promising. Highly recommended.