Now Arriving from : St. Petersburg

We’re back from our book-ish trip to St. Petersburg and the surrounding area – how was your adventure? Did you find something new and intriguing? Any Russian novels that are light and happy? Yeah, I didn’t hold out much hope for that last one!

I went with watching a movie this month and I chose the recent production of Anna Karenina starring Keira Knightley and Jude Law. I have to admit, I’ve never read Anna Karenina (#badlibrarian) but maybe that helped. I watched with no expectations (well, it’s from Russian literature – I knew it was going to be dark and depressing) and, while I disliked the story line, I found the movie to be both beautiful and interesting.

In case you don’t know the story, here’s a quick rundown. Set in Imperial Russia during the late-1800s, Anna is a young woman who has nearly everything – wealth, status, a beloved child. What she does not have, but doesn’t realize she’s missing, is a passionate marriage. When she meets cavalry officer Count Vronsky, sparks fly and they begin an intense affair. When the affair is publicly acknowledged, the scandal has far-reaching effects on everyone around them.

My objection to the story is how Anna is treated (which was most likely typical for this time period). Two people take part in the affair, but when it is revealed it is Anna that suffers the most. The Count is married off – willingly it seems – to a princess. Anna’s husband, cold and dull, gains sympathy and custody of the children (Anna has a daughter with the Count). Anna, however, is not allowed to see her children, is shunned by society, divorced by her husband and abandoned for another woman by her lover. Plus, it’s very cold all the time. No wonder she does what she does. There is also some commentary on the excessive wealth of the upper class versus the simpler lives of the peasants – a hint of the social unrest that Russia will soon face, but it is not fully explored (in this version of the book).

The movie itself is quite beautiful – the costumes and jewels are stunning, with lots of sumptuous furs and dark, rich colors. The production is shown as if you were watching it in a theater, albeit a theater with spectacular, moving, multi-level sets. The movements of the actors are also very theatrical, with lots of hand waving and synchronized standing and walking and sitting. Plus, there is the strangest, arm-waviest waltz I’ve ever seen. I may not have appreciated the story, but it was a fascinating movie to watch.

Now it’s your turn – what did you read or watch this month?

Now Departing for: St. Petersburg, Russia

Hello Online Reading Challenge Readers!

November has arrived and that means it’s time for our next destination – St. Petersburg!

Situated on the Baltic Sea in western Russia, St Petersburg has an interesting history. It’s relatively new (for Europe), having been established by Peter the Great in 1703. It served as the capital of Russia from 1713 to 1918 when the central government moved to Moscow. It has had several name changes, from St Petersburg to Petrograd (in 1914) to Leningrad (in 1924) and now back to St Petersburg (in 1991). It is considered more “Western” due to its proximity to the rest of Europe, than Moscow which is thought of as more traditional. St Petersburg has more tourist traffic and it has less of the “Soviet bloc” architecture than Moscow and, while there is no shortage of art and culture in Moscow, St Petersburg is considered to be more of a cultural mecca.

There are some great books set in St Petersburg, but somewhat limited in quantity. Because of that, I’m expanding this month to include Moscow (or, really, any setting in Russia you’d like to read about). Here are a few titles to get you started.

One of my favorite books is City of Thieves by David Benioff. Set during the siege of Lenningrad (as it was called then), it brings this horrific chapter of World War II vividly to life. Yet amongst the suffering there is friendship and joy and hope. I wrote about it in more detail here. Highly recommended.

Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay follows the memories of a retired Russian ballerina who lived through the Stalinist era. Her memories of the dark, Postwar years and what she did to survive are equal parts haunting and beautiful. Read more about it here.

If you like history, you may wish to read more about the last Tsar of Russa, Nicholas II and his family’s tragic story. Try The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport or The Romanovs: the Final Chapter by Robert Massie or the greatest mystery, Rasputin: Faith, Power and the Twilight of the Romanovs by Douglas Smith

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles is a relatively new book that has been getting a lot of positive buzz. Shortly after the Russian Revolution, a member of the nobility is sentenced to live the rest of his life in a hotel in Moscow. His watches and observes the changes that his country and the world go through, all from his small room above the city.

Of course, if you wish, you can go the classic route – Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. Let me know how that goes!

Watch our displays at each building for more ideas of some great reads set in Russia.


You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt

You Are One of ThemElliott Holt’s first book, You Are One of Them, is the story of friendship and of the momentous changes in Russia in the 90’s.

The first part of the book is about the friendship of Sarah and Jennifer, 10-year-olds in Cold War Washington D.C. Like the real-life Samantha Smith, Sarah writes to Yuri Andropov, asking for peace between the two nations. Jennifer decides to write a letter as well, and her’s is the one that attracts the attention of Andropov and the world media.

The friendship doesn’t survive and neither does Jennifer, who dies in a plane crash.

The second part of the book is about Sarah’s time in Moscow just after the Soviet Union breaks up. She tries to track down Jennifer, after receiving a letter saying that Jennifer is alive and living in Russia.

The book has a lot to recommend it – the depiction of the life in the 80’s in suburban Washington, D.C., and the adolescent friendship of the two girls. Holt does an excellent job in painting a picture of what it was like for Muscovites and “New Russians” as they desperately try to adapt to consumerism in a chaotic new market economy.

A couple things are bothersome, though. Sarah is rudely unrelenting in her criticism of the way things are done in Russian business and social life. And the ending, to me, is disappointing. To say more would be a spoiler.