Should a 484-page book about the history of St. Petersburg without a single mention of St. John of Kronstadt, one of the greatest spiritual leaders of Russia, be immediately dismissed? No. Despite its cynicism, proclivity for sex scandal and political intrigue, Jonathan Miles's St Petersburg: Three Centuries of Murderous Desire is a well researched and deftly written book about 300 years of the greatest urban wonder on the shores of the Baltic Sea.
One of the greatest qualities of this book is the description of the magnificent architectural and artistic creations of Russia's northern capital. As an expert in art history, Miles gives us a detailed account of the construction of the city's most prominent edifices, monuments and gardens. Despite its mosaic of quotes from most diverse sources, the storytelling is smooth and interesting. The author's use of the English language is skillful and original.
As for the general worldview that is bound to be felt in a story about the place where so many ideological convictions have clashed over the past three centuries, it is expectedly liberal, worldly, ironic and Western. After all, there is not a single Russian source in the bibliography; Miles relies solely on books and articles written in English, as well as translations from Russian and other languages. Without the knowledge of the native language, one is bound to hit a limit in understanding a foreign culture. But this book was not written for scholars and Russians after all.
The author's stance about the most dramatic and life-changing events that took place on the streets of St Petersburg - the 1917 revolution - is probably best described in the sentence from the conclusion: "Revolution was a good idea that went horribly wrong". The overwhelming majority of neo-Marxists from Western educational institution now dabbling in politics of identity (feminism, neo-Colonialism, queer theory) would enthusiastically agree. Miles is far more critical of Putin than of Lenin. In a few sentences mentioning Russia's 21st-century leader, he manages to mention the wealth he has amassed during his presidency twice.
Overall, St Petersburg is a compelling read. It is obvious that the author has a personal relationship with the city - both its dazzling beauty and spellbinding atmosphere and its obvious moral and physical degradation. Unfortunately, he does not escape the Anglo-Saxon prejudices; for him, as for most consumerist Westerners, the spiritual side of Russia's past and present will remain forever concealed.