When people ask me if they should visit Russia, I give them a resounding “yes!” Often, when friends do travel there, they tell me they will visit St. Petersburg from a cruise ship sailing around the Baltic. Although, I tell them they must see Moscow to view the quintessential Eurasian Russia, St. Petersburg is a jewel of a city. Its history is fascinating, beginning with the modernizer Peter the Great’s attempt to build a “Window to the West.” Peter, who spent eighteen months early in his reign traveling ‘incognito’ around Western Europe, wanted to build a city rivaling those cities he saw in the West. He was particularly taken with England and Holland (for their shipbuilding, engineering, and technology). He so liked Amsterdam that he decided to build a city on the shores of the Baltic Sea in 1703, replete with Italian architecture and Dutch canals. St. Petersburg would become the seat of government and the home of the ruling Romanov dynasty. Today St. Petersburg is that legacy.
Its modern history is much more checkered. The Bolshevik revolution that unseated the Romanovs was spawned in St. Petersburg. The heroine of my novel Above the Water is Viktoria Savina, and her family fled the revolution to settle in China, alongside many other White Russians. During World War II, the city—then known as Leningrad—was the site of a nine hundred-day siege during which more than three million residents perished to Nazi guns, starvation, cold, and disease before the siege was lifted by Soviet Red Army forces. Nevertheless, the city has been beautifully restored and is well worth a visit, if only to see the world class art exhibit at the Hermitage in the Winter Palace, the former home of the Romanov Dynasty.