Insider Secrets: A writer's guide to understanding St Petersburg

Eva Stachniak went to St Petersburg to research her new novel and discovered hidden corners you won't want to miss

7 mins

My best travels have always come from writing projects. A sense of space is essential for my writing. Photographs, films, maps, and descriptions I find in books are a good beginning, but it is only when I return from my “writing trips” that I can truly see and feel the places I write about.

When I began working on The Winter Palace – a historical novel based on the early life of Catherine the Great – I knew I had to go to St Petersburg and look for the surviving traces of the 18th century city where Catherine the Great spent most of her life. I had to orient myself in her space, see how the sun lights up the city at different times of the day, watch the flow of the Neva river, observe the layout of the streets, and note my impressions of distances between the palace and other landmarks. I also had to experience the white nights, the time in June around the summer solstice, when St. Petersburg's sun sets for just a few moments of twilight before it raises again.

All writers have their own ways of making the most of their travels. Here are mine.

1. Read as much as you can about your destination before you go

Before my writing trip I read as much as I could about the 18th century St Petersburg. I read the story of how the city was built on the marshes, a dream of Peter the Great who wished Russia to have a northern port and secure the newly captured territories. I read the accounts of St Petersburg’s first years, the descriptions of constant pounding as wooden poles were hammered into the bogs to provide the foundations for the city’s palaces and municipal buildings. I read of the shortage of stones which made Peter the Great order all travellers to St Petersburg to bring a quota of stones before they would be allowed to pass the city gates.

I also made a list of places, which changed little from the time when Catherine arrived in St Petersburg as a 14-year-old German princess, a prospective bride of the Russia’s Crown Prince: the Kunstkamera, the Menshikov’s palace, Monplaisir Pavilion in Peterhof.

This is where I resolved to start my sightseeing to give me a sense of footing for the beginning of the novel. Then came the locations that have changed considerably since Catherine’s time, like the Winter Palace itself, but which still preserved many 18th century features and contained artifacts from Catherine’s times: her paintings, her china, her jewels. My list of places to see also included a sampling of 18th century gardens, churches, military barracks, to allow me to reconstruct many aspects of Catherine’s surroundings. One of the most important locations on my list was the Russian Museum, where I knew I would find both 18th century objects and many paintings depicting scenes from everyday life in Russia from that time.

2. Take notes on everything you see and hear

I never travel without a thick notebook and I take copious notes on everything I see. My St Petersburg notes contain descriptions of swimmers in what felt to me like freezing Neva, the sensation of seeing continuous bright sunlight during the white nights, and the effects this never ending day had on me. I also filled my notebook with descriptions of flowers, animals, the texture of the soil by the Neva, the waves and colours of the river.

I tried to look for the bones of the city, sights that did not change with the advent of modern times. I drew little maps for myself, charting the walks I have taken, to know the direction of the sun and the sights my characters might have come across: a couple quarrelling on the bridge, a flock of screeching seagulls in search of food, a beggar outside of the church asking for alms.

My notebook is also filled with descriptions of St Petersburg streets. The walk down the Nevsky Prospect, the views from each end, the crisscrossing paths of the canals. The smells of the water, and the feel of teaming crowds…

3.  Trust synchronicity

When I am on a writing trip, I’ve learnt to trust the unexpected. In St Petersburg I intended to stay at a bed and breakfast off the Nevsky Prospect a friend had recommended, but by the time I could firm up my travel times the place was already full. It was then that the owner offered to rent me an apartment on Apothecary Lane which, he assured me, was mere minutes from the Hermitage. It was a bit more expensive but proved to be ideal as the location for many scenes of my novel. The Apothecary Lane is a quiet street off Millionnaya Street, the street where many foreigners lived in the 18th century St Petersburg. The apartment was situated in one of the 18th century buildings with a view of the Marble Palace, which Catherine the Great commissioned for her lover and companion Grigory Orlov and where Stanislaw Poniatowski, the last King of Poland and Catherine’s former lover, died a year and a half after her.

I could not have dreamt of a better place.

4. Find a way to focus on what is truly important

As soon as I entered the Hermitage I immediately found myself surrounded by throngs of tourists, and faced a multitude of rooms, each calling for my attention. Catherine’s original art collection had been augmented by the subsequent Tsars and placed in different rooms. There was no trace of her Winter Garden. The palace itself had been burnt in 1837 and later re-built.

For a while I consciously searched for objects and interiors that would have resembled the ones from Catherine’s times. The Hermitage Museum has a few small rooms on display, which show the interiors from the time of Peter the Great. I spent some time there, before looking for the examples of Rastrelli’s Russian Baroque, the large windows, the glitter of gold on white walls. But it was in Tsarsoke Selo and Peterhof that I found interiors most representative of Catherine’s own taste, the Wedgewood inspired decorations of her private rooms, the porcelain statue of her beloved Italian greyhound Zemira in a bedroom she could have just stepped out of.

In Tsarskoye Selo I was particularly pleased that the restoration of the Amber Room had been completed and I could admire the famous chamber, which was so beloved by Elizabeth Petrovna, Catherine's predecessor. I also found myself spending a lot of time in Peterhof’s Monplaisir Pavilion from which Catherine departed on the last night before her successful coup.

In the end these moments meant far more than the crowded rooms of the much changed Winter Palace, for they allowed me to imagine how the older, smaller palace could have looked and felt.

5. Experience the past that is still alive

In my search for the 18th century Russia, I tried to immerse myself in activities which would have been possible for my future characters. I did not take the subway, I walked everywhere to get a sense of distance between streets and buildings. I took a boat trip through the canals of the city, to see how it would look from the water. I went to an Orthodox mass and watched how the faithful prayed and venerated the Holy Icons. And last but not least, I tried local foods: bliny, vareniki, kvas, shchi – the cabbage soup with saffron milk-cups, sturgeon soup, and a few local varieties of Russian borsch. I tried okroshka, the cold soup based on kvass, and botvinya made from leafy parts of beets.

The smells and tastes of traditional foods were perhaps the most effective in bringing the past to life.

6. Don't let your 'must-see' list rule your travels

Even though my “must see” list was very long, my itinerary also included places that were not connected with Catherine the Great, but which I didn’t want to miss. In the end they too carried important hints for me. A wonderful few hours in the splendid Yousupov palace where notorious Rasputin met his end allowed me a glimpse of a secret passage, which became an important part of my novel. Nabokov’s museum reminded me to reread Russian classics in search of the flavours of the country.

And finally I always like to give myself time for the traveller’s timeless pleasure of walking aimlessly through the streets watching people go about their everyday business.

The Winter PalaceEva Stachniak was born in Wrocław, Poland, and moved to Canada in 1981. She has been a radio broadcaster and college English and Humanities lecturer. The novel that emerged from her trip to St Petersburg, The Winter Palace, is published by Doubleday and can be ordered on Amazon now.


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