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The (not so) rough guide to Tolstoy’s St Petersburg

Where to experience the imperial heart of War and Peace

The (not so) rough guide to Tolstoy’s St Petersburg

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Set against a background of aristocratic opulence and imperial ambition, it’s of little surprise that novelist Leo Tolstoy chose to base much of War and Peace in the former Russian capital of St Petersburg. His epic masterpiece of battles, banquets and betrayal spans the period 1805 to 1812, a time when the city was a burgeoning centre of art, culture, architecture and decadent excess.

Two centuries on, those wishing to follow in the fictional footsteps of the Bolkonskys and Bezukhovs will find St Petersburg’s imperial grandeur alive and well, with its glittering spires and sumptuous, regal facades.

No building epitomises the glory days more than the Winter Palace, a green-and-white baroque pile, arguably the city’s top attraction. It now houses the Hermitage, one of the largest and oldest museums in the world. A stone’s throw away is the exclusive English Embankment, where Natasha Rostova attended her debutante ball.

Much of the recent BBC adaptation of the book was filmed in and around St Petersburg. Head to the Catherine Palace, a sprawling, rococo-style wedding cake of a building in Pushkin to see the ballroom where Rostova was swept off her feet by Andrei Bolkonsky. The gorgeous Yusupov Palace, on the Moika River in the city centre, also featured on screen. 

For our top five Russian reads, visit natgeotraveller.co.uk/russian-reads

Where to start: Tolstoy in time
Author of the great literary classics War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1877), Leo Tolstoy remains one of the world’s most acclaimed and popular writers. Born into an upper class Russian family in 1828, he spent much of his wild youth (mirroring that of the fictional young Pierre Bezukhov) in St Petersburg, returning in 1855 following military service. Russia and the Arts: The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky is at the National Portrait Gallery, London until 26 June.

Published in the June 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)