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Monday, February 27, 2017

“Sunlight at Midnight: St. Petersburg and the Rise of Modern Russia”, by W. Bruce Lincoln

432 pages, Basic Books, ISBN-13: 978-0465083237

Sunlight at Midnight: St. Petersburg and the Rise of Modern Russia by W. Bruce Lincoln – a top Russian scholar and professor at Northern Illinois University for 31 years – was his twelfth and last book (published posthumously) and it proves to be a highly accessible and gripping account. This history of the former Russian capital is based on the old adage that St. Petersburg is Russia’s “Window to the West”, that it represents a “psychological force, an intellectual vision, and a way of life against which everything else in Russia has been measured” according to Lincoln, and over 400+ pages he manages to interlace, with remarkable ease, a running description of daily life in St. Petersburg over three convulsive centuries with an account of high politics centered on the imperial court. His greatest skill, perhaps, is in blending these two narratives with a spare but pointed exploration of cultural trends that flowed from and around this grandest of Russian cities: “Dancing was her favorite pastime, and fashion one of her chief concerns” Lincoln writes of Catherine the Great, or “[p]ages at her court strutted in bottle-green uniforms trimmed with gold lace and faced in red as they served guests in the European fashion”. He uses the narratives to penetrate the more subtle mystery of how this intentionally alien creation of Peter the Great and his successors could join and shape Russian history, focusing on major events like the city’s construction, the October Revolution and the Great Blockade. Sunlight at Midnight would have benefited from more current material (Lincoln barely grazes post–WWII St. Petersburg) and the city’s “Window to the West” status rings more romantic than true today. However, while Russian history buffs will find little new here, the general reader should take pleasure in this book, and it would be hard to imagine a better travel companion for someone on the way to St. Petersburg, even veteran visitors who think they know the city well.

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