I highly recommend Solomon Volkov’s St. Petersburg, a cultural history of St Petersburg (and by extension, Russia) from about 1700 to the 1980s. Wonderful anecdotes, but also lots of serious stuff. Volkov knew many of the mid-20th c. figures personally, notably Anna Akhmatova. Two anecdotes from the book (interpreted by me):
The impresario Diaghilev, who played an enormous role in the development of early 20th c. music and ballet, was a talentless, unscrupulous charlatan.How do we know this?
When he was 24 Diaghilev wrote the following to his stepmother, with whom he was very close:
I am, first of all, a great charlatan, although brilliant, and secondly, a great charmer, and thirdly, very brazen, and fourthly, a man with a great amount of logic and a small amount of principles, and fifthly, I believe, without talent; however, if you like, I believe I have found my real calling – patronage of the arts. For that, I ha ve everything except money, but that will show up.
Of course, maybe he was just another “unreliable narrator” (or perhaps a Cretan liar).
In 1881 Czar Alexander II was killed by nihilist assassins. Czar Alexander III knew he needed to do something to restore Russia’s confidence, so for 15,000 rubles he commissioned the world first
Fabergé egg and gave it to the Czarina on Easter.
Imperial Russia wasn’t into pragmatism and efficiency. Assassination is a poor way of achieving political goals, and nihilists basically believe that nothing is possible anyway. And similarly, Fabergé eggs are an ineffective response to social unrest.