Russia's Treasure-House

Searching for the past on the eve of St. Petersburg's 300th anniversary, a former foreign correspondent finds the future

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And St. Petersburg still inspires novelists to themes of crime and punishment. Across the street from the VaganovaAcademy, the Agency for Investigative Journalism is headed up by Andrei Bakonin, 39, a tall, athletic journalist with thick black hair and a brushy mustache. As it happens, in the mid-1990s both Bakonin and I wrote suspense novels set at the Hermitage. Each revolved around a forgery of one of the museum’s masterpieces; he chose a Rembrandt and I a Leonardo. In both books, villains plotted to sell the real paintings to collectors and pocket the proceeds. There was, however, one important difference: while my novel—Dispatch from a Cold Country—beat a hasty path to the remainder tables, his Defense Attorney, written under the name Andrei Konstantinov, was a minor sensation and a mega-seller.


When the USSR collapsed in 1991, Bakonin, who had worked as a translator in the Soviet Army, was discharged. The next year, he landed a job at a St. Petersburg newspaper, covering the crime beat. He branched into novels and also established the Agency for Investigative Journalism.


There, he and his colleagues have produced 27 books, nonfiction and fiction both—“17 or 18 million copies,” he says. “In America, I would probably be a very rich man. But not in Russia. Sell a million books and you make maybe $90,000. If you calculate for nine years, I’ve earned maybe $400,000. I spent most of it. I have a nice car by Russian standards, a Honda SUV, and a five-room apartment now being remodeled.”


Bakonin says he sometimes finds the Russian classics heavy going. “In the West, they take two authors very seriously—Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, right? There’s even a term, ‘Tolstoyevsky.’ Tolstoy has absolutely no sense of humor. Of course, he’s a genius. But both he and Dostoyevsky have a problem with humor.”


Gennady Viunov is restoring the ornate wrought-iron fence that separates the gardens of the Mikhailovsky Palace, which houses the Russian Museum, from the Church on Spilled Blood. That Russian Revival church was built on the site where anarchists assassinated Czar Alexander II in 1881. Viunov, a husky, bearded man in his mid-40s, trained as a sculptor at the city’s Academy of Arts and worked in architectural restoration. Eight years ago, he and some colleagues founded a private firm specializing in forged iron. They have re-created the skills employed by St. Petersburg’s blacksmiths in the days of the Russian Empire.


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