I have many personal stories from my time living in Russia. I don't mean the stories that have inspired ten of my nineteen published novels. I mean crazy stuff that I witnessed and which I've never included in my books! To help with this, I've created a map of St Petersburg which will give you more of a feel (and some fun bonus stuff) to help add locations to this (and future) retellings of events.
I hope you can see it well enough. So, we used to live just south of the river (see the blue HOUSE icon). That was our very central home for nearly four years. The green FACTORY icon just around the corner from us was actually named Big Dom (Big House) and is the FSB HQ in the city––a vast building that I mention constantly in The Hunt series (as well as The Tablet). I've also added two BOOK icons––one in orange, the other in yellow. The orange one is just along the river from our home and is where the opening scene in The Tablet starts––the Summer Gardens. The yellow one is on Nevskiy Prospekt, the main road through the centre of St Petersburg, and is where I imagine the opening scene in The Prey starts. The various blue POINTER icons (there are 7 of them) are locations that occur in The Hunt series (that I could remember off the top of my head––if you remember more, or spot more, do let me know and I can update this fun map).
Even at this scale, you can see many canals running from the main river––which is why St Petersburg is often called The Venice of the North. From memory, there are hundreds of canals and thousands of bridges (but I can't say how many). You'll notice that we lived in quite an amazing spot––our apartment was located in what Russians called The Golden Triangle. It was deemed a nice area. (The idea of safety was helped by the FSB and a military base being located nearby, which actually meant most Russians chose to avoid it).
One story that I want to share with you now relates to that ominous black DEATH symbol shown in about the middle of the map. It's on the main road that runs north-south, intersecting Nevskiy, and therefore arguably the second major road in the city. We used to walk it all the time as our friends lived a couple of miles south of us and the constant traffic made walking it, even with a three-year-old, quicker than trying to get the bus!
Liteyniy Prospekt is a wide two-way avenue with at least four lanes in each direction. Crossing the bridge (by the same name) near our house leads onto one of the northern sections. The Finland Railway Station is located there, as is the vehicular route to Finland (another story for another day has me and a friend doing an overnight dash-and-back to the border to complete some essential paperwork). Heading south down Liteyniy takes you past many expensive shops. The road (often jam-packed with cars and buses) is a mix of expensive vehicles (often 4x4s) and many classic Soviet-era cars (very often Ladas). All side-by-side. Yet never was this extreme so forced home to me than on a day that I was walking with a visitor to the city down this road. We were heading to my friend's apartment.
I nearly missed the scene, in fact. It was only spotting a policeman standing against a building near a patch of grass and some bushes that I spotted why the policeman was there. There was a body under the bush, with a small sheet over him, though not enough to cover him.
We nearly walked right past the scene––cars were continuing to drive, the day continuing as always. Yet someone (it was later discovered he was one of the many homeless men in the city) had fallen and died here, and almost nobody had noticed. I remember being struck by the scene at the time––we couldn't linger as we were heading to a meeting. I remember pointing out the body to the visitor, who wouldn't have otherwise noticed anything, so uneventful did the scene appear, just metres from the road, right next to the pavement we were walking along. What struck me was that mix of obvious affluence around––the shops, the location and the many expensive cars passing us––and yet, in the midst of that, someone could be so poor (they had been drinking heavily, but drink was cheap) that they could die right there.
I still remember the greyness of the body––the sheet didn't cover his face. My friend had even seen the guy stumbling about that morning as she took her son to school (which is why I know about the person somewhat).
I still find St Petersburg a fascinating place (and if you liked this story, do let me know––I have so many other similarly fascinating recollections from my time there). That's why I loved writing about the city. While I don't miss the busy streets and the rush of life, I do miss the people. A people unlike anything I'd been told about in England (where Russia is always the enemy, always the corrupt, power hungry threat). Yes, there is that (as there is in other places too) but the real Russians, the average Russian, was none of that. I believe understanding this side of the culture helped me write both sides well––the villains and the heroes. I'll let you decide which is which as you read my books. No spoilers here!
This creates a timely backdrop to The Hunt series.
Check out book one in the series, The Prey
If you want to start with that best-selling stand-alone, then check out The Tablet