Only a madman, or an oriental despot, would ever have tried to build a city on the frozen wastes and marshes where St Petersburg arose. Peter the Great was not mad: he wanted to bring western culture to Russia. But he certainly had the character of an oriental despot, and the building of the city probably cost the lives of a hundred thousand men. In the 'Peter' chapter of RUSSKA, a Cossack character loses his life building the city. And the social and political world of St Petersburg, in all its glory, forms the backdrop to the action of the 'Catherine' chapter.