Petrograd: The Best Way to Learn History / by David Anderson


  "Guess what?" Alex asked me. "What's up?" I responded. "Oni Press might be giving us review material." "Who's Oni Press?" "The guys who made Scott Pilgrim." "Oh, that's cool."

And so that's what they were to me for a solid month, until I saw the big ostentatious cover to Petrograd, by Philip Gelatt and Tyler Cook. In that instant their reputation with me shot up a couple hundred points, from "that's neat" to "I am keeping a shrine in my bedroom for you". Sure, this graphic novel has been out for a year or two now, but who's counting? I ain't. So I bought it, because 30 bucks means nothing to me when it comes to fancy book covers for subjects I swoon over.

See, I read my middle school history books on my own time between class. I got a four-year degree in the field. That should tell you how dedicated I am to the subject: I will literally stake my future on it.

Rasputin's death is still a topic I vividly remember studying as a kid because of how strange and, well, badass it was. Here was a guy who was shot, beaten, stabbed, poisoned and thrown in a river, and the autospy said he died of drowning? Man, that guy must have been tough to kill.

So Petrograd was especially fascinating to me, because not only was I visiting a subject I hadn't thought about in years, but it was bringing with it an entirely new perspective on Rasputin's murder.

It is historical fiction, of course. The protagonist is an Irish man named Cleary working for the British SIS, and he has the unfortunate luck to be assigned to the task of assassinating the toughest Russian to kill in order to keep the Tsar from negotiating a peace with Germany during World War I. While Cleary is fictional, along with his love affair and other details, the events are based on the newest and current theory on the truth behind Rasputin's murder. Since my last understanding of this event was roughly ten years old, verifying British involvement in the murder floored me. The evidence isn't absolute, but it's more than circumstantial, and a far cry from inconclusive.

It's so typical of those Brits too, you know? They were always good at the covert stuff. Ian Fleming's real life experiences aren't as ridiculous as James Bond's, but they did inform his plots when he wrote them for 007. Guess that's what happens when you're a tiny island ruling a fourth of the Earth's surface--you gotta get sneaky to balance out the numbers game.

Of course, this is a hit job that would make Bond wet his pants. Truth is often more hardcore than fiction.

I love Petrograd's writing precisely because it feels like a British spy thriller, though my definition of that phrase is closer to "it has British people in it" rather than having any real understanding of what a typical book of that nature reads like. The callous, dark humor of the Brits as they plan out their moves in a Realpolitik fashion, the Russians and their tribalist, "stay out of our business" attitude,  Cleary's own personal misgivings, all coalesce into a fascinating and suspenseful story with a twist that left me going "those scurvy SOBs." I've always loved new perspectives on history, and reading things from a British point of view (even a fictional one) throughout the book was refreshing. Cleary is a nervous newbie to assassination, while his superior, Alley, gleefully shoves him in harm's way, assuring him things will be fine. Every character's personality is distinct and easily displayed, and their interactions are wonderful to read. Seeing things through Russian eyes is just as fascinating, of course, since their mentality is so completely different from the Brits.

More than anything, though, I love the political intrigue. The romance is of secondary importance through and through--it becomes important later in the story, but remember, this is world-changing history we're talking about. No time for women when we've got men to kill. And of course, all the while we have the Bolsheviks present in the background, their destiny always inching closer in parallel with Rasputin's. The lower classes and their feud with the royalty permeate every page.

Now to talk about the art. Good God, the art.

I've been reviewing quite a few monochrome comics lately, but this one is the first in which I really felt the need to talk about it at length. Using a light red just made perfect sense here, as a constant reminder of Russia's future without going heavy on its vibrancy, giving it an antiquated feeling and making times seem a bit less violent than they really are. Architecture in the Tsarist era comes through beautifully in the line work. Characters have very soft appearances in spite of the dark and brooding nature of the subject matter, which I think is a great style choice. You might think that trying to be authentic would mean realistic portraits of people, but the simplicity of the design makes it easy to follow the action and to become interested in the characters. This style choice makes the story easy to approach for people who don't normally care about history, while the rest of the setting is rich in details that makes nerds like me pore over each panel.

Most of the movement and activity displayed is calm and leisurely as the characters set about plotting the assassination, but it all builds up to a couple sparse but very intense, kinetic action scenes. Where I would describe Murder Moon's action scenes as those snapshots of a horrible fight you remember in flashbacks, Petrograd's scenes are step by step executions of a sequence meant to keep the tension high for a long period of time. It worked on me; Rasputin's death is historical fact, but when those knives finally started coming out, I started wondering if old R really was going to die or not.

The contrast between the action and the rest of the novel are are stark as white and black, and there are also quite a few pages devoted to atmospheric shots and action montages that help set the tone of a chapter or conversation. I think this is probably the main reason why, despite being a couple hundred pages, Petrograd was a surprisingly quick read. Disappointing in that I wanted more, but satisfying in that it was a very concise tale and wasted very little time on filler.

So yeah, I think I've said enough words to convince you that I sort of know what I'm talking about. While this may be an interpretation of facts rather than a recounting of them exactly, I would absolutely make this mandatory reading and discussion for a history class. Dear Oni Press: Where have you been all my life?

TL;DR: Petrograd is an excellent book about an event you probably glossed over in high school, and it does a great job of making you sit up and pay attention. Read it and be amazed. That's not a suggestion.

Petrograd is a graphic novel by Philip Gelatt and Tyler Crook, published by Oni Press. You can ask for it at your local comic book shop or find it on Amazon.