• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Where the Dead Smiled’

St. Petersburg: A Cultural History

by Solomon Volkov, translated by Antonina W. Bouis
Free Press, 598 pp., $17.00 (paper)


On October 1, 1991, the city of Leningrad officially regained its original name: Sankt-Peterburg. This marked the end of a tense debate that began in the early years of glasnost. Supporters of the change were accused of monarchism and a lack of patriotism (it was pointed out that the name “St. Petersburg” had been on the maps of Hitler’s commanders who intended to rename the city immediately after they had taken it). Alexander Solzhenitsyn had recommended a Russified rendering: Svyato-Petrograd.

As Solomon Volkov observes in St. Petersburg, the passions aroused by this debate reveal the symbolic importance Russians attach to a name that evokes one of the most controversial periods of their history. To some current Russian nationalists the name denotes the showpiece of a project of Europeanization that cut the nation off from its traditional values, subjecting it to corrosive cosmopolitan influences. Other, more liberal, political groups see the return to the old name as a symbol of national regeneration, in which they hope the city will regain the cultural leadership bestowed on it by its foundation, nearly three centuries ago, as Russia’s “window on the West.” As the then-Mayor Anatoly Sobchak declared (alluding to the city’s growing economic importance as a port after the Baltic republics broke off from the new Russian nation), Petersburg was once again “the only Russian door to Europe.”

These discussions have attracted attention in the West as indicators of the new Russia’s future political direction; but their cultural significance is no less important. For the intellectuals and creative artists of pre-revolutionary Russia, Petersburg symbolized and reflected painful divisions in the national psyche. Dostoevsky’s exploration of those conflicts in Notes from Underground has profoundly influenced the way in which our century has interpreted the predicament of human beings torn between opposing values and confronted at every turn with the absurd. Under the Soviet regime Petersburg’s fate inspired writing, art, and music on these themes (little of which could be published, exhibited, or performed). The city’s renaming has given new prominence to this body of work, which includes attempts to comprehend and transcend the horror of Stalin’s dictatorship that have great artistic power. These, as well as the new work that they have inspired, may come to affect our understanding of this century as much as the reflections of Dostoevsky’s man from the (Petersburg) underground.

In one sense, Petersburg is like all other great cities. As Burton Pike has pointed out, throughout the history of Western culture the image of the city stands as “the great reification of ambivalence.” 1 It has served to crystallize anxieties about man’s relation to his created world: Babylon, Babel, Rome, Sodom, the New Jerusalem furnished the Christian imagination with images of power and perversion, heaven and hell. The destruction of cities has exercised a hypnotic power over the imagination, while from the late nineteenth century the literary image of the modern city has been explored as a source of new ways of conveying and transcending states of dislocation and estrangement.

But Baudelaire’s Paris, Kafka’s Prague, Brecht’s Berlin, and the “unreal city” of Eliot’s Waste Land are all cities of the mind, visionary transfigurations of the ordinary. In contrast, the surreal quality of Petersburg has an immediate impact on any visitor. In the words of one celebrated tourist, the Marquis de Custine,

The effect on the spectator is something that can only imperfectly be expressed in words…. The lowlands of the city, with the buildings that crouch along the banks of the Neva, seem to hover between sea and sky, so that one expects to see them fade into the void…. Can this be the capital of a vast Empire, this scrap of earth that one sees shimmering against the water like froth carried on the flood; these little spots, black and uneven, hardly distinguishable between the whiteness of the sky and the whiteness of the river? Or is it a mere apparition, an optical illusion?2

The phantasmagoria that Custine observed on one of the white nights of the northern summer of 1839 seemed a visible manifestation of an “incomprehensible mystery”: a mighty city whose existence defied the physical and moral order of things. Like most visitors before and since, Custine was taken to the shrine at the mystery’s heart: the small cabin in which Peter the Great had planned the splendid city that would rise up on the swampy wasteland before him, the crowning achievement of his effort to transform his country into a modern, westernized state. In that hut at the mouth of the Gulf of Finland one man’s will set itself against natural forces, historical experience, and the aspirations of an entire nation.

The symbolic significance of a capital on Russia’s most western border impelled Peter to choose the most unpromising of sites: marshy, often flooded lowlands vulnerable to invaders who could strike at the heart of the Empire a few miles from its border. His city was built not for his people but against them. The ubiquitous onion spires of the old capital, Moscow, symbolized the religious and national traditions to which the Russian people remained fiercely attached: Petersburg would long figure in popular literature as the Antichrist. The tsar’s impatience to complete his city (it was declared the new capital of Russia fourteen years after the first house was built in 1703) took a heavy toll on the lives of his people: many thousands of conscripted workers perished of hunger, disease, and exhaustion in the Egyptian labors required to hammer in the piles that would defend the city against the water on which it was built.

Entirely designed by Western architects (one of whom is reputed to have died after a beating administered by the tsar himself), the city was lavishly embellished in successive reigns, in Baroque style by the Italian architect Rastrelli, and later under Catherine the Great, who lined the city’s vast squares, the banks of the Neva, and its network of canals with buildings of Neoclassical magnificence. The spectacle of “prodigious grandeur” that greeted Custine in 1839 was undoubtedly, he wrote, one of the wonders of the world. Yet one had only to travel to the end of the Nevsky Prospect, the great avenue extending from the center to the boundaries of the city, to reach the squalid habitations of another Russia. Beyond were the destinations toward which couriers flew through the city in their light carriages: Siberia, Kamchatka, the Salt Desert, the Glacial Sea.

Custine reflects that in this city without roots in history or the soil, perpetually under threat from natural disaster or human vengeance, normality is a state of siege. The military-style discipline imposed on the people was “a forced calm, an apparent order…more dreadful than anarchy,” a veil thrown over chaos, like the façades of villages erected by Catherine’s favorite, Potemkin, to assure her, as she traveled southward, that she presided over an empire of happy peasants. There was something deeply ominous in the theatricality of the capital’s public rituals and royal festivals, enacted against the back cloth of Rastrelli’s marvelous palaces, and stupendous in their scale and magnificence: “You think…what I see is too great to be real, it is the dream of a lovesick giant told by a mad poet.” St. Petersburg was what it seemed on a first impression: a splendid decor “designed to serve as the theatre for a real and terrible drama.”

The city had already witnessed two such dramas. In 1824 it experienced a devastating flood. On December 14 the following year a troop of revolutionary guardsmen was mowed down by artillery fire on Senate Square, the site of the equestrian statue of Peter which Catherine had commissioned from the French sculptor Falconet. A typical Petersburg monstrosity, it stands on a hunk of granite weighing over fifteen hundred tons which took thousands of people three years to move from its location twelve miles from the city. The hind feet of the horse are rooted in the rock, its front feet rear high into the air; the outstretched arm of its rider points toward the sky.

To Russia’s would-be reformers that pointing arm symbolized the ascent of historical progress. The officers who led the revolt believed that by forcing the autocracy to share power they would be steering Peter’s great project of westernization to its logical conclusion. To their sympathizers among the intellectual elite, the bodies lying in the snow under the hooves of Peter’s rearing horse raised tormenting questions about the significance of his achievement. Their ambivalence was crystallized in Pushkin’s great narrative poem of 1833, The Bronze Horseman. Beginning with a solemn encomium to the mighty tsar and his capital, it abruptly changes tone to recount the tragedy of a poor clerk, Yevgeny, who loses his beloved in the flood of 1824. In the poem’s climax, maddened by grief, he shakes his fist at the statue of the tsar who built his city on water, and flees as the mounted “idol” seems to descend from its plinth to pursue him. All night long the chase continues, the terrible hooves echoing through the deserted streets.

The poem’s imagery, evoking the barbarism of Russia’s great civilizer and the fragility of his mighty city, has a cumulative hallucinatory effect which calls into question all reasoned explanations of history and human life. When Pushkin’s hero wonders if he has not dreamed the horror of the flood, the poet interjects: “Is not all life an empty dream, a joke played by heaven at earth’s expense?” The city that Custine saw as imbued with a sense of the impermanence of human affairs was invested by Pushkin’s poem with the grandeur of tragic myth. In the same decade Gogol added to the myth with his unique brand of surrealism, exemplified in the famous passage from one of his Petersburg Tales:

O, do not trust that Nevsky Prospect…. All is deceit, all is a dream, all is not what it seems!… It lies at all times, this Nevsky Prospect, but most of all when night settles on it in a thick mass…when the whole city turns into thunder and glitter, myriads of carriages come pouring over the bridges, the postilions shout and leap on their horses, and the devil himself lights the lamps expressly in order to show everything off in an unreal guise.

Petersburg was a riddle which would fit none of the doctrines of universal and rational progress that dominated nineteenth-century historical thinking, and for this reason it fascinated two of the most iconoclastic writers of the age—Dostoevsky and Alexander Herzen. According to Herzen, there was no way of deciphering the mysterious existence of this city built on an element that must surely one day engulf it. His native Moscow, rooted in the past, was secure in its identity and its aspirations. Petersburg, child of a tsar “who rejected his country for its own good and oppressed it in the name of…civilisation,” was a tragic enigma. But this was its virtue: there was no place more conducive to somber thoughts on the predicament of modern human beings, torn by allegiances to incompatible ideals. For that reason Herzen had come to love Petersburg, “just as I ceased to love Moscow because it is incapable of inflicting torture.”

  1. 1

    Burton Pike, The Image of the City in Modern Literature (Princeton University Press, 1981), p. 8.

  2. 2

    Marquis de Custine, Letters from Russia, translated and edited by Robin Buss (Penguin, 1991), pp. 151-152.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print