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Window on Russia


In 1873, Fyodor Dostoevsky sat down at his desk to write a few impressions of everyday life in his home town of St. Petersburg. Read today, these sketches come as something of a shock. Few of the great figures of Russian literature are so closely identified with Petersburg as Dostoevsky, and yet, as his observations demonstrate, he was far from being a booster for the city. In his youth, as his biographer Joseph Frank points out in Dostoevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet, 1871–1881, Dostoevsky had regarded Petersburg’s mélange of architectural styles as inspiring proof that the Russian capital had succeeded in absorbing the best of European culture. But now, as his mental eye roams over the cityscape, all he can see is the “lack of character of the idea and all the negativity of the essence of the Petersburg period from its very beginning to its end.” The architectural aspirations of generations of aristocrats and emperors, tirelessly striving to imitate the best European models, Frank writes, have resulted in nothing but

an enormous, modern hotel…. Here we see the businesslike approach, Americanism, hundreds of rooms, an immense commercial enterprise; one sees immediately that we, too, have railways and we have suddenly found ourselves to be businessmen.

Then as now, needless to say, accusing something of American commercialism was not exactly to award it one’s vote of confidence. Elsewhere around the same time, in his letters and in his magnificent serial self-exploration called Diary of a Writer, Dostoevsky expands on his diagnosis of his city’s fundamental alienation from “Russianness.” He rails against the “corrupted Petersburg intelligentsia,” a sorry lot who stand at odds with “incomparably more genuinely Russian people.” He recalls his youthful sighting of a government courier, clad in Western clothes and “polished Petersburg boots” as he sat in his carriage on a Petersburg street, brutally beating his peasant driver. “The son of such a courier may be a professor, perhaps—a patented European,” notes Dostoevsky sarcastically. Again and again he obsessively circles back to the primal cause of this fatal schism in Russian national life, which turns out to be embodied in a single man, the eponymous founder of the imperial capital. It was none other than Peter the Great, Dostoevsky argues, who struck the fatal blow against the nation’s cultural continuity with his decision to impose European-oriented modernization on traditional society.

In so doing, Peter opened up a profound divide between the peasantry and an upper class who adopted the accoutrements of European culture and society as a way of sealing their own claim to rule. It was Peter’s institutionalization of serfdom that made peasants the property of their masters, stripped them of their freedom of movement and action, and provided the precondition for the comfortable life of the social elite. “We lack culture (which exists everywhere),” Dostoevsky writes in a letter, “and we lack it because of the nihilist Peter the Great.” The nihilist Peter the Great? Small wonder that Dostoevsky reserved such sentiments for his private correspondence. Surely the royal family of the Romanovs, whom Dostoevsky was otherwise eager to please, would have taken offense at this identification of their most illustrious ancestor with the rootless socialists of the late nineteenth century.

Dostoevsky was not alone in accusing St. Petersburg of embodying the soullessness of a country that had lost its primal way. The habit of badmouthing the city started almost the day it was born. No sooner did Peter announce his decision to build the new capital than his traditionalist foes began denouncing it as a creation of the “Antichrist” who was determined to destroy God’s chosen path for Orthodox Russia. For these critics, the floods that frequently threatened the young St. Petersburg were well-justified manifestations of the dawning Apocalypse. But conservatives weren’t the only ones. Some of the deepest doubts came precisely from the new caste of Europeanized intellectuals who emerged from Peter’s capital. Alexander Pushkin’s poem “The Bronze Horseman”—in which the city’s talisman, the famous bronze equestrian statue of Peter cast by Etienne-Maurice Falconet, comes to life and terrorizes a run-of-the-mill Petersburger who dared to indict the works of the Tsar—seized on a paradox that would preoccupy future generations of Petersburgers. By opening his “window on to Europe,” the poem suggests, Peter heroically defied the forces of nature in a grandiose display of imperial will, and in so doing laid the groundwork for a glorious synthesis of sophisticated European forms and tumultuous Russian creativity. But precisely in the vastness of its ambition this was a project that left little room for the vagaries of individual fate. Those who lived in Petersburg rarely forgot that the construction of the city that began in 1703 had claimed the lives of thousands of slave laborers through malnutrition, disease, and ill-treatment.

A few years later Nikolai Gogol wrote bitterly of Petersburg that the “idea of the city is emptiness taken to the highest degree.” W. Bruce Lincoln, in Sunlight at Midnight: St. Petersburg and the Rise of Modern Russia, writes that in a willful subversion of the rationalist instincts that governed the city’s design, Gogol saw instead a malevolent surrealism, a nasty flicker of false appearances. “The devil himself lights the street lamps only in order to show that everything is not really as it seems.” A half-century later the Symbolist Andrei Bely, in his brilliant novel St. Petersburg, used the same themes to transform his version of the city into the perfect avatar of modernist estrangement.1 Again and again, in a leitmotif that remains strikingly stable through the ages, its critics describe Petersburg as a stage set, a virulent abstraction, a string of European façades populated by actors aping European mores.2 By the turn of the twentieth century the disquiet inspired by St. Petersburg had even reached the Tsar himself. Nicholas II, the last emperor to inhabit the capital, detested the city for reasons quite similar to Dostoevsky’s: it was too European, too far from the country’s peasant roots.3 Ironically enough, Vladimir Lenin despised Petersburg precisely as the seat of tsarist tyranny—which didn’t stop his heirs from renaming the city in his honor.


These bad reviews are unlikely to be repeated much during this year, when St. Petersburg will mark its official tercentenary amid grand pomp and, one fears, rather tacky circumstance. Leaders from the G-8 countries (including the US president) and the European Union will arrive for summits and schmoozing during the official ceremony in May. They will convene at the Konstantinovsky, a one-thousand-room tsarist monstrosity just outside the city that President Putin has transformed into an “international conference center” at an estimated cost of $200 million. The grounds include a man-made island, a network of canals, and a pier on the Gulf of Finland. Putin recently appointed a special overseer to monitor the project after allegations that much of the money was being misappropriated. There will be visits by dignitaries from the countless cities that have planned associated cultural events, from New York to London to the European Cultural Capital of Graz, Austria. The only people missing, perhaps, will be the Petersburgers themselves. (In a wonderful reenactment of Petrine arrogance, the mayor of the city has already informed his citizens, or subjects, that they would be better off getting out of town during the festivities.) And we can be sure that all the well-wishers, as befits any benchmark birthday celebration, will have only good things to say about the city and its history.

They will almost certainly dwell on its history of immense cultural achievement, invoking the imposing buildings of the Hermitage, one of the world’s great art museums (and not only that); the Mariinsky Theater, with its surfeit of superior opera and ballet; and the seductive enfilades of the great rococo and neoclassical palaces rambling along granite-paved canals or the steep embankments of the immense Neva River. They will point out that most of what we think of as the Russian musical canon—the names of Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich all come to mind—emerged from Petersburg conservatories and concert halls. They will recall, perhaps, how Russian literature got its start as St. Petersburg literature, and how the two, indeed, largely overlap: first the early pathbreakers, Lomonosov and Derzhavin; then Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky; the luminous Silver Age poets Aleksandr Blok, Anna Akhmatova, and Osip Mandelstam; and the two great talents of postwar Russian letters, Joseph Brodsky and Andrei Bitov.

Tony Blair might dwell approvingly on the Anglomania of Petersburg’s cosmopolitan elite in the late nineteenth century or, more adventurously, on the English mercenaries and con artists who made their way to the place under Peter and his successors. Jacques Chirac could choose to talk about Di-derot’s sojourn in the city under Catherine the Great. And—though it is hard to imagine him doing so—George W. Bush could ruminate about the impossibility of imagining twentieth-century American culture without the contributions of Brodsky, George Balanchine, Igor Stravinsky, Vladimir Na-bokov, and Mikhail Baryshnikov—all Petersburgers who capitalized on their home city’s inbred cosmopolitanism to launch new careers abroad.

All of which is true enough. One would hope, though, that some of the well-wishers will at least consider the costs of this extraordinary output. The natural catastrophes—the floods and the fires and the vicious storms—that so unnerved Petersburg’s early citizens paled in comparison with later famines, wars, and tyrannical caprice. Often it is the political tragedies that stand out. For all his enlightening intentions, Peter’s own management style had its share of psychopathy. He loved putting his friends and subordinates through ritual humiliations, and he had his own son tortured to death.4

Catherine’s era exulted in artistic magnificence and international intercourse (in every sense of the word), but it also presented a brutal spectacle of government as organized crime. First the philosopher-empress seized power from her own husband in a putsch, then later acquiesced in his murder.5 President Chirac would be well advised to skirt the touchy subject of his countryman the Marquis de Custine, whose mid-nineteenth-century visit to Petersburg produced an analysis of Russian despotism that still remains eerily topical.6 World War I pushed Petersburgers into starvation, strikes, and revolution, but the losses would be even greater in the civil war that followed. By 1920 the city’s population had fallen to 35 percent of pre-revolutionary levels. Yuri Annenkov, an avant-garde Petersburg artist who later emigrated to Paris, recalled:

It was an era of endless hungry lines, queues in front of empty “produce distributors,” an epic era of rotten, frozen offal, moldy bread crusts, and inedible substitutes. The French, who had lived through a four-year Nazi occupation, liked to talk of those years as years of hunger and severe shortages. I was in Paris then, too—an insignificant shortage of some products, a lowering of quality in others, artificial but still aromatic coffee, a slight reduction in electric energy and gas. No one died of hunger on icy sidewalks, no one tore apart fallen horses, no one ate dogs, or cats, or rats.

  1. 1

    Katarina Clark writes about this aspect of Bely especially well in Petersburg, Crucible of Cultural Revolution (Harvard University Press, 1995).

  2. 2

    Lindsey Hughes, a leading chronicler of the Petrine era, notes: “Peter’s methods succeeded in creating Westernized pockets in Russia, notably St. Petersburg, that giant theatrical set where Russian “actors” mimicked foreigners, but lost no time in fleeing the public eye, shedding the restricting “German” costumes, and relaxing in capricious garments and comfortable old traditions” (Russia in the Age of Peter the Great, p. 468). Two and half centuries later, in the 1960s, a group of Leningrad artists dressed up in period costumes and wandered at night around the sets of a film version of Crime and Punishment that was being shot in the city, “getting a feel for the vanished Petersburg” (Solomon Volkov, St. Petersburg: A Cultural History, p. 486).

  3. 3

    See, for example, Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy: A History of the Russian Revolution (Viking, 1996), p. 8: “Nicholas made no secret of the fact that he much preferred Moscow to St. Petersburg.” He and his father, Alexander III, “considered Petersburg, with its classical architectural style, its Western shops and bourgeoisie, alien to Russia.” See also Figes, Natasha’s Dance, p. 201.

  4. 4

    For an especially vivid account of Peter’s torturing of his son, see Paul Bushkovitch, Peter the Great: The Struggle for Power, 1671–1725 (Cambridge University Press, 2001).

  5. 5

    According to Simon Sebag Montefiore in his luridly entertaining portrait of the period, Prince of Princes, Alexei Orlov, one of the heavyweights at court, bore the nickname “Scarface.”

  6. 6

    Astolphe de Custine, Letters from Russia (New York Review Books, 2002).

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