Andrey Biely
Andrey Biely; drawing by David Levine

In the first quarter of the twentieth century, Russian literature—in a period between its marvelous flowering, which began with Pushkin, and the repression of Stalin’s Socialist Realism—was in a ferment of daring experimentation and theoretic debate, in which Andrey Biely played a leading role. He was an exponent of Symbolism, an original poet and novelist, a perfervid, sometimes wild, critic, and a meticulous scholar whose work inaugurated in Russia the scientific study of poetics. His essays and dissertations argued and explained the doctrine on which he stood; his imaginative writings—prose poems, which he called “Symphonies,” lyrics, fiction, memoirs—exemplified it. His three major novels, The Silver Dove, Petersburg,1 and Kotik Letaev,2 are by now available in English. (Andrey Biely, incidentally, was the pseudonym of Boris Bugayev, son of an eminent mathematician at the University of Moscow, which he adopted on his first publication to spare his father all embarrassment.)

From its ominous beginning to its hideous end, The Silver Dove progresses, in Gogolian prose rhythms, through a hazy landscape that represents a provincial community in Russia. It is a world of unreal figures, of disturbing allusions to some transcendent, ineffable reality. Through a veil of mystery, we recognize the figures vaguely as human beings. We have an idea of how they look, what they do, where they live, even what they think, but in the nightmarish fantasy through which they move, the familiar objects that surround them—dwellings, taverns, streets and roads, trees and meadows, cows and hogs—seem uncanny in their very commonplaceness. They are, for the most part, Gogolian grotesques, all but the hero, Pyotr Daryalsky, who, without being understandable, does have the kind of actuality that makes it possible to believe in him as a person.

Daryalsky is a young poet, author of a book of erotic verse with a fig leaf on the cover, who is spending his third summer in the village. He has been drawn there by Katya, with whom he is in love and who lives with her grandmother in the neighboring estate of Gugolevo. This grandmother, the Baroness Todrabe-Graaben, has at last consented to their engagement, and Daryalsky is happy. But his behavior is incomprehensible. Three days after their engagement, he wanders off in stifling heat to the village church; and on the way, near a quiet pond where ducks are swimming solemnly, is suddenly terrified by the pale blue sky that seems black to him as he peers into it, and almost simultaneously is startled by “a pair of sturdy legs…and a pair of busy hands…rinsing out some washing.”

He is seized by the kind of yearning he had experienced in childhood, “looming out of the unknown, overwhelming and seducing.” “What the devil do I really need?” he thinks, and invokes his “darling Katya” in whom his need for “tenderness and love” has been fulfilled, and who—after all the unsatisfied longings for “the secret of his dawn” that have led him on pilgrimages to holy places, have plunged him into thick folios: Boehme, Eckhart, Swedenborg as well as Marx, Lassalle, and Comte, and brought him at one time to worship the red flag and also to relish pagan antiquity by way of Tibullus and Flaccus—has become his “path and the indestructible pillar of true life.” He invokes Katya, but he realizes that her image no longer fills his soul.

Then in church, during the service and afterward at the moment of absolution when he is about to kiss the cross and receive the sacred wafer, he knows that he has completely surrendered to a pock-marked peasant woman, “a hawk with browless eyes,…no dream, no rosy dawn, no honeyed grass, but a storm cloud, a tigress,…a werewolf.” So begins Daryalsky’s undoing. His infatuation is bewitchment, and the fusion in it of animal impulse and Christian ritual reflects the tangle of his mind’s convolutions.

What Daryalsky does not know is that the alluring wench is the instrument of a secret, suspect, mystic sect, the Silver Dove, ruled over by the carpenter Kudeyarov, who exercises a wizard’s influence on his flock of fanatic innocents and wily cutthroats, and who now wants to cement his congregation through the accomplishment of a mystery. It is he who has delegated his woman, Matryona, to entrap Daryalsky so as to conceive by him and bear a child that would be represented as spirit assuming human shape. But the plan goes awry. A child is not begotten, Matryona falls in love with Daryalsky, Kudeyarov is desperately jealous, and Daryalsky, who has realized how he was used, is abducted on his way back to Katya, trapped, and brutally murdered.

Many years later Biely declared that Kudeyarov was a premonition of Rasputin and it is true that his novel also contains some hints of conditions in Russia after the abortive revolution of 1905: talk about expropriating private property, student protests, peasant riots, arson, and the government’s repressive measures. But the work is not about Russia but about himself, a dramatization of that state of helpless fear which was his most intimate experience (he suffered from persecution mania) and which, at a time of general depression among young intellectuals, coincided with their prevailing mood of anxiety, their sense of a growing “terrible unrest” that made Alexander Blok “fear,” as he wrote Biely in the fall of 1907, “for the future of us all.”


At the time he was writing The Silver Dove, Biely was also elaborating, in a series of essays, his doctrine of Symbolism, of which he became the chief Russian theoretician. In his view, the Symbolist was a grander, freer, truer artist than either the Classicist or the Romantic, both of whom were constrained by their dependence on nature, the first in accepting nature as reality, the second in becoming nature’s slave, enticed by the idea that he and nature were one, since nature was but a copy of his own fantasy. But the Symbolist knew that the chaos of the visible, as well as the laws of nature, were in fact mere aspects of his creative “I,” that he himself was “the word made flesh,” that his life was art, that art became in him the religion of life, and that he was, therefore, “comparable to the mighty Atlas, holding the world on his shoulders.” This mystic belief in a supernal truth that, concealed from reason, is open only to the artist’s insight was Biely’s credo, but the true mystic’s absolute knowledge was denied him. He stalked it through forests of philosophies: Vladimir Soloviev, Schopenhauer, Hartmann, Nietzsche, theosophy, Buddhism, theurgy.

Like his Daryalsky he was attracted to the esoteric and the occult, and he tested this attraction by contrasting these with the rationalistic procedures of Leibnitz, Kant, and Wundt. But still, the certitude of revelation eluded him, although, a mystic manqué, he pursued it in a fever of anxiety and terror, which he interpreted as a mark of wisdom and the prime attribute of genius. “The abyss of the spirit” that overwhelms consciousness in the bright radiance of day, the terror of Pan, was “the habitual state of highly enlightened mystics,” he wrote in an essay on Gogol. All the mysteries of antiquity, including the Egyptian and the Eleusinian, began in terror and changed to ecstasy, “a state that presents the world as perfect,” “the moment of eternal harmony,” as Dostoevsky described it. Gogol and Nietzsche, “the greatest stylists of European art,” exemplified this terror-induced illumination, this brilliant product of irrationality to which Biely aspired.

It is not the image of a towering Atlas but that of a shaman or a bacchant that Biely’s incantatory prose, his dervish dance of words, calls up. And in his best novel, Petersburg, a landmark of Russian Symbolism, this method attains extraordinary power. Even more than The Silver Dove it is a novel of mood and atmosphere, for which the plot is only an excuse. The atmosphere is of impending doom, the mood a chaos of hatreds, guilt, despair. The central character, Nikolai Apollonovich Ableukhov, is, like Daryalsky, a young intellectual dilettante who reads philosophy and theology, “respects the leaders of various religions,” is impressed by Buddhism, and is especially devoted to Kant, whose bust adorns his study. No clear idea or definite intention propels these youths. They try out other men’s ideas and, quite incapable of critical or original thought, are driven by passions that have little to do with their acknowledged motives.

Daryalsky “goes to the People,” a fashionable venture in those days, even though the People are repelled by him and he himself despises them, even though, indeed, he fears them and harbors premonitions that “a secret enemy,” concealed among the People, will destroy him. But he dons a peasant blouse and, attracted by “the dung, chaos, infamy of the people,” which he finds embodied in Matryona, attends their church and tries to hobnob with them in pubs and taverns. His passion is self-destructive and basically erotic. Nikolai Apollonovich is ruled by murderous rather than erotic feelings, a suppressed, maniacal hatred of his father. For this reason, by contrast to Daryalsky the lover, he, the hater, calls down disaster on others, not himself. He is involved with a group of terrorists who want to kill and destroy, unlike Daryalsky’s “Doves” who ostensibly, at least, desire the salvation of souls.

What is most chilling in these demonic works is the assumption that men are morally and emotionally helpless. Daryalsky’s infatuation with Matryona is a thunderbolt that fells him on the spot. Nikolai Apollonovich is gradually, imperceptibly sucked into the morass of his ambivalence and frivolity. Lightheartedly, taking it as a joke, he has promised obedience to his group. Now, given a time bomb intended for his father, automatically, compulsively he sets the mechanism going and cannot bring himself to destroy the deadly object as he thinks he wants to do and knows he can by throwing it into the river. It so happens that the bomb does not annihilate its appointed victim, but the outcome hardly matters. More significant is the effect of tension as the awful instrument ticks off the moments, and this tension is similar to that of Daryalsky’s last journey in a carriage driven by the man he suspects, rightly, to be his delegated murderer. Human beings are frightened and frightening puppets, will-less, powerless, confused, pitiful, ridiculous. Nightmare and madness are their highest states of being. They cannot be held accountable for their crimes.


The things they do lay claim to historic and metaphysical significance. Petersburg, suggested by The Bronze Horseman, is intended, like Pushkin’s poem, to be a meditation on the destiny of Russia. In Biely’s hands the theme is inflated to grotesque hyperbole. Pushkin’s “Where does thou gallop, haughty steed? And where wilt thou plant thy hoof?” grows into a long passage of heightened rhetoric:

…The bronze steed will not lower his hoofs. There will be a leap above history; there will be great turmoil; the earth will be cloven…. All the peoples of the earth will hurl themselves from their places; there will be mighty strife, unheard of on earth. Yellow Asiatic hordes…will redden the fields of Europe in oceans of blood. It shall be, it shall….

Pushkin’s question has turned into apocalyptic prophecy, while the steed’s pursuit of his pitiful Evgeny becomes a prolonged nightmare in which the Horseman climbs a flight of rickety stairs to confront the pathetic, insane terrorist Alexander Ivanovich Dudkin in his miserable attic room. Pushkin, with the Decembrists in mind, was dramatizing in 1833, eight years after their revolt, the power of absolutism and the tragedy of rebellion. Biely, writing of the year 1905, was presenting not the tragedy but the catastrophic horror of revolution in a melodrama that verges on black comedy.

In the dramatic conflict of The Bronze Horseman, where a terrible flood devastates the city, not only is the little man humbled by the power of absolutism but absolutism itself is subdued by the greater power of nature. Pushkin’s musings, even on so vast a theme, are as always anchored in ordinary experience. Biely, on the other hand, revels in the free-floating adventures of the mind loosened from its moorings. He delights in the irrational, not because, like Tolstoy or Dostoevsky or Dante, having assayed the outmost bounds of reason, he has glimpsed a realm beyond its scope, but because he has no patience with reason and scorns the evidence of the senses.

Pushkin’s attention was given to men, Biely’s to his own inventions. Pushkin’s Petersburg, with its Admiralty spire, its palaces and shops, its granite banks, its population of clerks and tradesmen, noblemen and the czar, is a picture of the magnificent city he loves. Biely’s is not a picture but an idea of the city, conceived as a geometric design of straight lines, squares, and cubes through which there “circulates” a nameless, terrifying “many-footed monster.” It represents Biely’s aversion to the rational, the visible, the well ordered, by contrast to the inward reality of the mind’s self-awareness that, like the gaseous substance of Nikolai Apollonovich’s bomb, shatters the husk of matter as it swells to limitless dimensions in nightmares and waking dreams.

This is why, with all respect to his creative achievement, one cannot consider Biely seriously as a prophet and historian. To do so is to take his diffuse sense of impending disaster for prevision of authentic, specifically tragic events. Nor, without reservations, should one call him “The Russian Joyce,” as is often done. He was, it is true, an innovator of such importance that his influence on Russian prose may be even greater than Joyce’s on English. But the nature of these innovations (a topic too elaborate to be examined here) was quite different from Joyce’s and so also was the import of his work. The wonderful, inventive poetry of Ulysses is focused on the diurnal concerns of ordinary life, and this is precisely what Biely was least interested in. He had a taste for the abstruse and so firm a belief in the profundity of abstractions that even when he elected to be specific his minutely precise details, marshaled with the intensity of madness, create effects of eerie surrealism.

Like other Symbolists, Biely sought to transform words into music, to convey meaning through suggestion, and rather more insistently than others, to build his art on the only knowledge he believed a man had a right to affirm, the knowledge of his own experience. His creative work, an expression of this theory, reproduced his feverish restlessness, his intoxication with ideas, his paranoid forebodings.

Mr. Reavey’s translation of The Silver Dove, the first in English, though faithful on the whole, contains a surprising number of minor errors and at least one serious misreading (on page 301, where except is omitted from what should read: “never is anything of the sort dreamt of except in Russia”). His introduction provides a sketch of Biely’s life and of his place in the literary scene at the beginning of our century. Harrison Salisbury, in an enthusiastic preface, seems inclined to accept Biely’s dark prognostications as foresight of what has happened.

This Issue

April 17, 1975