In the intellectually giddy, combative, brilliant period of Russian art at the turn of the century, Andrei Bely was an outstanding figure, the best representative, no doubt, of its ultra-romantic speculations and experiments. He was “an undisciplined and erratic Ariel,” in D.S. Mirsky’s witty characterization, “a seer and prophet” to some, “a sort of mystical mountebank” to others.1 He was a leading exponent and practitioner of Russian Symbolism, and is thought to have exercised an enormous influence on Russian literature. The scientific study of Russian prosody began with him and, in criticism, his work gave rise to the Formalist School. We now have excellent translations of his masterpiece in prose and of the best biography about him to date.

Konstantin Mochulsky, a distinguished émigré scholar, had intended to write a book on Russian Symbolism, but his project expanded into three separate studies on the three major poets in the movement, Alexander Blok, Valéry Briusov, and Andrei Bely. All were published in Paris by the YMCA Press, after his death in 1948. The book on Bely was left unfinished. Had he lived longer, he would certainly have tightened up the text, filled in some episodes, elucidated some points. But even as it stands, it is an authoritative, sympathetic study, and a fine portrait. The translation by Nora Szalavitz, though marred occasionally by awkward turns of phrase, is faithful, and her editorship very intelligent.

Mochulsky draws a portrait of a paradoxical and complex being, a gifted man on the brink of madness, sometimes toppling over the brink. Though not sufficiently deranged to be institutionalized, he was always eccentric, suffered from delusions of persecution, and had several breakdowns. His work reflected his nature.

The beginning of Bely’s life was stamped by a profoundly traumatic experience that he himself described in an autobiographical novel, Kotik Letaev, reconstructing, with remarkable insight and precision, a child’s pitiful, amusing, helpless confusion in an unhappy world he cannot understand. His name was Boris Nikolaevich Bugaev—“Andrei Bely,” the Russian equivalent of “Andrew White,” was a pseudonym. He was born in 1880, the son of a man and woman at odds with each other. His father, Nikolai Vasilievich Bugaev, an eminent mathematician, professor at the University of Moscow and Dean of its Science Faculty, was eccentric, clever, and extraordinarily ugly. His mother was frivolous, coquettish, hysterical, and very beautiful. She despised her husband, opposed him in all matters; and the child was the butt of their quarrels. He loved his father for the way he taught him the Lord’s Prayer and told him fascinating stories about Adam and Eve, good and evil; and his mother he adored as a fairy-tale being, all in velvet, lace, and diamonds. But this lovely mother resented the father’s lessons as forcing the child to “a premature and abnormal development.” Her love for him, Bely wrote, was “powerful, jealous, cruel.” She was repelled by his resemblance to her husband. She would kiss him passionately and suddenly push him away and begin to cry, lamenting “he’s not like me, he’s like his father.” And the five-year-old boy would cry with her, feeling helpless and guilty: was it his fault that he had a bulging forehead and that his development was “premature and abnormal”? These were insurmountable perplexities:

I love Papa very much; except that: he—teaches, and it is a sin for me to learn (I know that from Mama)…. Who is right?…I am a sinner: with Mama I sin against Papa; with Papa against Mama. How can I exist and: not sin?

The boy had nightmares and would wake up screaming.

“Reality attacked his childish consciousness,” says Mochulsky, “like a nightmare; the shock and fear remained with him for his entire life. Bely’s literary work is an attempt to exorcise the chaos in and around himself; to save himself from destruction, to find solid ground, to find reason in the confusion of delirium. At the heart of his writing is amazement and horror at life.” And Vladislav Khodasevich, the émigré poet and critic whose essay on Bely Mochulsky refers to more than once, writes:

Every appearance seemed to him ambivalent, revealed itself in a dual way, in double meanings…. He came to love the compatibility of the incompatible, the tragedy and complexity of inward contradictions, truth in untruth, perhaps good in evil and evil in good.

Bely studied science at the University of Moscow to please his father and philosophy to please himself, and, in an effort to unite these incompatible preoccupations, called himself an “aesthetic scientist” or a “scientific aesthetician.” He began to publish in 1902, was much involved in the literary life of Moscow and Petersburg, engaging passionately in the polemics between them; headed “the theoretical section” of Vesý (The Scales), a review that Mirsky has described as “without doubt the most civilized and European publication of its time”; and from the start wrote abundantly. By 1911 six volumes of his work had been published, three collections of poetry and three of essays and reviews. At the age of thirty he was already known as “the official ideologue of Symbolism.”


His entire work—poetry, poetics, linguistics—reflects that “duality” which, says Mochulsky, “was Bely’s tragic fate.” All his writing gives evidence of a struggle to get beyond “the chaotic waves of life” to some kind of absolute and stable unity, whether in a mystic apprehension of Supreme Wisdom, the creation of life through art, or the wish to discover an innate order in the origin of words. Mochulsky sums up Bely’s “mystical credo,” his “attempt to exorcise chaos,” as “Neo-Kantian idealism…carried to an extreme. Outside of the creative spirit the world is chaos…. The artist is not only a creator of words and images, but also a demiurge, creating worlds. Art becomes theurgy.”

The same is true of Bely’s life. It was a battle with a repulsive world, a determination to escape from nightmarish reality into a realm of transcendent harmony. “The boundaries between art and life,” as Mochulsky puts it, “almost completely disappeared. Poems were perceived as life; life created poems.” But this confusion was not uniquely Bely’s. It was characteristic of the group with whom he was associated, “The Frenzied Poets,” in the appropriate title which Professor Oleg Maslenikov chose for his study of them.2

They lived [wrote Khodasevich] in ferocious tension, intensity, in a fever. They lived on several planes at once…. Only unceasing enthusiasm; motion was demanded from anyone entering the order (and Symbolism in a certain sense was an order)…. One could be possessed by whatever he liked; complete possession was all that was demanded.

The results were grotesque and absurd, sometimes tragic.

For example, Bely became infatuated with the wife of his best friend, Alexander Blok, approached her ecstatically as an incarnation of The Lady Beautiful, The Woman Clothed with the Sun, but his exaltation evolved into, or perhaps was simply unmasked as, a very real sexual passion, the greatest love of his life, according to Khodasevich. There are several contradictory versions of the episode, but what is certain is that it destroyed a close friendship between the two poets, caused unhappiness on all sides, and almost ended in a duel.

The case of Nina Petrovskaya was more tragic. A pathetic woman with literary ambitions, she was induced by three Symbolist poets in succession to transmute life into poetry. First Balmont persuaded her that they were meant to “cover themselves with rose petals” and make a poem of their love. When chaste adoration turned earthy, they separated, and Bely was impelled to console her. She saw him as a golden-haired angel, but once again the lofty ideal was shattered; bitter remorse ensued, and Briusov stepped in, affecting her as a mesmerizing demon. Once, at a literary gathering, she attempted to shoot Bely, though Bely claimed that she had aimed at Briusov. Anyhow, the gun misfired. Nina was abandoned, she took to drink and drugs, live abroad in dismal poverty, and in 1928 committed suicide in a beggarly room in Paris. There were poems to her from all three poets, and Briusov wrote a novel, The Fiery Angel, about her, himself, and Bely.

Even the sympathetic Mochulsky was revolted by Bely’s affectations about this affair:

In the poem, “The Legend,” the memory of the affair with Nina Petrovskaya is transformed into an esoteric mystery play. Its Symbolist pretensions are irritating. He was a prophet, she—Sibyl in a temple; their love “burned with roses in sunset incense.” He floats away in a golden canoe on the waves of the Styx….Sibyl cries quietly.

In 1910 Bely married Asya Turgeneva, a niece of the celebrated novelist, and on money borrowed from his publisher traveled with her abroad, to Sicily, Italy, Tunis, Egypt, Jerusalem. When they returned to Russia in the spring of the following year, they had very little to live on, and Bely accepted a proposal from the journal Russian Thought to complete a novel for it by January. He worked to the point of exhaustion, finished on time, but his manuscript was refused as unfit for publication. This was the first version of Petersburg. (A second version was published in 1916, and a third in 1922.) In 1912 the young couple went abroad again, this time to Sweden, England, France, Germany, and Switzerland, where, in February 1914, they joined the anthroposophical community of Rudolf Steiner in Dornach. During the day they worked on the building of the “Johanneseum,” and at night Bely, suffering from insomnia, wrote Kotik Letaev.

In 1916, Bely was summoned to Russia for military service; Asya did not follow him. He was rejected by the army, and his life during the years of the war, revolution, and civil war was extremely difficult. But he was greatly in demand as a lecturer and he continued to write copiously. In 1921, after many attempts, he was allowed to leave the country. Asya, whom he wanted to rejoin, repulsed him, and Rudolf Steiner, to whom he represented himself as “the ambassador of Russian anthroposophy,” would have none of him. In the reminiscences of those who saw him at this time, Khodasevich, Marina Tsvetaeva, Ilya Ehrenburg, Bely appears tragically ridiculous, pitifully wild, crazed with grief. Just the same, in the year 1922-1923, sixteen of his works were published in Berlin, seven reprints and nine new books. In 1923 he left Europe with K.N. Vasilieva, an anthroposophist, whom he married in Russia.


Bely died in 1934, and Mochulsky accepts the story that the cause of his death was a sunstroke, even though the stroke occurred in July and he died the following February. Medically, such a delayed effect may not be plausible, but dramatically the diagnosis is impressive, for Bely had prophesied that the sun would be his undoing and, years before, had written a poem about this.

A kind of spiritual attitudinizing seems to have been Bely’s most astonishing trait, a habit of deceptiveness that must have made it difficult not only for others but for himself to know whether he believed what he said he believed or felt what he professed to feel. There was so much posturing in his actions, so much evasion in the ideas he propounded, so much grandiloquence in what he wrote, that even his spells of madness seem sometimes self-induced, rhapsodic inventions applauded by his friends. In his unhappy childhood, a “diving-bell” of pretense was a necessary protection. With the grown man, pretense became ingrained duplicity that, operating through a kind of self-hypnosis, would, on occasion, transform invented emotions into something like genuine feeling, and fanciful ideas into the semblance of sincere belief. Bely could not live without dissimulation.

Nor was there anything scientific in his attempts to “exorcise chaos.” He was drawn to mystic doctrines and esoteric cults: Vladimir Soloviev, the Upanishads, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Neo-Platonism, Neo-Kantianism, Theosophy, Anthroposophy. He wanted some quick and certain means of getting at infallible Truth, and was wholly egocentric in his philosophic speculations as well as in his poetry and in his relations with others. “Blok sought forgetfulness in wine and passion,” Mochulsky remarks, “Bely in Neo-Kantian logic.” What he wanted from philosophy was confirmation of the only reality he could accept, the reality of the ineffable.

The Symbolism of his poetry is an allegory of the ineffable. Its purpose is not to communicate meanings but, through incantatory rhythms and words used as magic, to suggest unutterable insights. Sometimes, when he happened to express himself intelligibly, he felt the need to apologize. When, for example, at the beginning of their friendship, he would send Blok some of his unpretentious, rather conventional, lyrics, he would accompany them with such comments as “I don’t know how to write them. In a word, in verses I am not myself, but some one apart from me”; or, “As you see, all ‘extraneous’ poems…not within the Main Thing….” A sample of his writing when he was “within the Main Thing” is his inscription on a photograph of himself which he sent to Blok:

There is dawn at night. The unknown has been irradiated. Wait with an irradiated face. Wait.

Even if there is to be no sun, even if the dawn itself shall start fading away, you will perceive on the horizon the lusterless, pearly smile of farewell.

Presumably Blok could make something of this, but when he read Bely’s essay “The Forms of Art”—it was with a discussion of this farrago of philosophic concepts that their friendship began—he pointed out, after first calling it a work of genius, that the article was not really an inquiry into “the forms of art” but a discourse on “the transformation of life into mystery,” and that Bely had side-stepped the main issue, had not set limits nor defined boundaries, and had not clinched his argument. “And for this reason,” Blok concluded, “the last pages are horror and doubt…a winding path on which you vanish around a bend, and one hears your last words somehow muted, at a distance…and you yourself we can no longer see.”

If one is hard put to it to distinguish between sense and pretense in the doctrines Bely expounded, if, as Osip Mandelstam said, Bely, choking on “refined verbosity,” drove words “unsparingly and unceremoniously” in “dancing prose,” there is one recurrent experience in his life of which neither the reality nor the presentation can be questioned. This is the experience of nightmare. Bely was a terrified man. He felt himself in the power of hostile forces, spied upon, pursued. And for this reason, when he wrote out of the core of nightmare, his work had an integrity and strength that were lacking in his prophetic visions and his speculative lucubrations. This is notably true of Petersburg, which even Mandelstam exempted from his strictures. It was, he said, a work unmatched by any other Russian writer in its powerful evocation of pre-revolutionary anxiety and turmoil. Mochulsky has described it as “a rendition of delirium unprecedented in literature…a [created] world—unbelievable, fantastic, monstrous, a world of nightmare and horror, a world of distorted perspectives, of disembodied people and living corpses.”

Now, thanks to Professors Maguire and Malmstad of Columbia University, it has become available in a translation that captures Bely’s idiosyncratic language and the rhythm of his prose, and, without doing violence to English, conveys not only the literal meaning of the Russian but also its echoes and implications. Their scholarly, imaginative edition, with its abundant notes—historical, literary, biographic—and its endpapers that are a map of the city, brings one almost inside Bely’s mind.

The time of the novel is 1905, and its action, as Professors Maguire and Malmstad have figured out, takes up nine days in October of that revolutionary year. It is neither a historical nor a psychological novel. Its people are not portraits but caricatures; its city is an eerie phantasmagoria, a symbol of danger, even though its streets and buildings are so clearly identifiable that the people’s meanderings through it can be followed on the map; and the human condition, which one knows from history to have been on the verge of unimaginable tragedy, appears in it as a hideous grotesque.

The plot, involving a projected assassination of a father, Senator Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov, by his son Nikolai, is centered on the tacit relationship between them. And although the senator is modeled on the notorious ultra-reactionary Pobedonostev, ober-procurator of the Holy Synod, and is also reminiscent of Tolstoy’s martinet Alexei Karenin, even a cursory acquaintance with Bely will show how much the Ableukhovs resemble Professor Nikolai Vasilievich Bugaev and his son Boris. They are hostile to each other, yet very much alike. Their encounters are abrasive, and yet a deep-seated sympathy and pity, even love, emerges through their hatred. The son, a frivolous, morally flabby, intellectually disoriented being, whose mind is on philosophy and whose heart is occupied with a silly love affair, finds himself involved with a group of terrorists to whom he has once, inadvertently, pledged allegiance.

Now he himself contributes to the atmosphere of terror that pervades the city by darting through its streets and in and out of houses, arrayed in a bright red domino which he has ordered for a masquerade. He mingles with the shadowy crowd that “circulates” along the thoroughfares of Petersburg, and although his motives are puerile and egotistic, his hectic triviality adds to the universal mood of apprehension and masks his own sinister complicity, which he would like to deny and slough off. At home, the infernal time bomb that has been delivered to him, and which he himself has set going, ticks away the moments to the fated catastrophe. And through the nerve-racking tension of this ticking, the action of the novel holds its course. It is a waking nightmare, enclosing other, actual nightmares, the most harrowing of which is the mad conspirator Dudkin’s hallucination that, in a fearful parody of Pushkin’s The Bronze Horseman and The Stone Guest, embodies a vision both of universal Nemesis and of private retribution for an individual crime.

Bely’s inspiration was bookish to a degree. Pushkin’s work is implicit throughout the novel, Gogol’s is sensed in elements of the supernatural, the demonic, and the humorous. There are echoes also of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and others. But Bely makes use of these allusions in the service of his own special art, as he does also with his observations of reality. Oddly enough for a man so devoted to transcendental visions, he was capable of very close observation—he had, after all, received scientific training. But his microscopically noted details are distorted to create uncanny or absurd effects, so that one is surprised, now and then, to find traces of familiar human emotions in his non-human, superbly orchestrated, design.

Petersburg, despite its potential for tragedy, is in essence comedy of an incomparable strangeness. Much of it is monstrously funny in the manner of Gogol, but by and large it provokes shudders rather than laughter, and is, in sum, a virtuoso piece of horrifying black humor. “Like many modern writers,” our editors remark, “Bely does not attempt anything resembling full psychological portraits,” but just the same, his characters are “real and memorable as individuals.” They are “real,” however, only because Bely has tagged them with certain recognizable peculiarities. Their distinguishing traits are external; they are figures in an intricate pattern. It was not men and women, but the pattern—of sounds, shapes, colors—that most interested Bely. The translator’s introduction contains a notably perceptive analysis of one shape in the design, the circle, that seems to be the determinant of the entire novel.

Nevertheless, I am not ready to accept their interpretation of the circular scheme as indicating on Bely’s part an optimistic philosophy of eternal return and continuity, or their view that the dreadful tension of the book is evidence of dynamic power that signalizes the life principle. The circular scheme might just as well appear to manifest the pessimism of futility, and the dreadful tension—neurotic terror. Our translators, in my opinion, make a virtue of what is certainly Bely’s most serious deficiency, his inconclusiveness, the dubiety of a man whose mind was a tangle of philosophic odds and ends but who had no integrated philosophy of his own. He could at once extol and ridicule the speculations and emotions that absorbed him, and experience the extremities of anxiety, but he had no sense of tragedy. The world appeared to Bely as frightening chaos, as uncontrollable violence, and it was in these terms that he pictured Russia in 1905. His strength as artist lay in projecting nightmares and delirium, that is, in states of mental and spiritual disorientation; and Petersburg, his masterpiece, is a terrifying adumbration of some looming, imminent, but undefined disaster, horrendous and—absurd.

High claims have been advanced for Petersburg. Vladimir Nabokov pronounced it one of the four “greatest masterpieces of twentieth century prose,” which he listed “in this order: Joyce’s Ulysses; Kafka’s Transformation; Biely’s Petersburg; and the first half of Proust’s fairy tale In Search of Lost Time.” And this “strong opinion” is cited on all hands: Mrs. Szalavitz refers to it; our translators begin their introduction by quoting it; and it is, of course, mentioned on the jacket of the book where, however, it is somewhat eclipsed by an even more extravagant blurb. Nabokov’s criterion, one should note, is style; he is writing of the greatest prose, not the greatest fiction, even though his four examples are all drawn from fiction. But his judgment would have been no different had he chosen to speak of novels, since style was to him of first and last importance, so much so that, on this basis, he could relegate to second place even Goethe and Stendhal, Dostoevsky and Pasternak. There are other qualities, however, by which artistic greatness may be measured: depth and range of understanding, moral vision, human sympathy, for example. And by these measures, although one might rank Bely with Kafka, one could hardly consider either of them in a class with Joyce and Proust.

What is greatness? is a question not to be answered in a word or two, but neither is it one to be evaded. It is good to know that Professors Maguire and Malmstad are busy on “a critical study of the novel,” for one can expect from them an appreciative and rational evaluation of a work that is, unquestionably, one of the most extraordinary creations of modern literature.

This Issue

April 6, 1978