‘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…

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