‘Where the Dead Smiled’

‘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.”

The rootless city—“the most abstract and intentional city in the whole round world,” in the words of Dostoevsky’s Man from the Underground—was the breeding ground of the rootless intelligentsia whose significance Dostoevsky believed he was the first to have perceived. It is the background of many of his stories and novels, whose characters, often subject to fevers and hallucinations induced by the unhealthy atmosphere of the surrounding swampland, seek desperately to formulate new rules for moral and social existence in a world where former certainties no longer apply. Tormented by the intensity of their mental existence, they hate the city whose grotesque contradictions mirror their own inner state. On misty Petersburg mornings the hero of A Raw Youth is haunted by a strange dream:

And what if this mist suddenly evaporates and goes upwards, won’t all this rotten, slimy city go up with it, rise with the mist and vanish like smoke, and there will remain the former Finnish swamp, and in its midst, perhaps, for decoration, the bronze horseman on his hotly breathing, exhausted horse?

Such fantasies began to seem prophetic as Russia’s revolutionary drama was played out on the Petersburg streets. In 1881 Tsar Alexander II was killed by a terrorist bomb as his carriage drove through the city. On January 22, 1905, with the country on the verge of revolution, vast columns of workers, singing hymns and holding icons aloft, approached the Winter Palace with a robed priest at their head to deliver a petition at the feet of Nicolas II. Soldiers fired into the unarmed crowd, killing or wounding hundreds. For many of the intellectual elite, the workers’ bodies in Palace Square signified the completion of a process that had begun with the shootings under Peter’s statue eighty years before: the Petersburg regime had now severed its ties with both the intelligentsia and the Russian people.

The Symbolist movement that dominated Russian poetry between the revolutions of 1905 and 1917 was predominantly Slavophile and apocalyptic in tone. The Petersburg-born poet Alexander Blok looked forward to the destruction of his city and its foreign culture as a fiery purification, retribution exacted by the elemental forces of the people. In Andrei Bely’s surrealist novel Petersburg, whose action is dominated by the ticking of a terrorist’s bomb, the city is a “fourth dimension” which exists on no maps.

Reality soon outstripped poetic imagination. A few months after Bely’s novel appeared, Petersburg was renamed Petrograd to satisfy patriotic sentiment after the outbreak of the First World War. Two years later it ceased to be the capital of Russia. Its second renaming on Lenin’s death in 1924 was seen by many of its intelligentsia as an attempt to stamp out the memory of their traditional independence. Stalin sought to complete that task by making the city a prime target of his terror. Those who survived the mass deportations and shootings of the 1930s were subjected by Hitler’s armies to the longest siege of a city in modern history. When it was lifted after 900 days, three quarters of the city’s population had perished. Leningrad’s slow resurrection was hampered first by Stalin’s continuing vengefulness and subsequently by a particularly reactionary local Party apparatus. But by the 1960s the city was the scene of flourishing (if largely underground) activity in literature and the arts, a dominant feature of which was a fascination with the culture of pre-revolutionary Petersburg. This was not simply an exercise in nostalgia, but part of a search for cultural roots after the discrediting of Stalinism. The search continues amid the current debates about the meaning of the city’s past. By defining “true” Petersburg culture as distinct from values associated only with the former imperial power, many Petersburg intellectuals hope to rebuild a sense of historical continuity, national identity, and moral purpose.


To provide such a definition is one of the aims of Solomon Volkov’s book. Its title is misleading: this is no scholarly study, but the result of a personal odyssey that began in 1965 when, as part of a string quartet of young musicians from the Leningrad Conservatory, the author was invited to play Shostakovich’s Ninth Quartet for the poet Anna Akhmatova at her dacha near the city. The fates of the composer and the poet had been closely tied to Petersburg, where in the decade before the Revolution Akhmatova had been part of an astonishing Pléiade of writers, composers, painters, choreographers, and theater directors whose influence was seminal on the art of this century. What was it in the culture of Petersburg that in a short span of years nourished the genius of Stravinsky, Malevich, Meyerhold, Nabokov, and Diaghilev? To ask this question in Leningrad in the 1960s was to invite the reply: “We have only one culture—the Soviet one.” Nor did Volkov find an answer in the West (to which he emigrated in 1972). Unlike Paris, Berlin, Vienna, or New York, Petersburg did not exist in the general consciousness as a great center of cultural revolution: “All these splendid accomplishments and famous names floated in some kind of space and time vacuum and remained strangely unconnected.”

Volkov came to define the common factor as the “Petersburg mythos,” his term for the complex of philosophical and moral ideas concerned with the special place of Petersburg on Russian soil and in Russian history. In his chronologically and thematically chaotic book, which ranges over the major movements in all the arts connected with the city in this century (and, very sketchily, the two preceding ones), the author’s impressively broad culture allows him to shape an absorbing narrative out of a mixture of anecdote, memoir, critical discussion, and historical fact.

He argues that at the beginning of this century the image of Petersburg, previously demonized by writers and the radical intelligentsia, was transformed by Russian modernism. Diaghilev’s “World of Art” movement, created to bring Russia abreast of the latest cultural developments in Western Europe, found the inspiration for new painting, music, and ballet in the city’s Neoclassical beauty and impe-rial pomp. Petersburg’s theatricality also fascinated the avant-garde that emerged in the feverish decade before the Revolution. Its leaders saw the theater as a means for bringing about the transformation of human consciousness which they anticipated with millenarian fervor. The Futurists idealized the dynamism of Petersburg’s urban culture, and staged in the city their electrifying productions, such as Mayakovsky’s Vladimir Mayakovsky, ATragedy, that flouted all conventional canons and beliefs. They hailed the October Revolution as the merging of theater with life.

The Bolshevik leaders, however, disliked both the avant-garde and the city that had bred these anarchic artists. Volkov contends that the regime’s vindictiveness toward the former capital intensified the intelligentsia’s attachment to it. Never had there been so extraordinary a transformation in the mythos of a city. Once repudiated by Russia’s creative geniuses as a foreign implant on their soil, the former capital survived both the Great Terror and the attack of Hitler’s armies to emerge, buoyed up by the sympathy of the nation and the world, as a new national legend, a symbol of the suffering and resilience of the Russian people.

No wonder that Volkov sees something miraculous in this process. He set out to describe the evolution of a myth and seems to have ended by constructing a new one of his own: an epic saga of repudiation, destruction, and rebirth far removed from the real complexities of history and human motivation. But his material resists the interpretation he places on it. The Petersburgers and Leningraders with whom this book is concerned regarded their city sometimes with love, sometimes with fear and revulsion, but always with ambivalence and irony. Volkov himself recognizes these qualities as central to what he describes as the “Petersburg spirit.” He makes a convincing case for the existence of a specifically “Petersburg” style of musical composition (stretching from Glinka to Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich), characterized by “a solid grounding of craftsmanship,…restrained irony, and nostalgia without sentimentality”; and he observes that, as modernists with Petersburg roots, Nabokov and Stravinsky “were related by the theatricality of their works, the paradoxicality of their creative thought,…as well as an incorrigible tendency toward irony and the grotesque.” But he gives few insights into the complex attitudes toward the city as idea and reality that shaped this ironic vision over the last two centuries. He argues that Dostoevsky rejected all that Petersburg stood for; yet Dostoevsky chose to spend his most creative years there, tied to the city by a strange attraction that Herzen defined in his own case as amounting to love: no other place provided so formidable a test of their responses both as artists and as human beings. The great radical critic Belinsky put the same point as follows:

Saint-Petersburg is the touchstone of a man: he who living in it has not been carried away by the whirlpool of phantom life, who has managed to keep both heart and soul, but not at the expense of common sense, to retain his human dignity without falling into quixotism—to him you can extend your hand…as to a man.

Belinsky’s distinction is equally relevant to Russian intellectual life after 1917, when many took the rituals and façades of Bolshevism for reality and built utopias on them. Those writers and artists who did so tended to perish early, victims of a cruel power and of their own illusions. Much of the greatest art of the Soviet period was produced by another breed—former Petersburgers who managed to preserve both heart and soul by means of that subversive irony which Herzen once predicted would be “the hope and salvation” of the Russian nation.

One of the latter—Anna Akhmatova—is the heroine of Volkov’s book, and he writes revealingly about many others. But in keeping the theme of the former Petersburg intelligentsia’s love of their victimized city in the foreground, he blurs a more important issue: the distinction between those who clearly understood the moral essence of the new regime and those who clung to their illusions. The fact that some of the latter met tragic ends with great courage has tended in the past to inhibit criticism of their outlook. But the rare quality of Akhmatova’s response to the Stalin epoch becomes plain only when one approaches that terrible age in an unsentimental, skeptical, “Petersburg” spirit.

In 1918 Alexander Blok published his long poem The Twelve. Twelve Red Guardsmen, ignorant and violent, driven only by the desire for revenge on the bourgeois, march through a Petrograd blizzard, killing and plundering on their way. But they are guided by an invisible force; in the last stanza of the poem a white-clad figure appears at the head of their column, Jesus Christ.

Blok’s likening of the Bolshevik seizure of power to the spiritual revolution preached by Christ and his twelve apostles aroused bitter controversy; but he was typical of the avant-garde in reading a deeply symbolic meaning into the revolutionary drama being acted out on the streets and squares of the capital. The new regime encouraged the intelligentsia to see themselves as participants in an unprecedented experiment in the transformation of human existence. The Bolshevik revolution, like the Petrine one, sought to construct a mystique of power through show and ritual, and the public spaces of Petrograd served its purpose well. The Bolsheviks’ “storming” of the Winter Palace during a session of the cabinet of the provisional government was hardly a heroic affair (only a few military cadets and a battalion of women attempted resistance), but it was instantly transformed into myth in paintings, posters, and film, along with the cruiser Aurora, which, moored on the Neva within range of the Palace, had fired the blank shells that helped frighten the provisional government into surrendering.

On May 1, 1918, Petrograd was the scene of a festival on the scale that had inspired Custine with fascinated horror. The city and the fleet were festooned with flags and banners, and huge parades wound through the streets as airplanes circled overhead and artillery salutes resounded, concluding with a blaze of fireworks in the night sky. Such public rituals gave the avant-garde the chance to transpose their artistic experiments from the stage to the streets. A semi-official newspaper in late 1918 contained a poem by Vladimir Mayakovsky, “Order to the Army of Art.” “Wipe the old from your heart./The streets are our brushes./The squares our palettes.” To merge theater with life was the aim of the Theater of Worker Youth (TRAM), formed in 1922 as an amateur studio at the House of Communist Upbringing in Petrograd. With the government’s encouragement they dramatized revolutionary events in performances in which thousands took part, illuminated by projectors from battleships, with sound effects provided by real cannon. Appropriately, it was in Leningrad in the mid-1920s that Mikhail Bakhtin developed his theory of the influence of carnival on world culture. Bakhtin noted that carnival life “is life taken out of its usual ruts.” As Volkov observes, Petrograd after the revolution was the quintessential carnival city. “All the hierarchical barriers that had formed over centuries were broken down there, traditional values were tossed out the window.” No hope seemed too extravagant; as the critic Nikolai Punin later wrote, “We imagined… even a dictatorship of art over the government.”

The chasm between the expectations of the avant-garde and the intentions of the Bolsheviks could not have been greater. For the artists, the rituals in the public spaces of Petrograd were the acting out of a new freedom; for the Bolsheviks, they were the means of consecrating a new order. The avant-garde’s indiscipline severely limited their usefulness in this regard, and it became increasingly clear that art would not be exempt from the regimentation being imposed on all other social activities. Blok was one of the first to succumb to despair. He died in August 1921—from “spiritual asthma,” as Andrei Bely put it. In the same month the poet Nikolai Gumilev was arrested on a charge (now known to have been fabricated) of anti-Soviet conspiracy: he was shot in Petrograd along with sixty others. During the post-revolutionary decade, the city that had seen the birth of Russian modernism witnessed its gradual suffocation. Mayakovsky, the avant-garde’s most strident propagandist for the new regime, shot himself in 1930. The year before, Bakhtin was arrested in an attempt by the police to liquidate underground philosophical and religious circles in Petrograd. Describing the dissolution of Bakhtin’s circle, one of its members, the young writer Konstantin Vaginov, concluded: “But it is time to lower the curtain. The performance is over. It is confusing and quiet on the stage. Where is the promised love, the promised heroism? Where is the promised art?”

Here was the voice of the “Petersburg spirit.” Vaginov was one of a number of Leningrad experimentalists in prose whose work began to appear in the early 1920s. Almost all these authors knew and learned from each other, and many lived in or frequented the “House of the Arts” founded by Maxim Gorky to provide support for writers in the first hungry years of the new regime. St. Petersburg-Leningrad was a dominant theme of their work, which both measured itself against and parodied the work of the Petersburg masters of the past. They included the Serapion Brothers, a group founded in 1921 whose most famous member was the satirist Mikhail Zoshchenko. With great daring, in a style that recalled Gogol and the early Dostoevsky, he depicted the “new Soviet man” not as the proletarian hero of official mythology, but as a truculent, greedy philistine.

Volkov writes illuminatingly on this “new Petersburg prose,” which has rarely been given its due in studies of the period; he notes that its ironic self-commentary was a daring challenge to official ideology. But it is also worth stressing that such irony struck an equally dissonant note in the chorus of the avant-garde, whose most prominent groups (such as the Futurists and the proletarian culture movement, Proletkult) equated revolutionary art with revolutionary politics and clamored for the suppression of rival artistic movements. The new prose writers did not allow rosy visions of the future to cloud their moral perceptions in the present. Yevgeny Zamyatin, one of the movement’s mentors, set its tone in his article “I am Afraid,” published in a Petrograd journal in 1921. He declared that servile conformism was now the rule in Soviet literature, forcing some writers into silence: “Real literature can exist only where it is made not by industrious and dependable clerks, but by madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels and sceptics.”

Zamyatin’s protest was the more effective because of his radical credentials (he had once been a member of the Bolshevik Party). In the same year he completed his anti-utopian novel We, which was to influence Orwell’s 1984. It was passed around in manuscript, and after a version appeared in an émigré review, he was allowed to publish no more work in Russia. In 1931, he wrote to Stalin asking for permission to go abroad, “so that I may come home as soon as it is possible for literature to serve great ideas without crawling before small men.” Miraculously, permission was granted.

Heresy took a surrealist form in the writings of the Oberiu group (an acronym for the Association for Real Art), founded in 1928. Its central figure was Daniil Kharms, whose absurdist prose depicts a dark and cruel Leningrad, on whose Nevsky Prospect people “come trampling from all sides, growling and shoving.” Vaginov, who belonged to this group, portrays in his novel The Goat Song remnants of the old Petersburg intelligentsia carrying on their philosophical and moral discussions in the forlorn hope of escaping from the ugliness of Soviet reality and taking refuge “in a tall tower of humanism.”

“Fantastic realism”—a term often used for Dostoevsky’s technique—is an apt description of the prose that emanated from Leningrad’s House of the Arts, described by an inmate as a “crazy ship” that had appeared out of nowhere and was speeding to an unknown destination. The new writing, like Dostoevsky’s, blended the tragic and the grotesque in its depiction of individuals attempting to assert their human dignity in an implacably hostile environment. Memoirs of the early 1920s portray a dark, hungry, and freezing city, threatened by a vindictive power. The sense of menace hanging over the city was conveyed by many oblique means, from surrealist fiction to the historical prose of the critic Yuri Tynyanov, who depicted the clash of the individual with the Russian state in works which, according to one account, “agitated contemporaries more than stories by others about the present, because the Bronze Horseman was still galloping after the fleeing Yevgeny and with every year the ringing hoofbeats sounded louder along the stunned cobblestones.”

Peter’s statue and the flooding of his city were a frequent source of ambivalent metaphors in the prose of the Twenties. There was much discussion of the symbolism of the fact that the flooding of Leningrad in 1924 (exactly a hundred years after the flood that had inspired Pushkin’s poem) coincided with the year of Lenin’s death and the renaming of the city. Volkov remarks on the frequency with which in the literature of the time the city is described as a ship, recalling the ancient image of a “ship of the dead,” wandering between death and rebirth.

Herzen had observed that Petersburg induced a permanent state of physical and moral fever, an intensity of existence for which the price was an early death. Many Leningrad writers paid the price: several of the leading figures in Oberiu, including Kharms, died in prison. Emigration continued in a steady stream throughout the Twenties. Those who were left faced the choice between spiritual suffocation and physical extinction. But a number retained their artistic integrity and recorded the fantastic reality of Stalin’s Terror. It is no coincidence that the most prominent of these had their roots in the ironic culture of pre-revolutionary Petersburg. Volkov gives two of them—Shostakovich and Akhmatova—the principal credit for turning the city into a symbol both of Russia’s tragic fate and of its hopes for a rebirth.


Shostakovich, who entered the Petrograd Conservatory in 1919, at the age of thirteen, was one of the great alumni of the Petersburg school of composition. He was also deeply imbued with the city’s literary culture. His first opera, The Nose, was based on Gogol’s absurdist tale about the nose of an official which leaves its owner’s face to assume an autonomous existence until finally captured by the police. The opera could be read as a satire on power and the fear of power. This, together with its avant-garde character, ensured that its premiere in Leningrad in 1930 received a hostile press. His opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District turned a melodramatic tale by the nineteenth-century Petersburg writer Nikolai Leskov into a complex psychological drama which succeeds in eliciting sympathy for the multiple murderess in the title role. In 1936 Stalin attended a performance and expressed displeasure—the signal for a ferocious campaign in the Party press against all forms of deviation from “socialist realism” in the arts.

Leningrad was already the primary target of the Great Terror: after the assassination there in December 1934 of the Leningrad Party chief Sergei Kirov (probably engineered by Stalin as a pretext for extinguishing all opposition in the city), mass arrests and executions had become part of daily life. Shostakovich had to tread a very dangerous path to survive without compromising his integrity. In an interview with his critics he claimed that his Fifth Symphony (first performed in November 1937) was about “man with all his feelings”: but the Leningrad audience (who gave him a thirty-minute ovation) interpreted it as a work about the Terror. His Seventh Symphony, dedicated to the blockaded city of Leningrad, was first performed there in August 1942, before an audience weak from starvation. Broadcast all over Russia, this performance was adroitly used by Stalin’s propaganda machine as evidence of the patriotic spirit of Leningraders, but many of the latter were aware that, as Shostako-vich told trusted friends, the Seventh Symphony was not only about fascism but about all forms of oppression. His music crystallized the new image of the city as victim; but, as Volkov observes, that image had already an underground currency in the poetry of Anna Akhmatova.

Unlike so many of the other victims in Volkov’s narrative, Akhmatova had no difficulty in distinguishing between the theatrical charades of Petrograd in 1917 and the true moral nature of Bolshevism. In the decade before the Revolution, she was (along with her then-husband Gumilev and Osip Mandelstam) a leader of the Acmeist movement which arose in Petersburg in reaction to Symbolism. The Acmeists’ manifestos demanded clarity and concreteness of expression in contrast to the “fogginess” of the Symbolists. Akhmatova once observed that unlike the Symbolist poets, she felt herself “responsible for every word.” In 1918 she refused to attend a literary evening where Blok’s poem The Twelve was to be read. She saw Petersburg as the city of her Muse, “loved with bitter love.” She foresaw that the destruction of its culture would lead to barbarism, yet she did not contemplate emigrating after the Revolution, and had harsh words for those who did: “I am not with those who left their land/for enemies to tear apart./I pay no heed to their rough flattery,/my songs are not for them.”

Yet neither (unlike Mayakovsky) did she offer her songs to Russia’s new rulers. In Anno Domini MCMXXI, a volume of poems written between 1917 and 1921, she subverts the reader’s expectations with true Petersburg irony. Her epigraph is a phrase from the nineteenth-century poet Tyutchev, “In those legendary years….” But the poems that follow are concerned not with epic events but with private emotions—dramas of love, jealousy, and betrayal—played out in a city where monstrous rumors roam the streets and death chalks the doors with crosses.

The critical hostility that greeted Anno Domini’s lack of “socialist optimism” forced Akhmatova into silence for many years. The critics suggested that she had been born too late or had not died soon enough. But she sensed that her time was still to come. The first poem of the cycle, addressed “To my Fellow Citizens,” ends: “Another time is drawing near;/the wind of death chills the heart,/but the holy city of Peter/will be our unwilling monument.” A decade later she emerged from her silence to produce what is arguably the greatest artistic work about the Terror, the cycle Requiem. Its subject is the years when Leningrad “hung like a useless appendage around its prisons,” outside whose walls a line of women stood every day hoping to deliver parcels or receive news of their relatives’ fate. Akhmatova had stood there during the seventeen months that her son Lev Gumilev was held before being deported to a labor camp. As the poet “through whose tortured mouth a hundred million people cry,” she records the daily, exhausting terror of those years.

It was too dangerous to write the poem down; over a period of five years verses scribbled on pieces of paper were memorized by trusted friends and then burned. The target of an ideological attack mounted on Stalin’s initiative in 1946, Akhmatova was treated as a pariah until Stalin’s death, but her poetry was widely circulated in samizdat. As Volkov notes, Requiem in particular became bred into the intelligentsia’s bones. But his relentless insistence on the poem’s importance in creating “a new mythos of the martyr city” tends to sentimentalize and diminish it. Like all the greatest works of Petersburg culture, Requiem was the creation of an artist whose identification with her city was a compound of many ambivalent feelings. Volkov himself cites a conversation that he had in New York with Joseph Brodsky (who as a young poet in Leningrad in the 1960s was part of what Akhmatova called her “magic choir”), in which Brodsky observed that the literature created in Petersburg is marked by “the awareness that it is all being written from the edge of the earth. And if one can speak of some general concept, or tonality…of Petersburg culture, it would be alienation.”

This tonality can be traced to one major influence, that of Dostoevsky. As Donald Fanger has put it, Dostoevsky’s myth of Petersburg is infused with a spirit of searching and anguish which gives it an extraordinarily modern tone:

He raised the chaotic city to the position of a symbol of the chaotic moral world of man, so that the contradictions of the second find their counterpart in the contrasts of the first. He showed…bare human consciousness striving in a world where there were few of the usual categories of normality, striving with a terrible and unsought freedom, isolated and rootless, together without community…[to discover] a new or an old morality—something to fill the void.3

In the classic Petersburg novel, Crime and Punishment, the city’s fetid heat, its sudden deluges stirring up images of a primeval flood, the contrasts between its classic façades and the teeming slum life behind them, reflect and intensify the characters’ spiritual states, impressing on us the fragile nature of what we call normality, and the ever-present threat of the irruption of monstrous evil into the everyday. Dostoevsky believed that his fantastic realism had a prophetic element—a view borne out by the fate of his city. One image from Volkov’s book conveys all the bizarre horror of life in Leningrad in the 1930s: the festively dressed audience gathered for the premiere of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, all of them aware that later that night some of their number would be dragged off to prison or execution. As he puts it:

Stalin had declared a genocidal war against his own people, and Leningrad was one of his most visible victims. And yet the terror wanted to remain anonymous, unnamed. “Enemies of the people” were harangued daily, on the radio, in newspapers, at countless meetings, but it was forbidden to speak of where they were being sent as they disappeared. The words “terror,” “prison,” “camp,” and “arrest” were not spoken aloud and seemed not to exist in the everyday vocabulary. The infamous black vans that carried off the arrested had fake signs on their side: “Meat” or “Milk.” …The official slogan for the country, by which everyone allegedly lived at that time, was Stalin’s constantly quoted “Life has become better, life has become merrier.”

Akhmatova’s importance as a chronicler of this horror lies not merely in her capacity to evoke pity for its victims, but in the Dostoevskian power with which she uses her city’s concrete reality to convey the grotesque banality of the evil that some of her compatriots tried to justify in the name of great historical goals. She ignores the Bolsheviks’ official downgrading of Peter’s city: it is the “capital reduced to madness,” where old crones howl like wounded beasts, where fear “shivers in a dry laugh,” where “only the dead smiled, happy to be at peace.” The extremes of Petersburg’s climate and its impenetrable fogs are interwoven into the experience of the poem: the lines of women standing beneath the prison’s blind red wall “both in the fierce cold and the sultry July heat,” the city’s streets, filled with those who “have less breath than the dead,…less substance than the misty Neva.”

Akhmatova’s fellow Acmeist Osip Mandelstam (whom Volkov unjustly neglects) conveyed the same monstrous reality in his poem of 1930, “Leningrad.”

I returned to my city, familiar to tears,
to my childhood’s tonsils and varicose veins.

You have returned here—then swallow
the Leningrad streetlamps’ cod-liver oil.

Recognize now the day of December fog
when ominous street-tar is mixed with the yolk of egg.

Petersburg, I do not want to die yet:
I have your telephone numbers in my head.

Petersburg, I still have addresses
at which I will find the voice of the dead.

I live on a black stair, and into my temple
strikes the doorbell, torn out with flesh.

And all night long I await the dear guests,
and I jangle my fetters, the chains on the door.4

This was the world that Dostoevsky had dimly foreseen: the somber, sooty, slimy, foggy city and the dark, claustrophobia-inducing staircases and landings of its tenements are at the same time tangible realities and symbols of the savagery of a system in which all is permitted. Dostoevsky’s characters had speculated on the grotesque consequences of such a doctrine: Akhmatova and Mandelstam illustrated them in their poetry when outspokenness was punishable by death. “We live without feeling the country beneath us,/our speech at ten paces inaudible”: the poem about Stalin that began with those lines sealed Mandelstam’s fate. He would die in a camp. Akhmatova’s caustic irony rings as a counterrefrain throughout the Stalin years. Mandelstam’s wife, Nadezhda, recalls her fury whenever she heard someone speculating about why an individual had been arrested: “What do you mean, what for? It’s time you understood that people are arrested for nothing at all.”

The work of these two poets is a powerful demonstration that sanity, moral integrity, and even hope can survive in an absurd world. Mandelstam expressed his faith that “the word”—poetry—would not perish: “For that blessed senseless word/I shall pray in the Soviet night.” Requiem ends with the hope that, if a monument is raised to the poet, it will be before the prison walls:

…where I endured three hundred hours
in line before the implacable iron bars….
And from my motionless bronze-lidded sockets
may the melting snow, like teardrops, slowly trickle,

and a prison dove coo somewhere, over and over,
as the ships sail softly down the flowing Neva.5

One of the paradoxes of Petersburg is that the “deepest hell of senseless and abnormal life” (as one of Dostoevsky’s characters describes the city) could produce such luminous personalities. But over the last three centuries it also produced multitudes of docile believers in its official myths. This is why I am uneasy about Solomon Volkov’s emphasis on the city’s “tragic mythological aura” as the basis for its hope to be once again recognized as the spiritual capital or, at least, the cultural arbiter of the new Russia. The cults of Imperial Petersburg and revolutionary Petrograd manipulated mythology for the ends of political power. It is not inconceivable that a cult of the martyred and resurrected city may be created for the same purpose.

In Petrograd in 1919 the artist Vladimir Tatlin was commissioned to design a monument to the Third International. Tatlin’s tower was to be a colossal metal spiral structure, far exceeding the Eiffel Tower in height, which would straddle the Neva, dominating the city as both a symbol and a nerve center of the new Communist world. It would consist of three levels: the first two, housing the legislative and executive committees of the International, would be topped by a communications center equipped with all the latest techniques for the dissemination of propaganda round the world. As the critic Nikolai Punin explained admiringly at the time, the monument’s form was chosen to express mankind’s ascent to freedom. But the spectator would not be left free to indulge in passive contemplation of this concept: “You will be carried upwards or downwards by mechanical methods, involuntarily swept along, while before you there will flash a propagandist’s forceful, laconic phrase; then, further up, the latest news, resolution or decree, the latest invention—all delivered in bursts of simple, clear ideas.”6

Designed to suck the citizens of Petrograd into the whirlpool of phantom life, the tower was never built. The city’s dominant monument remains the Bronze Horseman, a symbol of the riddle of history that no ideology has yet managed to solve.

  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. 

  3. 3

    Donald Fanger, Dostoevsky and Romantic Realism: A Study of Dostoevsky in Relation to Balzac, Dickens, and Gogol (Harvard University Press, 1967), p. 211. 

  4. 4

    Osip Mandelstam, Selected Poems, translated by David McDuff (Cambridge: Rivers Press, 1973), p. 111. 

  5. 5

    Poems of Akhmatova, selected, translated and introduced by Stanley Kunitz with Max Hayward (London: Collins and Harvill Press, 1974), p. 117. 

  6. 6

    Nikolai Punin, O Tatline: Arkhiv russkogo avangarda (Moscow: Agentetvo RA, 1994), pp. 16-17. 


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