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Imagining St Petersburg

I’ve finally got round to reading Solomon Volkov’s St Petersburg: A Cultural History (Simon & Schuster, 1995). I’ve felt a bit ashamed that I haven’t managed to read it before, but since I reached the half-way point I’ve changed my mind about how important it is, for me at least. It mainly deals with twentieth-century Petersburg culture, and while it’s obviously wrong to criticize someone on the grounds that they haven’t written the book you wanted them to write, I do feel on this occasion the book is a bit skewed. The first two chapters (140 pp.) deal with everything up to the early twentieth century, including Pushkin’s, Gogol’s and Dostoevsky’s Petersburg, plus Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov (Volkov, being a musicologist, is often stronger on that side than on written culture) … And then the remaining 400 pages cover the period from 1908 to 1991. Of course, twentieth-century Russian culture was extremely rich, varied, and subject to all sorts of changes, pressures and reversals, and is worthy of very detailed examination, but the treatment of the nineteenth century, particularly on the literary side, is very thin indeed, and this does not seem warranted.

But I think the main problem is that this book, even though it comes nearly up to the present day, epitomizes the tendency to view St Petersburg as a cultural museum. At one point Volkov cites disapprovingly a critical review of Nikolai Antsiferov’s 1922 book The Soul of St Petersburg:

The book draws the city’s ‘face’, the face and soul of Petersburg. But it draws it exclusively from the point of view of the representative of the former ruling class. It presents (rather vividly) the image of the central part of the city — its palaces, gardens, churches, and monuments — but does not present at all, does not even mention, the large area where there were factories, poverty, and slavery, as if there existed only the center, full of interest, life, movement, and uninqueness, while the rest was just deserted, dead, mute, and unneeded. This creates an incorrect, anti-proletarian perspective. (Voprosy literatury, 9 (1974), p. 175, cited in Volkov, St Petersburg, p. 418).

Now, I love Antsiferov’s book (yet another thing I need to re-read…), and am very rarely inclined to agree Soviet critics, but the writer here, Alexander Serafimovich, does have a point, and it applies to Volkov’s book as well. In fact, no book on Petersburg culture seems to be able to get away from it. Helena Goscilo and Stephen M. Norris’s edited collection Preserving Petersburg: History, Memory, Nostalgia (Indiana University Press, 2008) starts out with a critique of the ‘museumization’ of the city, but I can’t see that the essays, even if some of them are very interesting, are doing anything other than perpetuating that idea.

Far more interesting for me recently, because it does look beyond the cultural story we all know (and love) is James H. Bater, St Petersburg: Industrialization and Change (London, 1976), which examines the process of urbanization and the very ordinary lived life of the city. One of Bater’s main foci for analysis is the year 1869, which handily coincides with Dostoevsky’s Petersburg novels, and as Spasskaya ward, where Sennaya ploshchad (the Haymarket) is located, was the most densely populated and poorest part of the city, the setting for Crime and Punishment features quite prominently.

I do believe that the Petersburg mythos is interesting and important, but after my recent reading I’m no longer convinced that expressing it in terms of a string of cultural figures, events or texts is particularly relevant for my work. Dostoevsky’s characters may on one level be fantastic creations, idea-heroes, as Bakhtin put it, but the city they inhabit is a very real one where poverty, drunkenness and prostitution crowd into the spaces between the grand façades of the designed city. And for all Dostoevsky’s centrality in creating the Petersburg text, the city he actually depicted seems to have been forgotten.

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