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Myth of St. Petersburg

Article provided by:"Diplomat" magazine

1 May 2003
Myth of St. Petersburg

After The Lay of Igor's Campaign, the Russian literary genius falls into lethargy for several centuries to be reborn in Pushkin five hundred years later. It is from Pushkin that great Russian literature originates. And great Russia? It begins with St. Petersburg. In counted historical moments, Peter the Great's indomitable will raised an immense megalopolis on marshy outskirts of the Slav realm. The new capital turned Russia from an object into a subject of European and even world politics.


And thus He mused: "From here, indeed,

Shall we strike terror in the Swede?

And here a city by our labor

Founded, shall gall our haughty neighbor;

"Here cut"---so Nature gives command ---

Your window through on Europe; stand

Firm-footed by the sea, unchanging!

Ay, ships of every flag shall come

By waters they had never swum,

And we shall revel, freely ranging."


Were Peter's compatriots ready for such an urbanistic feat? No, they were not. St. Petersburg's construction history is a brutal act of violence against Russians' ethnic mentality, and yet it is through that same harsh violence that Russian people for the first time learned some European lessons and life standards. They were building and crying out, crying out and building:


To that young capital is drooping

The crest of Moscow on the ground,

A dowager in purple, stooping

Before an empress newly crowned.


The "St. Petersburg-Moscow" opposition predetermined Russian self-consciousness for three centuries ahead. That was also the title of Vissarion Belinsky's programmatic article where he explained the sovereign logic of a new capital emerging in the country's north:


"... He needed a capital on a sea coast. He had no sea, though, because the shores of the Northern and Western oceans and the Caspian Sea could in no way contribute to bringing Russia closer to Europe. A new sea had to be conquered immediately. He could consider only the Black and Baltic seas as conquest objectives... A capital on the Black Sea coast could bring Russia closer not to Europe but perhaps to Turkey and would forcibly attract Russia's forces to a remote point, which would cause Russia to have its capital in an alien state, so to speak. The Baltic Sea, on the contrary, offered other prospects. The countries that adjoin it have long been familiar to the Russian sword; much of Russian blood was shed there. To leave them in foreign possession, and not to make the Baltic Sea Russia's border would mean making Russia forever open to enemy incursions and closed forever to its relations with Europe" (V. Belinsky. Petersburg and Moscow).


Belinsky himself admitted, however, that the construction of a new capital was carried out with utmost cruelty. This is why the metropolis was ideologically estranged, as it were, by much of the nation. The advent of Slavophilism and Westernism, two schools of Russian public thought, also owed to the appearance of the new capital. A foreign reader of the Diplomat monthly cannot even imagine the whole vehemence of that standoff, which remains up to now the principal conflict of Russian history, culture and domestic politics. Aleksandr Pushkin, Nikolay Gogol, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Aleksandr Blok, Andrey Bely, Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova, Joseph Brodsky---these names make up this "St. Petesburg novel" about the love-hatred relationship. We give only the topmost names, the complete list would include half of Russian literature. Nikolay Gogol, Pushkin's closest successor, describes the generic incompatibility of the two Russian capitals as follows:


"She (Moscow) still remains a Russian beard, whereas he (Petersburg) is an accurate German. Old Moscow has so sprawled, so widened! How unkempt it is! And how stiffly erect foppish Petersburg is!... Moscow is an old stay-at-home cooking pancakes, looking from the distance and listening (while not leaving its armchair) to what is going on in the world."


"Petersburg is always moving around---from the cellars to the attic; from midnight on, it begins cooking French loaves that will be all eaten up by Germans; all throughout the night, soon the one soon the other of its eyes is glowing; all Moscow sleeps at night, and the next day, having crossed himself to all four sides, it brings kalachs (kind of wheatmeal loaves) to the marketplace. Moscow is female, Petersburg is male. All in Moscow is brides, whereas all in Petersburg is grooms" (N. Gogol. Petersburg Notes. 1856)


The whole of Gogol's essay entitled, just as Belinsky's article, "Petersburg and Moscow," rests on this antithesis. Ii is impregnated, however, with a benevolent tone that is completely absent in Gogol's Petersburg Stories. All in them is somber and surrealistic. We see a Babylonian monster that indifferently grinds up human fates and hearts. While in Pushkin's works the Northern Capital aroused a positive rather than a negative sentiment---he viewed St. Petersburg from an epic perspective and praised it as a salutary alternative to the feudally split, lazy and helpless Russia, as it was before Peter the Great---Gogol is utterly different. His muse is devoid of imperial pathos altogether. He came to the Northern Capital from Ukraine; it is common knowledge that St. Petersburg was built partly on the bones of many thousands of Ukrainian Cossacks. One senses this genetic cautiousness in Petersburg Stories, too. Their devilish, phantasmagoric element is imbued with mistrust and strife:


"Oh, don't believe that Nevsky Prospekt!... All is deception, all is a dream, all is not what it looks like!... It is lying every moment, this Nevsky Prospekt, but especially when the night, like a thickened mass, falls upon it and separates the white and pale yellow house walls, when the whole of the city turns into a thunder and glitter with a myriad of coaches dashing down bridges, with postilions crying and jumping on horses and when the demon in person kindles lamps only to show everything in its real light" (N. Gogol. Nevsky Prospekt).


An entirely apocalyptic picture, isn't it?


Whereas Gogol is half a "northern," half a "southern" writer, Dostoyevsky is wholly made up of St. Petersbug's northern substance. Indeed, what is occurring in his pages can happen only in St. Petersburg and nowhere else. But the point is not just about the scene of the absolute majority of his stories and novels; with his creative way of thinking and style he represents the purely Petersburger current of literature. Perhaps his St. Petersburg even surpasses Gogol's St. Petersburg in callousness and inhumanity. Poor Folk, Insulted and Injured, Crime and Punishment---these are the names of Dostoyevsky's Petersburg-inspired plots. He was a downright Slavophile and even a "groundphile," as it were, but despite it (maybe even because of it), none other than he managed to portray the gloomy charm of urbanistic Moloch on the Neva banks. This cannot be said of Leo Tolstoy. He is a classical "Muscovite" author, if we may say so. In his War and Peace the positive characters are generally Muscovites, whereas Petersburgers are mostly negative personae. The former are depicted as passionate patriots, while the latter are cosmopolites indifferent to Russia's destinies. Thus, the repeatedly mentioned opposition manifested itself even in the absolute tops of Russian prose, such as Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.


As far as Pushkin's Bronze Horseman is concerned, it wasn't any mellow heroic ode. The Bronze Horseman's main character is not Emperor Peter but, on the contrary, his victim, a petty functionary, Eugene by name, who doesn't even have a surname or patronymic of his own. The poem ends with a Cyclopean flood that engulfs the city. Pushkin was perfectly aware of the Asian mercilessness of Peter's European scheme. And yet, The Bronze Horseman was created by a patriot, a "Russian Roman," whereas The Queen of Spades was written by a Russian Kafka. It represents a sort of introduction to Dostoyevsky's literary work and, in general, to the whole of specific Russian "sur" that so happily throve on the banks of "the world's most fantastic city," to use Dostoyevsky's words. Basically, the content of The Queen of Spades does not lend itself to any logical reconstruction.


There we have to do with a special "Petersburger" dimension of life that cannot be reproduced in any rational way, just as it is impossible to exhaustively explain Gogol's Petersburg Stories or Andrey Bely's Petersburg, which Vladimir Nabokov considered to be one of the four greatest works of literature. In titling his novel so and not otherwise, Andrey Bely also pointed out the separate identity of the Northern Capital, as compared to the rest of Russian realities. The novel's events unfold on the threshold of the 1905 revolution, which understandably could occur only in cosmopolitan St. Petersburg teeming with international adventurers and provocateurs of all colors. The novel's basis is formed by the murder of a dignitary by his zombied son, who is in the grip of revolutionary extremists. Ableukhov junior repeats the karma of today's shahids. The novel's moral and psychological aura corresponds to that of Raskolnikov. And, of course, it's not Maksim Gorky's Mother but Andrey Bely's Petersburg that conveys much more accurately the background of the Russian revolution.


The Golden Age of Russian literature was gradually replaced with its Silver Age. The eternal, generic thematic preferences and denominators of the former remained, however, and the heroic, cruel, seducing image of the urbanistic sphinx on the Neva banks emerged anew. Aleksandr Blok, Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova polished this image and attained refined poetic craftsmanship. Just read Mandelstam's Petersburg stanzas:


Steamships hibernate. A thick bull's-eye

Has opened in the heat of the sun.

Monstrous Russia, like a battleship in the dock,

Is having a heavy rest.

And above the Neva are embassies of half the world,

The Admiralty, the sun and tranquility!

And the state's stiff purple robe

Is poor as a coarse hair shirt.

The nordic snob's burden is as heavy

As Onegin's old longing;

A snowdrift bank, a smoky bonfire

And a cool bayonet in the Senate's square...


Indeed, even the author of The Bronze Horseman could subscribe to these lines.


In the early 20th century, St. Petersburg turned into Petrograd and became the cradle of the greatest social revolution that transformed the world's fortunes. Together with Russia, the soul of its literature was shaken. The thin-fingered Parnassus dwellers were confronted with the infuriated and ruthless mob. Half of them vanished on the emigration's misty expanses. Those who remained continued working on St. Petersburg's literary chronicles. Blok's Revenge (originally called "Petersburg") and Anna Akhmatova's Poem Without a Hero are the revolutionary capital's vision and simultaneously its moral "yes."


Then, the city turned from Petrograd into Leningrad and ceased to be a capital. However, it remained a great, unique accomplishment of Russian civilization, its universal challenge, and a European symbol of the nation. Despite all, its sinful sons give it their solemn oath of allegiance. The native Petersburger-Leningrader Joseph Brodsky, Nobel Prize laureate and world citizen, wrote once:


I don't want to choose either the country or graveyard.

What I want is to return to Vasilyevvsky Island to die.


The present writer subscribes to these declarations of love and congratulates the Eternal City of Eternal Russia on its 300th anniversary!


Valery Serdyuchenko

Doctor of Philology

Lviv, Ukraine


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