Few of the world’s great cities have given rise to national myths as powerful as the myth of Petersburg. Founded in the early eighteenth century by Peter the Great as the new imperial capital, with the express purpose of redirecting Russian history and creating a new identity for the nation, it became from the early nineteenth century the dominant symbol of Russian historical experience. In one aspect it proclaims the triumph of human endeavour over elemental forces, but more consistently it is perceived as a city built against nature, lost in the mists and marshes where no human habitation previously existed or ought to exist, a spectral city whose inhabitants lose touch with their own roots and become unreal themselves. In the nineteenth century this tradition is most forcefully expressed in the work of Pushkin, Gogol and Dostoevsky, and echoes of them can be detected on every page of Bely’s novel. Indeed, it is hardly an exaggeration to claim that the central hero of Petersburg is none of the shadowy human figures that populate its pages, but the equestrian statue of Peter, who descends from his pedestal as he did in Pushkin’s The Bronze Horseman to compel the obedience of his reluctant vassals. Many a conversation between the characters recalls the dialogues of Dostoevsky with their psychological tension and threat. And the depiction of the city streets, the scampering pedestrians defined by the hats they wear or the shape of their noses, could only come from Gogol’s Petersburg Tales.
Petersburg shows us the city at a time of crisis. Russia is reeling from defeat in the war with Japan, and the revolution of 1905 is beginning to seethe. Subversive nondescripts crowd the city streets, through which the main upholder of order and stability, Senator Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov, must make his way to his government office in his black cube of a carriage. The novel’s material is almost all derived from real circumstances and events which can be traced in the historical record of the time, but that does not make it a historical novel in any customary sense. Time does not move in straight lines here, it turns back to devour its own tail, and it is only in myth that anything can truly be explained. When he published his first novel, The Silver Dove (also translated by John Elsworth, Angel Books, London, 2000), in 1909, Bely stated in a preface that it was to be the first novel of a trilogy entitled East or West. If that first novel was a study of the Eastern aspect of Russian culture, the darkness and religious ferment of the countryside, then it was natural for its sequel to focus upon the most Western of Russian cities. But what we find is that this utterly rational, Western city is no less chaotic than its rural counterpart.
In the course of composition the links with Bely’s first novel became more and more tenuous, although there are glimpses of it in the character of Styopka and the tales he tells. Bely was never fully satisfied with Petersburg, and published a much shortened redaction of it in Berlin in 1922; however, it was shortened almost exclusively by a process of excision, leaving a text which, though critics have appreciated its increased pace, is not in the last resort entirely coherent. He also dramatised it for production in the Moscow Arts Theatre. The dramatic text went through innumerable modifications before it saw the stage, and then it survived only one performance in 1925. My translation is of the longer original version, written between 1911 and 1913 and first published in the Moscow journal Sirin in 1913–14.
Petersburg is the work for which Bely is best known, though he was the author of seven novels in all, much poetry, extensive works of philosophy and literary theory, and a vast output of memoirs. Born into a Moscow academic family in 1880 (his real name was Boris Nikolaevich Bugaev), his career spanned an equal period on either side of the 1917 revolutions. Most of his life was spent in or very near to Moscow, though he lived in Switzerland for two years in 1914–16, and in Berlin for two years in the early 1920s. One of the acknowledged leaders of the Russian Symbolist movement in the first decade of the century, in demand as a contributor to all the cultural debates of that time, he fell out of favour after the revolution and lived his last years in relative seclusion and considerable penury. He died in January 1934.
There is a strong autobiographical substratum to Petersburg. There are considerable similarities between Nikolai Apollonovich’s relations with his parents and the known biographical facts of the Bugaev family – not that Bely’s mother really fled the family home, nor that Bely ever sought to kill his father. His triangular relationship with the Likhutins bears a clear resemblance to Bely’s relations with his friend and fellow poet Alexandr Blok and his wife, Liubov Dmitrievna, with whom Bely at one time nearly eloped. But the interest of these personal elements lies in the way they are threaded into the broader canvas and become typical images of the psychological and philosophical malaise that Bely diagnoses in the culture of his time. The conflicting aspects of the city itself, its rational geometry and its haunting nebulousness, are reflected both in the political conflict between reactionary status quo and revolutionary turmoil, and in the unresolved tensions between logic and emotion in the characters themselves. Neither aspect can hope to win; it is only in a faintly mooted apocalypse that redemption may be found.
Petersburg is the culmination of the pre-revolutionary tradition of the city’s depiction, absorbing and re-interpreting a century of literary history. Very soon after Bely wrote this novel, the city was renamed Petrograd out of wartime chauvinism, to become Leningrad a decade later, by which time the capital had been moved back to Moscow. Nevertheless, the Petersburg tradition did not disappear, even if for much of the twentieth century it took refuge in the more private realm of poetry. In post-Soviet Russia the city’s historical name has been restored and its cultural reverberations have come to resound afresh.
— John Elsworth
(John Elsworth’s translation of Petersburg by Andrei Bely is available from Pushkin Press for £14.99)