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Novel and City, 1900–1921

Olga Matich

Publication Year: 2010

Since its founding three hundred years ago, the city of Saint Petersburg has captured the imaginations of the most celebrated Russian writers, whose characters map the city by navigating its streets from the aristocratic center to the gritty outskirts. While Tsar Peter the Great planned the streetscapes of Russia’s northern capital as a contrast to the muddy and crooked streets of Moscow, Andrei Bely’s novel Petersburg (1916), a cornerstone of Russian modernism and the culmination of the “Petersburg myth” in Russian culture, takes issue with the city’s premeditated and supposedly rational character in the early twentieth century.
    “Petersburg”/Petersburg studies the book and the city against and through each other. It begins with new readings of the novel—as a detective story inspired by bomb-throwing terrorists, as a representation of the aversive emotion of disgust, and as a painterly avant-garde text—stressing the novel’s phantasmagoric and apocalyptic vision of the city. Taking a cue from Petersburg’s narrator, the rest of this volume (and the companion Web site, stpetersburg.berkeley.edu/) explores the city from vantage points that have not been considered before—from its streetcars and iconic art-nouveau office buildings to the slaughterhouse on the city fringes. From poetry and terrorist memoirs, photographs and artwork, maps and guidebooks of that period, the city emerges as a living organism, a dreamworld in flux, and a junction of modernity and modernism.

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press


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pp. v-vi

List of Illustrations

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xi

My interest in Andrey Bely’s Petersburg is longstanding. I have taught the premier novel of Russian modernism throughout my academic career, but only recently have I ventured to subject it to serious examination. The initial impetus for this work was Russian Modernism and Its International Legacy, the very ambitious and beautifully designed Web site by Scott Mahoy that is being constructed at the University of Southern California by the Labyrinth Project, ...

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pp. 3-28

Peripety, or reversal of fortune, punctuates the history of Petersburg, the imperial capital of Russia, and of Andrey Bely’s (1880–1934) modernist novel of the same name. The city arose from treacherous terrain that Peter the Great chose in the extreme northwest of the country for his new Europeanized capital. In the prologue of Petersburg, the narrator, adding to speculation about the city’s idiosyncratic existence, proclaims that “if Petersburg is not the capital, then ...

I. Petersburg, the Novel

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1. Backs, Suddenlys, and Surveillance

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pp. 31-54

These are the words of the English detective writer Gilbert Keith Chesterton describing his fascination with the unknown figured as space behind our backs and its impact on those who happen to be located there. The observation was inspired by the Victorian artist G. F. Watts’s paintings of the human figure from behind. In Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday (1908), a metaphysical ...

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2. Poetics of Disgust: To Eat and Die in Petersburg

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pp. 55-82

The abject and the loathsome figure prominently in Petersburg. Its poetics are characterized by a striking grotesque metamorphic imagery that reflects a sensibility inimical to stable representation. The novel dissolves form, thematized, as we know, by the terrorist bomb—the source of Petersburg’s fragmentary structure and imagery.1 Bely’s use of modernist, including cubist, ...

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3. Bely, Kandinsky, and Avant-Garde Aesthetics

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pp. 83-120

The visual metaphors, verbal tableaus, sonority, poetic rhythms, and symphonic structure of Petersburg suggest the term Gesamtkunstwerk, as does the novel’s synthetic and synesthetic approach to language, music, and the visual arts. Yet Bely scholarship has considered Petersburg almost exclusively in relation to music, most likely because symbolist aesthetics, about which Bely wrote extensively during the 1900s, professed Schopenhauer’s and Nietzsche’s view of ...

II. Petersburg, the City

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4. "The Streetcar Prattle of Life": Reading and Riding St. Petersburg's Trams

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pp. 123-148

Here, at the very beginning . . . the thread of [the] narrative” must be broken. While the metafictional hesitation and digression of Andrey Bely’s narrator evoke the eighteenth-century style of Laurence Sterne, they remind us too that, in the age in which he writes, the pursuit of a novel’s narrative has become a problematic task. The temporal dimension of the narrative, its thread of sequentiality, is ...

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5. How Terrorists Learned to Map: Plotting in Petersburg and Boris Savinkov's Recollections of a Terrorist and The Pale Horse

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pp. 149-173

On 15 July 1904, an armored carriage trailed by two policemen on bicycles left St. Petersburg’s Aptekarsky Island and sped along Izmaylovsky Prospect toward the Baltic Train Station. There, the coach’s distinguished passenger, minister of the interior Vyacheslav von Plehve (1846–1904), would catch the ten o’clock train to Petergof for his weekly audience with the tsar. As his horses trotted over Obvodny Canal, a young man dressed as a railway porter ...

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6. The Enchanted Masquerade: Alexander Blok's The Puppet Show from the Stage to the Streets

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pp. 174-193

On December 30, 1906, the Vera Komissarzhevskaya Theater at 39 Ofitserskaya Street was packed with an audience awaiting a scandal. The event was the premiere of Alexander Blok’s play The Puppet Show (Balaganchik), directed by avant-garde star-on-the-rise Vsevolod Meyerhold, who also played the lead role. Many years later the poet Sergey Auslender recalled the unruly curtain call in detail: “The auditorium was in an uproar as though it were a real battle. ...

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7. Panoramas from Above and Street from Below: The Petersburg of Vyacheslav Ivanov and Mikhail Kuzmin

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pp. 194-216

The beginning of the twentieth century was a time of profound social change for Petersburg. The site of Russian imperial power was being transformed into a modern metropolis. The destruction of old social structures, accelerating industrialization, the development of a modern consumer culture, and the growth of new residential areas built according to the latest architectural fashions all ...

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8. The Button and the Barricade: Bridges in Paris and Petersburg

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pp. 217-237

During the opening ceremonies of the Trinity Bridge (Troitsky most) in St. Petersburg, 1 P. I. Lelyanov, then mayor of the Russian capital, eagerly presented Nicholas II with an electric button capable of engaging the newly finished edifice’s drawbridge apparatus.2 According to the illustrated weekly journal Niva, this presentation occurred on May 16, 1903, when the inauguration of this ...

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9. 28 Nevsky Prospect: The Sewing Machine, the Seamstress, and Narrative

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pp. 238-261

Since the eighteenth century, two spires have pierced the sky of Petersburg and punctuated its skyline. They belong to the Admiralty Building, which is at the bottom of Nevsky Prospect and located on the right side of the Neva River, and to the Peter and Paul Cathedral on the left side. Andrey Bely in Petersburg calls these spires needles, although the residents of the city refer only to the Admiralty spire as a needle. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the globe held ...

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10. Meat in Russia's Modernist Imagination

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pp. 262-282

There is no visible trace today of the old slaughterhouse at the edge of Petersburg’s Enclosure Canal (Obvodny Canal), and modern-day pedestrians strolling along Moskovsky Prospect would little suspect that the sidewalks under their feet were once cow paths leading to the slaughterhouse that were paved over in the 1930s.1 Yet, in the very early years of the century, the ugly ...

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11. The Fluid Margins: Fl

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pp. 283-304

Scholarship about Petersburg’s modernity and the life of the city usually focuses on the chronotopes of the center, and the reader steeped in this tradition might be somewhat puzzled by my essay’s attention to a river—and to the relatively marginal Karpovka River at that—as a pathway into modern Petersburg. This reader might ask, Why a river? Why the Karpovka? ...

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12. The Voices of Silence: The Death and Funeral of Alexander Blok

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pp. 305-325

The summer of 1921 in Petrograd was marked by death: the slow decline and death of Alexander Blok on August 7, 1921; the arrest (on August 3) and execution (on August 24) of the poet Nikolay Gumilev by the Cheka (secret police); and the suicide of the author and translator Anastasia Chebotarevskaya, wife of writer Fyodor Sologub, who drowned herself in the Neva on September 23 in despair over the vacillation of the authorities in issuing them emigration ...

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Concluding Remarks

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pp. 327-331

If the reader has not yet perused the Web site titled Mapping Petersburg, we invite the reader to do so. The Web site is quite literally a virtual part 3 of “Petersburg”/Petersburg: Novel and City 1900–1921, even though the two exist as wholes unto themselves.1 What we understood from the inception of this project is that modernism, its narrative and representational practices, contained ...

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Postscript. St. Petersburg: New Architecture and Old Mythology

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pp. 332-341

In his attempts to build a new city in the delta of the Neva River, the tsar encountered two principal opponents: the river itself and the habits of his subjects. Strictly speaking, the Neva is not a river but rather a long and narrow strait extending from Lake Ladoga to the Gulf of Finland in the Baltic Sea. The ...


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pp. 343-344


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pp. 345-352

E-ISBN-13: 9780299236038
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299236045

Publication Year: 2010