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Architecture of Oblivion

Ruins and Historical Conciousness in Modern Russia

Andreas Schönle

Publication Year: 2011

Despite attempts to promote the aesthetics of ruins in Russia—from Catherine the Great’s construction of fake ruins in imperial parks to Josef Brodsky’s elegiac meditations—ruins have never achieved the status they enjoy in Western Europe. While the Soviet Union was notorious for leveling churches, post-Soviet Russia has only intensified the practice of massive destruction and reconstruction. Architecture of Oblivion examines the role of ruins in the development of Russia’s historical consciousness from the 18th century to the present. Investigating the meaning and functions ruins have acquired in Russian culture, Schönle looks at ideological reasons for the current disregard for the value of ruins and historical buildings, in particular by political authorities, and reveals how ruins have often become a site of resistance to official ideology and an invitation to map out alternative visions of history and of statehood. An interdisciplinary study of Russia’s response to ruins has never been attempted, although the topic of ruins has garnered considerable interest in Western Europe and in the U.S. This original work from a leading authority on the subject will appeal to historians of Russian culture and thought, literature and art scholars, and general readers interested in ruins.

Published by: Northern Illinois University Press


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pp. 1-2

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 3-6


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pp. vii-8


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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xii

This book would not have existed without Julia Hell, who casually suggested to me, during a boring Christmas party in 2000, that we collaborate on a project about ruins. This brief, innocuous conversation led to a symposium, then a graduate seminar we co-taught at the University...

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pp. 1-28

The provincial Madame Kurdiukova, who speaks in this epigraph, is the heroine of Ivan Miatlev’s humorous parody of travel literature, The Sensations and Observations of Madame Kurdiukova Abroad, dans l’étranger (1840). A landowner from Tambov who likes to flaunt her learning...

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ONE—Ruins and Modernity in Russian Pre-Romanticism

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pp. 29-45

In the second half of the eighteenth century, all over Europe ruins suddenly came into view. The discovery of Herculaneum in 1738 and of Pompeii in 1748, followed by the beginning of excavations that are still ongoing, transfixed the imagination of travelers. Together with unearthed...

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TWO—Lessons of the Fire of Moscow in 1812

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pp. 46-72

The fire of Moscow strengthened Russia’s religious identity and confirmed views about the legitimacy and necessity of autocratic rule. Overall, as one might expect of a country invaded by a foreign army, Russia came together, seeking not only to repel the Grande Armée, but also to...

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THREE—Aesthetics and Politics in the Romantic Fashion for Ruins

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pp. 73-105

The burning of Moscow and its reception among the educated elite firmly associated the aesthetics of ruin with a Western European sensibility. The scorched earth policy the Russian army adopted in its retreat before Napoleon had been premised on the notion that freedom trumped worldly...

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FOUR—Between Erasure and Nurture—Ruins and the Modern City in the Depth of Times

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pp. 106-131

The notion that the world was coming to an end loomed very large in the culture of the Silver Age.1 There were many reasons for this feeling of doom, not the least of which were the economic decline of the aristocracy and the political stagnation of the monarchy. In addition, the rise of...

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FIVE—Post-Revolutionary Urban Decay—From the Return of Random Beauty to the Dystopian Loss of Self

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pp. 132-151

“With the revolution of 1917, Petersburg ended,” Dobuzhinsky wrote in his memoirs. “Under my eyes the city was dying a death of extraordinary beauty, and I attempted as much as I could to capture its terrifying, depopulated and wounded appearance.” Indeed, Petrograd, which had been...

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SIX—The Ruins of the Blockade of Leningrad and the Aesthetic Struggle for Survival

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pp. 152-182

In early September 1941, Anna Ostroumova-Lebedeva, ever a keen observer of the urban landscape, strolled down to Senate Square in Leningrad to examine the preparations then being undertaken to protect Falconet’s Bronze Horseman against anticipated shelling by the Nazis. A...

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SEVEN—Ruin as Transition to Timelessness in Joseph Brodsky’s Poetry

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pp. 183-193

Born in 1940, Joseph Brodsky lived in Leningrad through the first winter of the Blockade, but was, of course, too young to remember anything about it. After a year in evacuation, his mother took him back to the city in 1943. Growing up in the ruins of postwar Leningrad, he could not fail to...

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EIGHT—The Ruin as Alternative Reality—Paper Architects and the Vitality of Decay

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pp. 194-218

Stalinist wedding-cake architecture, such as the main building of Moscow State University on Sparrow Hills or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Smolenskaia Square, features numerous neoclassical ornamentations on its facades and roofs, which signaled the Stalinist state’s claims to subsume...

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pp. 219-230

The preceding chapters have demonstrated the complex forces that bear upon the ruin in Russian society and the diverse ways in which ruins are pressed into service as material evidence and symbolic argument in the context of various cultural debates. The conditions for the recognition...


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pp. 231-271


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pp. 273-283

E-ISBN-13: 9781609090203
Print-ISBN-13: 9780875806518

Page Count: 298
Illustrations: 28 halftones
Publication Year: 2011