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  • Politics and Emotions in St. Petersburg
  • Ewa Bérard
    Translated by Emiliana Kissova
Mark D. Steinberg, Petersburg Fin de Siècle. 416pp. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011. ISBN-13 978-0300165043. $45.00.

The historiography of St. Petersburg has been enriched by Mark D. Steinberg’s new book, Petersburg Fin de Siècle. Over the last few decades, three Western works have opened new vistas for this particular branch of scholarship by their innovative approaches: James H. Bater’s St. Petersburg: Industrialization and Change, Karl Schlögel’s The Laboratory of Modernism: St. Petersburg, 1909–1921, and Katerina Clark’s Petersburg: Crucible of Revolution.1 The titles of the three books denote three distinct approaches to the study of the city. Clark’s book, written after the collapse of the Soviet Union, accounts, moreover, for the revival of Petersburg studies in Russia while engaging in a critical dialogue with the proponents of the “Petersburg myth.” By juxtaposing Petersburg intellectuals with the “mandarins” of German universities, Clark follows those American historians of Russian cities who reject the idea of a Sonderweg in favor of a comparative and global vision. Steinberg embraces the same tradition. Indeed, the very title of his book is a direct allusion to Carl E. Schorske’s Fin-de-siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture, thus suggesting that the Russian imperial capital should be seen as a variation on a theme rather than as unique.2

According to Steinberg, St. Petersburg is “a natural place for thinking about Russia and the modern experience” and for inscribing “Russian urban modernity” into the modernity of European cities (1). Steinberg’s previous works, particularly a Russian-language volume co-edited with Boris [End Page 885] Kolonitskii in 2009, have paved the way for this new enterprise.3 The subject seems all the more important today, since Russian cities once again feature in the headlines, and the urban classes, having caught up with the civilization of the free market, seem ready to measure up to the challenges of modernity posed by the 21st century.

It is not an easy task to extract the features of a culture from the urban fabric that nourishes it. The problem is one of method rather than definition. To establish the connection between modernity and “transformative modernization,” Steinberg proposes an examination of “the relationship between words and matter”—that is, words “that arose and did their interpreting work in a material world” (4). Yet the material city itself remains relatively marginal in his book. The bulk of the work is focused on words and the “stories of modernity” that convey “public thought and opinion about urban life” (7). Steinberg’s method consists of defining the linguistic field of modernity as present in canonical Western texts and then identifying the targeted vocabulary in various urban texts produced in Petersburg at the beginning of the 20th century. Steinberg’s thesis is that in Petersburg (and thus in Russia) the perception of urban modernity conformed with the framework of the modern European mind and indeed reflected European preoccupations in a more intensified form because of the country’s position on the periphery of Europe and its “backwardness” (a term that Steinberg sometimes places in quotation marks, and at other times does not).

The book is divided into seven chapters: City, Streets, Masks, Death, Decadence, Happiness, and Melancholy. The “City” chapter dwells on the physical growth of St. Petersburg and its modernization, as well as on the increasingly dark representation of the city in literature and urban journalism at the end of the 19th century. The role of urban journalism is discussed more thoroughly in the chapter “Streets.” Here Steinberg considers the press as a part of street life. He proposes that the press helped draw the city’s map and in that sense became both a record of the street spectacle and a constituent part of it. In the chapter “Masks,” the author regards masks as, on the one hand, a “symbol of modernity’s epistemological crisis, of the modern desire to make the world ordered and legible” (85) and, on the other, as “powerful symbols of the ubiquity of deception and illusion, and behind this, of the even...


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