Monday, April 19, 2010

Modern Capital

Bloody Sunday

This blog has already summarized Solomon’s Volkov’s majestic survey of Russian high culture in the twentieth century, The Majestic Chorus. That work was a supremely sophisticated and beautiful explanation of Russia’s cultural achievements prior to the First World War as well as the aesthetic continuity that somehow survived a frontal attack from the forces of Soviet totalitarianism. Volkov’s earlier book, St. Petersburg: A Cultural history, despite its longer chronology and geographical constraints, is a very similar book.

Nevsky Prospekt
St. Petersburg is urbane, humane, well-written, and well-informed; and Volkov, expatriate musician and historian, is equally at home discussing St. Petersburg’s centrality to European art, music, dance, theater, poetry, architecture, literature, and politics. Even as an exile, Volkov somehow remained the ultimate Russian insider. And now he may be the doyen of the expatriate Russian intellectual community.

In addition to his career as a musician, Volkov has produced a series of books that are predicated on oral interviews with some of St. Petersburg most famous sons, including Shostakovich (See Nick’s previous post on Testimony), Brodsky, Balanchine, and Akhmatova.

Volkov’s purpose in this book is twofold: to assert St. Petersburg’s importance to the history of European and global modernity, even apart from the Revolution; and to explain how the St. Petersburg “mythos” operated in Russian cultural history.

Volkov necessarily begins with the city’s highly unusual founding by the highly unusual emperor, Peter the Great (for whom the city was not actually named). The city was nothing if not experimental: at great human cost, Peter built a new “window to the West” which bore little resemblance to Moscow or the rest of Russia. Its architecture was well-organized, spacious, and elegant, if also cold and sterile. The city immediately found both aesthetic champions and detractors.

Nevsky Prospekt

Pushkin’s Bronze Horseman, celebrating the imposing statue of the same name, launched the powerful but ambivalent poetic response to the physical city. Dostoyevsky and Gogol built on what Pushkin had written, although each had severely critical reactions to the city, for despite its grandeur St. Petersburg had its drawbacks. Built at the cost of tens of thousands of serf laborers, St. Petersburg was cold, landlocked during the long Russian winter months, subject to floods, strangely inorganic, and home to brilliant but often superficial court life.

Ultimately, it’s hard to dismiss Volkov’s claims about St. Petersburg. Smaller and newer than cities such as London, Paris, and Vienna, St. Petersburg’s cultural elites eventually became the most articulate artistic exponents of what it meant to live in the modern world. ). Marshall Berman has written very succinctly on the subject, exploring Dostoyevsky’s feverish explanation of modernity: on the one hand, you get freedom born of the anonymity of city life; on the other hand, you get uprooted from the traditional moral and social networks.

Eventually, St. Petersburg’s claim to historical importance would be solidified for all time by the October Revolution, though ironically Lenin hated the city and hasted to move the Russian capital to Moscow (though not entirely for the reasons Volkov suggests). It’s true that many of Russia’s aesthetic innovations predate the Revolution. However, although this may be impossible to prove, it seems likely that revolutionary aesthetics led to revolutionary politics, and of course the reverse is certainly true: once the political revolution occurred, the new political elite alienated traditional artistic elites and therefore coincidentally opened doors for radical artists and poets such as Blok and Mayakovsky.

Winter Palace Duma

St. Petersburg suffered tremendously for its radical pretensions. In some ways, its gloomy artists had expected as much: poets such as Blok has foretold the city’s collapse before it became inevitable. The Revolution, Civil War, Stalinism, and World War II, led to the murder, suicide, death by starvation, exile, flight, or imprisonment of countless artists, writers, and poets. Somehow, the city survived.

The survival was embodied by the great poet, Akhmatova, who refused to leave Russia, although Stalin executed a former husband and imprisoned another husband as well as her son. Volkov’s St. Petersburg is a wonderful reminder that even had the city of St. Petersburg perished, its “mythos” would live on. For better or worse, the city helped to define what it means to be a modern person. The legacy is complex and ambivalent, so perhaps Volkov’s hagiographic tone isn’t quite right. What is certain is that we need to think seriously about St. Petersburg’s legacy to the modern world if we want to understand our place in that world. It was the home of the Bronze Horseman, Mir iskusskva (World of Art), Suprematism, Acmeism, Russian Futurism, Constructivism, the Decembrist Revolt, the Bolshevik Revolution, the Krondstadt Revolt, the Marysky Theater, the Stray Dog, etc. This city meant something important (if not always positive) to people such as Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Belinsky, Herzen, Pasternak, Punin, Mirsky, Tchaikovsky, Balanchine, Lenin, Benois, Chukovsky, Ginzburg, Gumilyov, Mussorgsky, Blok, Mayakovsky, Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Shostokovich, etc. And if meant much to them, it should to us as well.

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