Friday, July 29, 2011

Petersburg phobia conquered?

Readers of Fur Coat's most recent post may wonder whether its author ever actually made it to St. Petersburg. That detail appears ambiguous. It all calls to mind Freud's famous Roman phobia, as recounted in The Interpretation of Dreams. For years, Rome was the city that most fascinated Freud, the basis of the classical education his psychology borrowed so much from, and the destination of several abortive journeys. Freud claimed that what repeatedly turned him back, once just 50 miles from the city, was an identification with Hannibal and an antipathy for the Catholic Church due to its persecution of Jews.
Will the same fate befall Fur Coat? After years and years of intense identification with Russian culture and the Soviet experiment will physical proximity overwhelm him? Will he turn back at the Finland Station or press on across the border? We can only wait and see.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

St. Petersburg Rules

Is there any better tourist destination than St. Petersburg? To read Bruce Lincoln's last book, Sunlight at Midnight: St. Petersburg and the Rise of Modern Russia, one would expect "Piter" to outshine all other European cities, including Moscow. After all, St. Petersburg is a city of lovely canals and embankments and splendid baroque and neoclassical architecture. More than this, St. Petersburg is a city of tsars, revolutionaries, and, above all, poets. This is the city of Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Nicholas I, and Alexander the Tsar Liberator. It's the city of Lenin, Trotsky, Kirov, and the Russian citizens who held out for 900 days against Nazi encirclement. And ultimately it's the city of Pushkin, Akhmatova, Brodsky, Blok, Bely, Gumilyev, and so many others.

But on a practical level, where should one go to find out what actually awaits the visitor who would like to see the Winter Palace and the Hermitage, the Bronze Horseman, Peterhof, the Nevsky Prospect, the Peter and Paul Fortress, the Neva River, the Admiralty Spire, The Mariinsky Theater, Church of the Savior of Spilled Blood, Kazan Cathedral, Yusupov's Palace, Smolny, the Mikhailovsky Castle, Tsarskoe Selo (Pushkin's Village), the Tauride Palace, the Finland Station, the Stray Dog Cafe, and other physical reminders and architectual moments of St. Petersburg's brilliant but tortured past? For clues, why not see what Mara Vorhees, the author of the Lonely Planet's Petersburg City Guide has to say?

As far as this blog post will go, let's just say that Vorhees recommends some Internet resources related to the city's past and present. These include the following:


Monday, July 18, 2011

Politics, War, and Faberge Eggs

Solomon Volkov's Romanov Riches: Russian Writers and Artists Under The Tsars delineates the complicated and evolving relationship between Russian autocracy and Russian cultural genius between 1613 and 1917.
This is a self-described prequel to another work, the Magical Chorus, which treats the same topic during the Twentieth Century. See my earlier blog post on this wonderful book.

Romanov Riches is a short book, and Volkov cannot claim to have analyzed any of the tsar's aesthetic predilections or cultural policies in any detail. Even so, Volkov manages to say something interesting and original about Catherine the Great, Alexander I, Nicholas I, Alexander II, Alexander III, Nicholas II, and even Lenin. In just slightly more than 200 pages, we tract the collapse of imperial authority in the arts. Where the emperors once dominated almost every aspect of the art market, Nicholas II's patronage was often spurned by liberal or radical artists for ideological reasons. Moreover, by the turn of the century, wealthy bourgeois patrons competed with the tsar for role of taste-maker and patron of the arts. Volkov is well established as once of the most balanced and knowledgeable experts on Russian culture, and feels equally at home analyzing trends in ballet, music, theater, fine art, poetry, and prose.

This book, like his treatise on the influence of Stalin on Shastokovich, is filled with insights into the influence of high culture on state policy. How did Pushkin and Nicholas I use one another and who got the better end of the bargain? Why was Pushkin's death, as well as that of Lermontov, a political problem for the tsars? How did the government use Dostoevsky and Gogol, and were the risks of relying on these Slavophiles to make their case to the literate classes? And who couldn't be fascinated by the way autocrats read and understood Tolstoy? Tolstoy, of course, interpreted the Franco-Russian War of 1812 for the Russian public, but he also shaped public perception of the Crimean War with his Sevastopol Sketches, and of course had a lot to say about how Alexander III dealt with his father's murderers.

All in all, the Romanovs come off rather well in Volkov's history. Although military and political matters necessarily dominated their worldviews, most of these conservative autocrats were sensitive, well-read, polyglots with serious personal interest in participating in the arts. Some were even educated by Russia's greatest authors, including the historian Karamzin. Volkov's point is that political leadership of the Russian nation necessarily entailed cultural fluency if not cultural mastery.

Monday, July 4, 2011


"God grant tomorrow be just the same!"

"Work is life's form, content, element, and purpose--at least mine. You've driven work clean out of your life, and what has come of it?"

This blog was partly inspired by the movie, Julie and Julia, in which blogger Julie Powell describes cooking 524 recipes from Julia Child's famous cookbook in 365 days. Although I loved the concept of Powell's obsessive blog as soon as I heard about it, I only saw the movie a couple of days ago. Loving Meryl Streep as I do, I enjoyed the movie a great deal. It also uncovered hidden memories of watching Julia Child's bizarre show with my mother when I was a child. It was hard to know what to make of Julia Child, with her powerful but unidentifiable accept. Without the benefit of a VCR, who could follow her complex recipes? I still wonder whether her show taught women how to cook or merely helped people to touch base with a deep sense of loss about the fact that they no longer knew how to do what she did, or even had time to make the attempt to cook real food.

Watching the film, it's time to reflect on the nature of this blog. Why did I decide to follow Powell's example and write about my evolving obsession with Soviet intellectual history? To my mind, blogging was an attempt to escape the fate of Ilya Ilyich Oblomov. See Elaine Blair's article in a 2010 edition of the New York Review of Books, entitled "The Short Happy Life of Ilya Ilyich Oblomov for an abbreviated description of that life: the novel is well over 500 pages long Ivan Goncharov's iconic character, Oblomov, retired from the civil service while still in his thirties. At this point, he devoted himself to leisure--not leisure in the ordinary sense of drinking, gambling, duals, and other equally pointless aristocratic pursuits, but leisure in the extraordinary sense of purposeful repose. Avoiding both work and entertainment, duty as well as pleasure, Oblomov does almost nothing from one day to the next and dreams of one day attaining an even purer state of indolence by perhaps living in the countryside. Eventually, although he drifts gently into family life, Oblomov dies, having "quietly and gradually fit himself into the simple and wide coffin of the remained of his existence." In some ways, the story of Oblomov is a metaphor for anyone who loves to read, since reading is one of life's most seductive forms of escapism. While Oblomov actually rejects literature in favor of an even more passive attitude toward life, reading is probably as close as most of us will ever come to the Oblomov's idyl. Blogging, of course, is a close relative of reading, and certainly blogging isn't any substitute for a plot in one's life, but it's at least an attempt to lift oneself off of Oblomov's comfortable bed from time to time.