Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Bruce Lincoln's St. Petersburg

Readers of the blog will know that Soviet Roulette holds the late, great Russian historian, Bruce Lincoln, in high regard. Lincoln is the author of about a dozen excellent books on modern Russian history. Readable, informative, and exciting, his exciting yet scholarly trilogy on the Russian Revolution and Civil War is representative of Lincoln's huge talent. Lincoln's last book is a testament to his lifelong love affair with Russia's imperials city, St. Petersburg. In Sunlight at Midnight: St. Petersburg and the Rise of Modern Russia Lincoln demonstrates a sensitivity and mastery of cultural history that has wasn't on display in the majority of his treatises on modern social and political history.

In Sunlight at Midnight, Lincoln argues that St. Petersburg's story is simultaneously unique and central to the story of Russia's evolving identity. Lincoln's book is less than four hundred pages long, and yet somehow seems far longer, notwithstanding its scintillating prose. This is because St. Petersburg's history is rich, dense, and complex. This invented city has always been Russia's "Window on the West," which of course means that it has always stood at the very apex of Russia's struggle to come to terms with its divided Eurasian cultural identity. On the one hand, as a result of the geography, St. Petersburg is closer to Western Europe than the vast majority of the Russian or Soviet Empires. On the other hand, St. Petersburg has traditionally been an epicenter of imperialism, and one that necessarily communicated with all of Russia's Eastern, Asiatic, Islamic, Caucasian, and Siberian constituencies. It's strange to note that visitors to St. Petersburg can still feel this divided cultural heritage today. As it turns out, the 19th century debate between Slavophiles and Westernizers is not a cliche. While St. Petersburg plays host to hundreds of thousands of Western tourists each year, its tourist industry seems to depend at least as much on Russian travelers. While anecdotal, the fact that many young Russian workers in the tourist economy--hotel desk personnel, restaurant hostesses, and museum employees--speak almost no English, French, or German, may suggest that the city remains uncertain about the role the West could or should play in its future. The city, like the country at large, remains uncommitted to the West even three centuries after Catherine the Great conducted her famous correspondence with the literary giants of the Western Enlightenment like Diderot.

In the end, the historic significance of St. Petersburg transcends the story of Russia, as important as that story is in its own right. This is of course because St. Petersburg experienced the vertiginous process of industrialization and modernization in unique ways. Although other European capitals had been transformed by factory life and the rise of the bourgeois and proletarian classes, St. Petersburg was practically overwhelmed by social and economic change in the second half of the nineteenth century. By 1900, St. Petersburg was not only divided between its imperial and Westernizing destinies, but also by its proletarian outskirts and bourgeois or bureaucratic center.

Part of Russia's inability to gracefully adapt to modernization is related to Russia's historic economic backwardness; after all, the serfs were only legally liberated in the 1960s. But part of Russia's fragility is related to Russia's political immaturity. At first, the Russian autocratic model helped backward Russia to weather the challenge of Western power, but later relying on autocracy led to severe class tensions. With no legitimate avenue to effect political change through democratic processes, proletarians and even bourgeois often turned to radical or even violent forms of dissent. St. Petersburg's Church of the Savior of Spilled Blood, which marks the spot in which the Tsar Liberator Alexander II was assassinated despite his efforts to reform and modernize the state, is one testament to the impasse Russia confronted as early as the 1880s.

Bruce Lincoln doesn't attempt to explain the October Revolution in this book. The First World War obviously deserves a great deal of the blame for this event. Had Russia not suffered so grievously against German armies, who can say that a liberal revolution might not have succeeded? Lincoln indirectly suggests that St. Petersburg's cultural experimentation at the turn of the century--the Silver Age--is in some way related to radical political experimentation. The causal relationship between the poetry of the Straw Dog and Isanov's Tower and the political decisions of Lenin and Trotsky doesn't exist. Even so, Lincoln, following Marshall Berman, know that cultural radicalism may at least be a reflection of the kind of pressures that eventually legitimate radical political innovation. Certainly Andrei Bely's modernist novel, St. Petersburg, foreshadowed confusion, disorientation, and even disaster even before the First World War.

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