The story of a city for the half-mad

ST PETERSBURG: A Cultural History by Solomon Volkov, trs Antonia W Bouis, Sinclair-Stevenson pounds 20
In May 1965, Solomon Volkov was first violinist in a quartet of musicians from the Leningrad Conservatory who went to serenade the poet Anna Akhmatova with a piece by Shostakovich in a private concert at her dacha on the shores of the Gulf of Finland. The wind blew, snow fell and, as Volkov tells it, this magical encounter with the grande dame of Russian poetry also gave him the idea for this book.

Akhmatova was nearing her 76th (and last) birthday, a survivor from the era of Bakst and Diaghilev, who had experienced at first hand the Revolution, the Stalinist purges and the Nazi blockade. Beyond her poetry and the music of Shostakovich, Volkov sensed a cultural tradition, peculiar to St Petersburg, extending back to Pushkin and even to Peter the Great, which was bound up with what he calls the mythos of the city, created out of the values and beliefs of its cultural elite. It was this mythos that he would try to describe.

It is a bold proposition: inevitably, the cultural life of any city is a hotchpotch to which artists, writers and musicians contribute in various idiosyncratic ways; the most outstanding are precisely those most likely to rebel against the norm that one is trying to define. So it is no surprise to find that, from the start, Volkov subscribes to Vladimir Toporov's view that "the inner meaning of Petersburg is in that antithesis ... that cannot be reduced to unity", and finds an irreducible contradiction in the work that is the starting-point for his enquiry, Pushkin's poem The Bronze Horseman. In essence, he says, the poem is about which is more important, the fate of individuals or the triumph of the state - and it is a question that Pushkin leaves open.

"This is a city for the half-mad," Dostoyevsky wrote, contributing to a new perspective shared by Gogol and owing a lot to the fantasies of the German Romantic, E T A Hoffmann. Another contradiction, perhaps, is that Dostoyevsky and Gogol, the most "Russian" of writers, also exemplify St Petersburg's openness to Western influence even as they condemn it. Dostoyevsky had been to London and Paris, experienced the dark side of urban poverty and saw no need for Russia to follow. The capital city on the Baltic was "a window to Europe", both in its neoclassical design and in its 19th-century slums, but a window can be shut as well as opened. "Russia needs Moscow, Petersburg needs Russia," Gogol reminded his fellow citizens, in case they should be tempted to think themselves somewhere else.

What does set St Petersburg apart, however (and helps to explain its peculiar fascination) is what Dostoyevsky called its "intendedness" - the sense that Pasternak had of Peter the Great laying down streets and quays with the precision of a marksman placing one shot on top of another. Despite the efforts of Haussmann and other planners, Paris, Berlin and London are still, clearly, cities that grew up organically over long periods of time, while Petersburg, with no past beyond the moment of its foundation (1703), still seems to bear the mark of a single creator: the centre, at least, feels like a stage set for an opera.

As a musician, Volkov is aware of the importance of the performing arts in shaping the cultural climate and records a number of defining moments, from the premiere of Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony (the Pathetique) on 16 October 1893, in front of an audience so overcome by emotion that it was unable to applaud, to the performance of Shostakovich's Seventh (the Leningrad) on 9 August 1942, inside the besieged city. The high point of his story is the so-called Silver Age, at about the turn of the century, which was that of the poets Alexander Blok and Nikolai Gumilyov (Akhmatova's first husband, shot in 1921), as well as Diaghilev, Bakst and Benois. It is not hard to predict the low points: the Stalinist terror, launched after the assassination of Leningrad party secretary Sergei Kirov, and the 900-day Nazi blockade, in which as much as two-thirds of the population perished. At times, Volkov proves over-anxious to persuade us of the superiority and singularity of his birthplace: under Stalin, he states, "the city suffered like the rest of the country - only more so"; and in the blockade, "the real Petersburgers - noble, restrained, scrupulous - died first as a rule". He is unashamedly elitist, as well as fiercely loyal to his birthplace.

He left it in 1976, taking refuge in the United States, like several others who figure prominently in his story: Balanchine, Nabokov, Stravinsky, Brodsky. Arriving "not as exiles, but as emissaries", they found America especially congenial: "Western Europe proved inhospitable to the Petersburger's strain of refined, aristocratic modernism", he claims, in one of several sweeping and debatable statements that may be unavoidable, given the breadth of his project. But there is much in the book that is precise, well-judged, stimulating and informative. It is a marvellous companion for any English-speaking visitor to the city who wishes to have some understanding of its cultural history.

What of the future? The author speculates very little about the fate of St Petersburg under the new regime. It has been in the area of the performing arts, in particular, he says, that "the characteristics of Petersburg culture could thrive: high professionalism, refinement and a reliance on long-standing European tradition". But the performing arts, more than any, need patrons. The imperial state has gone, the socialist state has gone, and the new mayor (governor) of the city is busy trying to balance his budget. Perhaps the "enterprise culture" will realise that the arts are good for tourism; or perhaps not.

When I was there in June I had coffee on my last morning in a new cafe near St Isaac's Cathedral, and was struck by the pleasant atmosphere of a typical new business venture. Later in the day, at the airport, I read in the local English-language paper that, only two or three days before, in that same cafe, a man had been shot dead in broad daylight, in what was assumed to be a struggle between two rival mafias. Will the mafia patronise opera, as well as less exalted businesses? Or will the musicians, singers and dancers be lured away - exiles, rather than emissaries - not by the promise of freedom from an ideologically oppressive regime, but by Western money and other amenities? Which should take priority: the fate of the individual or sustaining the mythos of the city? The question remains open.