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.

News

literature

News
Dermot O'Leary attends the X Factor Wembley Arena auditions at Wembley on August 1, 2014 in London, England.

television

News
news
Arts and Entertainment
At this year's SXSW festival in Austin, Texas

Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
photography
News
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
people
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss