A chronicle of horsemen, blood and firebirds

St Petersburg: A cultural history by Solomon Volkov, Sinclair- Stevenson, pounds 20
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It is perfectly proper that this astonishing book should be reviewed by a writer of traditional English prose who lives in the bowels of rural Wales, prefers to be in bed by 11 and seldom meets an artist from one literary festival to the next. A more metropolitan critic might not be quite so astounded by the unending passion of cultural life in St Petersburg, as presented for us here by an ebullient and affectionate son of the city. A New Yorker, especially, might feel perfectly at home with it all, if only because a stream of prodigious emigre talent has created a second St Petersburg over there, so that Stravinsky, Balanchine, Prokofiev, Nabokov, Brodsky, Horovitz, Yascha Heifetz, Nathan Milstein, Solomon Volkov and all have come to seem more or less home-grown.

But for a bourgeois European provincial like me, it is all a marvel and everything about the book excited me. Even its translation from the original Russian, undertaken by somebody whose first language was evidently not English, sometimes has an exotic tang to it; while the story itself is told with such love and intimate knowledge, is so surging with marvellous characters, and with historical episodes tragic and inspiring, that as I read it over my cocoa of an evening, it quite took my breath away.

Such is the way of the Russians, all blood and firebird. Mr Volkov is describing for us what he likes to call the St Petersburg "mythos" - likes it so much, in fact, that he uses the word several hundred times in the course of the book. This legend Volkov sees fostered by the deliberate isolation of the city, away in the cold northern marshes, by the classical grace of its architecture and by the will of the successive despots who ruled it: but he sees it enacted above all by its writers, dancers, artists and musicians, starting with Pushkin, ending with Akhmatova, and never without a genius in between .

It was Pushkin, with his seminal poem ''The Bronze Horseman'', who first recognised St Petersburg to be the very epitome of conflict between the State and the individual - Peter the Great had built the place with slave labour, killing at least 100,000 in the process - and down the generations the city's artists endlessly fought the fight against tsars as against commissars. What a roster of towering names - Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Rimsky- Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Borodin, Rachmaninoff, Blok, Benois, Diaghilev, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich! What risks they ran, what loves they loved, what thrilling lives they led! What schools and counter-schools they formed, now as rivals, now as clandestine allies - acmeists and symbolists and maximalists and suprematists,declaiming their poems in the cellar of The Stray Dog, bursting into tears at the ends of symphonies! it makes the heart sing to read about them.

But it could be dangerous and depressing, and often the artistic life was pursued through a kind of twilight - the famous white light of the St Petersburg night. Volkov subtly evokes the disturbing ambivalences that always linked Art and State in this city, whether as St Petersburg under the tsars, Petersburg under the Bolsheviks or Leningrad under the Stalinists.

The tsars were patrons as well as censors: Nicholas I called Pushkin "the wisest man in Russia''. The Communists cynically recognised the power of art: celebrated practitioners painted posters for them, decorated propaganda plates, made films and danced. Many an artist felt it necessary to co- operate with despotism, if only to give art a chance; many more sacrificed their careers, their liberty and even their lives rather than compromise their integrity.

In the long term, of course, art always wins: in the short term, as Brodsky once told his boorish interrogators, they had all the power of the KGB behind them, he had only ''half a room and a typewriter''. Nevertheless, through the worst days of Stalin's Great Terror and the Cold War, the artists of Leningrad somehow managed to keep the flame alive, in texts too subtle for bureaucrats to grasp, in coded historical allusions, in the underground distribution system that was samizdat, and now and then in gestures of glorious defiance.

In 1948 the officially denounced Fifth Symphony of Shostakovich was performed in Leningrad to the tumultuous applause of an audience that heard it as a declaration of personal liberty: the conductor Yevgeny Mravinsky, in an impulse that might well have cost him his life, seized the score and held it high above his head in a deliberate cock of the snook at tyranny at all times and in all places, but especially in St Petersburg.

For the city's intellectuals always thought of it as St Petersburg or, more often, simply as "Piter". For them, as this book lovingly demonstrates, it was more than a city, more then a country, but a state of the soul - a mythos! - which impregnated everything they thought and created. They took it with them wherever they went, whether to the Gulags or Manhattan. Pushkin's image of the Bronze Horseman refers to Etienne Falconet's heroic equestrian statue of Peter the Great beside the Neva, and this was far more than just a civic icon, like the Eiffel Tower or Sydney Opera House, but a promise, a threat and an enchantment, all in one.

In 1991, another statue of Peter the Great went up in his city, by the emigre sculptor Mihail Chemiakin. It is in a very different kind. Slumped massive but resigned in a chair, the old despot stares in a glazed way into space, and he seems to be tapping his bony fingers impatiently on the chair-arms. He might be facing his accusers at a war-crimes trial. His head, taken from a deathmask, is eerily small. His expression is at once haughty and defensive.

Is this the new emblem of Mr Volkov's ''mythos"? Having survived two protracted despotisms, four changes of name, a revolution, two wars and the most terrible of sieges, St Petersburg now seems to have settled into an all-too-familiar rumour of crime and general squalor, compounded as usual by tourism. "Where are you galloping, proud steed", demanded Pushkin of Falconet's Peter the Great, "And where will you plant your hooves?'' Chemiakin's Peter is clearly going nowhere at all. Could it possibly be that this tremendous city, so stunningly creative down the years, so familiar with genius as with sorrow, will at last learn what it is like to live in uninteresting times?

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