One Country, Two Capitals, Review of Solomon Volkov's St. Petersburg: A Cultural History

September 1, 1996 Topic: HistorySociety Regions: RussiaEurasia Tags: Cold WarFascismRight-wing Politics

One Country, Two Capitals, Review of Solomon Volkov's St. Petersburg: A Cultural History

Mini Teaser: TThis century has seen power swing with unambiguous force from St. Petersburg to Moscow.

by Author(s): Peter Rutland

Review of Solomon Volkov's St. Petersburg: A Cultural History (New York: The Free Press, 1996) and Timothy J. Colton's Moscow: Governing the Socialist Metropolis (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995).

Most European countries have a single, unequivocal capital city, the seat of political, economic, and cultural power. It is only when one moves to larger realms outside Europe--to India, China, or the United States--that one starts to see a dispersal of the functions of the capital to more than one location.

Russia, true to its Eurasian schizophrenia, fits into neither pattern. It has always had a single, all-powerful capital--but it has had two of them this century. There is St. Petersburg, the creation of Peter the Great, perched on the western edge of his kingdom. And there is Moscow, sitting squat-like in the center of the European half of the domain. This century has seen power swing with unambiguous force from the former to the latter. St. Petersburg has been left to rot like an ancient Mayan city: a relic of a former civilization, first that of the empire, and then that of Soviet industrialism.

Volkov's St. Petersburg: A Cultural History, is a loving portrait of "the Atlantis on the Neva", the "cosmogonic" city whose ability to create images and ideas far exceeded its practical capabilities. The sheer physical survival of the city is something worthy of somber celebration. Built on a swamp by tens of thousands of forced laborers, it has been repeatedly threatened by massive floods, 1824 and 1924 being the most notable occasions. The tide of human history has been no less alarming. First came the brutality of the czars, then the chaos of revolution, the Stalinist terror, the 900-day blockade imposed by the Nazis, and the Zhdanov purge of 1946.

The duality of St. Petersburg was there from the beginning--a great imperial capital, built on a swamp. The central icon of the city's fate has been Falconet's 1782 statue of Peter the Great, immortalized in Alexander Pushkin's The Bronze Horseman. The city was not so much a "window on the West" as a mirror to the West, an opportunity for displaying--to European rulers and to Russian society--a false image of Russia's status and power. It proved ultimately to be the Potemkin capital of a Potemkin empire--although for more than two hundred years, from 1762 to 1991, Europe trembled at the sound of Russia's marching armies.

St. Petersburg was the product of an essentially eighteenth-century vision of state power--that of majesty and autocracy. In the nineteenth century the imagery started to shift, in Russia as elsewhere in Europe. The czars themselves were aware that society was metamorphosing beneath them but saw no alternative to repression. In the hands of Nikolai Gogol the absurdity and precariousness of the imperial enterprise started to reveal itself, and the Slavophiles raised the banner of Moscow as the true core of the Russian state. The capital should be rooted in the heartland of its people--and not plopped down at the whim of the emperor. Dostoyevsky argued that such an "intentional city" was a violation of human culture, and thus ultimately doomed. History seems to have proved him right.

St. Petersburg is one of those handful of cities--Venice, Florence, Paris--whose identity is imprinted on its buildings, in the quality of its light, and in its magical sense of place. Rarely can a city have been so fiercely loved by its citizens--only something like the 1871 Paris Commune comes to mind when searching for comparisons to how St. Petersburg, as Leningrad, responded to the 1941-4 blockade.
Volkov provides us with the biography of this city through the vivid and intimate portrayal of pivotal figures from its intellectual milieu, such as Anna Akhmatova and Dmitri Shostakovich. The book is not a comprehensive cultural history as such, but a series of interconnected biographies, woven together into a compelling tale. Andrei Bely's symbolist novel Petersburg (1913) gets relatively short shrift. Even though it is recognized as a literary masterpiece, Volkov sees it as something of a diatribe against "Peter" by a Muscovite.

Volkov notes that artists and musicians were able to find a modus vivendi both under the autocratic rule of the czars and the totalitarian regime of the Soviets, while writers and poets inevitably fell foul of the authorities. The czars found ballet, with its military-like discipline and precision, to be a particularly appealing art form. Court musicians and painters incorporated the folk tunes of the Caucasus and images of Turkestan into their work, thereby celebrating the spread of the empire. Even into the twentieth century, music thrived because it could be experimental without being overly political--although the musicians too occasionally fell foul of Stalin.

The boom of Russian capitalism at the end of the century coincided with a resuscitation of the city's intellectual fortune during the "silver age." Diaghilev's World of Art magazine, Volkov notes, was funded in 1898 by the city's first auto manufacturer. But then came the First World War and the awkward renaming of the city as "Petrograd."

The Bolshevik decision in January 1918 to move the capital away from the marauding German armies, to what Osip Mandelstam called "Buddhist Moscow", proved fatal. For many of the city's upper classes and intellectuals, it was literally fatal. Many fell prey to starvation, disease, or to Cheka execution squads during the hard years between 1918 and 1921. The tone of the book shifts abruptly, from the contradiction between aspiration and reality to unrelieved despair. Alexander Blok dies of starvation in August 1921, having been denied permission to emigrate by Lenin. Fellow poet Nicolai Gumilev is shot, at the age of thirty-five, the same month. After Lenin's death in 1924, the city is renamed in his honor, and becomes, as Valentin Kateev put it, a "strange, half-dead kingdom." The city shifted from being a symbol of oppression to a symbol of suffering. Even the mini-boom brought about by the New Economic Policy failed to lift the gloom: the leading tales of that era, Ilf and Petrov's The Twelve Chairs, Mikhail Bulgakov's Master and Margarita, are set in Moscow.

The suffering of the population during the "Great Patriotic War" dealt the city a terminal blow. One-third of the inhabitants died, and as the city grew over subsequent decades it filled up with migrants. The old city was no more. In the years of Brezhnevite stagnation, the myth of St. Petersburg survived in the imagination of the remaining fragments of its intelligentsia, most of whom ended up in the West, from George Balanchine to Joseph Brodsky. Amazingly, in 1962, Brodsky's poems unearthed the spirit of Liberty, which had been kept alive by a handful of souls such as Anna Akhmatova.

On September 6, 1991, the city on the Neva regained its original name: Sankt Peterburg (taken from the Dutch pronunciation). There were high hopes that with democratization and the opening up of Russia to the world economy, St. Petersburg could again become a "window on the West." Despite its wealth of highly trained scientists and technicians, the city was saddled with a ring of huge defense industry institutes and factories, turning out obsolete, high-tech weapons for a Cold War that was now officially over. True, the Nevski prospect has regained some of its bustle and tawdry glamour. Once again it echoes to the ricochet of assassins' bullets--but this time it is bankers, and not czars, who are in their sights.
Despite the energetic efforts of democratic mayor Anatoli Sobchak, St. Petersburg has failed to become a magnet for Western business. Real political power is still to be found in Moscow, and that is where the bankers and energy barons are to be found as well. Sobchak's promotional campaign took on a desperate quality ("St. Petersburg for the 2004 Olympics!"), and seemed to be more tied to his own ego than to the fate of the city. While Moscow's Yuri Luzhkov was fixing potholes and rebuilding cathedrals, St. Petersburg's infrastructure continued to sink into disrepair. One of the main subway lines under the Neva, built "heroically" through a layer of silt in the Brezhnevite 1970s, had to be closed because it started to sink at an alarming rate. In June 1996, Sobchak lost his bid for re-election, and was subsequently investigated for financial mismanagement.
Moscow has had a very different fate this century, as is documented in Timothy Colton's exhaustively researched tome. A powerful, assertive Soviet Union rose from the ashes of the Russian Empire, and Moscow was its capital. Colton provides a thorough social and political history of the city's rise, with useful maps and illustrations. The book is a mine of information that regular visitors of Moscow will quarry with pleasure.
Its focus is on the interplay between political management and town planning. There were intellectuals in Moscow, of course, but they did not define the character and purpose of the city, and they are--justifiably in this case--not the object of Colton's study. Political power was the name of the game, and Moscow's planners were faced with the challenge of laying out a city that was the decision making focus and distributional center of a vast, dynamic empire. It becomes, indeed, a city fit for the world's second superpower. Colton does not directly discuss Moscow's relationship to the rest of Stalin's domain, but concentrates instead on the nuts and bolts of urban development and the emergent patterns of social geography. He is particularly interested in the extent to which social inequality acquired a geographical dimension.
The book, like the city it documents, is huge, a monumental history of a monumental city. Like the city, however, there is no single, overarching argument or unifying theme. The city developed according to systematic plans and goals, but with the evaporation of Stalin's vision for the city it emerged lacking a telos. In contrast to St. Petersburg, Moscow was always more practical and more focused on the accumulation of wealth and power.
That being so, it is perhaps unfortunate that Colton did not directly discuss Moscow's relationship to the rest of Stalin's domain, and to the mind of that man as well. Moscow too has its share of contradiction and illusion. After all, Stalin's skyscrapers were thrown up amidst a desperately impoverished city. But his brutal reshaping of it made it ever more the superpower capital, its pattern of concentric circles and radial highways focusing the mind's eye on the center.
Colton's narrative covers the emergence of a democratic city management since 1990, but stops just short of the arrival of the dynamic Mayor Yuri Luzhkov. Since his appointment as mayor in 1992 Luzhkov has kept the city on a tight rein, limiting privatization while encouraging business, all the time making sure that the city keeps functioning. Moscow is the dominant center for banking capital, the lubricant of Russia's crazy-quilt "transitional" economy. It is the place where traders must pay homage (and ready cash) to government officials to secure import and export licenses. It is the electronic media capital of Russia--and television now seems to be the key to electoral success.
Luzhkov has his share of critics, who point out that much of Moscow's wealth has come through the exploitation of the resources of Russia's poverty-stricken interior. Moscow is a boom town in a decaying society, sitting astride the $45 billion a year flow of oil, gas, and metal exports. This situation will last only so long as the workers out in Siberia are willing to toil for months on end without receiving their pay.
Luzhkov's efforts have been appreciated by Moscow's voters: in June he won re-election with 89 percent of the vote. In a country where most politicians are held in disdain, this is a major accomplishment, and Luzhkov is frequently talked of as a possible successor to Boris Yeltsin. Russia's future, for good or ill, lies in Moscow.

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