Whatever Happened to St. Petersburg?

St Petersburg: Shadows of the Past BY Catriona Kelly. Yale University Press. Hardcover, 488 pages. $35.
The cover of St Petersburg: Shadows of the Past

St. Petersburg used to be a familiar place for Russians and non-Russians alike. It is so recognizable—even clichéd—as a setting for the high drama and intrigue of nineteenth-century Russian literary classics that one recent Russian novel features a first-person shooter videogame called Dostoevsky’s Petersburg. As Petrograd, we know it as the cradle of the Revolution, the backdrop for Eisenstein; as Leningrad, the tale of its suffering during the murderous Siege of Leningrad by Nazi and Finnish troops in 1941-44 is part of the common tragic legacy of World War II.

But there, after the war, the familiarity ends. Since World War II, countless Seinfelds, Zazies, and London Fields have made the world’s other great literary and cinematic metropolises as recognizable at their most humdrum and unglamorous as they are at their glitziest. Meanwhile, the postwar urban life of St. Petersburg has almost disappeared from the horizon not just of European or global but also of Russian culture. Ask a Russian to name a work set in postwar Petersburg or Leningrad and you will likely hear only three answers: the wistful 1979 romantic comedy Autumn Marathon, the grim 1996 revenge thriller Brother, and the 2000s cops-and-robbers TV serial Bandit Petersburg. A non-Russian could hardly be expected to produce even one. Though in Russia it continues to be known as the “cultural capital,” St. Petersburg’s increasing distance from money and power ever since it ceased to be the real capital in 1918 has meant a steady slide into cultural irrelevance.

Catriona Kelly’s Petersburg: Shadows of the Past takes the city’s marginal and offbeat local culture not as a fall from grace but as an opportunity to pin down its uniquely backwards-looking genius loci. Despite its foreboding subtitle, the book ventures into this least heroic period of the city’s life—from 1945 to the present—with the briskness of a government inspector. Starting from the grimly postindustrial water entrances into the city, Kelly systematically catalogues every aspect of its routine existence she can find, from food to furniture. She smashes right through the traditional historians’ firewall of 1991, melding her archival research with her own observations and experiences as a frequent visitor and even homeowner in the city’s residential belt. With the help of a photo by the author, for instance, we learn about the role played by indoor, illicit “smoking corners” (a few old chairs, an overflowing ashtray on a windowsill) in creating informal academic sociability. Indeed, it is not always clear where the author’s habitus ends and research proper begins: one suspects that many of her anonymous informants are her own friends and neighbors, which is not a flaw but an unusual move for a historian.

Such an idiosyncratic topic and approach may seem at first glance to be arbitrary or even self-indulgent. Yet their true value emerges when Petersburg is placed next to Brian Moynahan’s Leningrad: Siege and Symphony, published two months earlier. With the jackets removed, the two are nearly indistinguishable, but the similarities end with the binding. Moynahan’s book focuses on the Siege of Leningrad during World War II, when over 600,000 people starved to death, and Shostakovich’s composition of his Leningrad Symphony during the same period. Where Petersburg is nearly clinical, Leningrad grasps for bathos at all costs. Leningrad is obsessed with tragedy; Petersburg is more concerned with its aftermath. Above all, Petersburg is the work of a seasoned scholar with intimate knowledge of the language and culture of her almost-native city. With essentially no sources in Russian—but an impressive bibliography in English—Moynahan has no choice but to follow in the footsteps of scholars like Orlando Figes and Anne Applebaum, who have made flourishing careers by writing the tragedy-and-resistance narratives that are so popular with readers of Russian history.

Leningrad is one such account, though a particularly distilled and hypertrophic one, heavy on the tragedy and light on the resistance. Although it is divided into chapters with titles in inexplicably poor Russian, these are more chronological markers than tools for organization. The book is a disorderly parade of horribles, in which starving citizens seek vainly for cats to eat while secret policemen extract false confessions and knavish generals send thousands of ill-equipped young men to die in encircled deathtraps. The only breaks from the general horror are the valiant efforts of the city’s musicians to perform difficult compositions while starving and freezing to death (after all, the book is still recognizably a music history), which do little to dispel the gloom. Meanwhile, Shostakovich’s preening and anxieties as an evacuee in Kiubyshev (“He had been to an ice-hockey match, but did not enjoy it much”) look downright out of place. Even though he ought to be, in theory, the protagonist, Leningrad makes his fussing with the Symphony seem like fiddling while the city burns. Gestures to the contrary, like Moynahan’s attempts to describe the Symphony’s performances as a monument to Leningrad’s indomitable will, generally ring of sentimentality and falsehood. His perfunctory coda only confirms the implication that Russian life at peace is dull and uninspiring.

That is not to say Leningrad fails to elicit an emotional response. Even a reader familiar with the oft-told story of the Siege and with the depravities of the Soviet secret police will be moved by Moynahan’s account. To his credit, too, he resists the more extreme manifestations of the Cold Warrior righteousness that has fueled such stories in the past, like the idea that certain movements of the Leningrad Symphony are secretly anti-Soviet, whatever that might mean. The problem is that Leningrad achieves its effect at the expense of all nuance and complexity, creating a night where all cows look grey. This is not merely an aesthetic defect. The book’s parallel treatment of the NKVD terror and the German blockade results in the impression that city residents were affected equally by both. In fact, the difference in casualties was an order of magnitude, and it was the privileged—Party bosses, administrators, professors—who were far more likely to fall victim to the secret police, while their social inferiors starved and died from German bullets. The voices of the former, complete with ritualized invocations of their academic pedigrees and historic centrally-located apartments, clearly sound the loudest in Moynahan’s chronicle. To some extent this is inevitable, as their testimonies are some of the most eloquent that remain, and they are certainly privileged in the English publications of the Russian human-rights organization Memorial (which form one of his principal sources); to be sure, peasant conscripts and even Nazi soldiers also make appearances. Yet on the whole Leningrad makes no effort to critically approach the consensus narrative in which the educated literary classes are allowed to speak for the whole of Soviet society.

Moynahan, of course, is far from alone in taking central St. Petersburg and its denizens as its essential heart. The following exemplary set of instructions appears in John Nicolson’s otherwise charming The Other St. Petersburg, published in 1994:

Take a map of St Petersburg and a large pair of scissors and snip off all districts of the city north of Petrogradskaya Storona, east of the eastern arc of the Neva, south of Ligovsky Prospekt on one side of Nevsky and of Suvorovsky Prospekt on the other. In addition, enlarge and emphasize the following structural pivots: Nevsky Prospekt, Mikhailovsky Garden, the embankments of the Moika, House No. 10 on Pushkinskaya Street.

These excisions amount to removing everything except the richest and most historic parts of the city (the traditional areal of the culture-seeking tourist) and writing off everyone but bohemians and their haunts. An equivalent exercise might be cropping Paris down to Saint-Germain, Montmartre, and the Ile de la Cité, an exercise Parisians would regard as utterly preposterous. No such opprobrium has greeted writers about St. Petersburg.

Kelly’s ventures into the newly built neighborhoods and even the more disregarded parts of the center are thus unprecedented in themselves. Equally so is her attempt to build up the texture of everyday life out of its component parts. Chapter 5 is about shopping, from the contrast between daily deficit and commission-store bounty in the Soviet period to the anxieties about artificial food of the capitalist era. Chapter 7 deals with cafés, restaurants and dram-shops; chapter 9 is about death and burial. All are resolutely unconcerned with the traditional view of the Soviet Union as a grim 1984 in which food was utilitarian prolefeed and ideology trumped everything—or, indeed, with the alternate impression that it was an absurdist comedy in which nothing functioned properly and nobody did any work. Leningraders are not limited to the shopworn roles of put-upon victim of the system, secret subversive, or brainwashed drone. Instead, they are inveterate boosters of their own neighborhoods and city, jealous of their historical traditions and proud of their reputation as cultured and aloof. They build family nests in newly non-communal apartments, hold wild parties at restaurants, and complain about traffic, while their city planners fret over giving them enough room in their kitchens. In short, they are Europeans who happened to have been born into slightly unpropitious circumstances.

Maintaining the balance between sensitive ethnography and detail-mongering is the most treacherous and not always successfully negotiated aspect of the book’s mission. Kelly’s project, though it struggles mightily against the temptation to become a Knausgaard-style compendium of minutiae by framing each reported fact in the language of cultural anthropology, nonetheless collapses at frequent intervals into a kind of inventory list justified by nothing except the author’s vertiginous delight in the process of cataloguing.

Another item with status links was the servant. This was the mid- to late twentieth-century word for what in traditional usage was called a bufet. Both words referred to a piece of furniture with shelves and glass-fronted doors (as variously known in English by the words dresser, sideboard, display cabinet, shelving unit, etc.) This was the place for keeping particularly valued or delicate possessions— porcelain teacups, crystal vases, photographs, etc.—and also treats such as chocolate or alcoholic drinks.

The very normalcy of Soviet life in Kelly’s telling makes such details seem superfluous. If the middle-class Leningrad family is so similar in its love for frilly doilies and other manifestations of Gemütlichkeit to the petty-bourgeois of Bremen or Leeds, then an exhaustive exploration of its habits seems to owe more to a search for completeness than to any urgent theoretical necessity. Life in Leningrad’s suburban dachas and the class-stratification of its cemeteries might be less familiar, but they do not depart markedly from expectations. Kelly writes that her focus on St. Petersburg rather than Moscow is valuable “not because one can substitute one form of particularism for another, but because it allows one to grasp how chaotically diverse recent Russian culture was and is.” Grappling with chaotic diversity seems to produce miscellaneity as a side effect.

The meaning of such details emerges more clearly when the book focuses directly on the contrast between Soviet and post-Soviet life. As might be expected, the fall of the Soviet Union opened up the field of consumption dramatically, at least after the poverty and desperation of the 1990s economic crisis. But the post-communist transition has led to losses and compromises that are perhaps less obvious. In the Soviet period, although tickets to high-culture events like theatre and ballet often required favors connections to obtain, they remained cheap and for the most part accessible to a broad audience. Today, with the cultural role of such events increasingly filled by football and cinema, these august neoclassical buildings are half-empty and their audiences are distracted with mobile phones. For Russians—but especially for Petersburgers conscious of their legacy as citizens of the cultural capital—the old days are associated not with official atheism or scientific planning but with the unchallenged dominance and social omnipresence of aesthetically and politically conservative high culture, and the intelligentsia class that once scorned Soviet culture as banal now sighs for its lost values. It is this feeling, not the need to placate the Orthodox Church, which has driven Russia’s recent official ban on profanity in books, films, and high-traffic blogs.

Kelly’s observations on the changing nature of work culture are even more pointed and striking. The Soviet Union embraced full employment as an accidental consequence of crash industrialization, but its results proved enduring. In the absence of a reserve army of labor, work was not a site for competition between individual workers but a collective which assumed responsibility for its members’ moral behavior and leisure activities. Casual workplace theft of anything that might be useful in the household (from light bulbs to construction materials), along with illegal sidework, were commonly tolerated elements of the worker’s life. The more white-collar occupations, especially academia, served even more effectively as shelters from which it was nearly impossible to be exiled because of poor performance. (Ideological factors, like applying for an exit visa to Israel, were a different question.) The capitalist transition has, naturally, dismantled many of these aspects of the old system, leaving many of Kelly’s informants to wonder if in fact the newly precarious working world, and the consumption it enables, is preferable to the security of the old. Some of them are intellectuals uncomfortable with the steady decay in social status and privileges their class has experienced since the fall of the Soviet Union (along with ideological relaxation), while others are ordinary employees who pine for the moral unity, frequent workplace tea-drinking, and uncompetitive egalitarianism of the Soviet working world. The acceleration of neoliberal reform in other portions of the developed world has, of course, generated similar questions, but in few countries has the transformation been so ambiguous: much of post-communist Eastern Europe has gotten much more affluent much faster than Russia has.

Through its reliance on details, Petersburg frames these worries not in the abstract language of economics or vague generalizations about Ostalgie, but in terms of concrete changes in material culture and lived experience as expressed in the language of public memory. Unlike many observers, she does not treat them as the irrational nostalgia of an increasingly elderly population that pines for the days when it was young and limber while forgetting Soviet scarcity and political paralysis. The compromises are real and highly ambiguous in their consequences. For instance, the minor casual theft of the Soviet era, and the habit of making small gifts of flowers, liquor, or candy to grease one’s way through the maze of institutions, has been replaced by corruption and direct bribery on a much larger scale. This both reflects and contributes to a level of social stratification and inequality that outmatches most Western nations, and is all the more bitter because few fortunes were even notionally earned through patient hard work and fair dealing. A country with theoretically universal conscription in which the middle and upper classes can readily obtain forged medical certificates for their sons while working-class adolescents are forced to serve is not self-evidently better than one in which military service is a more truly universal experience (though Soviet conscription had its inequalities as well). Though in its last decades the Soviet Union was undoubtedly living on time borrowed by temporarily high oil prices, the same can easily be said for contemporary Russia as well.

Kelly’s materialist approach also brings out the sometimes convoluted fetishization of the socialist past that has set in in prosperous times. Smelt, or koriushka, a small fish more notable for the quantities of its spawns than any particular culinary qualities, was once a staple food for poorly-provisioned Leningraders, and during times of famine (like the Siege) it was an indispensable support for a large percentage of the population. With increasing affluence in the postwar and especially post-Soviet period the fish was harvested ever more actively, and today it is no cheaper or more numerous than its more traditionally desirable colleagues. This has not prevented the emergence of a widely popular annual Koriushka Festival in which this “regional delicacy” has been reframed from a last-ditch refuge of the poor to a local gastronomical specialty. Such developments are hard to miss even for the casual visitor: even the glitzy central Nevsky Prospekt now hosts a wide variety of restaurants exploiting Soviet-era tastes and values. One chain, owned by the musician Aleksandr Rozenbaum, who made his career in the 1980s singing ballads about the war in Afghanistan, features a fake 1974-era price list in all its menus. For Kelly, such outbursts of nostalgic refashioning are not just a symptom of Ostalgie but are also integral to the local identity of Petersburgers, who had once held on to bits of their imperial heritage in Soviet times even if they were ultimately beneficiaries of the revolution.

In the end, both Petersburg and Leningrad leave the reader with a powerful sense of the city’s life as something lived together by all its inhabitants. Soviet historians, especially those best-known by nonspecialists, have often seen life in the USSR as two mutually antagonistic realms, the rigidly bureaucratic and tyrannically ideological sphere of the state and the intimate, confessional space of the home and kitchen. But Moynahan’s Leningraders suffer together, gathering in public places, protecting (or robbing) each other and providing eager audiences for the city’s bedraggled musicians; Kelly’s Petersburgers, for their part, seemed to live the most vivid and joyful parts of their lives in public or semi-public settings in which politics and the KGB are barely even visible from a distance. That, at least, is how they remember it.

Greg Afinogenov is a PhD candidate in Russian history at Harvard University.