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Piranesi in Petrograd: Sources, Strategies, and Dilemmas in Modernist Depictions of the Ruins (1918-1921)

  • Polina Barskova


It has long been common to interpret the mythology of St. Petersburg through the prism of eschatological prophecy. But what happens to the cultural tradition when the prophecy of doom comes to be experienced as reality, and predictions give way to reaction? How did the discourse of the end of Petersburg change when the legendary curse of Peter's estranged wife—“This city will be empty”—turned into the devastation of postrevolutionary Petrograd: violent, starved, frozen, and diseased? In this article Polina Barskova explores various cultural expressions of the urban crisis in the years just after 1917. These artistic reactions come from Viktor Shklovskii, Pavel Shillingovskii, Semen Pavlov, and Grigorii Kozintsev, among others. Here, the focus is on the tension between two impulses: to distance and aestheticize the ruins or to bring them closer to author and recipient, rendering these signs of urban disaster maximally incoherent and ugly. The article argues that the Petersburg authors use both strategies, as well as their hybrids.



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I would like to thank Olga Matich, Eric Naiman, Andreas Schönle, Luba Golburt, Maria Joaquina Villasenor, and the anonymous readers for their astute comments, patience, and generosity.

1. Wilton-Ely, John, The Mind and Art of Giovanni Piranesi (London, 1978), 126.

2. Shishkin, V. A., ed., Petrograd na perelome epokh: Gorod i ego zhiteli v gody revoliutsi i igrazhdanskoi voiny (St. Petersburg, 2000), 60.

3. Ibid., 61.

4. Shklovskii, Viktor, “Peterburg v blokade,” Khod konia: Sbornik statei (Moscow, 1923), 24. For this text, I used a remarkable recent translation: Viktor Shklovsky, “Petersburg during the Blockade,” Knight's Move, trans, and ed. Richard Sheldon (London, 2005).

5. V. N. Toporov, in his field-defining article “The Petersburg Text of Russian Literature,” in Peterburgskii tekst russkoi literatury: Izbrannye trudy (St. Petersburg, 2003), 7-66, points out that the prophecy of disaster was a leitmotif unifying the texts about the city into one body. The artistic texts of Petersburg thus react to the eschatological mythology; the anticipation of the end defines these texts thematically and structurally.

Accepting Toporov's idea that Petersburg's texts function as a complex unity, I suggest treating the texts of the city created between 1917 and 1935 as a separate system that, in spite of its obvious kinship to the system Toporov described, operates according to laws of its own. The main distinction between these two sets of texts is their relationship to the “end” of Petersburg: while the former treats this event as a cerebral notion, the latter is compelled by its reality. Thus, projections give way to reactions.

6. The category of vnenakhodimost’ is central for Bakhtin's early philosophy; it is especially prominent in Avtori geroi v esteticheskoi deiatel'nosti (Kiev, 1994). For commentary on the genesis of this notion, see Averintsev, S., Gogotishvili, L., Liapunov, V., Makhlin, V., and Nikolaev, N., “Kommentarii,” in Bakhtin, M. M., Sobranie sochinenii v semi tomakh, ed. Bocharov, S. G. and Gogotishvili, L. A. (Moscow, 1996-2003), 1:541.

7. Piranesi's biographer Giovanni Bianconi recounts: “On the spot we'd not find that his picturesqueness and his warmth are always true. Though we delight in them they seem like a beautiful unfaithfulness.” Quoted in A. Hyatt Mayor, Piranesi (New York, 1952), 27.

8. For a detailed description of Shillingovskii's oeuvre, see Grishina, E. V., P. A. Shillingovskii (Leningrad, 1980).

9. Huxley, Aldous, Themes and Variations (New York, 1950), 85.

10. Goldman, Emma, My Disillusionment in Russia (New York, 1923), 12.

11. David Punter, one of the most renowned gothic scholars, describes this hybrid of the gothic genre: “The graveyard language, the emphases on secrets, the focus on the vulnerable heroine who is traveling through the dangerous realm.” David Punter and Glennis Byron, The Gothic (Oxford, 2004), 14.

12. Ibid., 185.

13. Radcliffe, Ann, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794; London, 1970), 227.

14. Gumilev, Nikolai, “Ledokhod,” in Sinelnikov, M., ed., Sankt-Peterburg, Petrograd, Leningrad v russkoi poezii, (St. Petersburg, 2003), 316.

15. Igor’ Severianin, “Otkhodnaia Peterburgu,” in Sinelnikov, ed., Sankt-Peterburg, Petrograd, Leningrad v russkoi poezii, 273.

16. Men'shoi, Adol'f, “Peterburg-Leningrad,” Prozhektor 17 (1924): 21.

17. Naiman, Eric, “Behind the Red Door: An Introduction to NEP Gothic,” Sex in Public: The Incarnation of Early Soviet Ideology (Princeton, 1997), 148-81.

18. Men'shoi, “Peterburg-Leningrad,” 25.

19. On Piranesi's activities as a stage designer, see Wilton-Ely, Mind and Art of Giovanni Piranesi, 16-18.

20. On the significance of the topos of the haunted castle in the gothic, see Railo, Eino, The Haunted Castle: A Study of the Elements of English Romanticism (London, 1927).

21. Fritzsche, Peter, Stranded in the Present: Modern Time and the Melancholy of History (Cambridge, Mass., 2004), 104.

22. Yuri Lotman famously theorized the theatricality of St. Petersburg. He suggested that the city serves as a stage designed for an implied spectator. See Lotman, Yuri M., “The Symbolism of St. Petersburg,” Universe of the Mind: A Semiotic Theory of Culture (Bloomington, 1990), 191203.

23. The city's literati strongly opposed the name change. For example, see Zinaida Gippius, “Petrograd,” in Sinelnikov, ed., Sankt-Peterburg, Petrograd, Leningrad v russkoi poezii, 255.

24. Mikhail Kuzmin, “Russkaia revoliutsiia,” in Sinelnikov, ed., Sankt-Peterburg, Petrograd, Leningrad v russkoi poezii, 320.

25. Mishra, Vijay, Gothic Sublime (Albany, 1994), 14.

26. Beginning with the texts chronologically and structurally akin to William Blake's allegory “The French Revolution” (1791, “In the tower named Order, an old man … his den was short and narrow as a grave dug for a child, with spiders’ webs wove, and with slime of ancient horrors covered, for snakes and scorpions are his companions“), the discourses of the revolution and the gothic become intertwined. For analyses of the gothic as a consequence and a symptom of revolution, see Barker, Francis, Bernstein, Jay, and Hulme, Peter, eds., 1789: Reading Writing Revolution (Essex, 1982); Radisich, Paula Rea, “Hubert Robert and the Revolution,” Hubert Robert: Painted Spaces of the Enlightenment (Cambridge, Eng., 1998), 117-40. The principal inclusion of the Soviet text into gothic paradigms was realized by Naiman, “Behind the Red Door: An Introduction to NEP Gothic,” 148-81.

27. Radcliffe, Ann, “On the Supernatural in Poetry,” Neiv Monthly Magazine, vol. 7 (1826).

28. Stafford, Barbara, Body Criticism: Imaging the Unseen in Enlightenment Art and Medicine (Cambridge, Mass., 1991), 6264.

29. Vaginov, Konstantin, “Trudy i dni Svistonova,“ Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v proze, (St. Petersburg, 1999), 149 .

30. Shklovskii, “Peterburg v blokade,” 24.

31. Mandel'shtam, Osip, “The Egyptian Stamp,” The Prose of Osip Mandelshtam, trans. Brown, Clarence (Princeton, 1965), 170. I would also like to thank the anonymous reader who directed me to a remarkable text by Vladislav Khodasevich—“Dom” (1919)— also dedicated to the inviting charms of the transparent ruins.

32. Mikhail Bakhtin, Avtor i geroi v esteticheskoi deiatel'nosti, 97.

33. Ryklin, Mikhail K., “Bodies of Terror: Theses toward a Logic of Violence,” New Literary History 24 (1993): 51.

34. Byron, George Gordon, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812-1818; Oxford, 1885), 268.

35. A famous example of such a composition would be The Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci (1498).

36. For analyses of the device of truncating the human body in modernist painting, see Nochlin, Linda, The Body in Pieces: The Fragment as a Metaphor of Modernity (London, 1994), 2730.

37. Shklovskii, “Peterburg v blokade,” 27. The fact that he uses both strategies in the same text—distancing himself from the disaster and, in contrast, establishing his maximum possible proximity, to the extent of blurring and assimilation—reveals an unstable artistic position when faced with this traumatic choice. On the unstable authorial self in the trauma narrative, see Meffan, James, “Terror, Writing and Responsibility,” in Beiendse, Gerrit-Jan and Williams, Mark, eds., Terror and Text: Representing Political Violence in Literature and the Visual Arts (Bielefeld, 2002), 3761.

38. Shklovskii, “Peterburg v blokade,” 24.

39. Eugenie A. Korvin-Kroukovsky, Diary, Hoover Institution Archives, 71011-10, V.9. Quoted in E. Yudina, “Metropolis to Necropolis: The St. Petersburg Myth and Its Cultural Extension in the 1910s and 1920s” (PhD diss., University of Southern California, 1999), 28.

40. Chateaubriand, François-René de, The Genius of Christianity, trans. White, Charles I. (Philadelphia, 1856), 467-68.

41. Shklovskii, Viktor, A Sentimental Journey: Memoirs, 1917-1922, trans. Sheldon, Richard (Ithaca, 1970), 133.

42. Ibid., 216.

43. Bely, Andrei, Petersburg trans. Maguire, Robert A. and Malmstad, John E. (Bloomington, 1978), 180.

44. Shklovskii, Viktor, “Zoo, ili pis'ma ne o liubvi,” Eshche nichego ne konchilos’ (Moscow, 2002), 292.

45. Matich, Olga, “Backs, Suddenlys, and Surveillance in Andrej Belyj's Petersburg ,” Russian Literature 58, no. 1-2 (2005): 156.

46. Bethea, David M., “Petersburg: The Apocalyptic Horseman, the Unicorn, and the Verticality of Narrative,” The Shape of Apocalypse in Modern Russian Fiction (Princeton, 1989), 105-45. For another reading of the apocalyptic motif in the myth of Petersburg, see Isupov, K. G., “Dialog stolits v istoricheskom dvizhenii,” Moskva-Peterburg: Pro et Contra. Dialog kul'turv istorii natsional'nogo samosoznaniia (St. Petersburg, 2000), 681.

47. For further discussion on the connection of the aesthetics of fragmentation with revolutionary violence, see Nochlin, Body in Pieces, 20-27.

48. Ibid., 25.

49. Morson, Gary Saul, Narrative andFreedom: The Shadows of Time (New Haven, 1994), 201-5.

50. Fritzsche, Stranded in the Present, 104. Fritzche's volume suggests a thought provoking discussion of the juxtaposition between past and present revealed by the figure of ruins.

51. Butovskii, I. A., Andrei Moskvin, Kinooperator (St. Petersburg, 2000), 55.

52. It should be noted that FEKS was the first to include multiple views of Petersburg in their film; Vsevolod Pudovkin employed this technique a year later in his famous The End of Saint Petersburg (1927).

53. Kozintsev, Grigorii, “Glubokii ekran,” Sobranie sochinenii v piati tomakh (Leningrad, 1982), 1:110. He specifically argues with Jay Leyda. See Leyda, , Kino: A History of the Russian and Soviet Film (Princeton, 1983), 202.

54. Leyda, Kino, 202.

55. Kozintsev, “Glubokii ekran,” 1:111.

56. Ibid., 112.

57. Fritzsche, Stranded in the Present, 104.

Piranesi in Petrograd: Sources, Strategies, and Dilemmas in Modernist Depictions of the Ruins (1918-1921)

  • Polina Barskova


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