St. Petersburg; A Cultural History

Overview

Long considered to be the mad dream of an imperious autocrat - the "Venice of the North," conceived in a setting of malarial swamps - St. Petersburg was built in 1703 by Peter the Great as Russia's gateway to the West. For almost 300 years this splendid city has survived the most extreme attempts of man and nature to extinguish it, from flood, famine, and disease to civil war, Stalinist purges, and the epic 900-day siege by Hitler's armies. It has even been renamed twice, and became St. Petersburg again only in ...
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St Petersburg: A Cultural History

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Overview

Long considered to be the mad dream of an imperious autocrat - the "Venice of the North," conceived in a setting of malarial swamps - St. Petersburg was built in 1703 by Peter the Great as Russia's gateway to the West. For almost 300 years this splendid city has survived the most extreme attempts of man and nature to extinguish it, from flood, famine, and disease to civil war, Stalinist purges, and the epic 900-day siege by Hitler's armies. It has even been renamed twice, and became St. Petersburg again only in 1991. Yet not only has it retained its special, almost mystical identity as the schizophrenic soul of modern Russia, but it remains one of the most beautiful and alluring cities in the world. Every great city creates its own image in literature and art, and Petersburg is no exception. For Pushkin, Gogol, and Dostoyevsky, Petersburg was a spectral city that symbolized the near-apocalyptic conflicts of imperial Russia. As the monarchy declined, allowing intellectuals and artists to flourish, Petersburg became a center of avant-garde experiment and flamboyant bohemian challenge to the dominating power of the state, first czarist and then communist. The names of the Russian modern masters who found expression in St. Petersburg still resonate powerfully in every field of art: in music, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich; in literature, Akhmatova, Blok, Mandelstam, Nabokov, and Brodsky; in dance, Diaghilev, Nijinsky, and Balanchine; in theater, Meyerhold; in painting, Chagall and Malevich; and many others, whose works are now part of the permanent fabric of Western civilization. Yet no comprehensive portrait of this thriving distinctive, and highly influential cosmopolitan culture, and the city that inspired it, has previously been attempted. Now Solomon Volkov, a Russian emigre and acclaimed cultural historian, has written the definitive cultural biography of this city and its transcendent artistic and spiritual legacy.

Built in 1703 by Peter the Great as Russia's gateway to the West, the city of St. Petersburg became the center of liberal opposition to the dominating power of the state, whether czarist or communist. Acclaimed Russian historian and emigre Volkov writes the definitive "cultural biography" of that famed city, sharply detailing the well-known figures of the arts whose works are now part of the permanent fabric of Western high culture. Photos.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
For the city Dostoyevski called ``the most abstract and premeditated city in the whole world,'' artists were crucial to creating an identity and a mythos. In each of six impressive chapters, Volkov focuses on an era and on a typically Petersburgian art form of the time. From Peter the Great's imperial mandate impelling the city from the marshy Baltic coast in 1703, Volkov moves on to Gogol's and Dostoyevski's cynical anti-Petersburg writings; the passionate, European/Russian hybrid of Tchaikovsky and the Mighty Five (Musorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, Balakirev, Cui); the waxing sense of doom and the concomitant nostalgia of Anna Akhmatova and Alexander Blok; the migr Petersburg created abroad by Balanchine, Stravinksy and Nabokov; Shostakovitch's city, depleted by the Great Terror and pounded during the Siege of Leningrad; and finally, to the beleaguered postwar city of Joseph Brodsky. This is a complicated strategy involving a tacking back and forth to pick up numerous themes and biographies and there are, perhaps inevitably, redundancies. Also Volkov, a musicologist by training and a devotee of literature by inclination (his previous books include Joseph Brodsky in New York and the controversial Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich) is sketchier in his treatment of the visual arts. But this well-researched and deeply personal book gives a complex, subtle view of the city's haughty and tortured history. Photos not seen by PW. (Nov.)
Library Journal
Volkov, a Russian migr musicologist, offers an absorbing overview of the traditions and individuals responsible for the great cultural evolution of St. Petersburg (Leningrad) and its ever-shifting mythos-from Pushkin to Chagall, from Gogol to Stravinsky and on to the cultural diaspora of the late 20th century. Particularly noteworthy is Volkov's ability to place culture within a clear historical framework, since St. Petersburg's cultural impulse has been repeatedly assaulted by Russia's tormented history. The reader will be moved by the genius of Akhmatova and Brodsky, Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky, and the other St. Petersburg icons whose 150-year parade makes strikingly clear that despite floods, famine, wars, and purges, the contributions of one city represent the very core of Russian culture. In contrast to this readable work, Katerina Clark's scholarly Petersburg: Crucible of Cultural Revolution (LJ 8/95) covers a much narrower time period. Highly recommended for most academic and public collections.-Mark R. Yerburgh, Fern Ridge Community Lib., Veneta, Ore.
Gilbert Taylor
The "window to the West," St. Petersburg has attracted many of Russia's greatest artists, from Pushkin to Dostoyevsky to Akhmatova in literature, from Tchaikovsky to Prokofiev to Shostakovich in music, Balanchine in dance, and Repin in painting. After the cultural obliteration of the Communist era, Volkov aims to restore these and dozens of other figures to their rightful places, and this book marks an important initial step in reviving the city's artistic heritage. In their day, names now famous weren't the recipients of unalloyed adulation: an artistic press, relatively free and certainly vibrant, was supported by the abundance of whatever new poem, opera, symphony, or canvas was on offer. Volkov weaves together contemporary critiques and the testimony of the artists themselves in tracing what he calls the city's "conceptual development." He certainly does capture the distinctive personality of the great metropolis as he frames its artists' travails within the political and military storms that lashed them in this century--revolutions, purges, sieges and all. A sweeping embrace, Volkov's review of three centuries should touch Russophils in general and lovers of music and dance in particular.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780028740522
  • Publisher: Free Press
  • Publication date: 11/10/1995
  • Pages: 624
  • Product dimensions: 6.49 (w) x 9.59 (h) x 1.40 (d)

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