Read Petersburg Online

Authors: Andrei Bely

Tags: #Fiction, #Classics, #General




A Novel in Eight Chapters

With a Prologue
and an Epilogue

Translated by


and with an Introduction by









was the pseudonym of Boris Nikolayevich Bugayev: a novelist, poet and critic, he became a leading figure amongst Russian Symbolist writers.
Born in Moscow in 1880 he studied mathematics, zoology and philosophy at Moscow University, simultaneously interesting himself in art and mysticism.
He began to publish in 1902 while still a student, adopting his pseudonym to spare his father, an eminent professor of mathematics, the embarrassment of public association with the still scandalous Symbolists.
In 1914 he joined a Rudolf Steiner anthroposophical community in Switzerland.
Returning to Russia in 1916 he welcomed the Revolution, but with the increasing restrictions placed upon artistic expression he became disillusioned.
After making a forlorn attempt to revive the Symbolist aesthetic through the journal
Zapiski mechtateley
, he emigrated again in 1921.
Bely returned to Russia in 1923 and was left relatively undisturbed during his last years.
His work continued to be published in small editions but was largely ignored; nevertheless the influence of his style and ideas upon other Soviet writers was considerable.
On his death in 1934, Evgeny Zamyatin wrote of him: ‘Mathematics, poetry, anthroposophy, fox-trot – these are some of the sharpest angles that make up the fantastic image of Andrei Bely … [he is] a writer’s writer.’

His first prose works were four short pieces which he designated ‘symphonies’.
In 1909 he published a more conventional novel,
The Silver Dove
; other works include
Kotik Letayev
(1922) and a series of novels, published during the 1920s and 1930s, under the generic title
was first published in book form in 1916 and was immediately recognized as a work of major literary importance.

was born in 1945 and was educated at the University of Edinburgh.
His publications comprise a large number of translations of foreign verse and prose, including poems by Joseph Brodsky and Tomas Venclova, as well as contemporary Scandanavian work;
Selected Poems
of Osip Mandelstam;
Complete Poems
of Edith Södergran; and
No I’m Not Afraid
by Irina Ratushinskaya.
His first book of verse,
Words in Nature
, appeared in 1972.
He has translated a number of twentieth-century Russian prose works for Penguin Classics.
These include Dostoyevsky’s
The Brothers Karamazov
Crime and Punishment
The House of the Dead
Poor Folk and Other Stories
Uncle’s Dream and Other Stories
; Tolstoy’s
The Kreutzer Sonata and Other Stories
The Sebastapol Sketches
; and Nikolai Leskov’s
Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk
He has also translated Babel’s
Collected Stories
for Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics.

was born in 1978.
He has written two novels:
The Escape
In 2003 he was chosen as one of
’s Best Young British Novelists.
Miss Herbert
, an essay on international novels, was published in 2007 and won a Somerset Maugham Award.
His work has been translated into thirty languages.
He lives in London.


First-time readers should be aware that details of the plot are revealed in this Introduction.



The novelist Andrei Bely died of a stroke, in the Moscow of Soviet Communism, in 1934.
He was fifty-four.
He had been born in the same city: when it was the Moscow of Tsarist Autocracy.
It was the ordinary sad story of History.
But the more detailed story of his death is even sadder.

His book of memoirs,
Between Two Revolutions
, had just appeared, with a preface by Lev Kamenev in which all of Bely’s literary activities were termed a ‘tragi-farce’ acted out ‘on the sidelines of history’.
Bely bought up all the copies of the book he could find and tore out the preface.
He continued visiting the book shops until he suffered the fatal stroke.

The sidelines of history!

Bely’s epilogue took place in 1934.
But this epilogue was also Kamenev’s.
It’s true that, with Stalin and Trotsky, Kamenev had once been at the centre of history – the pure Communist impresario.
But then the machinations of politics had begun.
In 1927 he had been expelled from the Party.
He was soon readmitted, but was expelled again in 1932, and then readmitted a year later.
This was the context of his terrified preface to Bely’s book.
Historically, Kamenev was disappearing.
In December 1934, after Bely had died, Kamenev was again expelled from the Party; this time, he was also arrested.
Sentenced in 1935 to ten years in prison, he was retried in the first Moscow Show Trial in August 1936.
He was found guilty and immediately shot.

This epilogue, however, is only a prologue.
It is only Moscow – and so it is only the political version of reality’s multiple forms of disappearance.
Whereas the more important story of Andrei Bely and his investigation into reality takes place in another Russian city, Petersburg – the city where Bely became famous.
Petersburg was the pretext for his intricate novel called
– the city that Bely converted into a portable experiment with words.


But then, Petersburg was already an experiment.
Before Bely, it had been invented as a problem by another great novelist: Nikolai Gogol.
‘Passing as it were through Gogol’s temperament,’ wrote Vladimir Nabokov, who loved both Gogol and Bely, ‘St Petersburg acquired a reputation of strangeness which it kept up for almost a century …’
In the mid-1830s, Gogol published a series of Petersburg stories: ‘Nevsky Prospekt’, ‘Nose’ and ‘Portrait’, followed in 1842 by ‘Coat’.
In them, he developed the idea that this city called Petersburg was an experiment in what was real.
It was built between land and water, its climate was fog, the water was undrinkable: and in this fluid atmosphere it was therefore difficult to tell what was real and what was not: ‘Oh, do not trust that Nevsky Prospect!
I always wrap myself more closely in my cloak when I pass along it and try not to look at the objects that meet me.
Everything is a cheat, everything is a dream, everything is other than it seems!’

Petersburg – an exercise in unreality!
Pure surface!
This was the city that Andrei Bely invented once again, in his novel called

In this melting greyness there suddenly dimly emerged a large number of dots, looking in astonishment: lights, lights, tiny lights filled with intensity and rushed out of the darkness in pursuit of the rust-red blotches, as cascades fell from above: blue, dark violet and black.
Petersburg slipped away into the night.
p. 198

This was how to describe the city as a landscape: an abstract metamorphosis
of dots.
But maybe even this was too definite; maybe it only existed as a sign – a creation of cartographers:

… two little circles that sit one inside the other with a black point in the centre; and from this mathematical point, which has no dimension, it energetically declares that it exists: from there, from this point, there rushes in a torrent a swarm of the freshly printed book; impetuously from this invisible point rushes the government circular.
p. 4

A city as a point, or dot: this is Andrei Bely’s initial act of revolution in his novel
It is an invention with multiple effects.
And the most important is outlined in this novel by a hallucinating terrorist, who is suddenly possessed by the knowledge that

‘Petersburg possesses not three dimensions, but four; the fourth is subject to obscurity and is not marked on maps at all, except as a dot, for a dot is the place where the plane of this existence touches against the spherical surface of the immense astral cosmos …’ (
p. 409

In other words: everything in this city is on the brink of meaning; everything in Petersburg is potentially a sign.


Even, for instance, a novelist’s name.
For Andrei Bely is a pseudonym.
(Andrew White!) His initial name was Boris Bugayev.

The reason for this new name was sweetly chic.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Bely was avant-garde.
And the avant-garde he belonged to was Symbolism.
The Symbolists believed in renewing literature through a renewed description of the real, and this description would encompass sound coding, synaesthesia, hieroglyphics: the whole alphabet of esoteric craziness.
And so naturally a poet could not use his own name.
The hipster had to hint at a purer truth.
So Bely invented his oddly abstract pseudonym.
To the bourgeoisie who knew his parents – like, for instance, Marina Tsvetayeva’s aunt – it only sounded uncouth:

‘… the worst of it is that he comes from a respectable family, he’s a professor’s son, Nikolai Dmitrievich Bugaev’s.
Why not Boris Bugaev?
Andrei Bely?
Disowning your own father?
It seems they’ve done it on purpose.
Are they ashamed to sign their own names?
What sort of White?
An angel or a madman who jumps out into the street wearing his underwear?’

Tsvetayeva herself, however, adored Bely’s abstract example.
But then, Tsvetayeva was a young poet, who loved Bely’s bravura.
Bely, writes Tsvetayeva, was always trying to escape the ordinary real: he ‘was visibly on the point of take-off, of departure’ – and his ‘basic element’ was ‘flight’: ‘his native and terrible element of empty spaces’.
His pseudonym, therefore, was just another way of turning things upside down.

Every pseudonym is subconsciously a rejection of being an heir, being a descendant, being a son.
A rejection of the father.
And not only a rejection of the father, but likewise of the saint under whose protection one was placed, and of the faith into which one was baptized, and of one’s own childhood, and of the mother who called him Borya and didn’t know any ‘Andrei’, a rejection of all roots, whether ecclesiastical or familial.
Avant moi le déluge!
I – am I.

The self was an invention, and so was a city.
Everything was fictional.
This was the premise of Petersburg, at the start of the twentieth century.


Andrei Bely’s novel called
appeared in three issues of the magazine
in 1913 and 1914: in 1916 it appeared as a book.

As for its plot: its plot is about a plot.
Roughly, this plot takes place over a week or so in Petersburg at the beginning of October in 1905 – just before the General Strike.

A senator, called Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov, has a son: Nikolai Apollonovich Ableukhov.
Nikolai, unhappy in love, unhappy in life and a student of the philosophy of Kant, has promised to help the revolutionary cause.
An obscure adherent to this revolutionary cause delivers to him a package, wrapped in a cloth printed with a design of pheasants, for safe keeping.
It turns out that this package is a sardine tin, and the sardine tin conceals a bomb – which Nikolai is then ordered to throw at his own father.

This is the basic plot.
It follows the ordering and possible execution
of a revolutionary conspiracy.
This conspiracy links the various islands of Petersburg: the dive bars and the mansions.
But really, of course, these facts are not important.
For Petersburg is a city whose true form is infinity: its streets are endless.

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