In this post I reported on how I acquired Julie A. Buckler’s Mapping St. Petersburg: Imperial Text and Cityshape; now that I’ve finished it, I’m happy to report it’s as good as I thought it would be. It probably shouldn’t be your only book about the city, since she assumes a basic acquaintance with its history and explicitly presents her study as a counterpoint to the traditional analysis in terms of high and low, “palaces and slums” (as she puts it on the first page), but there is a fine general history, W. Bruce Lincoln’s Sunlight at Midnight: St. Petersburg and the Rise of Modern Russia, to give you a basic orientation (as well as the delightfully gossipy St Petersburg: A Cultural History by Solomon Volkov and the scholarly Petersburg: Crucible of Cultural Revolution by Katerina Clark—the city has been lucky in its chroniclers).

Butler’s basic approach is to present an alternative both to the abovementioned dichotomies and to what she calls “the myth of Petersburg’s uniqueness”: “Where the Petersburg mythology asserts remarkable unity, I seek pluralism; where this mythology asserts Petersburg’s essential difference, I emphasize the city’s more ordinary qualities.” She gives a quick précis of the book:

This study attempts to remap the Russian imperial capital, but not simply by providing a reverse image of the literary tradition with Pushkin and Dostoevsky at the margins. Instead, I propose a new integration in terms of architectural and literary eclecticism (chapters 1 and 2); literature that travels around the city (chapter 3); spaces of interchange between oral and print literature (chapter 4); the ambiguous relationship between urban center and margins (chapter 5); shared experience as meeting ground in a city to which so many came from elsewhere (chapter 6); and the city as collective textual and memorial repository (chapter 7).

(These quotes are from her introduction, which you can read here; I warn you in advance that it hauls in the usual suspects—Bakhtin, Yuri Lotman, Julia Kristeva, “social materialist Henri Lefebvre,” “neo-Kantian sociologist Georg Simmel”—and in a single paragraph refers to cultural paradigms, cognitive patterns, paradigm shift, and “an autonomous determinant of social relations,” but she pretty much gets the requisite academic obeisances and jargon clusters out of the way there; the rest of the book is blessedly straightforward.)

The first thing that struck me was the maps (from 1700, 1721, 1830, 1853, 1914, and 1950) and illustrations (many photos of the architecture she discusses); the second was how much research she did—not only has she read all the secondary sources, she seems to have worked her way through every memoir, travel guide, and long-forgotten novella that ever described the imperial capital. I kept putting arrows in the end notes and bibliography, reminding myself of things I wanted to look at myself (fortunately I live within a few minutes of the Amherst Center for Russian Culture).

To give an example of how much fun the book can be, Chapter Four is called “Stories in Common: Urban Legends in St. Petersburg,” and she investigates several such legends that are attested in more than one source:

One such cluster exists for a story about dancing chairs that circulated in Petersburg during the 1830s. Pushkin himself recorded the incident in a diary entry for December 17, 1833: “In town people are talking about a strange occurrence. In one of the buildings belonging to the chancellery of the court equerry, the furniture was so bold as to move and jump about; the matter came to the attention of the authorities. Prince Dolgorukii set up an investigation. One of the clerks called a priest, but the chairs and tables did not want to stand submissively during the service. Various rumors are going around about this. N said that it is court furniture and is being requested for the Anichkov Palace.”

She then cites a letter from Viazemskii about the same incident:

“Here people were talking for a long time about a strange phenomenon in the building of the court equerry: in one of the clerk’s rooms, the chairs and tables danced and turned somersaults; glasses filled with wine hurled themselves at the ceiling. Witnesses were summoned, and a priest with holy water, but the ‘ball’ did not abate. I don’t know how the ‘ball’ did end, but the main thing is, these stories are not empty, and something certainly did happen, but whether it was a diabolical or human delusion is unknown.”

And she tops them off with the casual mention in Gogol’s famous story “The Nose”: “And the story of the dancing chairs on Koniushennaia (Stables) Street was still fresh.” This is a great example of how her delving into little-known sources can illuminate famous ones.

Later in the same chapter she cites a 1924 article by Petr Stolpianskii that “dispels several false notions about the city: Peter the Great never actually planned to model his city after Venice or Amsterdam, but only created such a plan on paper to impress European dignitaries; the three main radial arteries of Petersburg do not reflect skillful city planning because the Admiralty was never intended to be the city center; Nevsky Prospect became Petersburg’s main thoroughfare only by happenstance; the site of the Winter Palace was selected wholly accidentally when Count Apraksin died childless and left his palace to Peter.”

In Chapter Seven, “The City’s Memory: Public Graveyards and Textual Repositories,” she discusses a subject close to my heart, street names:

The 1753 Makhaevskii plan from the Academy of Sciences shows 200 named streets, but many more Petersburg place names simply emerged out of the life of the city. Particularly common during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were names that spoke to a street’s function, as in Shestilavochnaia, a street on which there were six shops, or Zverinskaia (from beast, or zver’). the street near the zoo…. During the second half of the nineteenth century, a more official written toponymy established by Senate decrees of the latter 1850s replaced many of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century names that were integrally connected with everyday speech and everyday life.

And there’s a surprising little footnote: “In fact, Gorbachevich and Khablo claim that there were no street names at all during the period 1710s-1720s, and that residents simply used… descriptive directions.” Gorbachevich and Khablo are “authors of the popular Petersburg reference work Why Are They So Named? (Pochemu tak nazvany?),” a work I obviously need to get hold of.

Well, I hope these few bits have given you an idea of the riches to be found in this book; I haven’t mentioned the feuilletons, the factories, or the hilariously interchangeable accounts of provincials coming to the big city and being disillusioned, but take my word for it, if you’re interested in the history of cities, you won’t regret reading this book.


  1. rootlesscosmo says

    Solomon Volkov’s name sets off alarm bells with anyone who’s followed the controversy over his book Testimony. I’m nowhere near qualified to judge its accuracy myself, but Richard Taruskin and Elizabeth Wilson, among others, have cast doubt on Volkov’s claim that the book is a more or less verbatim record of the opinions and ideas of its subject, Dimitri Shostakovich. So I’m not surprised to learn his St. Petersburg book is gossipy, but how reliable is it?

  2. Yes, I’m well aware of the controversy over Testimony, which is probably unresolvable and which by now I find fairly tedious. I see no reason to think that it has any bearing on the tremendous amount of (duly footnoted) literary and cultural history presented by a lifelong Petersburger who clearly loves his city and its past and who personally knew people like Akhmatova and Brodsky and all sorts of other cultural figures. Sure, he mentions things that come from his memory; he starts off by recollecting an occasion when he and three other musicians played Shostakovich’s then-new Ninth Quartet for an audience of one: Anna Akhmatova. I guess if you’re predisposed to disbelieve everything he says that isn’t backed up by unimpeachable sources, you can ignore those bits; that leaves a tremendous amount of material quoted from memoirs, letters, histories, and the like. Unless you read Russian and are willing to duplicate his research, there’s no way you’re going to learn all that stuff otherwise.

  3. I was tremendously unimpressed by Taruskin’s book on Musorgsky. He took a debunking approach and clearly disapproved of Musorgsky’s life and personality. He came up with some interesting things, but there wasn’t much appreciation of Musorgsky there. (I’ve been told that “appreciation” is a curse word in the academic critical community, which explains but does not excuse Taruskin).

  4. Pochemu tak nazvany? has an ugly internet version. The site itself (БУХАРСКИЙ КВАРТАЛ ПЕТЕРБУРГА) is what I would call a curiosity.

  5. Hey, thanks very much, hilding! The internet comes through again.

  6. I’d also recommend the chapter on St. Petersburg in Marshall Berman’s All That Is Solid Melts Into Air. It draws especially on literary figurings of SPb from Dostoyevsky to Mandelshtam–one of the few accounts that’s really sensitive to the culture and history of the city.

  7. Thanks for the recommendation—that’s one of those books I’ve always meant to read, and you’ve just moved it a lot closer to the top of the list.

  8. Thank you for providing an opportunity to be helpful.

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