TBT Best Seller Edition: ‘Petersburg’

After writing an article in response to Dostoevsky’s 199th birthday (which you can read by clicking here), it got me thinking about some of Russia’s famous writers. For many people, writers such Leo Tolstoy, Alexander Pushkin, Mikhail Bulgakov, and Vladimir Nabokov are usually the first to come to mind. For me, though? I think of Andrei Bely – a man whose name I expect few of my readers to recognize. For this week’s TBT, I would like to introduce you to Andrei Bely and his novel Petersburg.



While few will recognize his name, Andrei Bely was a man whose effect on the development of modern Russian prose was more impressionable than that of any other twentieth century writer. That’s right, a man who you probably never heard of has actually had the greatest effect of all, and that is why we will be focusing on Bely’s writing this week. Vladimir Nabokov, writer of the famous and controversial Lolita, listed Petersburg at the top of his list of the four greatest masterpieces of twentieth century prose.

However, it’s important to note two other notable novels by Bely, The Silver Dove and Kotik Letaev, although Kotik Letaev is extremely resistant to translation as its poetic tropes sometimes dominate the story. Even Petersburg has been touch-and-go on its translation, but click here to see the version most-recommended by my previous Russian Literature professor, who might I add earned his M.A. and Ph.D. in Slavic Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at Harvard University, so I believe him to be a reputable source.

To tell you a bit more about Bely himself, though, he was actually given the name Boris Bugaev when he was born on October 26th, 1880. His father was a mathematician and his mother was a concert pianist, both being very strong-willed and talented people. Unfortunately, this would also lead his parents to enter into a tug of war for their only son’s affections. This would be but one example of instability in his life, which would become a major theme in his writing.




What I found extremely interesting about Bely, though, was that he did not adopt a pseudonym for his own benefit; instead choosing to do so in order to not embarrass his father through the symbolist work he was putting out. Unlike other writers who choose to adopt pseudonyms for themselves, Bely’s adoption of a pseudonym became a strong representation of the relationship shared between mother, father, and son. In regard to the name he chose, “bely” was a very calculated decision, again turning to his symbolist writing. “Bely” means “white” in Russian, and white, as well as colors in general, plays a major role in his writing as well.

In addition to his home life, you might have noticed from his birth date that Bely would be alive by the time of the collapse of the Romanov dynasty. The last Czar, Nicholas II, and his family were all assassinated in 1918, when Bely was only thirty-seven years old. When the revolution hit, Bely was not in support of it and saw it as something that could potentially be catastrophic, which, looking back, we know was right. In Bely’s lifetime, Vladimir Lenin, founder of the Bolshevik party and leader of the Bolshevik Revolution, would come to power and establish the New Economic Policy (1921-1924).

Following Lenin’s death, Joseph Stalin would come to power, ensuring his rule by also ordering the assassination of his greatest competitor, Leon Trotsky (who, by the way, would be assassinated by an axe to the head). Stalin was especially brutal as a byproduct of his paranoia surrounding his position of power, so his rule was categorized by purges of those thought to be in opposition. Millions of Russians would either be executed or sent to labor camps in Siberia during this time. Stalin also put forth a program called Social Realism, in which conservative writer Maxim Gorky would be re-written in history as the “progenitor of Soviet literature.”



Since Bely’s style didn’t exactly line up with this, all printing of his work ceased, there was a ban on all critical and biographical writing on him, and he would seemingly disappear along with many other great writers of the time. Although Bely would first emigrate from Russia due to these events, going to places like Germany and Switzerland, he would ultimately come back to Russia due to his love for his home. He would attempt to conform to this style of writing through his memoirs on Nikolai Gogol, but they would not make it past those in charge of Soviet literature at the time and Bely would die shortly after, on January 8, 1934.

Petersburg was originally published in 1916, but it was released in the form of two additional editions (each with their own revisions), originally conceived with the idea of it being a sequel to his novel, The Silver Dove. However, Bely would abandon this idea of a sequel and instead write a new novel entirely. It would portray the instability of Russia at this time, depicted through father and son characters Apollon and Nikolai Apollonovich. Nikolai becomes a radical after his mother abandons their family and is given the task of assassinating his father, a senator.

The novel focuses greatly on the idea of what people think versus what people do, as Nikolai contemplates this task throughout the entirety of it. Bely does this while also highlighting the unrest I discussed earlier, as well as the differentiation between eastern and western motifs, with a special highlight on the use of masks. He also centers all of these concepts around the physical map of Petersburg, regularly describing the exact location of the scene taking place and the directions the characters took to get there.




If you cannot tell by the great length that I can go on about Bely and this wonderful novel, reading Petersburg can easily make you completely fascinated by Russian history and Russian literature, like it did for me. I was originally assigned this book for a class, but have since re-read it two times, in addition to purchasing multiple books on the Romanovs and Nicholas II in particular. With a simultaneous comedic and poetic writing style, I highly recommend that you give Bely a chance and come back into the realm of regularly-read Russian writers by picking up his novel, Petersburg.