NABOKV-L post 0006151, Fri, 7 Sep 2001 09:52:41 -0700

St. Petersburg and Speak, Memory in the NYT (fwd)

From Friday's NYT:

A City Indebted to Its Emigres


Ten years ago this week, when the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet
of Russia returned the historic name of St. Petersburg to
Leningrad, the city's citizens did not feel universal delight. A
referendum had found only 54 percent of voters in favor of the
change. The still-powerful Communist Party had asked that "there be
no mockery of the name of glorious Leningrad, hero-city, warrior-
and laborer-city." The newspaper Sovest (Conscience) demanded
hysterically: "Why rename our city? So that dead tsarism can
breathe on us again?" In reply, liberals organized a noisy
demonstration under the slogan "Lenin's name shames a great city!"

Everyone understood that at issue was not simply the city's name
but an important ideological symbol. But there might have been no
impetus to restore the name at all if the memory of the old,
artistically and intellectually rich St. Petersburg had not been
kept alive in the United States.

In 1703, when Peter the Great founded his city on the Baltic Sea
and named it Sankt-Peterburg, following his admiration for things
Dutch, he stressed the break he was making with the backward ways
and traditions of old Russia. St. Petersburg became one of Europe's
great centers of culture and ideas. The transformation to Leningrad
in 1924, shortly after the death of Lenin, was supposed to
demonstrate the solidity of Soviet power, even though,
paradoxically, Lenin had not liked the city and had even stripped
it of the status Peter had given it, restoring Moscow as the
capital in 1918.

Stalin had an even greater antipathy for the city, which he saw as
a center of opposition. The Great Terror was felt particularly hard
in Leningrad. Subsequent Kremlin leaders held the same arm's-length
view, and Leningrad, which had once had unparalleled cultural and
industrial potential, became a city of regional, more than
national, importance. Peter's capital slowly faded, and its old
glamorous aura had to be preserved in exile.

The first influential elegaic portrait of St. Petersburg came in
the early 1950's, in Vladimir Nabokov's autobiography, "Speak,
Memory." In a Proustian array of nostalgic details, he made the
city real to his Western readers. Then, in 1962, Igor Stravinsky
confessed in his book of dialogues with his amanuensis Robert Craft
that St. Petersburg — which he saw as the fount of his creativity —
"is dearer to my heart than any other city in the world."

But the greatest contributor to the late 20th century's
consciousness of St. Petersburg was George Balanchine. In his
neoclassicist ballets, the legend of imperial Petersburg played a
substantial role. When Balanchine took his ballets to Leningrad
itself in 1962, under the aegis of the State Department, the
reception was revolutionary. I was there, and I remember the
overwhelming impression created by the tour. Older people rejected
it: "The Americans aren't dancing; they're solving algebra problems
with their feet." But the young saw in Balanchine's productions the
heights that the Petersburg cultural avant garde could have reached
if it had not been crushed by the Soviet authorities. Leningrad's
aspiring musicians, writers and dancers were inspired.

Mikhail Baryshnikov took the second Balanchine tour in Leningrad,
in 1972, so much to heart that soon afterward, hoping to work under
the master's direction, he defected to the West. In New York he
became friends with another recent emigre from St. Petersburg, the
poet Joseph Brodsky.

Brodsky's life became an important symbol of the new Petersburg
idea. Officially sentenced in Leningrad and exiled to the Arctic in
1964 for "parasitism," he was released and eventually expelled from
the Soviet Union. In 1987, after several years in New York, he
received the Nobel Prize for Literature. This triumph was, for the
city's artists and intellectuals, a realization of their hidden
dream — the return of St. Petersburg's cultural glory.

Now St. Petersburg's seminal spirit has regenerated itself and
taken a surprising turn: Petersburg has seen a burst of political
energy. Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, who appears determined
to lead Russia toward a place as a modern European power, and his
closest associates are all Petersburgers. Their influence has
raised the fortunes of the city as it continues to strive for a
wider renaissance. More and more St. Petersburg is now called the
"second capital."

In Stalin's day, talk like that could have gotten you shot.

Solomon Volkov is the author of "St. Petersburg: A Cultural
History." This article was translated by Antonina W. Bouis.

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company