Living in a Dying Petersburg: The Art of Life

The intelligentsia sell their linen, 1918

Soldiers selling samovars and boots

Actors dig a cesspit

Petrograd 1921

Blok died in the summer of 1921, in the aftermath of the Civil War—a period of political crisis and economic scarcity that famously transformed both the topographical and the textual identity of the city. After the Bolshevik revolution, the industrial capital of Russia was emptied of industry and people; it had been looted, vandalized, and disrupted by frequent strikes. News of the nation–wide famine, which had reached epidemic proportions, dominated the press, and in the winter, as Petrograd froze because of an unprecedented fuel crisis, the city’s inhabitants burned picture frames, furniture, and books to stay warm. By the spring, the Civil War had come to conclusion, and the inauguration of the New Economic Policy began to transform the material conditions and everyday life of the city’s inhabitants: small private restaurants and businesses began to open, signs advertising commercial goods began to appear on the streets. Indeed, as NEP began to change the political, economic, and cultural climate of Petrograd, the Civil War years crystallized into the central trope of the myth of Petersburg and its death.

As Polina Barskova suggests, the real experience of crisis merged with the eschatological Petersburg text to produce new narratives concerned with the spectacle of the agonizing, slow death of old Petersburg. Indeed, important works of the preservationist movement like Nikolai Antsiferov’s The Soul of Petersburg and Erikh Gollerbakh’s City of Muses described the physical state of the post–Civil War city as “‘graveyards’ inhospitable to new life.” Those connected to literary life often fared better than the majority of the population. In a world of scarcity—where shortages of food, firewood and even paper were common—the intelligentsia, through the patronage of Maxim Gorky, Anatoly Lunacharsky and other influential cultural figures, had access to occasionally heated living space and food rations through the newly-established cultural institutions—the House of Arts, the House of Writers and the House of Scholars. Despite difficult material conditions, and perhaps, because of them, some described literary life in Civil War Petrograd as having retained an apocalyptic vitality. Olga Forsh notes in Sumasshedshii korabl’, her fictionalized memoir of life in the House of Arts, that Petersburg cultural life resembled grapevines that flourish on the edge of a volcano.

Yet even when taking into account the relatively privileged status of writers within the general deprivation of post–revolutionary Petrograd, Blok’s personal and material circumstances had deteriorated significantly during the Civil War period. In March 1920, after the death of Blok’s stepfather in January, Blok and his wife, Lyubov Dmitrievna Mendeleeva-Blok, were forced to move into the apartment of Blok’s mother, Aleksandra Andreevna Petukh. This new domestic situation exacerbated the long-existing tension between Blok’s mother and his wife, and the atmosphere in the household grew increasingly bleak.

[See also: Memoir of Olga Forsh]

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