Living in a Dying Petersburg: The Life of Art

Last photo of Blok, 1921

Drawing of Blok, 1922

Despite his cultural stature, Blok’s circumstances and health had deteriorated significantly during the Civil War period. A new domestic arrangement exacerbated the long-existing tension between Blok’s mother and his wife; his health gradually declined and in the spring of 1921 took a sharp turn for the worse. The poet’s last public performances—in Petrograd on April 25, and in Moscow in early May—which he was compelled to give for financial reasons, became part of the spectacle of his slow death. Members of the audience remarked on the macabre, funereal atmosphere: Evgeniy Zamyatin describes Blok’s Petrograd reading as his “wake.” In Moscow, the young poet Mikhail Struve announced to the audience that Blok was already dead, and Blok, backstage, famously remarked to Kornei Chukovsky that Struve was right. The poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, who attended Blok’s reading in Moscow, tied his demise to his final public performance: “I listened to him in May in Moscow: in the half-empty hall, silent as a cemetery, he quietly and sadly read lines about gypsy singing, about love, about the beautiful lady—there was no way forward. Only death. And it came.” Indeed, in the public imagination, Blok’s literary death not only preceded his biological death, but actually made it inevitable. After June, Blok spent most of his time in his apartment in alternating stages of rage and delirium.

Contributing to the diffuse mythology that developed around Blok’s slow, agonizing death was the fact that its specific cause was uncertain—some blamed heart problems, depression, venereal disease, while others attributed his death to material deprivation. Others cited transcendent forces: Blok had suffocated in post-revolutionary conditions; he had become deaf to the music of History. Superimposed over material and biological explanations was a mytho–historical meaning. As Vladislav Khodasevich wrote in his memoir Necropolis:

Isn't it strange: Blok was dying for several months, in front of everyone’s eyes, the doctors treated him – and no one named and could not name his illness. It began with a pain in the legs. Then some spoke of a weakness of the heart. Before death, he suffered immensely. But what did he die of? Unknown. He died somehow ‘in general,’ because he was sick completely, because he could no longer live. He died of death.

In a cultural context that had, for most of Blok’s public career, conflated his private person with his public persona, his death inevitably became a historical and literary fact, an essential component of the mythologized and eulogized demise of Petersburg. Ekaterina Yudina suggests that, in the 1920s, the Petersburg myth evolved. The city was no longer revered for the neoclassicism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Instead, both those who emigrated and those who remained created “an idealized St. Petersburg of their dreams” into which they could escape from the reality of Leningrad. Alexander Blok became the iconic poet-martyr of this new “old Petersburg,” the latest incarnation of the city’s mythology.

[See also: Blok’s Kolomna]

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