Initiation into a Dying World: The Narrative of an Unknown Young Woman

While some focused their descriptions on the intimate atmosphere in the Blok apartment during the services for the dead, others experienced this day on the streets of Petrograd. The young Nina Berberova, further removed from the inner circle, narrates this day as a journey from the periphery to the center of Petersburg cultural life. Her memoirs differ in tone from most of the recollections of the older generation; while for many of the older participants, Blok’s death marked the death of an age, for those of the younger generation, like Berberova, taking part in the ritual of Blok’s death brought them into the dying world of Petersburg culture and the myth of the dying city. Berberova, in 1921 still an unknown young woman, portrayed Blok’s death as her rite of initiation into literary life.

She learned of Blok’s death while trying to learn more about Gumilev’s arrest at the Writer’s House on Basseynaya Street; like many others, she came across the announcement posted on the wall: “I was seized by a feeling, which I never again experienced, that I was suddenly and sharply orphaned. The end is near…We will remain alone…The end is coming. We are lost…Tears spurted out of my eyes.” She recounts her astonishment at coming across a flower shop on the way to the service:

Slowly I walked down Liteiny, turned at Simeonovsky and the Fontanka. On the corner of Simeonovsky and the quay I stopped by a florist. Indeed, I remember my astonishment that in Petersburg there was a florist open. Eating–houses and second–hand shops had been started; there was something like a hardware shop on Vladimirsky and a hairdresser’s in the second courtyard of a building on Troitsky. But the flower shop, it seemed to me, had not been there on Tuesday when I passed by with Gumilev; now it was open and there were flowers in it. I went in. I don’t remember if I had ever entered a flower shop before, perhaps this was the first time. Petersburg florists were once among my childhood fairy–tale places. Paris florists…New York florists…All have their character. I had a little money. I bought four long–stemmed lilies. There was no wrapping paper in the store, and I carried the lilies to the Priazhka [embankment] unwrapped. And I thought: Passers–by guess where I am going and to whom I am bringing flowers, they read the announcements stuck on the street corners, they already know the news, and will follow me; in a subdued crowd we will arrive — the whole city — at Blok’s house.

Berberova describes her miraculous ability to procure flowers on the empty streets of Petrograd, making these flowers a talisman that allows her to cast herself in a special role. In her account, her flowers are the only flowers at the services—a fact contradicted by a number of accounts, which more often note the overabundance of young women with flowers. Yet the flowers are not only meant to highlight the economy of scarcity, but also become the vehicle through which Berberova is initiated into Blok’s mythologized death.

The allegory of initiation is further developed in her description of arriving in Kolomna.

Somewhere on the corner of Kazanskaya I took a tram and when I got off at the very end of Ofitserskaya Street, I realized that I had never in my life been here and I did not know this neighborhood at all. The river Priazhka, the green shores, factories, one-storey houses, grass on the streets, and for some reason not a soul. A ghostly, quiet part of Petersburg, where there is a smell of the Baltic Sea—or does it only seem so to me?

The description, likely influenced by literary accounts of Kolomna, creates an atmosphere of silence and emptiness that, as I have emphasized, surrounded Blok’s death. Like others, Berberova notes his changed appearance, although her image of the living Blok comes not from personal experience, but from the postcards of him reproduced by the thousands and cherished by young women in early twentieth–century Russia.

He no longer resembles the portraits I keep in books, nor that live man who once read, on a stage: To the marshy, deserted meadows...The hair has become dark and thin, the cheeks emaciated, the eyes have sunk. The face is overgrown with a dark and thin beard, the nose has become sharper and more prominent. Nothing remains, nothing. An ‘unknown corpse’ lies there. The hands are bound, the feet too, the chin presses into the chest.

Berberova’s depiction of the dead body is remarkably consistent with earlier accounts, and it is likely that her narrative is colored by existing descriptions. Yet unlike the poet’s close friends, she portrays his death as both a rupture and beginning. Despite remarking on the strangeness of the corpse, she continues her description of the service in a lively tone, noting the “sun play[ing] on the window” and the “green sloping shore of the Priazhka.” The funeral becomes a threshold that Berberova crosses to the inner circle: “Nadezhda Pavlovich enters (a week ago she had flashed by me at the House of Arts), then Pyast comes, and someone else. I see them entering, I know only a few; only about two months later would I identify them all.” Indeed, Berberova, in her mythical narrative, descends into the netherworld, and, having partaken in the ritual of death and initiation, emerges reborn into literary life.

[Nina Berberova, The Italics Are Mine, Phillip Radley, trans. London: Chatto & Windus, 1991.]

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