I am dedicating most of my December reading to Russians in the snow (other seasons also acceptable) and started with two very entertaining reads set in one of my dream cities.
St Petersburg ranks very highly indeed in my wishlist of places to go – and has done since I was about 12 and read my first Dostoevsky. In the meantime, I have read so many more Russian writers who were in equal parts fascinated and repelled with the city, in love with its beauty but satirising its pretentiousness. My son was due to go on a school trip to St Petersburg (taking the night train from Moscow – how romantic!) in 2020, and I was green with envy that he would get there before me. But now it looks like both of us will have to be patient a little longer. So I console myself with two books that have Petersburg as a setting, but one hundred years apart.
Nikolai Gogol: Petersburg Tales, trans. Dora O’Brien
Back in the 1830s, St Petersburg was the capital city of the Russian Empire, a nest of bureaucracy and a hotbed of political advancement and intrigue. Gogol felt an outsider when he came to the city in pursuit of literary fame – and no doubt was made to feel an outsider, derided for his Ukrainian roots, thwarted in his academic ambitions, ridiculed for his physical appearance (he apparently had quite an inferiority complex about his nose and lack of height). He has the sharp eye and merciless satire of the outsider when he describes Petersburg and its inhabitants.
The first story, ‘Nevsky Prospect’, spends a good nine of its 52 pages simply describing a day in the life of the famous main street in St Petersburg, from dawn to dusk, and the people who either go about their business quietly or else parade there ostentatiously. Gogol has a style as a chatty omniscient narrator who takes you into his confidence, shares jokes, mocks affectionately (and sometimes sharply), expects you to agree with him. He makes sweeping generalisations at times, which will nevertheless have you nodding your head in stunned recognition as if ‘why did I not think of this before?’ Take for example his description of the shy, idealistic young artist Piskarev:
A St Petersburg artist! An artist in the land of snow, an artist in the land of the Finns, where all is wet, plain, level, pale, grey and misty. These artists have nothing in common with Italian artists – proud, passionate, like Italy itself and its sky – on the contrary, these are mostly kind, meek folk, timid, easy-going, quietly enjoying their art, drinking tea with a couple of friends in small rooms, modestly discussing their favourite topic and shoring no interest at all in anything else.
Piskarev espies a classical beauty on Nevsky Prospect and follows her home, only to discover that she works in a brothel. He is determined to rescue her from her terrible, fallen ways through marriage, but discovers that not everybody is as keen on his artistic vows of poverty.
‘The Nose’ is probably the best-known story by Gogol, an enchanting concoction of equal parts social critique and surrealism, a mantle taken up later in literature by Bulgakov. A placid barber, who ‘like any decent Russian skilled worker was a dreadful drunkard’, finds a human nose in his bread roll one morning and panics, believes he recognises it as belonging to one of his clients, and tries to get rid of it before he is accused of a crime. Meanwhile, social climber Major Kovalyov wakes up to find his nose missing – there is no visible wound on his face, simply a flat surface where his nose should have been. This gives him a tremendous inferiority complex, and all his plans for advancement in the labyrinthine Tsarist civil service Table of Ranks seem doomed to failure. As he chases around the city to try and find his truant nose, he discovers it wearing a military uniform of superior rank and not at all disposed to return to its rightful place. In despair, he accuses the mother of a girl he refused to marry of witchcraft, but then realises that he has no choice but to resign himself to his ignoble fate even after his nose is returned to him – for it will not stick to his anatomy!
The story really is laugh-out-loud funny, even if you are familiar with its broad outlines – there is always a line or observation that will strike you afresh upon each rereading. This time it was the witty swipe at police corruption that got me:
The Superintendent was a great promoter of all the arts and manufactured goods [his whole house is packed with sugar loaves brought to him by merchants as tokens of friendship], but he loved a banknote best of all. ‘That really is something,’ he would say, ‘and there’s nothing to beat it: it doesn’t require food, takes little room, always fits in a pocket and if you drop it, it doesn’t break.’
‘The Overcoat’ is somewhat more sentimental because both the author and the readers have a lot of sympathy for the pitiful little clerk Akaky Akakievich, who has worn his coat threadbare and has to scrimp and save desperately to get himself a new one to survive the harsh winter months, only to have it stolen from him.
Aside from his absurdist touches, which baffled his contemporaries, Gogol has been revered (mostly after his death) for being the first realist writer, his biting satire of bureaucracy became a model for Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Yet it is his description of the lives of the ‘little people’ which seem particularly poignant and which form the link to the next book I read:
… in those hours when the grey St Petersburg sky completely fades away and all the civil-service folk have eaten their fill and finished dinner… when rest has come to all and everything after the departmental scratching of quills, the running around, the performance of your own as well as others’ necessary tasks… when clerks hurry off to devote the time that is left to pleasure… or… this happens most often, simply to go to visit their fellow clerk who lives on the fourth or third floor, in two small rooms with either a hall or a kitchen and some fashionable pretentious objects… Akaky Akakievich did not indulge in any form of relaxation.
Yulia Yakovleva: Punishment of a Hunter, trans. Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp
Having two rooms and a kitchen of one’s own would seem like an unimaginable luxury to the working classes in Yakovleva’s Leningrad of 1930. The author sprinkles the crime story with lots of details of daily life in the Soviet Union. The grand old houses have been split up into communal apartments with shared kitchens, with ten Primus stoves and tables of all different shapes and sizes, queues for the bathroom, the heavy stench of other people’s cooking, the constant noise from other rooms, the neighbours trying to spread gossip about you in the hope that they would be allocated your living quarters if you got ‘purged’.
This book is not just a ‘retro’ piece of historical crime, to provide some cosy relief and differentiation from all the present-day police procedurals that are starting to look a bit samey. There is a real sense of menace behind the perky crime fiction conventions which keep the story zipping along at a good pace. Like Abir Mukherjee’s series set in India in the last decades of the British Empire, it is in equal measure entertaining and educational. But we are never allowed to forget just how dangerous those times were: Zaitsev, the main investigator, is snatched by the OGPU (secret police, forerunner of the KGB) and imprisoned for several months right in the midst of the story. He knows that he is in danger of being purged for good at the slightest misstep.
He believes he might be on the tracks of a serial killer, who seems to like posing his victims in a very theatrical fashion. Yet there is nothing to connect the victims, there is no clear motive for the murders. His superiors are less interested in the complications of a serial killing theory – they only want to rapidly resolve the crime that occurred on Yelagin Island, which is earmarked for development, to create a leisure park for the masses.
There is a lot of love for the city, despite its recent decay: at some point, Zaitsev wonders how anyone should want to think about committing crimes in such beautiful surroundings, and his deputy quickly counters that some of the buildings could do with a lick of paint. The city appears as a provincial backwater when compared to Moscow, where Zaitsev heads briefly during his investigation, but in such heavily political times, perhaps being less at the ‘heart of things’ is a good strategy. Yet the author also pokes fun at the pretentiousness of Leningrad’s inhabitants, who believe they are superior to anyone else in the Soviet Union, especially the cultured elite who despise the ignorant working classes. The sense of place is excellent throughout, even if slightly less satirical than in Gogol. And of course, I cannot resist a description of winter, after all, it is about Russians in the snow, right?
Outside, there had been a sudden thaw. His shoes squelched in the icy slush. The sky was reflected in the dove-grey puddles, with crumbs of ice… He crossed Nevsky under the very nose of a tram, narrowly missed a black Ford, a horse and cart. Leningrad was the former capital of the empire… but pedestrians behaved like it was a village, crossing the street wherever they wanted, whenever they wanted, cutting straight across, diagonally, or even wandering along the carriageway, listlessly dodging the few cars. Most of them had recently been villagers, after all, who poured into the city in search of work. They still had their provincial havits, never mind that they were lethal with the city traffic.
There is such a lot of potential with this setting, this time period, the quirky characters who form Zaitsev’s team, as well as all the crimes that occurred during that period, that I hope this leads to a long-running and successful series of crime novels – and maybe even a TV adaptation. I can see Babylon Berlin parallels there!
Now of course I am tempted to continue with something set in contemporary Petersburg, nearly a hundred years after the setting for Yakovleva’s book. But contemporary Russian authors seem to set their stories more in Moscow or other places. However, for a glimpse of Petersburg in the 1980s and 1990s, I would recommend two films: Leto, depicting the underground rock scene of the early 1980s with its charismatic rock star Viktor Tsoi, and Brat directed by Aleksei Balabanov, about a young man released from the Soviet army in the mid-1990s and discovering capitalism thanks to his older brother, who is involved in the criminal gangs of Petersburg.