cover image St. Petersburg: A Cultural History

St. Petersburg: A Cultural History

Solomon Volkov. Free Press, $30 (624pp) ISBN 978-0-02-874052-2

For the city Dostoyevski called ``the most abstract and premeditated city in the whole world,'' artists were crucial to creating an identity and a mythos. In each of six impressive chapters, Volkov focuses on an era and on a typically Petersburgian art form of the time. From Peter the Great's imperial mandate impelling the city from the marshy Baltic coast in 1703, Volkov moves on to Gogol's and Dostoyevski's cynical anti-Petersburg writings; the passionate, European/Russian hybrid of Tchaikovsky and the Mighty Five (Musorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, Balakirev, Cui); the waxing sense of doom and the concomitant nostalgia of Anna Akhmatova and Alexander Blok; the emigre Petersburg created abroad by Balanchine, Stravinksy and Nabokov; Shostakovitch's city, depleted by the Great Terror and pounded during the Siege of Leningrad; and finally, to the beleaguered postwar city of Joseph Brodsky. This is a complicated strategy involving a tacking back and forth to pick up numerous themes and biographies and there are, perhaps inevitably, redundancies. Also Volkov, a musicologist by training and a devotee of literature by inclination (his previous books include Joseph Brodsky in New York and the controversial Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich) is sketchier in his treatment of the visual arts. But this well-researched and deeply personal book gives a complex, subtle view of the city's haughty and tortured history. Photos not seen by PW. (Nov.)