(Reflections regarding A. Bely’s Novel “Peterburg”)

(1916 – #233 (14,3)


Peterburg no longer exists. The life of this city was a bureaucratic life predominantly, and its end was a bureaucratic end. What has arisen is the unfamiliar and to our ears still strange sounding Petrograd. There has ended not only an old word and in its place arisen a new word, there has ended an entire historical period, and we find ourselves entering upon a new and unknown period. There was something strange and terrible in the rise of Peterburg, in its fate, in its relationship to the whole of enormous Russia, in its being torn off from the life of the people, something at once both powerfully enervating and phantasmic. By the magic volition of Peter, Peterburg rose up from out of nothing, from the marshy mists. Pushkin gave us a feel of the life of this Peterburg in his “Bronze Horseman”. The earthy Slavophil Dostoevsky was a peculiar example connected with Peterburg, far moreso than with Moscow, and he revealed in it the irrational Russian element. The heroes of Dostoevsky were primarily Peterburg heroes, connected with the Peterburg damp and mist. It is possible to find in him remarkable pages about Peterburg, about its phantasmic quality. Raskol’nikov strolled about Sadova and the Senna haymarket, plotting his crime. Rogozhin committed his crime at Gorokhova. The earthy Dostoevsky loved groundlessly unstable heroes, and only in the atmosphere of Peterburg could they exist. Peterburg, in contrast to Moscow, — is a catastrophic city. Characteristic likewise are the tales of Gogol, — in them is a Peterburg horror. To the Moscow Slavophils Peterburg seemed a foreign and alien city, and they were afraid of Peterburg. There was a large reason for this, since Peterburg — was the eternal threat to the Moscow Slavophil well-being. But that Peterburg should seem an altogether non-Russian city, this was due to their provincial lack of insight, their limitedness. Dostoevsky made up for this lack of insight.

The ephemeral quality of Peterburg, — is purely a Russian ephemeral quality, a phantasm, created by the Russian imagination. Peter the Great was Russian right down to the very marrow of his bones. And the Peterburg bureaucratic style itself — is a peculiar offspring of Russian history. The German engrafting onto the Peterburg bureaucracy creates the specific Russian bureaucratic style. This is true, in the same way that the characteristic French language of the Russian nobility is a Russian national style, just as Russian, as is the Russian empire-style. The Peterburg Russia is our other national image alongside the image of Muscovite Russia.

A novel about Peterburg can only be written by a writer, endowed with an altogether special feeling of cosmic life, a feeling of the ephemeral quality of being. We have such a writer, and he has written the novel “Peterburg”, he has written it just before the very end of Peterburg and the Peterburg period of Russian history, as though a summation of our quite strange capital and its strange history. In the novel “Peterburg”, perhaps the most remarkable Russian novel since the time of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, it is impossible to find it in its totality, not all Peterburg has found its place therein, not everything has found access to the author. But something characteristic of Peterburg was genuinely grasped and reproduced in this novel. This — is an artistic creation of the Gogol type, and therefore can occasion the accusation of a slander against Russia, with its exclusive acceptance of the monstrous and the ugly, and in it is difficult to find man, in the image and likeness of God. Andrei Bely — is a most remarkable Russian writer of the latest literary era, very original, creating a completely new form in artistic prose, a completely new rhythm. To our shame he is still insufficiently recognised, but I do not doubt, that with time there will be recognised his genius, impaired and incapable for the creation of perfective works, but striking by its new feeling of life and by its no longer still former musical form. A. Bely will be installed amidst the ranks of the Russian great writers, as genuinely continuing Gogol and Dostoevsky. Such a place has already been assured for him by his novel, “The Silver Dove”. A. Bely has to him a certain inner rhythm present, and as felt by him he is in accord with a new cosmic rhythm. These artistic revelations of A. Bely have found their expression in his symphonies, in a form, not yet met with in literature. The appearance of A. Bely in art can be compared only with the appearance of Scriabin. It is not by chance, that both for the one and for the other there is a gravitation towards theosophy, towards occultism. This is connected with the sensation of the onset of a new cosmic epoch.


With A. Bely, and belonging only to him, is an artistic feeling of cosmic expanse and atomisation, a decrystalisation of all the things of the world, the breaking down and disappearance of all he firmly established boundaries between objects. The very forms of people for him decrystalise and atomise, they lose the firm boundaries, which separate one man from another and from the objects of the surrounding world. The firmness, the limitedness, the crystalisation of our fleshly world is demolished. One man passes over into another man, one object passes over into another object, the physical plane — passes over into the astral plane, the cerebral process — passes over into the existential process. There occurs a mixing and shifting of various planes. The hero of “Peterburg”, the son of an important bureaucrat, a Cohenite and revolutionary, Nikolai Apollonovich, has locked himself in with a key in his work room: it then begins to seem to him, that both he, and the room, and the objects of this room have become reincarnated instantly from objects of the real world into mentally-posited symbols of purely logical constructs: the room’s expanse mixes itself up with his lost bodily sensation into a general existential chaos, termed by him as universal; the consciousness of Nikolai Apollonovich, having become separate from the body, immediately unites itself with the electric lamp on his writing table, termed “the sun of consciousness”. Locked in, and reasoning the position of his step after step as a system brought into unity, he sensed his own body effused throughout the “universe”, i.e. the room; the head of this body shifts itself into the head of the glass of the electric lamp under the coquettish lampshade. Herein is described the meditation of Nikolai Apollonovich, by means of which his peculiar being disintegrates. Beyond this lies hidden the artistic contemplation of A. Bely himself, and in the contemplation of this there splinters both his own particular nature and the nature of all the world. The boundaries are demolished, separating the ephemeral from the actual, and in “Peterburg” everything is a cerebral interplay of the important bureaucrat father, the senator, the head of an institute and virtually privy-counselor Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov, only with difficulty distinguished from his son the revolutionary, the bureaucrat turned inside out, Nikolai Apollonovich. It is difficult to determine, where the father ends and where the son begins. These enemies, representing opposite principles — the bureaucratic and the revolutionary, mix together into a sort of uncrystalised, unformed whole. In this similarity, the mixing together and the demolishing of boundaries there is symbolised also this, that our revolution is flesh from flesh and blood from blood of the bureaucracy, and that therefore within it is lodged the seed of decay and death.

Everything passes over into everything, everything is jumbled together and becomes indistinct. The features of established being dissipate. For A. Bely, as a writer and an artist, it is characteristic of him always that there begins a spinning around of words and sounds together and in this whirlwind of word-combination being itself becomes pulverised, all the boundaries shift. The style of A. Bely always in the end finally passes over into a frenzied spinning motion. In his style there is something of the Khlysty element. A. Bely has perceived this whirling motion to be in cosmic life and has found for it an adequate expression in a whirlwind of word-combination. The language of A. Bely is not a translation into some other, some foreign language of his cosmic life impressions, as we thus see in the beautifully helpless painting of Ciurlionis. This — is a direct expression of cosmic whirlwinds in words. To reproach him is possible only with his insufferable style, for he often goes astray. The genius of A. Bely as an artist — is in this coincidence of a cosmic shifting and cosmic whirlwind with a verbal shifting, with the whirlwind of word-combination. In the whirlwind the intensity of word and sound combinations is given intensity by a vital and cosmic tension, pulling towards catastrophe. A. Bely stretches and pulverises the crystaline aspect of words, the firm forms of words, seemingly eternal, and by this he expresses the stretching and pulverisation of the crystaline aspects of everything, the object in the world. The cosmic whirlwinds as it were uproot and expose to freedom, they pulverise everything of our established, firm-set, crystaline world. “The world fabric constituted a fabric of furor”. With these words A. Bely finely characterises the atmosphere, in which the action of “Peterburg” takes place. And here is how the city of Peterburg presents itself to him: “Peterburg, Peterburg! Besieged by fog, and me thou hast pursued with the frivolity of a cranial game: thou — art a cruel-hearted tormentor; thou — art an unsettling apparition; thou, aforetime, for years hath assaulted me; I fled upon thine frightsome prospekts and at a run I flew up Chuguna to that bridge, beginning with the outer land, leading to boundless expanse; beyond the Neva, into the half-light, thine green remoteness — arise with phantoms of islands and houses, enveloped in the vain hope, that this border is actuality, and that it — be not a belligerent infinity, which should banish upon the Peterburg street the miserable wisp of the clouds”.


A. Bely can be termed a Cubist in literature. Formally he can compare with Picasso in art. The Cubist method — is the method of an analytic, and not synthetic, perception of things. Cubism in art seeks after the geometric skeleton of things, it demolishes the deceptive coverings of flesh and strives to penetrate into the inner structure of the cosmos. In the Cubist art, Picasso destroys the beauty of the embodied world, everything decomposes and stratifies. In a precise sense there is no Cubism in literature. But there is possible therein something analogous and parallel to the Cubism in painting. The creativity of A. Bely is also a Cubism in artistic prose, in strength akin to the Cubist painting of Picasso. For A. Bely also, the wholistic coverings of world flesh are demolished, and for him there are already no integral organic forms. The Cubist method of the disintegration of every organic being is applied by him to literature. Here there cannot be spoken anything about the influence upon A. Bely of the Cubism in painting, with which he, in all probability, is little familiar. His Cubism is his own particular, original apperception of the world, so characteristic for our transitory era. In a certain sense A. Bely — is a singularly genuine, remarkable futurist within Russian literature. Within him perishes the old, crystaline beauty of the embodied world and a new world is born, in which there is no longer beauty. In the artistic manner of A. Bely everything thus is shifted from its own old, seemingly eternal place, as also with the Futurists. He does not write agitational manifestos, he writes rather other and symbolic manifestos, but in his essence and by his creativity he destroys all the old forms and creates new ones. The originality of A. Bely is in this, that he combines his Cubism and Futurism with a genuine and unmediated Symbolism, at the same time as the Futurists customarily and with hostility contrast themselves to the Symbolists. Thus in the Cubist-Futurist “Peterburg” the everywhere appearing red domino is an excellent, inwardly begotten symbol of revolutionary effort, essentially unreal. In European literature a predecessor of the creative mannerisms of A. Bely might be considered Gothman, in whose ingenious fantasy likewise all the boundaries are abolished and all planes transposed, everything is twofold and passes into its other. In Russian literature, A. Bely represents a direct continuation of Gogol and Dostoevsky. Just like Gogol, he sees in human life moreso the monstrous and the terrible, than rather beauty and authentically firm being. Gogol perceived the already old organically-whole world analytically and dissectively, for him the image of man is stretched and pulverised, and he saw the monsters and the astonishing in the depths of life, which otherwise Picasso has revealed in painting. Gogol has broken asunder from Pushkin, from the eternally beautiful and harmonious world-sense and world-outlook. And thus too it is with A. Bely.

But it is impossible not to reproach him on this, that in “Peterburg” he at places too much copies Dostoevsky, he is in too great a dependence on the “Possessed”. Certain scenes, for example, the scene in the inn, there also is too direct a copying from the manner of Dostoevsky. And in these places A. Bely goes astray with another, a style not his own, and he destroys the rhythm of his own novel-symphony. He inwardly is connected with Dostoevsky, and for this it is impossible to reproach him, but he ought to have been more free in his artistic mannerisms, more assured in his own particular style. There is a great difference between A. Bely and Dostoevsky, they belong to different epochs. A. Bely is more cosmic as regards his feeling of life, Dostoevsky is more psychological and anthropological. To Dostoevsky was revealed the abyss in the depths of man, but the image of man was separated for him from the abyss of cosmic life. Dostoevsky perceived man as organically whole, he always saw the image of God in man. A. Bely belongs to a new epoch, when the integral perception of the image of man is shaken, when man undergoes fragmentation. A. Bely plunges man into the cosmic infinitude, he surrenders him to the rending of the cosmic whirlwinds. The boundary is lost, separating man from the electric light. There is disclosed an astral world. The firm boundaries of the physical world have protected from the opposite side the independence of man, his own firm boundaries, his crystal sketchings. The contemplation of the astral world, of this mid-point world between spirit and matter, erodes the boundaries, decrystalises both man, and his surrounding world. A. Bely — is an artist of the astral plane, into which unnoticed slips our world, losing its own firmness and form. All these whirlwinds — are astral whirlwinds, and not the whirlwinds of the physical world or the world of the human soul. “Peterburg” — is an astral novel, in which everything goes out beyond the limits of the physical flesh of this world and the soul-life form of man, everything tumbles into the abyss. The senator sees already two expanses, and not one.


A. Bely artistically reveals the unique metaphysics of the Russian bureaucracy. Bureaucratism — is an ephemeral being, a cerebral exercise, in which everything is composed of straight lines, of cubes of squares. Bureaucratism administers Russia from the centre according to the geometric method . The phantasm of the bureaucracy begets also the phantasm of revolution. It is not by chance that Nikolai Apollonovich is rendered a Cohenite, i.e. as regards his philosophic trend he has no sense of the reality of being, and it is not by chance that he is connected by blood with the bureaucracy. All the way up to the ephemeral, the withdrawn astral plane of “Peterburg”, nothing reaches from the depths of Russia, from the bosom of the life of the people. The centralism of the revolutionary committee is just as ephemeral a being, as is the centralism of the bureaucratic department. The process of rottenness has passed over from bureaucratism to revolutionism. The provocation, the dense mist that the revolution is wrapped up in, discloses its illusory-ephemeral character — everything is transformed into Satanic whirlwinds.

A. Bely is not altogether an enemy of the revolutionary idea. His point of view is not at all that, which Dostoevsky had in the “Possessed”. The evil of the revolution for him was begotten by the evil of the old Russia. In essence, he wants artistically to unmask the phantasmic character of the Peterburg period of Russian history, of our bureaucratic Westernism and our Intelligentsia Westernism, similar to how in his work “The Silver Dove” he unmasked the darkness of the Eastern element in the life of our people. In the capacity of his artistic talent, A. Bely, just like Gogol, was not called to reveal and reproduce the positive, the bright and the pretty. A. Bely in one of his verses calls on his Russia, beloved by him with a strange love, that it should scatter itself into the expanse. And from his novels, written about Russia, there remains he impression, that Russia should fly off into space, transform itself into star dust. He loves Russia with an annihilative love and he believes in its rebirth only through its perishing. Such a love is peculiar to the Russian nature.

Everything phantasmic — the bureaucratic, the revolutionary and the Kantian-gnosseological — comes together in Nikolai Apollonovich. But within him the author shows still one terror. From Vl. Solov’ev, A. Bely inherited the terror afront the Mongol threat. And he senses the Mongol element within Russia itself, within the Russian man. Nikolai Apollonovich, just like his father, the head of a department, — is a Mongol, a tyrant. The Mongol principle governs Russia. The Mongol East reveals itself in even the Russian West. The tyrant-Mongol principle glimmers for A. Bely even within Kantianism. A. Bely depicts the end of Peterburg, its final disintegration. The Bronze Horseman has played its way out into the Peterburg man. The image of the Bronze Horseman dominates the atmosphere of “Peterburg” and everywhere dispatches its astral double.


A. Bely has no Russian ideology, and it is unnecessary to seek for one in him. Rather than a Russian ideological consciousness, his is moreso a Russian nature,  Russian element, and he — is Russian to the depths of his being, within him the Russian chaos stirs. His sundering from Russia is something external and only seems to be so, just as with Gogol. A. Bely both loves Russia, and denies Russia. Just indeed as Chaadaev also loved Russia. Not so altogether long ago A. Bely published a verse, in which are the following lines:

My country!  My native country!
I — am thine!  I — am thine!
Accept me, weeping and not knowing
The cut of damp grass…

This verse finishes off with a confession of faith, that beyond the Russian “night” — is “He”. He, — is Christ, beyond the terrible darkness and chaos of Russia. As regards himself, A. Bely knows, how terrible, how fearsome, how threatening the Russian chaos is. But he lacks the strength to waken in himself the Russian will, the Russian consciousness. He seeks entirely in the West for the discipline of will and consciousness. And it is possible to doubt, that he will find it there. I think, that he will turn round ultimately to Russia and in the depths of Russia he will seek the light.

In “Peterburg” there are great artistic deficiencies, and much that is aesthetically unacceptable. The style of the novel does not hold up, the ending is too opportune, inwardly disconnected, and in places there is too great a dependence on Dostoevsky. But the nature of the artistic genius of A. Bely also cannot create an artistically perfect product. In his artistic creativity there is no catharsis, there is always something tormentive, since he himself as an artist does not arise above those elements, which he depicts, he does not surmount them, he himself is immersed in the cosmic whirlwind and dissolution, he himself is in the nightmare. In his novel there is not only no ideological way, no conscious way out, but there is also no artistic and catharsic exit, he does not set free, he remains within the grip of the nightmare. He oversteps the bounds of art of the perfective and the beautiful. His art is his own being, his chaos, his whirling motion, his cosmic sensation. And this is new and unusual in him. This mustneeds be accepted without seeking for consolation. It is impossible to approach him in the old critical ways. He is an artist of a passive cosmic epoch. And he anew returns literature to the great themes of the old Russian literature. His creativity is connected with the fate of Russia, with the Russian soul. He is the first to have written truly an astral novel, so dissimilar to the weak and unartistic occult novels, written in the old modes. A. Bely — is not theurgic, but theurgic art perhaps will find itself on the path of the astral extension and disintegration in the creativity of his type.

Nikolai  Berdyaev.


©  2001  by translator Fr. S. Janos

(1916 – 233(14,3) – en)

ASTRAL’NYI  ROMAN (Razmyshlenie po povodu romana A. Belogo “Peterburg”).  First published in Journal “Birzhevye vedomosti”, 1 July 1916, No. 15608.
Republished initially in 1918 Berdyaev’s anthology text of 3 articles, “Krizis iskusstva” (“The Crisis of Art”), Ch. 3.
Article reprinted also in 1989 YMCA Press Tom 3 of Berdyaev’s writings, — “Tipy  religioznoi  mysli  v  Rossii”,  p. 430-440.
Article has also appeared subsequently in several Russian collections of Berdyaev articles such as the Moscow “Vyshaya shkola” 1993 text, “O russkikh klassikakh”, ctr. 310-317; and the Moscow “Liga” 1994 text, “Philosophiya, tvorchestva, kultury i isskustva”, tom 2, ctr. 438-446