St Petersburg: A Cultural History

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The definitive cultural biography of the “Venice of the North” and its transcendent artistic and spiritual legacy, written by Russian emerge and acclaimed cultural historian, Solomon Volkov.

Long considered to be the mad dream of an imperious autocrat—the "Venice of the North," conceived in a setting of malarial swamps—St. Petersburg was built in 1703 by Peter the Great as Russia's gateway to the West. For almost 300 years this splendid city has survived the most extreme attempts of man and nature to extinguish it, from flood, famine, and disease to civil war, Stalinist purges, and the epic 900-day siege by Hitler's armies. It has even been renamed twice, and became St. Petersburg again only in 1991. Yet not only has it retained its special, almost mystical identity as the schizophrenic soul of modern Russia, but it remains one of the most beautiful and alluring cities in the world. Now Solomon Volkov, a Russian emigre and acclaimed cultural historian, has written the definitive cultural biography of this city and its transcendent artistic and spiritual legacy.

For Pushkin, Gogol, and Dostoyevsky, Petersburg was a spectral city that symbolized the near-apocalyptic conflicts of imperial Russia. As the monarchy declined, allowing intellectuals and artists to flourish, Petersburg became a center of avant-garde experiment and flamboyant bohemian challenge to the dominating power of the state, first czarist and then communist. The names of the Russian modern masters who found expression in St. Petersburg still resonate powerfully in every field of art: in music, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich; in literature, Akhmatova, Blok, Mandelstam, Nabokov, and Brodsky; in dance, Diaghilev, Nijinsky, and Balanchine; in theater, Meyerhold; in painting, Chagall and Malevich; and many others, whose works are now part of the permanent fabric of Western civilization. Yet no comprehensive portrait of this thriving distinctive, and highly influential cosmopolitan culture, and the city that inspired it, has previously been attempted.
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About the author

Solomon Volkov is a musician, cultural critic and author. He is the author of St. Petersburg.

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Additional Information

Publisher
Simon and Schuster
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Published on
Jun 15, 2010
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Pages
624
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ISBN
9781451603156
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Language
English
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Genres
History / General
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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Eligible for Family Library

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In a sweeping cultural history of Russia from the rise of the house of Romanov in 1613 to its downfall at the hands of the Bolsheviks in 1917, Solomon Volkov effortlessly unwinds the twisted relationship between art and the royal family.

Throughout the Romanov dynasty, Russia’s greatest artists and thinkers, painters and poets, composers and dancers, served two masters. Devotion to craft—or principle—could never wholly eclipse dependence on the tsars. Similarly, consumers of Russian culture could never respond without political consideration: Volkov recounts how, at the 1836 premiere of Glinka’s opera A Life for the Tsar, fashionable audiences watched Nicholas I in his private box to see how they ought to react. He wept, and they wept accordingly.

In this spellbinding story, we watch the great figures of Russian history clash. Alexei, father of Peter the Great, befriended the writer Avvakum only to banish him; the next tsar, Fedor, had Avvakum burned alive. Using her notorious charms, Catherine the Great masterfully wielded political control over her culture industry. For his part, Pushkin became the first favored artist to resist the tsar’s influence. His poem “To Liberty” is cherished as a revolutionary work of dissent. But even Pushkin’s genius went unspared: Alexander tired of the poet’s literary and amorous freethinking and banished him from St. Petersburg.

Romanov Riches is a work of epic scale that never sacrifices individual characters for broader themes. Gogol, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy are presented in a devilishly intricate dance with their royal patrons. A truly essential work for anyone who wants to understand Russia’s passionate devotion to its most important artists, it is the prequel to Volkov’s acclaimed work The Magical Chorus: A History of Russian Culture from Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn.
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