The Baltic Sea as a Theme for Saint Petersburg Writers

1. Russia without Oceans

Of all the tsars who ascended the Russian throne, only two were honoured with the title of “Great”. The supreme rulers of Russia included among their number a “Terrible”, a “Still”, a “Blessed”, and a “Liberator”, and they achieved much for their country and its people. Take for example Alexander II, who freed the peasants from the slavery of serfdom, set in train numerous pioneering reforms, and abolished the recruitment period of 25 years – is such a ruler not also worthy of the title “the Great”? Admittedly the fact that under his reign Alaska - at that time a Russian territory – was leased to America and subsequently was never returned to Russian control is still held against Alexander II even today. Those who have been awarded the title of “Great” – Peter and Catherine – were those who won for Russia its access to the seas: Peter I – to the Baltic Sea, Catherine II - to the Black Sea.

Russia was cut off from the sea for centuries. The White Sea in the north could not meet the needs of such a huge land. In the time of Peter I, Russia was a land of churches and cloisters, a land without schools or universities, without secular art. Prior to Peter’s reign, the daily lives of the grand princes and tsars was quite simple: one rose early and went to bed in good time, one had to endure long services in church three times a day, one ate and drank a great deal and, after eating, slept long. Life was unhurried. Foreigners were viewed with suspicion, but as specialists they were indispensable. The monk Philopheus described this slumbering land in a phrase that was repeated over the following 400 years: “Moscow is the third Rome and there will not be a fourth.” This comparison of Moscow with Rome did not of course have to do with that fact that both lay on seven hills.

9710993910 0d3a72b349 z2. The Baltic Sea – Russia’s Window on Europe

Pushkin’s poem The Bronze Horseman, written at the beginning of the 19th century contains the famous lines that have been so often quoted. The poet speaks of St Petersburg, the Venice of the north, rising from the marshes:

Here nature destines us to throw

Out over Europe a window,

To stand steadfast beside the waters;

Across the waves unknown to the West,

All flags will come, to be our guest -

And we shall feast in spacious quarters."

The fact that Russia had achieved access to the Baltic Sea was received enthusiastically by the monarch, his people and later also by the poets. Pushkin’s poem is dedicated to the man “whose word, like the power of destiny, has founded the city under the sea.” For all the writers who subsequently wrote on Petersburg, the Neva and the Baltic Sea, Pushkin’s legacy remained a constant reference point. But not all of them shared Pushkin’s enthusiasm and hopes:

Let Finland’s waves forget the band

Of hate and bondage down the ages,

Nor trouble with their fruitless rages

Peter the Great’s eternal sleep![1]

Pushkin was the last bard of the radiant city of Saint Petersburg lying on the Baltic Sea. Although he himself never went abroad, this was not out of choice but because Tsar Nicholas I would not permit him to leave the country. In the language of the Soviet period, Pushkin was subject to a “travel ban”. The window that Peter had “pushed open” proved to be one blocked by prison bars.

Immediately following the October Revolution of 1917, a wave of refugees began to make its way over the Baltic Sea to the west. In 1918, Sofia Shapirova fled to Finland, writing later in her memoirs: “The place from where the escape began was a border settlement called Lachta. In the night a Finnish peasant hitched up a wagon. The refugee had to lie down in it and was then covered with hay and sacks. All of a sudden the doors of the barn were opened and the horse-drawn wagon raced over the ice of the Gulf of Finland to the other side.” The refugees were shot at with rifles from the Kronstadt Fortress, but many managed to flee. The brother of the famous translator Mikhail Losinsky took the same route, although in summer by boat. The young man could only take a stack of his favourite books with him. His journey alternated between hiding the boat in reeds and rowing strenuously. The escape was successful. He later became a professor at the Sorbonne and died of hunger in German-occupied Paris after refusing to co-operate with the occupying forces. His daughter still has books in her library which her father once took with him in the boat, and she shows friends the marks left by the waters of the Gulf of Finland.

There is a unique incident in Soviet history also involving escape over the Baltic. The GPU, the forerunner of the KGB, decided in one particular instance not to shoot dissidents or throw them in jail. Instead scientists, philosophers and public figures who the new rulers regarded as hopeless cases for conversion to communism were gathered in a group and deported over the Baltic Sea to Germany. There were approximately 25 expellees and, including family members, a total of 70 people in the group. This deportation was never repeated. The ship in which the exiles travelled was known from then on as the “philosophers’ ferry.” On board were virtually all the important Russian philosophers of the time: Nikolai Berdiaiev, Sergei Frank, and the theologian Sergei Bulgakov among others. They described this voyage in their articles and memoirs.

3. The Capital with its Back to the Sea

Petersburg had been constructed as a Russian outpost on the Baltic Sea. However, the focal point of city life was not the coast. In the poem already referred to, The Bronze Horseman, the hero’s beloved led a meagre existence with her mother “right in the billow - / a fence untouched by paint, a willow / A flimsy cottage [...]” The prosperous residents of St Petersburg did not build their houses on the coast. At the beginning of the 19th century, the Strelka, the point of Vasilievsky Island, emerged as a distinctive landmark, featuring the stock exchange crowned with the figure of Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea, and rostral columns serving as lighthouses. This was an international harbour equipped with all the attributes and symbols befitting its status. The first trading ship from Holland docked here. The quays were piled with goods. But the harbour lay in the middle of the capital and not on the sea coast.

The stories by Ivan Gensler (1820-1870) offer an interesting description of a remote corner of St Petersburg, the Gavan. The theme of flooding is dealt with by the author in a completely everyday tone, for Gavan, like the whole of St Petersburg; was flooded every autumn. “While in the other parts of the city, there was still an air of calm after the third canon shot, which signalled a significant rise in the waters of the Neva, everything in Gavan began to move, everything was in a hurry. With good cause: very often Gavan would subsequently be changed into Venice.” But the inhabitant of Gavan did not leave the area. “Everything in Gavan seems on the verge of decay; everything groans, croaks and coughs. These small aged houses would so gladly lie down for their well-earned rest after all the troubles they have seen, after all the storms. They have become grey, musty like wooden crosses over the graves of their first owners, who for a long time now have lain in the shadows of the birches of the Smolensk cemetery .”

For two centuries everything on the coast of the gulf remained undisturbed. In the latter half of the 19th century, writers and poets grew fond of the suburbs and went there in search of the side of city life that as yet remained unexplored. However, their perception of the capital gradually changed. A new theme emerged and was immediately taken up: that of the inevitable destruction of St Petersburg. In the authors’ imagination, this artificially conceived and constructed city was destined to disappear, drowned in the sea tides. In Mikhail Dmitriev’s poem “City under Water”, which is a paraphrase of Pushkin’s lines on St Petersburg, an old fisherman and a boy set out in a ramshackle boat. The boy is saddened and asks the old man “why the sea groans”. The old man points to the top of a tower which is jutting out of the water and says,

Here there was once a city, gracious to all,

and high above all.

And now - the church spire, only it

still looks out of the sea

The city has been destroyed for its sins, as Sodom and Gomorrah once were. This was already the second Russian legend about a city under water. The first told of the city of Kitesh, which, as the Tartars invaded, disappeared under water. That the city would sink at some point was a belief held not only by opponents of Peter I, but also by the stubborn Moscow Boyars. It was also believed by the people, who could not understand why a city which no one other than the tsar really needed had to be built in such a bleak and barren environment and at the cost of thousands of lives. For the philosopher of mysticism Dmitry Mereshkovsky (1866-1941) Petersburg represented a failed synthesis between Russia and the West, a rape of Russian history: this city was from the beginning doomed to destruction. The birth of the city, according to Mereshkovsky, also meant the birth of the nightmarish vision of Petersburg’s destruction. In the novel Peter and Aleksei the city is one of the characters playing a fundamental role in the fate of the novel’s heroes. Mereshkovsky was particularly drawn to the theme of the flood. In his novel we read that Peter I saw in all eyes only the archaic fear of the water, a fear he tried his whole life to combat. As the vernacular warns: “From the sea comes ruin”, “from the great water comes only misfortune.”

“Petersburg will be without form and void” – this prophecy refers back to the Book of Jeremiah, in which the destruction and flooding of Babel is predicted. There are two types of document in which this legendary damnation of the city was recorded: on the one hand there are the interrogation reports of the eldest son of Peter I, Aleksei, in which this curse is attributed to his mother, Tsarina Yevdokia Lopuchina. Another source are the documents of the Secret Chancellery from the year 1722, which report a rumour: on the clock tower of the Church of the Holy Trinity nested a Kikimora – a night witch – whereupon the deacon of the church pronounced a spell over the city to the effect that its inhabitants would leave it. In the 19th century this prophecy developed into an established formula and was taken up by many literary works in the 20th century (for example in Poem without Heroes by Anna Akhmatova).

9710994416 d8b3beaa70 z

4. The City of Crime and Punishment

Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s diverse literary legacy (approximately 30 novels, stories and short stories) includes some 20 works in which Petersburg appears as a backdrop. Dostoyevsky’s relationship to Petersburg was a deep and difficult one. His representation of the northern capital is many-sided, and his assessments of the city are so contradictory that it is difficult to understand how he actually felt about it: in White Nights the figure of a consumptive girl appears as a symbol of Petersburg; elsewhere it is claimed that the metropolis has nothing of its own, that everything in it amounts to mere borrowings and distortions.

Dostoyevsky’s central focus is on Petersburg’s essential element, the water. The Neva with its canals and channels plays an important role in his works, and we often find his heroes staring spellbound into the black depths. Petersburg emerged a long way from the sources of the Russian national mentality, and Dostoyevsky called it “the world’s most fictitious city.”

The images of the “physiology of a city” typical of the 19th century are often found in Dostoyevsky’s prose. His observations of the city are filled with tension. It’s colourless, cold, sick visage does not deter the writer, who senses another interior world behind this repulsive shell. “A hundred times in this fog I have been beset by a strange dream: what if the fog evaporated and floated upwards, and with it this abominable city - if it rose with the fog and dissolved like smoke, leaving only the old Finnish marsh...” In Crime and Punishment, Petersburg is presented as a city of darkness, of wind and dampness. The plot of the novel is formed by two systematically developed strands, which correspond to the title: the story of Raskolnikov and that of Svidrigailov. Raskolnikov commits his crime not far from Sennaya Square, the Haymarket, and it is here that he confesses his guilt and asks people for forgiveness. Svidrigailov commits his crime “on a dark night, in darkness and cold, in the damp thaw and howling wind” and then goes to Petrovsky Island in order to take his own life on a night that is equally dark and damp. The point of Petrowsky Island juts into the Gulf of Finland, which also seems to be drawn into the tragic finale. One recalls the words about the Russian individual in The Brothers Karamasov: his soul too wide, and should be narrowed, so that the ideal of Sodom is not borne together with the ideal of Madonna within it. “Svidrigailov went over the slippery, dirty wood-block paving in the direction of the Little Neva. Again and again he saw the water which had risen greatly overnight, Petrovsky Island, wet grass, wet trees and bushes.” As we can see, accents which Dostoyevsky constantly places on water, wetness and damp are not accidental.

“Cold and wet evenings, in which all the pedestrians have pale, greenish faces” (Crime and Punishment); “A dreadful, wet, misty night, in which the wind lifted black water into the air” (A Raw Youth); “The graves containing only water, only water and so green.” (Bobok). Svidrigailov appears like a ghost in front of Raskolnikov and disappears again in the wet foggy Petersburg morning; the water is experienced by the reader as the element of sin.

5. The Twentieth Century

Two outstanding poets of the 20th century, Alexander Blok and Anna Akhmatova, have created quite different images of Petersburg. Blok was born in one of the buildings on the grounds of the territory of Saint Petersburg University, where his grandfather was the rector. Blok enjoyed his fame as the premiere poet of all Russia. He accepted the revolutionary events of February and October 1917 and believed in the renewal of the world (expressed, for instance, in the poem The Twelve). However, the coup in October 1917 was followed by the civil war, which brought to Petersburg hunger, the arrest of political hostages and the persecution of intellectuals. When the poet, now completely isolated, realised his fatal mistake, he fell ill and died.

Blok referred to Petersburg as “my incomprehensible city”. All parts of the city – the Gavan, the canals and suburbs – found echoes in his poetry. For example, Petersburg as a harbour is illuminated in a curious many – the city is filled with the breath of the sea: “And in the alleyways is the smell of the sea”. The expanses of the sea awaken romantic dreams and the yearning for distant lands. However, in Petersburg prior to the First World War, the poet does not find romanticism. In the poem In the Northern Sea he describes a spa on the Gulf of Finland:

What have the dandies and fancy girls

Made out of the strand for their promenades?

Tables all around. Grilling and messing about

And the lemonade. Then the strand

walked to and fro with dull laughter,

salty air polluted with gossip.


Wobbly flesh and cleavage bared,

They squawk and enter the water. Awkward feet

feel the seabed. And they yell

merely so everyone sees their enjoyment.

Like all great poets, Blok could not bear middle-class tastelessness. He could not have known that far harsher tests lay before him.

Anna Akhmatova (1889 – 1966) was born on the Black Sea and spent her youth there. Southern Russia, which is today the Ukraine, was as different from Petersburg then as it is now, in terms of language and culture, and customs and traditions. Akhmatova completely renounced her southern heritage and always preserved the image she replaced it with – the plain and at the same time dignified attitude of a poet by God’s grace. It was said of Akhmatova that every poet has a muse - only Akhmatova does not need one because she is one herself. Anna Akhmatova was spared none of the tragic experiences of 20th century Russia: “My husband is dead, my son imprisoned. Pray to God for me!” – are lines from her famous “Requiem,” the poem cycle on Stalin’s reign of terror.

In the last years of her life, after a long silence, Akhmatova, now an old and ill woman, became famous again. The writers’ association gave her use of a small cottage in Komarovo (Terijoki) which she refered to as budka, or hut. Akhmotova had a great fondness for this area on the Karelian Isthmus , and many of her poems were written there, inspired by the proximity to the Baltic Sea. Lines from poems written in different years such as “I hear the ships’ masts creaking” and “And this air, the air of spring, which came flying over the sea” are linked by the theme of “The Sea”.

The land, although not homeland

yet ever there in memory,

the sea’s icy water

neither salty nor tender.

The sand is whiter than chalk,

The air intoxicating like wine,

the pink nakedness of the pines

in the evening sunshine.

These lines were written in 1964, two years before her death. Akhmatova numbers among the poets in the tradition of Pushkin.

The theme of the Baltic Sea in Russian literature is in fact only dealt with in connection with Petersburg. It is all but impossible to list all the poets and writers who have written about the city – in some cases in the form of a hymn, in others in the form of a curse. To end my paper I would like to return to its beginning – to the question of origins.

As a boy the future Russian Tsar Peter I lived with his mother in a suburb near Moscow. One day he was rummaging in a barn there and discovered an old boat, a gift from the English queen to the Tsar Ivan the Terrible. However, Tsar Ivan got by without the seas and did not even care for river-boat travel, and for this reason the boat was never put in the water during his lifetime. The inquisitive boy had the boat repaired and learned how to use it on the River Jausa in Moscow. According to legend, the future creator of the tsarist empire developed a taste for expanses of water, which in turn led him to secure access to the Baltic Sea, to build the Russian fleet and to found St Petersburg. Inside the oldest building in the city, the Peter-and-Paul Fortress, the so-called boathouse stands on the fortress square. It was specially built to preserve the boat of Peter I, which is now called the “grandfather of the Russian fleet.”

I have deliberately not referred to the Second World War and the blockade of Leningrad here, which have been the subject of numerous poems, and prose and dramatic works. I have also not referred to Kronstadt, the fortress city on one of the islands. Incidentally, it will not be long now before the Kronstadt surrenders its island status: the construction of the causeway which was begun in the Soviet period, but was stopped due to a lack of money, is now being completed.

Lecture given at the Visby conference on "The Baltic in Literature and Art" in November 2002

[1] The quotations from Pushkin’s The Bronze Horseman are taken from Charles Johnston (trans.),. Narrative Poems by Alexander Pushkin and Michael Lermantov (London/Sydney/Toronto, The Bodley Head, 1984).