[URBANTH-L]REV: Shaw on Buckler, Mapping St. Petersburg

Angela Jancius acjancius at ysu.edu
Tue Sep 26 19:53:13 EDT 2006

Published by H-HistGeog (June 2006)

Julie A Buckler. _Mapping St. Petersburg: Imperial Text and Cityshape_.
Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2005. 364 pp.
Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 

Reviewed by: Denis J. B. Shaw, School of Geography, Earth and
Environmental Sciences, University of Birmingham, UK.

The Textual Topography of an Imperial City

St. Petersburg is a city whose literary heritage is particularly
rich. Created as Russia's new capital by Peter the Great "out of
nothing" on the swampy delta of the River Neva at the beginning of
the eighteenth century, an act with few parallels in modern times,
the city has seemed to many to symbolize the clash between modernity
and tradition, aspiration and authenticity, and dream and reality,
which lies close to the heart of modern culture. For the Russian tsar
and his associates the city was meant to represent the ambition and
power with which he aimed to endow his realm, signaling Russia's
emergence on the world stage as a thoroughly modern European state.
To this end he strove to equip his new capital with all the
paraphernalia of modern urban living, beginning with a plan and an
architecture which would reflect the grandeur and excitement of
European metropolitan life, to the greater glory of the Russian
empire itself and of the dynasty which ruled it. To thousands of
Peter's subjects, however, aristocrats, merchants, peasants and
others, who were dragooned or otherwise persuaded to live in the
city, St. Petersburg was far from glorious. Remote, forbidding,
unRussian and set in a hostile environment, the city's life proved an
unpleasant, difficult and frequently dangerous place for many. More
often, perhaps, it simply provided the context (the means or their
lack) within which people struggled to lead their lives. But given
this background and the extremes between utter poverty and great
wealth displayed in the city, plus the fact that it was the capital
in both the political and (Moscow notwithstanding) the cultural
sense, St. Petersburg was the stage for the creation of some of
Russia's greatest literature. That literature is particularly
celebrated for its engagement with the depths and also the heights of
human experience. Not surprisingly, writers found some of the best
material for their explorations of the human condition within the city 

This book is not, however, an evocation of St. Petersburg's classical
literary heritage, rich though that heritage is. That, as the author
Julie Buckler rightly says, has been done by others. Rather the
author attempts something slightly different. It is to reflect upon
the way that the city, both as a physical place and as a social
milieu, is represented in the writings, designs, stories, anecdotes,
memoirs, guides and legends of "the cultural middle," the middlebrow
and the lowbrow worlds which, in both Russian history and literature,
have so often been elided between the world of the famous and the
cultural elite and that of the masses. Buckler thus tries to
recapture something of the everyday world of literary and artistic
production and imagination, a world which was probably more familiar
to the mass of St. Petersburg's citizens than that of high society on
the one hand or that of the lower depths on the other. The accent is
upon the late imperial period in the city's history, between the
early and later parts of the nineteenth century when literary
production was particularly intense and variegated (though there are
frequent references to both earlier periods and to later Soviet and
even post-Soviet times). In thus investigating what she calls the
city's "textual topography," the author has evidently benefited from
reading those scholars such as cultural geographers and others who
have pondered the problems of representing cities in cultural texts.
Familiarity with the work of Michel Foucault, Henri Lefebvre, Michel
de Certeau, Raymond Williams and Georg Simmel, as well as with more
recent work by David Harvey, Edward Soja, Brian Harley, James Duncan
and others, has greatly contributed to the book's significance beyond
literary studies to the social sciences more generally.

The book's flyleaf suggests that what Buckler shows is that imperial
St. Petersburg was "a living cultural system." But, in fact, as this
book so amply demonstrates, it was in no sense "a system," but rather
a chaotic cultural complex which is dealt with here in eclectic
fashion. Thus chapter 1 examines architectural styles in the city
between the 1830s and the 1890s as shown in its apartment buildings,
commercial outlets, public institutions and private houses,
demonstrating a middlebrow eclecticism which reflects the rapidly
changing social structure of the industrializing city and which was
resolutely frowned upon by the guardians of good taste. Chapter 2
moves on to consider how the city and its physical elements and
monuments were represented in the writing of the period, which again
is eclectic in form and style. Particular attention is paid to the
varied ways in which writers depicted, responded to, and ultimately
constituted some of the city's principal spaces, notably the
celebrated statue of the Bronze Horseman, and the Nevsky Prospekt,
the city's principal thoroughfare. The next chapter surveys the
city's travel literature in the form of guidebooks, cultural
histories, journey accounts and similar material to show how the city
is differently conceived by different individuals, groups and
interests, as is also the case with the next genre examined, that of
the urban legend. Chapter 5 considers the city as a variable space,
highlighting the different literary roles of, and the different
evaluations placed upon, both central and peripheral spaces--notably
the imperial palace-parks beyond the city's boundaries, its
settlements of dachas or weekend and summer cottages in the nearby
countryside, its slums, and finally its industrial districts. What is
surprising in this account is the fact that, whilst the first three
spatial types play a prominent role in the Petersburg text, the
industrial districts, unlike those of other industrial cities like
London, Paris and New York in their respective texts, find almost no
place--a striking testimony, perhaps, to the ambivalent attitude
towards modernity displayed by many Russian writers of the period.
The variegated (and yet in certain ways surprisingly similar)
experiences of writers coming to live or stay in the city are evoked
in the following chapter, followed by a consideration of memory and
loss in the story of the city, especially in terms of catastrophes
and threatened catastrophes through flood, fire, and other forms of
destruction as reflected in cemeteries, museums, place names and
similar features. The city's three-hundred-year history, celebrated
in 2003, with memories of the centennials of 1803 and 1903,
conclude the book.

It is difficult to do justice to a book of such variety and depth in
this short account. The book will repay reading and rereading in
depth, not only for its own sake, but also for the sake of the city
it describes. In her introduction, the author states, "where the
Petersburg mythology asserts remarkable unity, I seek pluralism;
where this mythology asserts Petersburg's essential difference, I
emphasize the city's more ordinary qualities" (p. 25). In this she
succeeds admirably. And yet, for all that, St. Petersburg still
emerges as a quite remarkable place.

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