Black Soot over the Nevsky: Narrative and Industrial Topography in Andrei Bely’s Petersburg

Among the well-rehearsed names of literary modernists, that of Andrei Bely is not often invoked, and though Vladimir Nabokov did hold Bely’s Petersburg up as one of the great literary works of the twentieth century, the novel is not commonly found on high school reading lists or college syllabi. Yet, what it presents is a fascinating textual panorama of an urban landscape and its multifaceted experiential arena. Amidst the limited critical discourse that has focused on this novel, readings of the city at its centre have already called up the ways in which it—and the novel organized around it—is entangled in “states of violent transition,” caught in history’s swirling gyre of rapidly shifting imperialism and burgeoning modernity.[1] Very rarely has any consideration of the novel attempted to converse with the distinct industrial-commercial topographies at the centre of its narrative, and there has been no recognition yet of the ways in which its narrative in fact depends on its scenes of modern industry and commerce for its very organization. Though often overlooked in conversations that tend to focus on his European and American counterparts, Bely offers us a unique harnessing of the modernist preoccupation with the spatial agency of the city, oriented along a discursive avenue that impressionistically stages the collision of imperial and industrial-commercial power structures that have defined at least one major way of understanding modernity. St. Petersburg’s unique position as at once an imperial capital (and thus keeper of a certain imperial legacy) and a “young” city, developing along a unique timeline, is what facilitates this unique endeavour; and our reading of this novel as a modernist work thus allows us to complicate our understanding of the modernist project as expressed through visions of urban spatiality. 

In invoking Russia’s brand of modernity circa 1905-1917, I find it most helpful to begin with S.N. Eisenstadt’s identification of the three “central aspects of the modern political process,” from which I borrow the essential framework for my discussion: the “restructuring of center-periphery relations as the principal focus of political dynamics,” the “strong tendency toward politicizing the demands of various sectors of society” (as well as their conflicts), and the “continuing struggle over the definition of the realm of the political.”[2] All three aspects are pertinent to the processes of modernisation that help make Petersburg into the conflicted socio-political arena that Bely envisions, but the third, in particular, helps to turn our attention to the questions of spatiality and urban materiality that this novel invites. As early as 1907, Bely’s thinking along the lines of modern imperialism already betray a preoccupation with the ways in which modernity both constitutes and agitates the politically charged “center-periphery” relations of the empire. In his essay “Gorod” (“City”) the city is imaginatively developed as the rigidly circumscribed yet monstrous “brain” of a larger organism: 

Railway paws, like the endless legs of a spider, have bound space. There swayed the golden-flowing field. And now the spider’s paw with countless adjacent stations has fallen on them [sic]. And, like red droplets of blood, freight cars reach toward the suckers. Blood begins to rush through the arteries, surging to the brain, so that the brain may transform into a fantastic fiction the riches of the earth. The brain of the earth—the city, surrounded by a ring of freight cars. It devours the earth, in order to throw up from within itself the multi-storey gleam of houses, hundreds of factory smokestacks and bright electric suns.[3]

Petersburg, set in the revolutionary year of 1905, traces a period of several days surrounding a failed assassination plot directed at the senator Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov and meant to be carried out by his son, Nikolay. Having, at some past point, agreed to carry out the assassination, Nikolay receives a time bomb (in the guise of a sardine tin) from a fellow revolutionary, Dudkin. The rest of the novel then traces Nikolay’s rather Hamlet-like inability to carry out the plot, interspersed with renderings of his other troubles—with the city, the revolutionaries, women, and his father. Yet this basic narrative plot functions more as a framing device for Bely’s impressionistic panorama and portraiture of the city—the very heart of the novel. In this text, Bely elaborates his figuration of the city as a distinct spatial and political entity within the wider discourse of an empire thrusting itself into modernity. In its depictions of mass meetings, public protests, revolutionary gatherings, and snatches of political agitation picked up on street corners and along busy avenues we can trace Bely’s more involved interest in that “continuing struggle over the definition of the realm of the political” delineated by Eisenstadt. 

Yet the political in this novel is firmly enmeshed in the industrial and the spatial. One of the first appreciable depictions of industry arrives in chapter two, which traces the all-too-common movement of an impoverished worker (Styopka) toward the city and its promise of employment. We learn that Styopka’s progress follows along the high-road from Kolpino—an industrial suburb approximately 30 kilometres southeast of the city centre: “this place—there is no gloomier place! As you ride on the train towards Petersburg of a morning, you have woken up—you look: outside the windows of the carriage all is dead; not a single soul, not a single village; as though the human race had died out, and the very earth were a corpse.[4] In both narrative and affect, this imagery inverts that found in an 1858 sketch from a “travel guide to the Nikolaev railway,” which describes a reciprocal movement away from St. Petersburg and toward Kolpino: 

As you leave St. Petersburg, you will scarcely have time to look around and fully get used to your position […] before the train runs 24 versts separating it from St. Petersburg, and buildings will appear before you, above which a beautiful church raises its domes. Closer, closer, and to the right and left individual houses will begin to flash, fences will stretch; the locomotive, panting, will stop with the whole train in front of a beautiful construction with a wide platform, surrounded by several other buildings, wooden and stone, and before you will be the class IV station—Kolpinskaya.[5]

Although it is, of course, impossible to know whether Bely would have been familiar with this travel guide, his text here introduces a staging of imperial and commercial power that will be key for the rest of the novel. While the 1858 sketch celebrates imperial sprawl—bringing the might of the city’s architectural and infrastructural development along even as it moves away from the city centre, tracing a course that thrusts the trappings of a modernising empire into the extra-urban districts—Bely’s variation reorients that motion. We move from a decaying extra-urban landscape into the city proper, encroaching upon its territory in a way that is coded as both desperate and threatening, because it is the impoverished labourer’s progress that we follow. The image of waking up is fitting here, as a grim awakening from the specious ether of imperial mythos; and the threat of encroachment contained within the objects that make up this landscape is underscored by the jumbled bleeding over between the past simple, past continuous, and present tenses as the passage develops its imagery:  

From Kolpino to Petersburg the high road winds; winds like a grey ribbon; a line of telegraph poles borders its crushed stone. A factory-hand was making his way there with a bundle on a stick; he had worked at a gunpowder factory and for some reason had been driven out; and was going on foot toward Petersburg; around him bristled yellow reeds; and the roadside stones were dying away; barriers were flying up and falling, striped mileposts were alternating, the telegraph wire was rattling without end or beginning.[6]

Thus, while Bely’s razing of a developing modern town scene down to its industrial backbone points to the text’s broader interest in tracing the troubling industrial landscape that often disappears from imperial narrative vistas, it also stages an escalating socioeconomic conflict along the spatial fault lines between the imperial capital and its regional surround, as represented by one of its especially highly inflected districts.  

A first edition of Bely’s Petersburg.

In fact, one possibility for highlighting Kolpino so explicitly may be its notable position in the revolutionary events of 1905, and particularly the Bloody Sunday massacre of unarmed striking industrial labourers, who had organised a march on the Winter Palace in a bid to petition the Tsar to heed their grievances and acquiesce to their proposed reforms. Kolpino, by all accounts, was one of the main suppliers of protesting workers’ groups. Lenin, writing on the violence of January 1905, mentioned Kolpino by name as a site of worker uprisings,[7] and numerous international newspapers reported on Kolpino being one of the sites of violent, tyrannical slayings by Tsarist police and armed forces.[8] Thus, to any reader aware of the significance of 1905, the reference to Kolpino further serves to join the image of the city’s spatial industrial surround with the unmistakable spectre of revolution. Hence, the course that the figure of Styopka (insofar as he is never truly developed as a character but merely appears in one section of the second chapter and not again until quite late in the novel) charts is that new mobility of the “ordinary man” so expressly feared by the aging imperial senator, Apollon Apollonovich, and which the St. Petersburg correspondent of the Paris “Petit Journal” described, during that infamous Sunday, as “coming from everywhere.”[9] No longer safely confined to the industrial islands and suburbs, the ordinary man’s province has bled into the city proper—that established realm of the Russian bourgeois and intelligentsia—and before Apollon Apollonovich’s eyes “all the spatial expanses were displaced: the life of the ordinary man in the street had suddenly surrounded him with gateways and walls, and the ordinary man himself appeared before him as a voice.”[10] The familiar figure of modernity’s flâneur is here coded by Bely in highly particular socio-political terms, as Apollon Apollonovich leaves the seclusion of his habitual carriage for the first time to walk along the city’s streets. In contrast with the other characters that populate and move along the city’s streets—the failed assassin, Nikolay; the mentally troubled revolutionary, Dudkin; the poor unemployed labourer, Styopka—Apollon is, in fact, the only true flâneur to be found in the streetscapes of the text. Unlike the others, he never comes into any real contact with the street’s objects, never melts into the motion(s) of its “human myriapod,” but is always to be found at some degree of distance even from its built environment.[11] A door somewhere flies open, a singing voice begins to be heard, but the door is soon “banged shut” once more; the numerous walls, doors, gateways, and fences lose all differentiation and melt together, in Apollon’s mind, into “one continuous squalid, rotten, empty and general latrine”; and he begins to feel rejected, distanced, and “hated” by each wall, each fence, each material piece of the urban environment that surrounds him.[12] The figure of the flâneur proves too limited for Bely’s project. The socio-spatial configuration of his Petersburg rejects this idle and distanced stroller. Instead, the subject that can enter into the spatial economy of Bely’s city is one in whose own self the conflicts of the street are mirrored. For Nikolay, it is the clash of generations—a slipping away of an older system of tradition, and with it the hegemony of the patriarch—while for the revolutionary terrorist Dudkin, it is his very status as a raznochinets (not belonging to any traditionally recognised social class) taken to its logical end, signalling the failure of the discursive social system and thus precipitating its (attempted) destruction.[13] 

As an agent of the Tsarist state and a representative of a well-defined social class, Apollon attempts to find solace in imperial vistas, but within the context of its forward-hurtling industrial modernisation, the empire itself dissolves into a tangled web of the troublesome streets. The open imperial map, over which he could once smile with a friend, reconfigures itself into an elastic, shifting mass that resists his ordering gaze: “Apollon Apollonovich’s cerebral play erected his misty planes before his gaze; but all the planes were blown to pieces; Russia’s gigantic map appeared before him, who was so small […] Russia stretched, that was all.”[14] As a superfluous representative of a spatial structure—the empire—that Bely’s vision of Petersburg’s modernity has placed into conflict with the city, Apollon cannot enter into the city’s spatial economy. Even at the typographical level, the block of text in which Apollon reflexively moves back to a discourse of empire is set off to one side, squeezed into only a partial occupation of the page, pressed in upon from both top and bottom by textual renderings of the “ordinary man’s” space. 

If the “ordinary man” was initially depicted—through the figures of Styopka and the hostile doors, gateways, and walls of the urban landscape—as an encroaching and occupying spectre, then by the end of the novel he manifests as a threatening embodied presence on the city street. Here Bely shifts his attention to a consideration of the city’s spatiality through the frame of voice, embedding the complex collision of empire and industrial modernity within a representation of the tensions between official (governmental) and public (narodnye) voices, and doing so through the material commodity of print. If some scholars have drawn attention to Bely’s representation of “auditory as well as visual space [as] too crowded,” where “there are multiple ‘columns of conversations’ […] and everything around the unidentified walker is in flux,” then I would like to extend this frame of spatial analysis to perhaps the most material representations of the crowding of language in the city—its daily newspapers.[15] Organised, indeed, along axes upon axes of vertical “columns of conversation,” daily editions of popular newspapers and periodicals like Kopejka or Grivennik printed an extraordinary amount of information, collecting together, in indiscriminate arrangement, reports of local factory accidents, international affairs, editorials about the daily lives and struggles of working people, advertisements for chauffeur courses alongside those of syphilis clinics, suicide notices, accounts of strikes, editorials on questions like workers’ healthcare and insurance, and celebratory accounts of imperial milestones or holidays. The discursive power of these linguistic bombs is dramatized by Bely in the juxtaposition of the limited production and imperial transit of Apollon Apollonovich’s official governmental papers with the vastly more reproducible, more agitating, and more transportable popular press. Whereas Apollon Apollonovich’s paper bears the (ironically ineffectual) imperial gravitas of its source of production—“blown out of the doors of the Institution […] carried out not in carts, but by Furies”—the manufacture of that paper that “smells of typographic print” remains concealed, but its powerful potentiality is unmistakable in the image of a subterranean “rumbling,” the gathering “in swarms” of the printing works’ labourers.[16] Bely develops the imagery in a now-familiar way, juxtaposing the spread of the undifferentiated mass of empire with the distinctly spatialised, expressive topography of the city. Such that while Apollon Apollonovich’s paper proceeds along the imperial railway, it “is not getting there,” and the “arrow of [Apollon Apollonovich’s] circulars does not penetrate the districts: it breaks.”[17] Meanwhile, the “damp newspapers” that appear daily in the hands of newspaper boys—who further lend to the printed paper their own voices as they move along the streets, reworking its headlines—are the objects capable of real power.[18] Thus does Apollon Apollonovich imagine this amalgam of voices toward the close of the novel: “and what kind of loathsome behaviour towards the authorities was circulating among the ordinary men in the street? A proclamatory tone had appeared.”[19] 

In collecting these innumerable voices into a single printed coalescence, the newspapers also reclassify them—and the lived identities behind them—into commodity. As inevitable products and symptoms of modernity, the “ordinary” masses are just as inextricable from the city as its own capitalist-industrial materials, so perhaps the most arresting metaphor for this mass of people comes through in the refiguration of their public, protesting voices in the image of broken bottles: 

into a single damp space multivarious voices were poured—a multivariety of words; articulate phrases broke there one against the other, and horribly there did the words fly apart like the shards of bottles that were empty […] all of them, jumbled up together, again wove into a sentence that […] hung above the Nevsky like black soot.[20]  

As broken bottles and soot, these voices of the myriad of “ordinary men”—so threatening to Apollon Apollonovich—are, at the same time, the discardable products (and by-products) of socio-political “mass-production,” liable to be quickly used up in any prevailing self-fashioning and self-destructing political current. This is the climax of a thread developed throughout the progression of the novel, in which textual references to businesses, commercial transactions, images of trade goods, and sounds of arriving or departing vessels in the nearby ports escalate. Indeed, so persistent does the image of the passing steamer become that the movement of pedestrian crowds becomes transfigured in the logos of river traffic: 

From the street towards them rolled thick, black human masses: many-thousand swarms of bowler hats rose up like waves. From the street towards them rolled: lacquered top hats, they rose out of the waves like the funnels of steamships; from the street into their faces foamed: an ostrich feather; a pancake-shaped cap smiled with its cap-band; and the cap-bands were: blue, yellow, red.[21] 

These images cement the text’s vocabulary for expressing the city’s distinct experiential modernity, as the logic of steam-powered water traffic coincides with the dialectics of the capitalist market—in the image of hats and caps “foaming” out of the crowd and into perception in much the same way that goods appear in the city by way of incessant intra- and inter-national commercial water traffic.

It is thus through a sustained attention to these spatial-commercial representational avenues that Petersburg finally opens itself up to a much more grounded reading. Now we can glean how the text expresses an anxiety about the ways in which the revolutionary discourse in which it is invested intersects with the colliding narrative byways of empire and modernity. In its attention to highly inflected spatial arrangements against which its narrative unfolds, the novel plunges the imperial mythos of the city into the grimy, volatile terrain of industrial modernity, destabilising the discursive imperial legend by bringing to the forefront its complex and conflicting patterns of labour, production, and transit. It is a crescendo of imagery that asserts with striking insistence a new semiotic dimension of the ever-present statue of Peter the Great, drawing our attention not to its imperial stance (as would have been traditional) but to the “many thousands’ worth of metal” that construct it as a material object, signifying anew in the emerging nexus of commercial and political power.[22]  

Thus, we turn to Nikolai standing “outside [a] shop window,” using it to reimagine the city’s shifting potentialities for human interaction, for new ways of looking and seeing another: “All these faces that were passing here—passed reflective.”[23] Alternately transparent and reflective, the shop window, as material of the commercial urban, is hereby accorded an organising responsibility within the interactive, experiential realm of urban topography. It serves to facilitate a new pattern of engagement with the metropolitan humanity: through a structural component of the metropolis itself. Bely may well be one of the earlier modernists to engage this distinct imagery, but he is certainly not the only, as the concerns we’ve been tracing here enter into a much wider, by now well-represented, conversation not only about modern literature and art but the very nature of modernity itself. In fact, this moment at the shop window seems to cautiously anticipate the much bolder and much less forgiving creative readings of constructive commercial spatiality of later writers.[24] One can envision how Nikolai’s dazed stance in front of the window may seem to lay the groundwork for Quentin Compson’s tragic contemplation of suicide before a shop window of pocket watches, or how the fantasy of perceiving another’s face in the reflection of the glass might gesture toward Leopold Bloom’s ambulatory survey of the intersections of Dublin’s commercial and private lives. 

Yelizaveta (Liza) Tishchenko (she/her) is a Ph.D. student in English Language & Literature at the University of Michigan. A twentieth-century Americanist, she is particularly interested in literary modernism (and its global reach), intersections of spatiality and narrativity, and representations of labour and its environments. She is also a dedicated Faulknerian with a special interest in Faulkner’s non-Yoknapatawpha fiction.



  1. Robert Alter, “Bely: Phantasmatic City,” in Imagined Cities (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005). For a historicist account of the city’s modernization, also see James Hassell, “The Planning of St. Petersburg,” The Historian 36, no. 2 (1974).
  2. S.N. Eisenstadt, “Multiple Modernities,” Daedalus 129, no. 1 (2000), 5-6.
  3. Andrei Bely, “Gorod,” in Na Perevale (Berlin: Z.I. Grzhebin, 1923). Translation mine.
  4. Andrei Bely, Petersburg, trans. David McDuff (London: Penguin Random House, 2011), 130.
  5. L.D. Burim, Kolpino (St. Petersburg: Dmitri Bulanin, 2003), 31. Translation mine.
  6. Andrei Bely, Peterburg (Milton Keynes: JiaHu Books, 2013), 97. Translation mine. I offer my own translation here instead of resorting to McDuff’s because I find it important to preserve the way in which the original Russian leans into a present continuous tense with words like “mertveli” (“were dying”) or “vzletali” (“were flying up”) and which McDuff translates alternately as “lay dead” or “flew up.” The text itself is aware of the implied continuity here (“without end or beginning”), to which I wish to draw attention. 
  7. V. I. Lenin, “St. Petersburg After January 9,” in Lenin Collected Works, translated by Bernard Isaacs and Isidor Lasker (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1962).
  8.  The West Coast Times (of New Zealand), The Summary of Elmira, N.Y., London’s The Spectator, the Washington Post, and the Manchester Guardian are just a few examples.
  9. “‘The Riotous Crowd’: The Reported March On the City,” Manchester Guardian, Jan. 25, 1905.
  10. Petersburg, 268.
  11. Ibid., 350. 
  12. Ibid., 268-270. 
  13. Dudkin’s status and mobility are thus reminiscent of those of the “consummate flâneur” envisioned by Walter Benjamin. Yet, if for Benjamin this figure is “at home not in his class but only in the crowd—which is to say, in the city,” then Bely’s raznochinets is all the more insidious for his propensity to dissolve not only in the crowd of the city street but within the expanses of the empire itself: “and then you will be unable to sleep at nights any more […] he will already be out in the province; and if you look—the rural distances will be muttering, whispering there, in the expanse; there, booming and muttering in the rural distances will be—Russia” (Petersburg, 19). For Benjamin, see The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), 895.
  14. Petersburg, 269-270. 
  15. Angeliki Sioli, “Walking in Andrei Bely’s Petersburg: Active Perception and Embodied Experience of the City,” in Walking Histories, 1800-1914, ed. Chad Bryant, Arthur Burns, and Paul Readman (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 277.
  16. Petersburg, 460, 362-3.
  17. Ibid., 460-461. 
  18. Ibid., 463.
  19. Ibid., 461; emphasis mine.
  20. Ibid., 349-350. 
  21. Ibid., 346.
  22. Ibid., 291.
  23. Ibid., 436.
  24. See, for instance, George Bernard Shaw’s “Village Wooing,” which stages a scene of striking synthesis between sensual stimuli, art, and commercial modernity at a shop window.

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