The Journal Bygone Years and the Concept of "Old Petersburg"

Emily Johnson, Williams College

The journal Bygone Years (Starye gody) was, by all accounts, one of the most popular and influential Russian publications of the early twentieth century. Throughout the ten years it existed, from 1907 to 1916, the magazine helped foster public interest in antiquities of all sorts, glamorized collecting, and mobilized support for preservation work. Although, in principle, Bygone Years covered developments throughout Russia and even, to a certain extent, in Western Europe, the condition of monuments in St. Petersburg and its immediate suburbs always represented a subject of particular concern. Entire issues were regularly devoted to describing the architectural marvels of "old Petersburg." Every month, the magazine's chronicle of current events listed botched restoration projects and other "acts of vandalism" that had taken place in the capital.

In my paper for the conference, I plan to look at the way the phrase "Old Petersburg" is used in the magazine Bygone Years. What exactly were the journal's writers hoping to preserve? Did they have a specific program in mind for controlling development in Russia's Northern capital and, if so, how did they hope to achieve it? I think it is particularly important to return to these questions now in the light of a series of comments that were recently made by Katerina Clark. In her book Petersburg: Crucible of Cultural Revolution, Clark suggests that the principle backers of Bygone Years had a relatively clear vision of how they wanted Petersburg to look and that, in order to realize their grandiose dreams, they required the support of a powerful autocrat.1 In my paper, I plan to take a somewhat different view. I want to show that the writers working for Bygone Years often expressed surprisingly flexible views on aesthetic issues: they acknowledged that tastes changed and that it made sense to preserve the best examples of every artistic style, regardless of how disagreeable it might seem to contemporary critics. I also plan to emphasize the role that the journal played in encouraging public involvement in the arts: the efforts of its staff to create museums and societies, build attendance at exhibits, and find new funding sources for cultural work. The magazine continuously published notes about civic-minded individuals who loaned objects to exhibits and made donations to museums. While some contributions were made by members of the imperial family, most came from private citizens, including many members of the intelligentsia. By promoting a tradition of volunteerism and private support for the arts, the journal Bygone Years helped to set the stage for the vast and very democratic preservation movement that arose in Petersburg immediately after the revolution.

1. See: Katerina Clark, Petersburg: Crucible of Cultural Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995), p. 64; p. 73.