“I Witnessed My City Dying …”: Post-Revolutionary St. Petersburg in Autobiographic and Collective Memory

Among many traumatic experiences of the Revolution of 1917, the realization of the death of St. Petersburg held a special place in the minds of Russian intellectuals. When the appearance of St. Petersburg and its topography (even Nevskij Prospect was renamed) were destroyed, the consciousness of its inhabitants transformed the city into a pre-Revolutionary Petersburg to whose chronotope they returned inevitably in their memories. Hence, the nostalgia and a peculiar development of a retrospective culture, with a marked orientation back from this modern Age of Mud to the Gold and Silver Ages. The death itself, perceived by the contemporaries as both scary and beautiful (“smert′ neobyčajnoj krasoty,” accroding to Mstislav Dobužinskij), was realized as an expiatory sacrifice. Many Russian intellectuals canonized St. Petersburg in its posthumous existence. For them, the city remained as a Museum of cultural treasures, a Library of humanistic thought, and a Sanctuary of national spirit. The problem of the city as collective memory is based on the theory of collective memory elaborated by the French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs and the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotskij. They asserted that all memories were formed and organized within a collective context and that art and literature were among the mechanisms that helped to keep collective memories alive. This study analyzes the belles-lettres, diaries, and memoirs of Anna Axmatova, Jurij Annenkov, Nina Berberova, Aleksandr Blok, Ol′ga Forš, Zinaida Gippius, Sergej Gornyj, Georgij Ivanov, Vladislav Xodasevič, Osip Mandel′štam, Vladimir Milaševskij, Irina Odoevceva, Vsevolod Roždestvenskij, and Konstantin Vaginov as fractions of a shared set of beliefs and experiences. In accordance with the latest research of the American scholar James W. Pennebaker, who has found that individuals and societies look back and reconstruct their past every 20–30 years, the corpus of texts is divided into three chronological sections. Works created as a response to the political turmoil from 1917 till the mid-1920s form the first section. The texts written in the late 1930s–1940 belong to the second group. Finally, the memoirs published in the 1960s and 1970s set the third group. The study focuses on the processes of reconstructing, distorting, and forgetting the past and the patterns of their historic development.