Georgij Ivanov's Petersburg Winters and the Genre of Memoir

Michael Wachtel, Princeton University

With the 1928 publication of Petersburg Winters, Georgij Ivanov succeeded in infuriating fellow emigres in the West as well as his former comrades-in-arms in the Soviet Union (most notably Anna Axmatova, who lashed out at the book at every possible opportunity). Ivanov was taken to task for the numerous inaccuracies in these apparently memoiristic sketches. Very few contemporaries were ready to accept the idea that he was consciously experimenting with the memoir as a genre. Put more pointedly, he was taking the fictive quality inherent in memoir writing and turning it into a guiding principle.

Three recent editions of Petersburg Winters (edited by Nikolaj Bogomolov, Vadim Krejd, and Ol'ga Kuznecova) show that the work has become something of a classic. All three editors have carefully "tested" the veracity of Ivanov's claims against documentary evidence. Their annotations allow one to see clearly the extent to which Ivanov knowingly altered historical fact. All of these editors recognize that Ivanov was consciously stretching the truth (or at times blatantly ignoring it), but none of them attempts to explain why he did so.

In this talk, I plan to explore these motives. Unlike most memoir writers, Ivanov by no means sought to elevate his own status. On the contrary: he generally made himself (and others) look ridiculous. In this way he directly challenged the mythologizing tendencies so characteristic of Russian memoir writing (and Russian cultural memory).

While I will consider several passages, my focus will be on chapter XIII, in which Ivanov "recounts" an event of the winter of 1914, when the Acmeists suddenly decided to brave snow and cold to make a midnight pilgrimage to Carskoe Selo, more precisely, to Annenskij's favorite bench. When they finally arrive, they find that the bench is occupied by a mysterious figure reciting poetry. Initial fear at meeting Annenskij's ghost is quelled when Gumilev identifies this poet as the not-of-this-world Vasilij Komarovskij. The remainder of the chapter concerns the Acmeists' visit to Komarovskij's house, where they read poetry and drink wine.

This entire scene is drawn so dramatically that one can easily read it as a work of pure fiction—and one probably should. According to Sergej Makovskij, Ivanov himself admitted that he had invented the entire episode. But why? The real questions raised in this chapter concern familiar—and important—literary myths: the totemic significance of Carskoe Selo, the position of Annenskij as progenitor of Acmeism, Komarovskij's own role as visionary poet. Ivanov either sidesteps or trivializes virtually every one of these subjects. This in itself is a statement. Ivanov, the minor Acmeist who would develop his own voice in emigration, seems to brush aside traditional narratives of passing on the baton. It is presumably this attitude—as much as the biographical inaccuracies—that so angered Axmatova (who, as Kuznecova points out, subsequently articulated her own free interpretation of the same historical period in Poem Without a Hero).