Petersburg as mapped and fantasmic space is both the hero and setting of Andrey Bely's novel (1916), in which many real city locales are named.
The chatty and generally inarticulate narrator of the Prologue tells the reader that Nevsky Prospect is "rectilineal" and "for the circulation of the public," and "if Petersburg is not the capital, then there is no Petersburg. It only appears to exist. However, that may be, Petersburg not only appears to us, but actually does appear – on maps: in the form of two small circles, one set inside the other, with a black dot in the center."¹ We are also told that from this black dot on the map "surges and swarms the printed book," as if to assert the direct affiliation of mapping and novelistic writing.
This meditative drawing by Bely is from the 1910s, the period during which he was writing Petersburg. Though different from the image of the surging book, it represents lines of motion spiraling from a center, with an angel, rather than a dot, serving as the point from which the surging lines emanate. Images of spirals appear in a number of Bely's coeval meditative drawings that he made at the anthroposophist commune in Dornach, Switzerland where he spent considerable time. Anthroposophy, a spiritual doctrine developed by Rudolf Steiner, informs the mystical layer of Petersburg.
Visually, the Prologue establishes the novelistic relation of line, circle, and motion — of rectilineal Petersburg and the novel's multiple expanding and spiraling spheres that counteract linearity. While working on his novel, Bely wrote an essay titled "Line, Circle, Spiral of Symbolism," reflecting his concern with geometric form. What the novel explores in this regard is the antagonism between the linear city and nonlinear modernist narrative.
Although Bely's representation of Petersburg is fluid and at times inexact, the first chapter carefully maps the routes of two of its main characters through the city that set the stage for the novel's terrorist plot. The high government official Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov, the object of this plot, travels to work by carriage from his mansion on the English Embankment, one of the most fashionable locales in Petersburg. Although not named, we deduce it from the topographic context: its location on the Neva River across from Vasilievsky Island next to Nikolaevsky Bridge. The senator's ride takes him past St. Isaac's Cathedral onto Marie Square, site of the equestrian statue of the most repressive Russian emperor, Nicholas I. From there the carriage proceeds to Nevsky Prospect along what we deduce is Morskaya, another fashionable street. You can see his route traced in yellow on the map. After arriving at a busy corner of Nevsky his subsequent path through the city becomes unclear.
At the corner of Nevsky the statesman's path intersects with the terrorist conspirator Alexander Ivanovich Dudkin's. Carrying a bundle with a bomb, he walks from his squalid garret on the Seventeenth Line in the poor working-class neighborhood on Vasilievsky Island far from the Neva. He turns left on the Nikolaevsky Embankment and crosses Nikolaevsky Bridge, tracing the path of the senator up till the St. Isaac's. His path appears on the map in red. While we don't know how he gets to the busy intersection on Nevsky, there the eyes of the two men momentously meet, with Dudkin's "dilating, lighting up, and flashing." Next, we encounter Dudkin in a dingy restaurant on the fashionable Millionnaya Street, where he meets the chief conspirator Lippanchenko who orders him to deliver the bundle to the senator's son, Nikolay Apollonovich (he had earlier agreed to take part in the plot against his father). Dudkin then goes to the Ableukhov mansion, whose location has been switched to the Gagarin Embankment. Walking back to his garret, he passes the Winter Canal and crossing the bridge, notes the looming figure of the Bronze Horseman, equestrian statue of the city's founder Peter the Great, located in front of St. Isaac's. The novelistic chase has been launched.
Three actual public locales on Nevsky Prospect are mentioned in Petersburg: the shop Tait Diamonds, confectionary Ballet, and Farce Theater. Click them to see historical photos of their exact locations on the prospect. Mstislav Dobuzhinsky's 1924 Petersburg Night suggests the phantasmagoric city depicted by Bely in which streets transform people into shadows. The very similar earlier Barbershop Window (1906) with wax dolls Dudkin's reference to Nikolay Apollonovich as a "hairdresser doll: a handsome man made of wax with a timid unpleasant smile on his lips stretched to his ears."
More often than not Bely's representation of the city disavows Petersburg's orderly rectilinearity: streets flow in the veins like a fever; the Bronze Horseman, the city's famed statue, leaves his pedestal, gallops to Dudkin's garret to flow into his veins in metals; and Nevsky becomes an infernal avenue at night: Fiery obfuscation floods the prospect in the evening. Greenish during the day, and now radiant, a shop window opens its jaws wide onto Nevsky; tens, hundreds hellish fiery jaws everywhere; they erupt their bright white light onto the stone; vomit opaque phlegm that looks like flaming rust. And they chew up the prospect with fire, forming yellowish, bloody murk, a mixture of blood and dirt. So from the Finnish swamps the city emerges as a red, red spot, and the spot can be seen from afar in the dark night, a spot of dark red blood, which evokes the image of violence associated with violence and revolution. It is in this passage that Tait Diamonds, whose name is brightly lit, and Farce Theater are referenced.
The image of blood flowing down a wall and creating a puddle below is the subject of Dobuzhinsky's famed October Idyll representing the 1905 revolution that is the backdrop of Bely's Petersburg. It appeared in the satirical journal Zhupel (Bugbear) the same year. Note the shoe and doll of those apparently killed or maimed by a bomb explosion.
¹ Andrey Bely, Petersburg, trans. and ed. Robert A. Maguire and John E. Malmstad (Bloominton: Indiana University Press, 1978). Most of the quoted passages are from this translation.