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Konstantin the Apostate

Никто нам не хотел помочь
За то, что мы остались дома,
За то, что, город свой любя,
А не крылатую свободу,
Мы сохранили для себя
Его дворцы, огонь и воду

Иная близится пора,
Уж ветер смерти сердце студит,
Но нам священный град Петра
Невольным памятником будет.

                        -Anna Akhmatova

No one wanted to help us
Because we stayed home,
Because loving, not freedom
On the wing, but our city,
We preserved for ourselves
Its palaces, fire and water.

Another time draws near,
The wind of death now chills the heart,
But, for us, the sacred city of Peter
Will be an unintended gravestone.


by Chris Lovett

A coffin-maker, not someone who builds cradles. This was the author of Satyr Chorus. At age 27, ten years after the October Revolution, Konstantin Konstantinovich Vaginov set out to write a book of the dead. He was old enough to have grown up at the height of the "Silver Age" in Russian literature. He was also young enough to see war and revolution give way to the slippery compromises that preceded hard-line Stalinism. More importantly, Vaginov may have also known how little time he had for taking his measure of Russia's mutability: even as he was writing Satyr Chorus, he knew his life would be cut short by tuberculosis. He died in 1934, just as Stalin's reign of terror was intensifying. Though the cradle-makers failed to enlist Vaginov in their collection of dead souls, they did postpone his immortality. For thirty years after his death, his work remained in almost total oblivion.

Written between 1925 and 1927, and published over the objections of government censors, Satyr Chorus is Vaginov's first novel. Its characters are based on members of an intellectual circle grouped around the philosopher and literary theorist Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin (1895-1975). As writers, scholars and artists, they try to match and carry on the influential role of Russia's intelligentsia in the last decades before the October Revolution. Their everyday perceptions and cultural cross-references allow Vaginov to use contemporary Leningrad as a window on a larger world extending through space and time, even as far as ancient Rome and the world of mythology. But his characters are also former people in a former capital, under a new government that was changing its stance toward the intelligentsia from ambivalent courtship to outright domination. Some of them would be mired in obscurity and mediocrity, while others would suffer some degree of persecution. Bakhtin himself would spend much of his life in exile after members of his group were arrested in 1929.

As a society in transition, post-revolutionary Russia of the 1920’s was in some ways a reverse of the post-communist Russia of the 1990's. Under the New Economic Policy (NEP) introduced by Lenin after the civil war, the socialist path to a communist future went hand in hand with the practice of day-to-day capitalism. From the outset, NEP was supposed to have been a temporary response to shortages of goods and skills. Those shortages nourished a black market and fostered a market mentality obsessed with hoarding and speculation--a mentality shared by many of Vaginov's characters and, in some respects, the author himself. But NEP also had a parallel in government relations with artists and thinkers. The wave of innovation that started before World War I was, to some extent, allowed to continue, especially when new kinds of art and new ways of engaging the public coincided with government needs for propaganda. This tolerance for experimentation gave writers freedom to sometimes irreverently finesse ideology. Just as important, experimentation also meant breaking down barriers between “high” art and popular art, propaganda, entertainment, and even advertising.

The historical background for Satyr Chorus is the death of an empire, announced by two prologues, about Petersburg and Leningrad. The old city is evoked here without nostalgia, as something shallow, hallucinatory, even chimerical. If the chapters to come, as the author insists, have little to do with Leningrad, the fallen empire that concerns Vaginov is not strictly historical or political. Among his characters, the empire is a dream of greatness, whether as cultural immortality or some notion of Russia's utopian mission. By the end of the novel, the empire shrinks to the diminished possibilities and compromises of survival, or even a failure to survive. The progression is also from the more sublime to the more trivial, the more genuine to the more counterfeit.

The St. Petersburg poet Alexander Blok was quick to seize upon the Great War and ensuing revolution as an abrupt turning point for European culture. In his 1919 lecture, "The Collapse of Humanism,” Blok considered the revolutions of the 19th and early 20th centuries an eruption of the authentic "wild music" of culture, as opposed to the weakening resistance he defined as "civilization." He called on the Russian intelligentsia to ally itself with the new culture taking shape from the masses, like the Christianity that superseded the paganism of the Roman Empire (as famously signaled in the 1918 poem, "The Twelve"). For the time being, Blok said, only a few people would have an ear for what he called the "music of the revolution." Guided by a tragic sense of the whole that eluded the optimists of civilization, and meeting with resistance or incomprehension, they would be what Blok called "living catacombs of culture." And he believed they would also attune themselves to the true music of culture, not by sleepwalking along a straight, chronological line of progress, but waking from the "age-old sleep of civilization" to the frenzied rhythm of recurrence and connection that transcends the grid of "calendar time."

But most of the events in Satyr Chorus take place a few years after the death of Blok, amid a political environment that seems less dominated by the "music of revolution" than its antithesis, whether seen in conformists working for the government, or the entrepreneurs of NEP. Some of Vaginov’s characters look down upon them as the new philistines. With their loyalty to humanism, Vaginov’s neo-paganists appear sometimes like courageous heroes, at others like hapless eccentrics out of touch with everyday reality. Are they Blok’s "catacombs of culture," or the coffin-builder's containers for a culture whose time has passed?

As Vaginov makes clear in the first full chapter of Satyr Chorus, the rhythm of cultural time is not to be confused with the progression of historical time, and the story begins with the eternal alternation of starry nights and white nights. If the Russian empire lingers physically in Leningrad as ruins, dislocations, and souvenirs, Vaginov’s characters have their personal empires. For some, these are worlds of intellectual and creative refuge, while for others, there are tokens of lost status, whether a military uniform or (for “intellectual grandeur”) a gypsum bust of Wagner. For the first character to appear, the scholar Teptyolkin, the empire is the tower—represented figuratively by his library, then more picturesquely by his gathering with friends amid the splendors of the imperial palace grounds at Petergof. While at this summer retreat 25 miles from Leningrad, they stay at a nearby dacha left behind by its vanished wealthy owners—a building looted for materials but still with an actual tower.

For one of the other central characters, the unknown poet, the empire ranges more freely through wide stretches of time and spheres of metaphor. In the early chapters, it is hard to see the line between bouts of physical intoxication—be it from alcohol or cocaine—and the transports that empower creative vision. By the end of the novel, the intoxicants are presented more clinically, and any detour from day-to-day reality is only a hallucination. But, unlike Teptyolkin, who adapts to exterior realities with declining enthusiasm and leaves the tower farther behind, the unknown poet goes over to the other side, choosing the mental exile of madness, even while physically (like the body of a zombie) haunting the city of his past.

While the characters in Satyr Chorus are split between their empires and their surroundings, one other figure lives strictly in the present: the author. Not to be confused with Vaginov himself, the author in the book observes and chronicles the lives of other characters, even occasionally showing the work in progress or disputing with them about how it should be written. But, for all his dispassionate curiosity, he is a less than perfect observer, and his narrative judgment is not necessarily shared by Vaginov himself at all times. Furthermore, his presence in the novel alerts the reader that the other characters know they are being observed. If nothing else, this makes any notion of fictional truth more elusive and breaks up the narrative plane in a way analogous to the visual tectonics of Russian artists in the early 20th century.

Multiple authors and multiple prologues are also found in the work of Vaginov’s contemporary, Mikhail Zoshchenko, especially in the Sentimental Tales. In Zoshchenko, the prologues function almost as a hedge against censorship, all but apologizing for a failure to reflect the positive aspects of life under Socialism. While allowing that readers should demand “real revolutionary content, grand themes, planetary tasks and heroic pathos,” Zoshchenko’s fictional proxy makes an excuse for his “peculiar emotional characteristics and humoristic tendencies.” The result is writing that “describes a person, how he lives, what he’s doing, and, for example, where he’s headed.”

Besides distinguishing between a basic notion of realism and what would become even more dogmatic as “Socialist Realism,” Zoshchenko allows that the persons he writes about are not exactly average. Instead, they are the “petty, weak people,” in a book about a “pathetic life on the way out.” In another work of the mid-to-late 1920’s, Yuri Olesha’s Envy, the difference between the old and new is more polarized, and its narration, by Kavalerov, is emotionally skewed by the feeling of resentment.

By contrast, the composite narrative in Satyr Chorus seems, if often disenchanted, more detached. In the first prologue, “on the threshold of the book,” Vaginov’s author renounces his dream of St. Petersburg, with its own dreamers of separate dreams and poses. In the next prologue, while “in the middle of the book,” he declares himself a coffin-maker for his fellow mortals and his own life. Rather than rising to the task of building a new Soviet world (as a maker of cradles, in a Leningrad known as the "cradle of the revolution"), he can at least try to gather elements of the past and put them in a container. If the narrative in Satyr Chorus sometimes has the self-effacing discretion of an undertaker, there are also times when it is hard to tell where gravitas crosses the line to mock grandeur.

In the opening chapter, Teptyolkin prefers to see the rot and ruins of the past as the makings of a new perfection, the scholar’s idea of a “lofty Renaissance.” In this, he is somewhat like the frustrated inventor in Envy, Ivan Petrovich Babichyov, who wants to convert the wreckage of the old world, with its discredited urges and emotions (the “conspiracy of feelings”), into an amazing new machine. “The end of an epoch, a time of transition,” Ivan Petrovich says, “requires its legends and fairy tales.” For Teptyolkin, the new wonder is the work of the unknown poet. For Ivan Petrovich, his channeling of the “old world” and its “bearers of a decadent mindset” is like a fixture of modern times—the light bulb:

And if you give this burned-out bulb a shake, it will flare up once again and it will glow for a certain time. Inside the bulb, it’s still going to pieces (происходит крушение). The tungsten filaments are being shattered, and from the fragments scraping against each other, the bulb comes back to life. A brief, artificial, indisguisably doomed life – a fever, an excessively bright incandescence, a flash. Then comes darkness, life doesn’t return, and in the darkness there will only be the clink of dead, burned out filaments. You with me? But the brief flash is beautiful!

For all their professed desire to present things as they are, Vaginov, Olesha and Zoshchenko write about characters who are at least ambivalent about their time and place. As people with dreams and towers, the characters of Satyr Chorus often choose the artificial—even the fake—over the real. In this they are like one more character of the late 1920’s, the Kovalyov in Shostakovich’s opera based on The Nose. In a telling departure from the original story by Gogol, Kovalyov, while getting a shave, tells his barber in the opening scene that his hands stink. It is this affront to reality, the fatal disconnect, that leads to the loss of his nose.

By alluding to the opening of Berg’s Wozzeck (successfully premiered in Leningrad in 1927), Shostakovich turns an operatic convention on its head. Instead of revolving around a new Figaro, as heir to the comic heroes of opera buffa—the servants as masters—the main character of The Nose is enthroned on the barber’s chair. Rather than asserting human dignity, he is reduced to asserting his right to human appearance, only to find that what is assumed to be natural depends on something more artificial—status. Even if the notion of status for Vaginov’s characters makes little claim on material goods or political power, it is one more case of the artificial to be played off against the coffin builder’s facts of life, which also include feelings about status and its loss. And this is the same tension that straddles the line between comedy and tragedy in Dead Souls.

In one other parallel with Vaginov, Ivan Petrovich imagines his invention as a theater performance, with players “in the comedy of the old world” forming a chorus. “I want to be the intermediary between them and the hall of spectators,” he says. “I will direct the chorus and be the last to leave the stage.” The passage is very similar to the original ending of Satyr Chorus, whose title evokes theater with its literal translation of the Greek words for tragedy: the goat song or ode sung by goat-footed satyrs. Like tragic heroes, Vaginov’s characters have their elements of superiority and their tragic flaws. And they share some of the blame for their dilemma--the disconnect between pre-revolutionary humanism and post-revolutionary reality. Since they are hardly people of action, their role in any tragedy would most likely be that of onlookers. Like members of a chorus, they make their commentaries, whether directly on events of their time or by channeling pronouncements of other times.

In ancient Greece, tragedies were performed in tandem with "satyr plays" that lampooned mythological gods and heroes in colloquial language. In a similar spirit is the Satyricon of Petronius, an example of a Menippean satire, which (not unlike Satyr Chorus) combines prose narrative, verse and digressions on literary criticism and philosophy. Though some Vaginov's characters see a parallel between the passing of the Russian empire and the fall of Rome, there might be a closer parallel to the time depicted in the Satyricon, when the Roman republic and its aristocratic order was replaced by a new cast of rulers and people on the rise.

For Symbolist poets in France, and most notably Mallarmé, the satyr marks a border between the material world of mortals and the realm of mythological prototypes. Though part human and part animal, the satyr is also immortal. In Mallarmé’s treatment, this immortal tries to materialize, but also to engage with and finally perpetuate what is persistently elusive, whether this is understood in erotic terms as two nymphs (sometimes classified as mortal deities) or more hermetically as “la faute idéal des roses.” The satyr also functions as an artist, trying to conjure a vision or dream by a combination of words, music, and wine—much like Vaginov’s post-Symbolist unknown poet and, with more sobriety, Teptyolkin.

Other precursors to Satyr Chorus can be found in what was said to have been one of Vaginov's favorite books, Walter Pater's Imaginary Portraits. One section of Imaginary Portraits deals with the life of Antoine Watteau, the 18th century French painter famed for his fêtes galantes, portraying historical or mythological themes in the guise of people and costumes from pre-revolutionary Paris. In his L'embarquement pour Cythère, with its 18th century pilgrims in an exotic setting, details of everyday life at its most fashionable have a rendez-vous with mythology, even if the connection is less attained than evoked by suggestion and symbol. In Satyr Chorus, there are some parallels with the painting in the chapter about the gathering in Petergof, which is Russia's counterpart to Versailles. Watteau was also noted for his interest in performers in the tradition of commedia dell' arte, a tradition that inspired Molière and--much later--the overlap of characters and prototypes in the novels of Vaginov.

Though the contemporaries deployed in Satyr Chorus originate in the ancienne régime of Vaginov's St. Petersburg, a similar mythological subtext can be found in another figure from the portraits, Denys l'Auxerrois, described by Pater as a kind of "Wine-god" returned from the east. The appearance of Denys in the village of Auxerres during the Middle Ages coincides with the discovery of ancient coffin, which contains a green glass ("like a great emerald") lined with the residue of what may have been wine from ancient Rome, or what Pater calls "the riotous and earthy heat of old paganism itself." The discovery leads to strange events, including an uprising of common folk in a "revolution" that begins with euphoria. After events take a more ominous turn, Denys leaves the village under suspicion but later returns, to the safer confines of a monastery. While there, he seemingly inspires the monks to higher artistic artistic endeavors, among them an Ovid manuscript with graphic treatments showing ancient myths in medieval guise. For his own project, Denys builds an organ with pipes made from reeds (the satyr's instrument), combining "simple and pastoral" sounds with a "wild, savage din," in an exquisite instrument that would be like the "book of his life."

After the organ is heard for the first time, there is a festival, with winter being symbolically hunted in the village streets. Denys becomes the quarry, and the frenzied crowd tears him apart, making off with pieces of his flesh and clothing. Pater's narrative anticipates what happens in a more comical way after the suicide of Vaginov's unknown poet. In his early 20th century manner, the poet comes the closest of Vaginov's characters to embodying a Denys or an earlier Dionysus, the man in the vine-tangled tapestry that Pater calls a "suffering, tortured figure" with "all the regular beauty of a pagan god." And the tapestry itself is a frenzied swirl of figures set to music from the organ--the music of ancient Greece, transposed to the Middle Ages and later re-choreographed by Vaginov as the satyr song.

In Blok’s writings of 1918-19, wild, dissonant music describes the upheavals of revolution to be channeled by a new kind of artist, with a tragic sensibility and heightened receptivity to the trans-rational power of myth.  A decade later, Zoshchenko comes closer to the literal braying of a goat song when he equates the dissonance of his stories with backwardness and political incorrectness. In one prologue, he allows that the stories will strike some critics as the shrill music “of a squealing flute, some kind of offensive, sentimental rubbish.” Though the disclaimer may not have been meant or taken altogether at face value, the terms suggest one more change in times. Even the characters in Satyr Chorus themselves fear their author will present them, not as radiant and heroic, but as politically flawed or simply mundane.

Years later, Bakhtin would sum up the story of Teptyolkin as "the tragedy of a laughable man." Bakhtin recognized the elements of real life and real people that formed the basis of the book, but also a wider dimension. "And there now," said Bakhtin, "unfolds Vaginov's splendid gift: on the one side, the detailing, the most subtle nuances; and, on the other side, the extraordinary breadth of the horizon, almost cosmic. And it is that uniqueness that unfolds in Teptyolkin."

It can be said that Vaginov describes the process of creating Satyr Chorus in his next novel, Works and Days of Svistonov, named for an author who produces fiction by rearranging elements of real life. When real people see  their transformations in Svistonov's work in progress--especially when they react  negatively--they are changed again, and so is the novel, and even the author himself. In their different ways, they all try to represent life (their own or someone else's), define it, and transform it, so they are all authors as well as characters.

Unlike Satyr Chorus, Works and Days of Svistonov has fewer overt allusions to changes in social and political climate. But there are vivid elements of everyday life--from the city's canals to a painstaking inventory of personal  memorabilia, and even the details of a cottage industry in fake jewelry. In search of a garden, Svistonov instead finds a lost inner paradise brought back to life: the scene at three o'clock in the morning in a bar, where an old man is brought to tears when a motley ensemble performs an early 19th century Baratynski romance set to music by Glinka, "Don't Tempt Me Needlessly." Yet, for every overlap between author and character, between the real and the unreal, there is also a disconnect. The vignette from the bar registers a failed connection (not unlike the original song itself). If the novel's impressions of Leningrad/St. Petersburg can strike a reader as faithfully picturesque, they can also leave the author himself, on a given occasion, utterly indifferent. No matter how much similarity there is between an author's experience and material for a novel, there is still a difference, even if mainly of perspective. As Svistonov put it, the author's mission was to make the difference part of the story, by shifting perspective and showing the world as if from outside of a particular time:

Svistonov wrote in the past tense, sometimes in the remote past. As if what he described had come to an end long before, as if he captured not a vibrant reality, but a long foregone semblance. He wrote about his epoch just as another writer would have written about times remote and not familiar enough to his reader.  Occurrences of everyday life were generalized without being individualized. Without suspecting, he described contemporary life with a historic method, uncommonly insulting to to his contemporaries.

For another figure in Pater's Imaginary Portraits, Duke Carl of Rosemold (described as a precursor of Johann Wolfgang von Gœthe), engaging with the past through "informing thought" was a way to increase understanding: "To understand, would be the indispensable first step towards the enlargement of the great past, of one's little present, by criticism, by imagination." Though that might also describe the mission of a character such as Teptyolkin, Vaginov shows that a character's life can be a different story. In the unfolding of chronological time in Satyr Chorus, Teptyolkin’s vision of rebirth—the phoenix or firebird—finally becomes an unsymbolic survivor: a pigeon with its burned-out grey plumage. His imaginary ancient literary double, Philostratus, grows old and fades away. Even the author in the novel can finally be overruled, as when Vaginov adds one more version of what finally happens to Teptyolkin and Philostratus:

And there on his deathbed, Tepyolkin was overtaken by a frightful thought—he understood that, for the sake of people, he abandoned the lofty Renaissance and, pale, with eyes ablaze, he rose and felt that his ideas were beautiful, but that his reason had been clouded for many years by the insignificance of people, that he extended the insignificance of people into ideas, into prototypes that were by no means insignificant; and there, in all his glory, appeared a Philostratus, not historic, but rather symbolic and luminiferous.

In Works and Days of Svistonov, the author himself meets an ending that's more prosaic:

With each day, he felt things around him were thinning out. For him, the places he had described turned into a wasteland. For him, the people he knew lost all interest.

Each one of his heroes dragged in his wake whole legions of people. Each description became like the idea of a whole series of localities.

The more he reflected on the novel that had emerged from printing, the more the fragmentation, the more the emptiness that surrounded him.


In the end, he felt he had been terminally shut inside his novel.



Vaginov was born in St. Petersburg in 1899. His mother was the daughter of a wealthy Siberian businessman and landowner. His father, a high-ranking security official for Nicholas II, was descended from Germans who came to Russia in the 17th century. During the First World War, the family name was changed from "Wagenheim" and given a Russian ending. Following his father's wishes, Vaginov began studying law in 1917. Studies were interrupted by the civil war, when Vaginov served in the Red Army, at the Polish front and east of the Urals. After he returned to Petrograd, he was not allowed to continue study at the university, because of his father's ties to the old regime. Instead, he continued studies at the Institute of History of the Arts. He also joined the circle of writers around the poet, Nikolai Gumilyov, known as the Guild of Poets, which met at the House of the Arts on the Moika. A world traveler and decorated war hero with clear monarchist sympathies, Gumilyov was executed in 1921, after being accused of plotting against the government. In 1926, Vaginov married another writer from the group, Alexandra Ivanovna Fedorova.

Despite Vaginov’s privileged background, there was also conflict with his father. Some of that may have reflected uneasy relations between his parents, but there was clearly a conflict over his decision to pursue a literary career. Vaginov was also part of a new generation of intellectuals that felt on the threshold of a break with the past, even before the upheavals of war and revolution. As a near contemporary and fellow member of the Guild of Poets, Nine Berberova, described her own coming of age in St. Petersburg, “I grew up in Russia in the years when there was no doubt that, sooner or later, the old world would collapse and no one seriously stood up for old principles—in any case, in the milieu in which I grew up.”

By that time, even writers who had supported some forms of revolutionary change were becoming disillusioned or even going into exile. Along with the almost universal privations of life under “War Communism,” writers were faced with a new regime of censorship which, short of outright persecution, could materially threaten their survival. Gumilyov was arrested in early August, 1921, and executed three weeks later. Four days after the arrest came the death of Blok, after months of physical and creative decline. In February of that year, in a lecture on Pushkin, Blok made a final stand asserting the autonomy of poetry from dictates of bureaucrats. Drawing a parallel between the new regime and censorship under Nicholas I, Blok said Pushkin was killed, not by a bullet, but by the asphyxiation of creativity. Switching to the present tense, Blok accused bureaucrats of stifling creativity, in the name of service to the general public. “And the poet dies,” said Blok, “because there is nothing for him to breathe; life has lost its meaning.” According the one writer in the audience, Kornei Chukovsky, Blok’s indictment of the regime was unmistakable. “It was said so openly,” Chukovsky wrote, “that some didn’t understand.”

In the lecture, “On the Purpose of the Poet,” Blok used Pushkin as the prototype of a tragic role. Ideally, the poet channels the true, secret harmonies that are hidden by the distractions and constructs of everyday life. That requires an absence of internal and external constraints, the “peace” that allows the poet’s “secret will” to create. By interfering with a poet’s ability to reach a general public, censors were also extending their power beyond a single poet’s lifetime. With this sense of tradition behind him, Blok argued, poetry was more than just a question of individual talent. As he said of Pushkin’s death in the lecture, “His culture died with him.”

The same was said six months later, after the death of Blok, an event observed with near silence by the government and an absence of orations at the funeral. “Most horrible,” wrote Chukovsky, “was that, with Blok, Russian literature was finished.” Like Vaginov, Berberova attended the funeral, walking in a procession from Blok’s home on the Pryazhka to Smolensk Cemetery on Vasilyev Island. In her view, “probably there was not one person—not even for a moment—who did not think that not only Blok had died, but this city, that its particular power over people and the history of an entire people was coming to an end, that a period was coming to an end, that a cycle of Russian fates was concluding, an epoch coming to a stop, to begin whirling toward other periods.”

Vaginov’s first collection of poetry, “Journey to Chaos,” dates from 1921, when he was part of the “Ego-Futurist” group of poets known as the K.M. Fofanov Circle. As the literary scholar Sergei Kibalnik notes, the collection shows mixed influences—the Symbolism of Blok and the Futurism of Mayakosky. Though exposure to the Acmeism espoused by Gumilyov would count as one more influence, Kibalnik says Vaginov felt a “special reverence” for the work of Blok. One mark of respect was when Vaginov was part of a group that accompanied Blok home from a literary evening at the House of the Arts. A more relevant connection is the degree to which both writers made St. Petersburg the center of their creative universe.

Vaginov’s other collections of poetry were published in 1926 and 1931. His first prose works, "The Monastery of Our Lord Apollo" and "The Star of Bethlehem," were published in 1922. Satyr Chorus was Vaginov's first novel. It was published in 1927 and followed by two other complete novels--Works and Days of Svistonov (1929) and Bambocciada (1931). As Vaginov's health declined, he worked on the novel, Harpagoniana, which was left incomplete. Shortly before his death, he started work on a novel that was set in the earlier revolutionary year of 1905. The materials for that work were confiscated by the authorities.

During the 1920's, Vaginov became affiliated with a number of writers' groups, including the left avant-garde collective of writers known as The Association of Real Creativity (in Russian, by the acronym "OBERIU"). Founded in 1928, OBERIU was based at an institute launched by the artist Kazimir Malevich, and its most famous member was the absurdist writer Daniil Kharms. The spirit of OBERIU probably encouraged Vaginov to see new artistic possibilities in the random debris of everyday life. The group has been described as absurdist before its time, but the writer Vladimir Uflyand insists the "Oberiuti" (who also referred to themselves as "cigarette butts") were the true realists: "They wrote what they saw. And, all around them, they saw the sheer absurdity called the dictatorship of the proletariat."

The author of the controversial Shostakovich memoirs, Solomon Volkov, placed OBERIU in the Russian tradition of the "holy fool." An eccentric who communicates in code, the holy fool, or "yurodivy," speaks truths that would be off-limits to normal people. "For these modern yurodivye," wrote Volkov, "the world lay in ruins and the attempt to build a new society was--at least for the time being--an obvious failure. They were naked people on a naked earth. The lofty values of the past had been discredited. New ideals, they felt, could be affirmed only 'in reverse.' They would have to be conveyed through a screen of mockery, sarcasm, and foolishness."

For Kharms, one screen that made foolishness, absurdity and fantasy less objectionable was the genre of children's literature. In Satyr Chorus, it could be said there are multiple screens or masks. These include the layers of prototypes, but even the use of intoxicants (literal and figurative) allowing characters to plot an existence beyond the coordinates of normal reality. If the mask of absurdity or dysfunctional behavior allows them to speak with more freedom, and maybe even prophetically, there is a risk to credibility. The whimsical nature of experimental writing that marked a cutting edge innovation in the 1920’s—for example, with Surrealists in Paris—had another side in the Soviet Union, where Vaginov’s works showed the other side of the cutting edge could be a decline into trivialization, neglect, or political cooptation.

A few years before Satyr Chorus, as Bakhtin recalled, Vaginov pushed the limits of the publishable when he wrote a thinly allegorical poem equating the death of the "great, far-flung empire" with the rise of a new Asiatic horde obediently charging behind red flags and the new heathen power rising in the Kremlin, "Mohammed Ulyan" (Lenin). The political tilt is uncharacteristically explicit, at least by comparison with Vaginov's later works. As Bakhtin put it in his recollections about Vaginov: "You see, there wasn't anybody totally neutral, because life wasn't neutral, and a neutral corner was practically non-existent. Overall, he was a solitary person, that is to say a profoundly neutral person, in and of himself as a person, but life--that wasn't neutral."

Despite the shortness of his life, Vaginov managed to assemble his work on a literary foundation that was broad and deep. Part of this foundation was the canon of Russian classics by writers such as Pushkin and Gogol. A more direct influence came from the artists and thinkers who flourished around the turn of century in what is known as Russia's Silver Age. The leading movement among Russian writers at this time was Symbolism. The movement was influenced by counterparts from abroad--by the literature of France and the idealist philosophy of Germany, but also by Russian thinkers, most notably the religious philosopher Vladimir Solovyov.

Overall, Symbolism was a reaction against the more materialist approach to literature in the 19th century novel, as in the works of Tolstoy, Dickens and Flaubert. As formulated in Verlaine's "Art Poétique," Symbolism favored music over matter: nuance, vagueness, and suggestion, as opposed to color, rhetoric and the prefabricated upholstery of style. In the words of another French Symbolist, Baudelaire (mentioned by the young Vaginov as one of his favorite poets), the mission of the artist was to show the way to a higher reality by deciphering the "correspondences" between different levels of reality. For Silver Age writers such as Blok and Andrei Bely, St. Petersburg was the consummate Symbolist vehicle: a microcosm of larger, and sometimes conflicting, worlds, symbolically extended over time and space.

Culturally cosmopolitan and well-grounded in the humanities, Russian Symbolists were less reliable as guides through social upheavals in the years ahead. In A History of Russian Literature, Victor Terras wrote, "Like romanticism, too, Russian symbolism was an elitist movement. The reintegration of Russian poetry into western literature came at the expense of giving up on narodnost (the traditionally Russian and popular) in art. Both romanticism and symbolism, in spite of a fondness for folk traditions and folk poetry, gave little thought to a better life for the people. The symbolists' returning of the individual to a position of absolute value inevitably happened at the expense of literature's social concerns..."

An offshoot of Symbolism, and a reaction against it, was Acmeism, a movement that took shape in the years just before World War I. Including poets such as Nikolai Gumilyov, Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelshtam, the Acmeists were more interested in depicting tangible realities with precision and with exploring correspondences among words themselves. Keenly aware of the limitations of language, the Acmeists (not unlike Imagists) could still be cryptic or ambitious in mythical and literary cross-references.

In his diaries, Chukovsky showed one version of the difference between Symbolism and Acmeism in a debate between Gumilyov and Blok. According to Gumilyov, the Symbolists were, for the most part, hucksters, “specialists in insights into the world beyond.” Or, as he puts it metaphorically, they hoist and twirl a dumbbell with a label saying 10 pounds, but whose weights are actually hollow. Blok’s response was that hucksterism was a fault of second-rate talents in all schools. He accused Gumilyov of being too much the disengaged literary craftsperson, rather than a writer also grounded in politics and social engagement.

In the work of writers such as Mandelshtam, Acmeism can be seen as a way of taking the free-ranging nature of Symbolism to another dimension, by challenging the definition of the word as a mere signifier of things--material or transcendent. "The living word doesn't designate an object," wrote Mandelshtam, "but freely chooses, for a dwelling, as it were, this or that objective significance, materiality, or beloved body."

This definition of the "living word," of the word that assumed but extended beyond a single meaning, resembles the formulations of characters in Satyr Chorus, especially the unknown poet. For him, the word embodied the autonomy of art at its fundamental level. Used in this way, the word was too elusive and volatile to serve as a tool of propaganda, but capable of being the subversive undertone that Blok recognized as the "wild music" of culture. Besides being a literary notion, the volatility of the word also reflected Vaginov’s time and place, with its upheaval in social order and the resulting shake-up in language.

Roughly contemporaneous with Acmeism were the Futurists, a loosely defined grouping that went as far as simply "no ideas" or the nullification of art, even using words that were "beyond sense," without a place in the dictionary. With their provocative performance tactics, the Futurists could attract large crowds. And, although the movement included major writers such as Mayakovsky, its legacy might have less to do with surviving works themselves than its challenge to the growing barrier between the specialists of high art and the general public. The need to break down the barrier led in different directions--one of which was toward the quirky eclecticism of the post-revolutionary avant-garde. The prevailing direction would finally be determined by the Soviet government. In the manifesto written for the OBERIU, Vaginov's colleague Daniil Kharms tried to meet the most appealing challenge of socialist realism--the demand for an art that was accessible to everyone, "even a student in a village school." But Kharms thought it would be a mistake to demand only that kind of art while "the reading public of the first Proletarian State pores over the translated fiction of a western bourgeois writer." Instead, Kharms called for creating, not only a new poetic language, but a new way of sensing the world and its objects. "And the world," he wrote, "cluttered with the languages of a multitude of fools, tangled in the mire of 'experiences' and 'emotions,' is now reborn in all the purity of its concrete, virile forms."

Although Kharms and other OBERIU artists are often referred to as absurdists, he was eager to renounce the absurdity of "trans-sense" writing. If he was challenging the mainstream canon passed down from the 19th century, Kharms was, like many artists in western Europe, also reacting against Symbolism and Expressionism, in favor of what might be called a Russian version of the German "New Objectivity" (Neue Sachlichkeit). As he wrote in "The OBERIU Manifesto":

In our works we broaden and deepen the meaning of the object and the word, but in no way destroy it. The concrete object, shorn of its literary and customary rind, is made worthy of art. In poetry, this object is expressed by the collision of verbal meanings with the precision of a mechanic. Are you, as it were, beginning to protest that this isn't the object we see in life? Come up closer and touch it with your fingers. Look at the object with your naked eyes and you will see it for the first time stripped of its dilapidated literary gilding. Maybe you will maintain that our subjects are "unreal" and "unlogical?" But who said everyday logic is necessary for art? We're struck by the beauty of a woman in a painting, despite the fact that, contrary to the logic of anatomy, the artist has dislocated the heroine's shoulder blade and moved it aside. Art has its own logic and doesn't destroy the object, but helps comprehend it.

The "collision of verbal meanings" clearly resembles Vaginov's "experiments with the juxtaposition of words," and both hinge on the volatility of the word described by Mandelshtam. The goal of mechanical precision betokens an affinity with Constructivism, which can be viewed as a salute to the new political and economic order, or as a rival artistic order in its own right. By affirming the autonomy of art--affirmed a decade earlier by Blok in the name of revolution, Kharms puts himself at odds with the demand of socialist realism that art should serve another agenda while staying more or less within bounds of everyday logic.

In his article, "Vaginov's Experiments," Alexei Purin saw the beginning of Vaginov's series of novels in 1925 as a turning point embodied by the mental split between the sublime Philostratus and the sometimes pathetically human Teptyolkin. That "bifurcation" is reinforced by the presence of an "author" in the book who tries to record the words and actions of characters, but also transposes those elements into another context. In such a way, Vaginov juxtaposes transmigratory and eternal culture, whether in a character's mind or represented through architecture, with the everyday world of transience, obsolescence and tastelessness.

Purin diagnoses the new direction as a "metaphysical suicide" that may have been Vaginov's response to political pressure on writers for more engagement in the world around them in the Soviet Union. Rather than following the norms of socialist realism, Vaginov splices the doings of his main characters--the people of "The Tower"--with nameless emissaries of the street: a vendor peddling sunflower seeds, a gypsy telling fortunes, a singing beggar or a promenading pigeon. These elements are presented with little more than a passing glance, less a matter of bringing the reader closer to the external world than creating more distance from the internal world of Vaginov's characters. Taking the novels as a group, Purin sees them moving on a path of self-trivialization, as main characters degenerate from literati of the earlier books to eccentrics, charlatans and alcoholics. Even by the end of Satyr Chorus, Teptyolkin goes far enough down this path to wonder if there is any real difference between scholarship and the drudgery of a clerk. But, by raising this question, Teptyolkin creates one more juxtaposition and distances himself from both definitions.

Another possible explanation of the turning point is that Vaginov found in prose an alternative to a poetry that one critic, Alexander Skidan, described as a kind of dead end, a scheme of multiple meanings he compared to the "collapse of the figurative" in Malevich's painting, Black Square. "In the same way," Skidan argues, Vaginov "takes classical poetry to its logical conclusion, to the formula of collapse, on top of that, literally, but together with that--and here lies an essential distinction between him and Malevich--he plays out this conclusion in the construction of the text, anticipating in just that way the latest practice, the practice of the most miniscule molecular breakdowns, scrambling idiom and, in the words of Félix Guattari, capable of shaking up the dominant polyphony, whether the 'arrangement of the already classified' or the 'arrangement of the classic.'"

Skidan also calls this art interpreting art by means of art, or what Vaginov himself may have intended by calling himself in a work dating from 1922 "a poet of tragic amusement." The term "amusement" (забава) has some relation to the neoclassical trends of the 1920's, notably in the work of Stravinsky. But Skidan sees the flight from chaos to artifice as another dead end: "At the end of their creative path, both Vaginov and Malevich arrive at their own kind of quasi-classicism, in whose deathly monstrosity there distinctly comes out a melancholy or monumental onslaught of self-parody." The way out of the cloister of self-parody was opening the door to a collision between the formulism of poetry and the random, anecdotal elements of prose and everyday life. For two other members of the Bakhtin Circle--Baktin himself and Pavel Medvedev--the way out during the same time was to develop a theory of literature based mainly on study of the novel.

It might be misleading to say Vaginov came to his turning point all that abruptly. Like the characters in Satyr Chorus, and the friends and acquaintances on which they were based, he was a student of both high culture and popular culture. Aside from Russian and classical western European literature, Vaginov also read works in French, Italian and Spanish. He knew the works of Freud, Spengler and Joyce, but his eclectic reading also ranged from Poe and DeQuincey to Nat Pinkerton detective novels. He was an avid collector of rare books, many of them bought second-hand on the street after the libraries of wealthy families had been plundered or ransacked. Like the unknown poet, he collected coins as a child, and, like his connoisseur of tackiness, Kostya Rotikov, he also collected candy wrappers, food labels and cigarette boxes. In a period when artifacts of high culture and commercialism could be looked upon as trash, and where the trashy was sometimes idealized, Vaginov cultivated a mania for collection, a mania that can be seen as a response to his day and a forerunner of post-modern "throwaway culture." Even long before Vaginov there is the ultimate collector prototype in Russian literature--Chichikov, the itinerant buyer of deeds to dead serfs in Gogol's Dead Souls. And, before Chichikov, there are the most famed collectors among Russia's rulers--Peter I and Catherine II.

As a collector of collectors, even as a collector of junk, Vaginov also compiled a snapshot of his time, much as Joyce had built a ubiquitous and timeless odyssey from scraps of one day in the life of Dublin. And, unlike a skilled photograph with artistic pretensions, a snapshot with little mechanical skill or artistic purpose can be a more authentic flashback. Vaginov's intent to preserve that authenticity from the ravages of time and political falsification is not so far removed from the impulse behind the most glorious monuments of St. Petersburg. As Victor Shirokov wrote, "For Vaginov, the problem of human immortality came down to the problem of the immortality of the individual, and these were the paths available: immortality through literary work, through creative works or ephemeral immortality through an intellectual imprint on the back-ground of material culture, through the collection of books, things, museum rarities (the way a fern is imprinted on a piece of coal or the way an insect remains in amber). Whence the helping of black humor."

In Vaginov's novels the collecting impulse feeds on the transience of matter and the inexhaustible appetite for meaning. Only through some power of correspondence--to signify something beyond function and to exist by association with something else--can characters overcome their material and personal losses, or transcend the inadequacies of their time and place. Vaginov's contemporary, Walter Benjamin, diagnosed the passion for collecting as a "struggle against dispersion" that inspired Baroque artists to reconfigure the disarray of their time as allegory. The political upheavals in the decade leading up to Satyr Chorus also conspired with the work of collectors by wrenching objects out of their context and function, whether by obsolescence or political taboo. But Benjamin saw the collector's urge as an outgrowth of late 19th century capitalism, with its growing chasm between the mechanical and impersonal exteriors of the workplace, and the more fantastical interior of the private individual at home. According to Benjamin, the smaller world could still be large enough to represent the universe, or bring together "remote locales and memories of the past." As he wrote in Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century:

The interior is the asylum where art takes refuge. The collector proves to be the true resident of the interior. He makes his concern the idealization of objects. To him falls the Sisyphean task of divesting things of their commodity character by taking possession of them. But he can bestow on them only connoisseur value, rather than use value. The collector delights in evoking a world that is not just distant and long gone but also better--a world in which, to be sure, human beings are no better provided with what they need than in the real world, but in which things are freed from the drudgery of being useful.

Benjamin also described collecting as as a kind of internalized industry, which converts random objects into parts of an interlocking system: "It is the deepest enchantment of the collector to enclose the particular item within a magic circle, where, as a last shudder runs through it (the shudder of being acquired), it turns to stone." This alchemy of collecting might even be thought of as a counterpart to Vaginov's "juxtaposition of words" and a less frenzied version of Rimbaud's delirium of collection in his "Alchimie du verbe." But collecting can also be viewed as part of the novelist's mission, as stated in "A Guide to Berlin" by Vladimir Nabokov, in a way that also approaches the carnival dynamic of Satyr Chorus:

I think that here lies the sense of literary creation: to portray ordinary objects as they will be reflected in the kindly mirrors of future times; to find in the objects around us the fragrant tenderness that only posterity will discern and appreciate in the far-off times when every trifle of our plain everyday life will become exquisite and festive in its own right: the times when a man who might put on the most ordinary jacket of today will be dressed up for an elegant masquerade.

In Vaginov's last novel, Harpagoniana, the collecting impulse even supplies the book's title, which derives from Harpagon, the protagonist of Molière's The Miser. One character in the novel, a thirty-something bachelor, Lokonov, manages to part with his belongings while falling in love with a 17 year-old girl named Iulia. Lokonov is worried that his time and chances are running out. He contemplates Iulia, not so much as the person he loves, but as a kind of dowry, the sum of the treasures a more gifted rival might lay at her feet:

"He's probably a ladies' man and visited by all sorts of creatures, but--scented and dressed in all foreign clothes--he entertains and jokes sublimely. Evenings , he goes to the ballet or the opera or gets together with foreigners and looks upon the world with radiant eyes. His life is like A Thousand and One Nights. Of course, he doesn't need any dreams! But for me, maladjusted and feeling the world is horrible, dreams are necessary... What can I offer my beloved?" Lokonov considered, "what kind of palace, what kind of rarities can I amuse her with, what foreigners can I introduce her to? Rumors, gossip, standing over the primus stove--that's all her future life will be if she links her fate with mine. I don't possess a single common idea. Nothing interests me anymore. And there's my rival now, telling her about his travels round the world, about London, Paris, Genoa and Constantinople and showing photographs: here's where I was, there's where I walked, here's where I climbed this mountain."

For lack of anything better, Lokonov wants to buy dreams, and another character, the alcoholic Anfertiev, would like to sell them. Confined to a world of scarcity, and all-consuming appetites, Vaginov's characters want a way out. Hopelessly in love, Lokonov also feels a yearning for his own youth and a hunger for a more interesting life beyond everyday existence in one city. Taken far enough, a seemingly natural desire can become an urge to go beyond natural boundaries. In his longing to live outside of nature as we know it, Lokonov sees himself as the opposite of what the Unknown Poet aspires to in his definition of a cultured person:

Lokonov felt he was part of some kind of painting. He felt there was no getting out of this painting, that he was inserted into it, not by his own will, that he was not a main figure, but of third rank, that this painting was created by certain social conditions of certain political circumstances of the first quarter of the 20th century.

Lokonov was tormented by insertion into a certain painting, belonging to a certain epoch. He felt he was some kind of butterfly stuck on a pin.

Instead of a collector, an object in a collection.

In his second novel, The Works and Days of Svistonov, Vaginov defined the collector's mission in the words of the fictional author who is the novel's main character. Svistonov describes his job as transplanting characters from real life into the grave--and the immortality--of art, where they are still just beginning to experience the prime of their life and change to everlastingness:

...Art--that is the extraction of people from one world and their insertion into another sphere. Literature is more real than this disintegrating minute-to-minute world.

There aren't many fishers of souls in the world. There's nothing more terrible than a true fisherman. They're quiet, the true fishermen, they're courteous, because they're connected with the outside world only by courtesy. They, of course, have neither horns nor hooves. Of course, they give the appearance of loving life, but they love only art and nothing else. Understand... art is by no means a ceremony, by no means a job. It's the struggle for the settling of the other world, and for that world to be thickly settled, so there will be variety in it, so there will be fullness of life there. One might compare literature to existence beyond the grave. Indeed, literature is existence beyond the grave.

As a "fisher of souls," Vaginov all but declares a connection with Gogol's Chichikov.

For some of Vaginov's characters, collecting is also an excess that invites some form of retribution, from outright madness to the slow torture of habit and repetition. Like alchemy, collecting holds out the promise of transforming base matter--random, disparate objects--into something more precious--or at least into links in a greater and more orderly whole. To the extent Vaginov tried to restore the perfectionism of a collection to the context of an imperfect world, he might have taken some satisfaction in the loss of the many books collected by him and his wife. As she told the scholar Sergei Kibalnik many years later, she and Vaginov took great pains to assemble the library--for their reading enjoyment, and also to rescue what might otherwise have been lost. She had to leave the library behind when she was evacuated during the siege of Leningrad in World War II. When she came back, the library was gone. Her apartment had been taken over by a man who returned from the front and traded in the books for a car.


Just as Vaginov built on his literary antecedents, he also built on the renamed but preserved city of St. Petersburg. Located on a swamp by the Tsar Peter I, and built at great loss of human life, the city took its distinct shape in foreign architecture and artificial waterways. Unlike the circular and organic labyrinth of Russia's old capital, Moscow, the new capital was a spacious, rectilinear grid of streetscapes, with palaces, cathedrals and government buildings imitating foreign splendors. In early summer, under the untimely glow of "white nights," even the difference between darkness and light becomes artificial. Famed as a window on the outside world, the city can just as easily mirror internal worlds, whether based on resemblance or illusion.

Known as the capital city with a provincial destiny, St. Petersburg is both coffin and cradle. In the burgeoning empire of Peter I and Catherine II, St. Petersburg was a strategic port and a foothold for Russia's expansion to the west. In 1917, it was the cradle of two revolutions--the February Revolution and the October Revolution. In the first years of this century, the city was also the center stage for struggle between various forces of political change--from revolutionary to reformist and reactionary. During these same years, the literary home of Pushkin, Gogol and Dostoevsky became the nucleus of the cultural revival known as the Silver Age.

Under Communism, as a former capital, the city became the empire's coffin. Even before Communism, St. Petersburg had been a coffin for lost causes: for the revolutionaries of 1905, the Decembrists of 1825, and the hopes for reform by the monarchy under Alexander II, who was assassinated in 1881. Even today, various memorials and figures of public sculpture are continually strewn with flowers, as a token of connection to some private milestone or the impulse to worship. This is especially noticeable around statues of Pushkin, which might also be considered memorials to a hypothetical Russia. Just as this Russia could inspire the loyalty of its subjects and the distrust of rulers, the anonymous offerings might even be thought of as affirming the powers of representation over the powers of material history.

It was Mandelshtam who saw the coffin as the logic behind the city's architecture--the landmark structures that Vaginov referred to as the "baroque, neo-Roman, neo-Greek architectural islands." By evoking antiquity through architecture, the city was a way for the state to immortalize itself, or at least to outlive its own destruction. As Mandelshtam wrote in "Word and Culture," the hunger for immortality by the state was even stronger than that of the individual. And even greater than the hunger of the state, he believed, was the hunger of time.

If Saint Petersburg was also a "window on Europe" and a showcase of western influence--from architecture and painting to music and philosophy--it was also a defense against a west whose incursions were sometimes forceful and unwelcome. In the 19th century, even those Russian thinkers who studied and, in some ways admired, western European culture felt it was also a threat. The Slavophiles believed the industrialized countries of the west were too materialistic, and that their liberal democracy with its privileged middle class was less a model of enlightenment than a caste system that exalted wealth over quality. The left wing of the Russian intelligentsia had been more receptive to industrialization, but it, too, saw the prevailing values of the west as harmful. In his 1880 lecture on Pushkin, Dostoevsky tried to reconcile the two intellectual currents, as well as the split between the real people ("narod") of Russia and the artificial, privileged society of St. Petersburg, with its fickle appetite for the exotic. In place of these divisions, Dostoevsky espoused a belief in Russia's native genius, but as a bridge among cultures and a call to unity among peoples.

If both wings of the intelligentsia could be critical of Russia's rulers in their own way, they sometimes found themselves at odds with Russian artists. Writers had to fear both the censorship of cultural reactionaries in the government and the censure of left-wing intellectuals who insisted that works of art have a clear social relevance. At its worst, that relevance amounted to polemic and political correctness. When the pressures of censorship fell more heavily on the more explicit channels of public discourse, such as journalism, the desire to carry on that discourse flowed more heavily to less explicit channels, such as literature, philosophy, and criticism. At the turn of the century, leading figures of Russia's "Silver Age" had all the more reason to feel influential, but they would also more boldly insist that the arts had a mission of their own--art for its own sake. This parallels the growth of Russia's middle class in the years before World War I, and it was the ensuing depletion and disorientation of the middle class that would leave the autonomous artist all the more vulnerable to marginalization or even scapegoating.

Despite the gap between Russia's political and artistic spheres, there was a parallel between the Silver Age and the political upheaval in the first years of the 20th century. At its extreme, this renaissance made ambitious claims for the powers of culture to influence people and change the world--as in the music and extra-musical pronouncements of Alexander Scriabin. Another example was Blok's notion of Symbolism as a special power to unlock secret knowledge through the poet's incantation (similar to powers of the seer or "vates" invoked by Vaginov's unknown poet). The renaissance was also marked by a frenzy of mysticism, escapism and decadence--the excess that provokes a tragic reversal. For some Russian artists, that reversal--or retribution--took the form of war and totalitarianism. For St. Petersburg, renamed Petrograd during World War I, the retribution after the October Revolution would be the loss of status as a capital and, after Lenin's death, the effacement of its original name.

The historic significance of St. Petersburg goes hand in hand with the mythological. By usurping Moscow as Russia's capital, St. Petersburg dared to become the fourth Rome. This was an affront to the prophecy of Russia's messianic destiny after the fall of Constantinople: Moscow is the third Rome, there will be no fourth. Yet another metaphorical connection lies between St. Petersburg and a figment of Russian legend: the magical, submerged utopia, Kitezh. Both ideal cities point to an ideal that lies beyond the boundaries of Russia. But, as early as Pushkin's poem, "The Bronze Horseman," the very majesty of this artificial city at the mouth of a river is a work of hubris that is punished by a flood--which drives the poem's protagonist, a Russian everyman, over the edge of insanity.

As an instant, artificial capital, St. Petersburg defied reality from its inception. Falling short of Moscow as a historic heart of Russia, St. Petersburg was an attempt to surpass it as the "window on Europe." As a result, St. Petersburg took shape as the simulacrum of a quintessentially European capital. With its orderly architectural ensembles and the seemingly infinite trajectories of its major avenues (or "prospects"), St. Petersburg was built to be looked at. Primarily a legacy of Peter I and Catherine II, the canals, bridges, buildings and parks in the city's center evoke another world--be it France, Italy or ancient Rome. St. Petersburg might even be considered the ultimate Potemkin village. As a backdrop for the drabness and squalor of everyday life, as lived by most its inhabitants, the utopian perfection and sheer strangeness of St. Petersburg make everyday life appear hallucinatory, and the hallucinatory more plausible, whether in a story by Gogol or a novel by Bely. For Vaginov's characters, as they try to maintain the city's intellectual tradition, the former St. Petersburg becomes a setting where it is all too easy to confuse simulation or counterfeit with the real thing.

Another native of the city, the poet Joseph Brodsky, would write, "There is no other place in Russia where thoughts depart so willingly from reality: it is with the emergence of St. Petersburg that Russian literature came into existence." In one of his essays, Vladimir Nabokov all but turns this on its head, venturing that the quirky or fantastical nature of St. Petersburg was something brought out in the eyes of beholders by Gogol, then lost when the city ceased to be the capital of the empire. "Petersburg was never a true reality," wrote Nabokov, "but, after all, neither was Gogol--Gogol the Vampire, Gogol the Ventriloquist--altogether real."

In the same essay on Gogol, Nabokov would describe Petersburg as a "smudged reflection in a mirror, a transparent muddle of objects used not according to design..." In Satyr Chorus, Vaginov notes the city's illusory quality in the very first prologue, calling St. Petersburg a painted city--in the literal sense because its buildings are periodically repainted in various pastel shades, but also because the city is a changeable and perishable surface at odds with some underlying reality (even starting with the bones of its slave builders). This quality also figures in the prologue's depiction of people turning into reptiles, whether as a perceiver's tendency to hallucinate, or the way the city's inhabitants change out of their skins like snakes in response to the political upheavals of their time. And the predominant color, as Vaginov notes, is green: the color of some buildings and even the scaly, reptilian layer of oxidized metal on the "Bronze Horseman." Or yet a spiteful mirror that turns appetite into feverish hallucinations and joyless laughter.

In his lecture on Pushkin, it is the artificiality of St. Petersburg that Dostoevsky equates with the central flaw in the eponymous protagonist of the poem Evgeny Onegin. On the scale of arrogance and privilege, the characters in Satyr Chorus are no match for Onegin. But some of them, especially the unknown poet, share traits that Dostoevsky associates with that recurring figure, the "unhappy wanderer" on Russia's earth--unhappily turning up in a society cut off from the Russian people. The unknown poet fits the definition primarily by his search for answers in other times, places and civilizations. There is also a parallel in his attraction to Lida, not unlike that of another Pushkin wanderer, Alyoko, drawn to a gypsy camp by his attraction to the exotic Zemfira.

Like Pushkin in Evgeny Onegin, Vaginov outgrows his highly autobiographical character. And, like Dostoevsky and Pushkin, Vaginov shows awareness of the troubling disconnect between people and society (whether pre- or post-revolutionary). For Dostoevsky, the ideal counter-balance to the rootless artificiality of Onegin and St. Petersburg is anything but a retreat to provinciality. Instead, he extols Pushkin for drawing on what might be called a native universality--in its foundations as modest as the childhood memories of Pushkin's heroine, Tatyana, but potentially revealing Russia's utopian destiny: a striving for world unity that could overcome divisions in Russia and even beyond. And, despite the troubling contradictions embodied in the new capital city, Dostoevsky even saw that native universality as the unfinished potential in the reforms introduced by Peter I.


In their own way, the learned outsiders in Satyr Chorus try to carry on what Dostoevsky saw as the mission of Peter I. The limited constituency for their empire of culture before the revolution is sharply diminished by political and economic necessity, not to mention emigration. What remains is what that world culture used to feed--an appetite to live, whether in time or space, beyond the insignificance of one time and place. To the extent the characters try to keep a hold on that culture within their small circle, they lose hold of the world around them. Even when one character, Kostya Rotikov, asserts (in Chapter XXV) that culture can remain their legitimate pursuit regardless what happens in government, he's not very persuasive. Arguing against him is the demise of the unknown poet, who tries to maintain his notion of culture but fails to build bridges to society.

Drawn together by a common youthful passion for "high culture," the characters in Satyr Chorus gradually drift apart. In their attempts to maintain a hold on that culture and each other, the characters instead latch onto fragments that are a symbolic transformation, or even a caricature, of their past. As in Ovid's Metamorphoses (which Vaginov admired from an early age), each of the main characters starts as one thing and turns into something else. Even when they are physically still alive, they will have crossed that tipping point beyond which the critical mass of what matters in their life is in the past. Hence, Vaginov really is like an undertaker in viewing his subjects primarily as an exercise in representation, a representation very much of their own making, even to the point of revisionism.

With his faith in hallucination, the unknown poet has the Symbolist's thirst for metaphor and connections between distant points of time and space. "A cultured person lives intellectually, not in one country but in many, not in one epoch but in many, and can choose whichever destruction he likes," he tells Teptyolkin. "He doesn't grieve when destruction finds him at home, he's simply bored. He mumbles, 'I've met you once again,' and for him it will become a joke." In his thoughts on the mission and powers of poetry, the unknown poet draws on the younger generation of Symbolists (especially Blok), though his preoccupation with the craft of poetry--the "juxtaposition of words" and the changeable chemistry of meaning--is closer to Acmeism and Baroque poets of the 16th and 17th centuries.

In the course of the novel, the unknown poet becomes more isolated. On the one side, he encounters the genuine enthusiasm of the genuinely insane emigré poet, September; on the other, the trivialization of poetry by dabblers. There is also a deconstruction of the unknown poet's version of the "Eternal Feminine," Lida. She is portrayed initially with a touch of vulnerable glamour worthy of an ill-fated heroine in a French novel and, like Blok's "Unknown Woman," associated with mind-altering substances. By the hard times of 1920, she is even too haggard to dress the part of a streetwalker. In Vaginov's last mention of her, the unknown poet goes to where they used to meet and recalls helplessly seeing her taken away to a prison camp. Driven by a "craving for intoxication," the unknown poet even sees what he takes at least for an apparition, but which turns out to be a case of mistaken identity. More important is a reversal of Blok's formulation, in which the intoxicant (literal or figurative) is a means to an end, even if the hazy build-up leads to what is more sign than wonder. In the sobriety (literal or figurative) of the unknown poet's disenchantment, the apparition is pursued as the intoxicant. Reality is a slap in the face. The unknown poet is left with his walking stick and its ornamental amethyst, the symbolic antidote for intoxication: in other words, a signifier that no longer signifies. His suicide is anti-climactic and, in its immediate aftermath, even game for black humor. Based in part on the suicide of the poet Sergei Esenin, the death of the unknown poet would also foreshadow the suicide of Vladimir Mayakovsky.

A different kind of way out is used by Asphodelyev, a well-paid but less than satisfied literary talent who does his share of word-smithing for the Communist Party. He offsets his professed distaste for his career by collecting artifacts of literature--be it rare editions of Goethe and Pushkin or an expensive bookcase. The poet Troitsyn becomes bald, philistine and passé, and the mistresses he collects are progressively less charmed, but he nonetheless remains the passionate collector of poetic artifacts. Where others see the Soviet Leningrad of the mid-1920's, Troitsyn still sees St. Petersburg, a "fairy-tale city" but quintessentially Russian: "Even though a foreigner had built it, wasn't it as Russian as the Uspensky Cathedral in Moscow? Or St. Sophia in Kiev? In Petersburg, Russian Manon Lescauts, ladies with camellias, came out to feast their eyes upon the Neva, on the pearls floating in the springtime."

The coming apart of things is only one more reason why Vaginov's characters try collecting their way into permanence, or at least the mental refuge of a system. As depicted a century earlier in Pushkin's "The Bronze Horseman," St. Petersburg itself is more construct than reality and, as such, an affront to nature. When nature strikes back with a flood, Pushkin's everyman rages against the arrogance of human power, only to provoke--not an actual despot, but a statue. That is, the inanimate and the symbolic. Like Pushkin's poem--dating from a time of flood and political upheaval a century earlier, Satyr Chorus is also about power of symbols while the real world loses the coherence and balance that make it seem natural: streets change their names, soldiers come back from war with missing limbs, toppled statues rot on the ground, valuable possessions are sold off or stolen, and libraries are dismantled and recirculated by street vendors. Or, in a scene that could be straight out of the inflationary 1990's, former shoppers, driven to speculate or make some badly needed money, line up on the street to sell belongings.

Corresponding to the tale of fragmentation is the form of Satyr Chorus. The book consists mainly of short chapters, with the narrative hopping from one character to another, almost like a montage. Even within chapters, there are shifts of focus and abrupt swerves from outward reality to internal hallucination. The shifts and changing combinations lead to revisions, evoking an earlier semblance only to place it in a different light. In this experiment in the "juxtaposition of words," even the role of the author is fragmented--split between Vaginov himself and the so-called "author" who appears before, after and during the writing of the book. In one version, the author is a less than autobiographical mutation with three fingers, whose conception of writing is disputed by the unknown poet, and who throws his manuscript of a so-called "novel" into the fire.

If the fragmentation undermines the linear continuity and progress of conventional narrative, it can emphasize patterns of recurrence, even or especially if that recurrence is a parody of a character's earlier state--a kind of contrappasso. If the Unknown poet exchanges a divine madness for the clinical, an arbiter of taste (and tastelessness) becomes a dealer in antiques. Misha Kotikov converts his passion for poetic imitation into dental resonstruction. Minus his university chair, the philosopher becomes a roving lecturer who assures his politically correct audience that philosophy is only a game. And Teptyolkin ends up earning a salary by teaching revolutionary history, all the while serving as superintendent for his apartment building. Instead of spiritual communion with the Eternal Feminine, he settles (not always blissfully) for marriage--as does his wife, Marya Petrovna. She wanted to be a singer or a scholar but settles for being a homebody and even, on occasion, Teptyolkin's surrogate mother.

By the end of the novel, Teptyolkin has second thoughts about his earlier dream of bliss in the tower of culture. The author invites us to wonder: is the flaw with Teptyolkin's dream, or with Teptyolkin himself? To judge from the text, it would be more correct to fault a sentimentalizing of culture, instead of the culture itself. Likewise, there is something almost heroic in Teptyolkin's exile from the tower, coupled with his painstakingly affectionate discomfort amid the micro-Petergof in the courtyard of his apartment block. In this transformation, it might be possible to see a betrayal of culture, one more example of "civilization" adapting. But Vaginov also describes the toll of adaptation and turns the failures of his characters--for all their overshadowing by the city's monumental expectations--into something new.

If "burying" characters is an exorcism of sentimentality, Vaginov nonetheless shows affection for them and seems to share some of their enthusiasms, even when they're being ridiculed. What is buried in his characters and his city are the perishable pretensions that pass into and out of existence in "calendar time." What survives is something neither physically monumental nor entirely cut off from everyday life. In this there is a parallel with Mandelshtam's notion of classicism--not as something to be preserved by collectors, but as something to rediscover--an epiphany, a momentary flash of recognition that ripples through time. Nor is rediscovered classicism to be confused with the counterfeit precision of a simulacrum. Mandelshtam refers to the felicity of recognition--a face groped through blindness, or the kind of memory that emerges through forgetfulness: "So then, the poet has yet to be. We are free from the burden of remembrances. But, on the other hand, there are so many uncommon presentiments: Pushkin, Ovid, Homer. When a lover in a silent tangle of tender names suddenly remembers that this has happened before--the words and the hair and cock that crowed outside the window had crowed back in Ovid's Tristia--he is overcome with a profound joy of repetition, a head-spinning joy." Like the musical resolution of harmonic polarities in sonata form, this repetition corresponds to Mandelshtam's idea of harmony in his essay "Pushkin and Scriabin." The harmony to be arrived at is not merely an instance of repetition, but the cross-section through time, which Mandelshtam called the "crystallization of eternity."

For Vaginov's characters there are comparable moments of recognition. Misha Kotikov will finally see beyond the shortcomings of Zaevphratsky's widow, Ekaterina Ivanovna, as a biographical source, and fall in love with her as a human being--whose childishness is something better, and even more ageless than her supposed stupidity in literary matters. And Vaginov appreciates her value as a source of characterization who understands the men in her life better than they understand her. Another recognition, and very reminiscent of the groping analogy in Mandelshtam, is when Marya Petrovna, on the verge of death, wants for one last time to feel the various objects in her apartment--ordinary objects to be grasped and let go of, as it were, the book's farewell to objects. Unlike the other collectors trying to live vicariously beyond their own life, Marya Petrovna is acting in connection with the ordinary life of her marriage. And the dying woman Teptyolkin holds in his arms no longer has the lightness he worshiped in the first chapter as a figment of immutability (all too predictably dressed in silk). What he feels instead is the unbearable heaviness of a human being recognized as mutability and loss. In his first, early morning walk as a widower, Teptyolkin realizes that he is indeed alone, notwithstanding the presence of an unsymbolic pigeon.

It is possible to read Satyr Chorus as an outcome of political climate, but its wayward mix of the ideal and mundane go all the way back to the "Silver Age" of Spain, in the interplay of delusion and ridicule in Don Quixote. In the earlier book the conflict between the ideal and the commonplace is, in a way, resolved. When the aged protagonist (another laughable figure) finally gave up his identity of knight-errant, Vladimir Nabokov, in his lectures, saw a capitulation to the "moral utilities" of a dark time. But the renunciation can also be viewed as an act of self-sacrifice, a leap of logic based on the rules of chivalry, and no less heroic for loyalty to a beloved who is never seen face to face. The book-crazed old man also comes one final step closer to the author who knows that, up to this point, Don Quixote has been a hero only in his own mind, or merely the elusive composite of conflicting chronicles.

Like Cervantes, Vaginov plays games with multiple versions of characters and authors (note his warning in the prologues). But the game is very much like the reality made up of revised people in a renamed city described by a renamed author. His response to the revised and renamed government may have been, to some degree, accommodation, or it may have been a feat of encryption whose decoding could never yield a monument to a political figure or agenda. Unlike a more serviceable work of socialist realism, the juxtaposition of words in Satyr Chorus is meant to engage in more juxtapositions with the world outside, allowing the book to reflect different aspects of the world in different ways at different times. In a comparable way, attentive listeners have debated what is encoded in Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony: the composer's professed "response" to Stalin's "just criticism," or the wordless allusion to the composer's setting of a poem by Pushkin from a time of exile under Nicholas I. Entitled "Rebirth," the poem describes the "alien colors" overlaid by the "lethargic brush" of a "barbarian-artist" falling off with the passage of years "like old scales" (again the metaphor the snake) and giving way to the work of genius underneath. "So vanish the waverings from my tormented soul," wrote Pushkin, in what can be transposed as the recanting of a heretic composer or the hidden signature of defiance later revealed in the minds of the listener. Perhaps it is no accident that the earliest precedent invoked for Satyr Chorus by Vaginov himself is the dubious chronicle by Philostratus, Apollonius of Tyana. The book arose from an imperial commission in ancient Rome and probably served its rulers' purposes, but the book also took on a life of its own. And who could say whether Apollonius was a work of fiction made real in the minds of its readers, or a true story twisted into legend?

As much as it is a book of mourning and memory, Satyr Chorus is a book of laughter and forgetting. The degeneration from the poetic to the prosaic is at the heart of the novel and its title. It is precisely because the characters are treated as part of everyday life, rather than as "radiant beings," that they deserve attention. This can be interpreted politically, but the Czech novelist Milan Kundera argues that is in the prosaic that the novel as an art form reveals its capacity for poetry. In his essay, Betrayed Testaments, Kundera defines this prose of life--the everyday, the concrete, the momentary, what Russians call byt--as the opposite of the mythical. In that very prose, he writes, "we touch upon the most profound conviction of every novelist: nothing is more disguised than the prose of life; every man tries perpetually to transform his life into myth, tries, so to speak, to transcribe it into verse, to cloak it with verse (with bad verse). If the novel is an art and not just a 'literary genre,' it is because the discovery of prose is its ontological mission which no other art can assume entirely."

If "bad verse" would be an unfair description of Vaginov's poetry, he is still being rediscovered mainly as a former unknown novelist. His autobiographical double in Satyr Chorus, the unknown poet, was keenly aware of the difference between prose and poetry. He would have preferred a different book, one that would have cast its heroes as radiant beings. Instead, as Vaginov wrote, the poet gave birth to an author who "seduced his soul and turned it into laughter." If not with the laughter of Gogol or Juvenal, then something more like the blend of grief, sarcasm and dissimulation in the works of Shostakovich. For all its refusal to put the new political reality on a pedestal, Vaginov's novel is hardly a reversal of changes over time. What is restored is the freedom to move outside "calendar time," providing acoustical space where the genuine "music of revolution" and its recurring promise of change can reverberate. What is also restored is the ability to recreate a world in the imagination, the same ability which had been used on St. Petersburg by Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky and Blok.

Satyr Chorus is, after all, a book of the living. In what is again St. Petersburg, starry nights still give way to white nights. Behind the repainted facades of apartment buildings, cats prowl dingy courtyards, and another generation of former soldiers, disfigured by war, peddles cigarettes. Just as in Vaginov's and Pushkin's times, all kinds of people take to the streets for walking and conversation, and couples go on strolling through the Summer Garden, along the Neva and the canals. Some might even stray into the Smolensk Cemetery, where Vaginov's coffin lies somewhere amid the ruined memorials and unparsed vegetation. In this empire of forgetfulness, they can head for the chapel of Xenia the Blessed, light a candle and pray for happiness, while old believers feed mendicant orders of stray cats.

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