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The following disclaimer or "prologue"  ("written by the real author on the bank of the Neva") appeared in an early edition of the novel:

    A work  of art opens up like a tent--which is entered by the creator and the spectator. Everything inside the tent is connected with the creator and the spectator. It's impossible to understand anything without the knowledge of both: if you know the spectator, you'll understand only part of the tent; if you know only the creator, then you probably won't understand anything. Furthermore, reader, you have to remember the people depicted in this book are not as they really are, that is, in their fullness, which is also impossible, but from the point of view of a contemporary.

   In the following prologues and in the book, the author is as much a real person as the other persons and, therefore, if you could, do not relate him to the author who actually exists, limit yourself to what's given in the book, and do not go beyond its limit.

   And if your mind is bent on relating every literary work to real life, and not with the literary  works themselves, then relate it  to the age, to the class, anything you like, but not to the real author--be an educated person.

The two prologues that precede Chapter I are meant to disclaim the convention of a narrator with a single mind throughout the book. Like his characters, the author has a before and after, and even a middle.

The first prologue might be described as the nightmare of individuality, perhaps akin to the cultural fragmentation around the time of the October Revolution as described in lectures by Aleksander Blok. It is interesting to note that in "The Intelligentsia and Revolution," Blok uses the same root word--for "snaky" or "malicious" or "venomous"-- to describe the condescension with which the revolution was viewed by some intellectuals, including some who had previously, as it were, stoked the flames of radical change. If "snickering" condescension might explain part of the vision in this prologue, the greater significance might be in preparing the reader for a series of contradictions between reality and appearance, not to mention changes in both over time. The difference between reality and appearance can mean the hallucinations induced by the poison of intoxicants, or more figuratively, the visions generated by a character's subconscious or imagination. Since St. Petersburg is a watery city built on a swamp and prone to floods, it would have some logical connection to reptiles and amphibians. On a figurative level, snakes have the capacity for regeneration or deception by shedding their scales. In Pushkin's Evgeny Onegin, there is also  the "snake of remembrances" afflicting the disillusioned "superfluous men" of an earlier time.

Chapter I

Teptyolkin. Thought to be based on Vaginov's friend, Lev Vasilievich Pumpyansky (1891-1940), a literary critic, cultural historian and translator. He was also a friend of the literary scholar Mikhail Bakhtin and a friend from childhood of the pianist Marya Veniaminovna Yudina (1899-1970). Most of the characters in the novel are based, to varying degrees, on Vaginov's friends and acquaintances, and on himself, either individually or in composite. Of all of these people, Pumpyansky was the most offended by his fictional counterpart. To prevent the reading of Teptyolkin as a carbon-copy of Pumpyansky, the later edition of the novel included a one-paragraph disclaimer toward the end of the first chapter. Pumpyansky was unappeased and the book caused a falling out with Vaginov--despite reassurances from Yudina (considered the model for Marya Petrovna Dalmatovna). Unlike her fictional counterpart, Yudina became an acclaimed pianist. A longtime friend of Bakhtin, she was known for her range of intellectual interests, and for her defiance of political meddling in the arts, even from Stalin. Because she was devoutly religious, she lost her position at the Leningrad Conservatory in 1930. Like many other characters based partly on Vaginov's acquaintances, Marya Petrovna  is more properly understood as a composite. Introduced here as a figment of Teptyolkin's imagination, she resembles descriptions of the "Eternal Feminine" dating from the "Silver Age" ( Solovyov's Sophia and  Blok's "Neznakomka") or even earlier times (see note for Boethius).

white nights. Long days and short nights occurring in St. Petersburg around the time of the summer solstice. Before the independence of Iceland and Finland after World War I, St. Petersburg was the northernmost capital in Europe, falling on approximately the same latitude as Oslo. White nights had a sunset, but not real darkness. This is the season for walking about the city, even as late as three o'clock in the morning, when drawbridges open over the Neva.

Among the strollers in the 1920's were the author and his wife, Alexandra Ivanovna Vaginova. As she related in an interview with Sergei Kibalnik a few years before her death: "Konstantin Konstantinovich and I often met at a designated place and wandered about the city. Particularly often on white nights. Once I was sitting with him in the park by the Winter Palace when, all of a sudden, out from under a bench crawled some sort of tiny little boy. 'You see,' he says, 'I'm afraid of you, but you're not afraid of me.' 'And why should we be afraid?' 'The fact of the matter,' he answers, 'is that I'm an adult. I'm a Lilliputian.' He turned out to be a former actor with the Theater of Lilliputians, which no longer existed. This Lilliputian was now working as a guard at the Winter Palace." (All references to information from Vaginov's widow are based on the inter-view and an article on Vaginov by Kibalnik).

human being is prepared. Compare this passage with the following passage in Aleksandr Blok's "The Downfall of Humanism," from 1919:

All over the world tolls the bell of anti-humanism; the world is washed clean, casting off its old clothing; man grows closer to his element; and thereby man becomes more musical.

Man as animal; man as plant, flower; there show through him the outlines of utmost brutality, as it were not human, but animal; outlines of primeval tenderness also not human, but vegetal. All this temporary semblances, masks, a glimmer of infinite semblances.  This glimmer signifies by itself a change of species; the whole of man has been set in motion, he awakes from the age-old sleep of civilization; spirit, soul, and body are seized by a whirlwind movement; in the whirlwind of revolutions spiritual, political, social, having cosmic interrelationships, a new natural selection is produced, a new man is formed; man as the humane animal, the social animal, the moral animal is reconfigured into the artist, speaking in the language of Wagner.

Second Street of the Village Poor. Before 1918, this was known as the "Street of the Lesser Nobility," because of its private residences for noble families. Located in the Petrograd section of St. Petersburg, near the Neva, the street is also close to the original cabin built by Peter I. In 1935, the street was renamed again, in honor of a distinguished doctor of biology and agricultural science, Ivan Vladimirovich Michurin.

Golubyets. The name literally means "little pigeon." The word is more commonly known in Russia as the term for stuffed cabbage (usually containing a mixture of ground meat and other ingredients).

Averescu, Alexander (1859-1938). Former prime minister of Rumania.

Sladkopevsteva. An improbable compound name, coupling words for "sweetly" and "singers."

high tower. A common symbol for the refinement and aloofness of "high culture." The figure recurs throughout the novel, sometimes in a literal way (in Chapter XI) or by association (Chapter XII, note on Vyacheslav Ivanov).

Parny. Evariste Dsir de Forges de Parny (1753-1814). French erotic poet, born on the island Bourbon (now Runion), off the east coast of Africa.

Philostratus. An imaginary double, as indicated in Vaginov's disclaimer. There is a likely connection to another Philostratus, the Greek author of The Life of Apollonius of Tyana (see notes for Chapter XX).

Callimachus. Ancient Greek poet of the Alexandrian School.


October 25th Prospekt. Post-revolutionary name for Nevsky Avenue or Nevsky Prospekt, the main thoroughfare in the heart of St. Petersburg. The term "prospect" is roughly synonymous with avenue, but also meant to suggest something  expansive and scenic. The "prospect" is a figment of architecture as much as a transportation route. "October 25th Prospekt" is one of many name changes ushered in by the revolution, this one referring to the date when the Bolsheviks took power , according to the old calendar. A section of the avenue is shown, right, with one of the four equestrian sculptures at the Anichkov Bridge (see next note).

Horse and soldier. One of the bronze equestrian sculptures (above, right) at the four corners of the Anichkov Bridge. The bridge crosses the canal, the Fontanka, at Nevsky Prospekt.

Chapter II

Unknown Poet. Much of the account of him in this chapter is believed to be based on Vaginov's own life. But, as the novel progresses, the Unknown Poet comes to resemble more a composite of many writers, including poets such as Blok, Mandelshtam, Esenin and maybe even Mayakosky.

western. A well-known characteristic of St. Petersburg is that, at least in the old center of the city, many of the main buildings, parks and churches were inspired by models in western Europe, especially France and Italy, and sometimes even planned or designed by westerners. 

English Ann. Character in Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, a quasi-autobiographical work of Thomas DeQuincey (1785-1859).  Ann is based on the prostitute who helped the young author while he was down and out in London. After getting back on his feet, DeQuincy tried to find her, but without success. Years later, she reappears to DeQuincey in one of his hallucinations under the influence of the drug. As it seems to DeQuincey, she has lost none of her youth or her beauty. In a way that anticipates the unknown poet's  hallucination of Lida (induced by alcohol), Ann turns up on the street in London where she had been with DeQuincey. With their flashbacks to ancient Rome and the English Civil War, DeQuincey's hallucinations have some resemblance to the unknown poet's travels through time--whether in his imagination, in collecting old coins or poring over Gibbon. Although Vaginov alludes to drug use (cocaine) in his novel, he seems less interested in its psycho-chemical properties than its potential for narrative sleight of hand. It's hard to tell whether the visions of characters such as the unknown poet are induced by drugs as much as by a predisposition toward the supernatural, whether stemming from a vogue for the occult in turn-of-the-century Russia or the spirit of Symbolist writing, with its "correspondences" between realities, its "alchemy of the word" and the sense of past life (Baudelaire's Vie Antrieure, not to mention Rimbaud's "drglement des sens.")

French Mignon. Bettina-Caroline Mignon de la Bastie: ill-fated character in novel by Honor de Balzac. Dies at age 22, after having been seduced and abandoned by a Parisian dandy.

inhale. What they inhaled was, presumably, cocaine. Use of the drug was much more common before World War I.

Avernus. Lake in Italy whose poisonous fumes, according to legend, even killed birds that flew over it. On its shores were the grotto of the seer, the Sybil of Cuma, and a wood sacred to Hecate. In Vergil's Aeneid,  the grotto is also the entrance to the underworld.

Apollonius. Greek Neo-Pythagorean philosopher, sage and miracle-worker who reputedly lived in the 1st century CE. Subject of a biography (possibly fictional) by the 3rd century Greek sophist, Philostratus. Also see notes for Chapter XX.

Helios. Ancient Greek sun god. Similar coins were issued by the author's early namesake, the Roman emperor Constantine I, who maintained a strong devotion to the cult of Helios, "Sol Invictus" ["Unconquered Sun"], even after his embrace of Christianity. At the time, the figure of the sun was also associated by early Christians with Jesus Christ. The phrase "making him forget everything" re-echoes the"Song of the Indian Guest" (famously updated by Tommy Dorsey's "Song of India"), a tenor aria in Rimsky-Korsakov's opera Sadko:

Don't count the diamonds in rocky caves,
Don't count the pearls in the midday sea
The wonder of faraway India.

In the warm sea there's a wondrous ruby stone,
In the stone a Phoenix -- a bird with the face of a girl.
Heavenly songs she sweetly sings all the while,
Strewing feathers, covering the sea.
Whoever hears that bird forgets everything.

The Phoenix bird also chimes with Teptyolkin's apparition, a radiant symbol of rebirth that, eventually, fades into something mundane.

Niva. In English, The Cornfield. Popular literary magazine, published from 1870 to 1918.

Kryzhanovskaya, V. I.. Author of popular novels on contemporary themes and historical novels. Her most famous novels were about the occult. 

Nemirovich-Danchenko, Vasily (1844-1936). Prolific and popular writer of fiction and non-fiction. Works include novels and short stories on contemporary themes.

Gibbon, Edward (1737-1794). English classical scholar and historian, most famed for The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Vaginov had enjoyed reading the book since his childhood. And parallels between  Roman (western and Byzantine) and Russian empires had been drawn practically since the fall of Constantinople.

Nat Pinkerton. The original detective novels in America were inspired by Allan Pinkerton (1819-1894), who founded the private detective agency famous for combating labor unions. The American books inspired knock-offs and spin-offs in Europe. The Russian Nat Pinkerton novels were sometimes based another series of detective novels featuring Nick Carter. Unlike the American character, the Russian Nat Pinkerton was more of an action figure, and more sympathetic to working people. Serials about Pinkerton and other detectives were extremely popular in Russia right after the Revolution of 1905 and until 1914. Detective novels enjoyed a revival during the NEP period of the early 1920's. This time, the government tried to exploit the appeal and accessibility of pulp fiction to advance party doctrine. In yet another reversal, toward the end of the decade, the detective genre fell into disfavor as too inherently western. Another revival would begin in the last decades of Communist rule. The popularity of detective novels would soar after the fall of Communism,  in a society confronted with new horrors of gangsterism and street crime. Not only would there be original works published in Russian, but even widely acclaimed translations into English.

White Lining. Defined in the Oxford Russian-English Dictionary as "a student of aristocratic appearance and reactionary views."

Sergei C. Based on Sergei Creighton, a boyhood friend of Vaginov and son of an English architect. Vaginov thought he might have been killed during the war years. According to his wife (Kibalnik), Vaginov later found that his friend had survived and was serving as a sailor.

Priapus. Fertility god associated with gardens. Sometimes represented by statues in the likeness of a satyr with exposed erect phallus.

Summer Garden. A park near the center of the city, noted for its trees and long alleys lined with statues of mythological figures, and still a favorite place for strollers. It was a creation of Peter I, who had it filled with exotic trees and planted with vegetables. Originally, there were also fountains. The garden was conceived as an allusion both to Versailles and the Italy of palaces and ruins--allusions to ancient Rome. At the same time, this garden and its counterpart at the country palace in Peterhof were the equivalent , on a much grander scale, of something familiar to many ordinary people in Russia: the little garden near the country house, or a nearby woods.

Chapter III

Taeggio, Bartolomeo. Milanese lawyer and writer, whose dialogue on wine appeared in 1564.

Longus. Third century Greek writer, whose romance, Daphnis and Chlo,  is about the love between a shepherd and a naiad. Daphnis betrays the love he swore to Chlo, is punished by blindness and laments his loss in song. The romance served as a model for pastoral novels of the Renaissance.

Marcus Aurelius. Roman emperor (121-180 C.E.), known as a humane ruler, whose Stoic philosophy was expounded in his Meditations.

Bookseller. Among the casualties of social upheaval were the libraries dismantled, plundered and destroyed, or else recirculated at bargain prices on the streets of Petrograd/Leningrad. Especially of concern were books vulnerable to loss through neglect or to the cultural backlash of the time, which, as Vaginov's widow recalled, tarnished even Pushkin as tool of the aristocracy. As she told Kibalnik, "Likewise, playing no small part in his life was the idea that it was necessary to save as many books as possible."

Boethius. Anicius Manlius Boethius (c. 475-525 C.E.). Roman philosopher and prominent statesman. One of the last Neoplatonists of antiquity, he translated Aristotle and was a link between the ancient philosophers and Scholasticism. He was also a victim of strife between the eastern and western halves of the Roman Empire. After false charges of treason, he was imprisoned and put to death. De Consolatione Philosophi  (The Consolation of Philosophy), which is considered his greatest work, was written while he was in prison. 

"Philosophia" appears to Boethius in the personification of a woman, simultaneously human and superhuman, hazy and luminous, ancient and youthful. It's possible to see her as a prefiguration of Solovyov's "Sophia" and his tsarina, which also have antecedents in eastern Christianity--from icons of St. Sophia in Novgorod and Kiev to the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. The Sophia of Solovyov also anticipates the Petersburg caf apparition in Blok's "Unknown Woman"  ("Neznakomka"), whose buoyant silks might be another version of what Boethius saw: clothing made of the finest fabric ("tenuissimis filis subtili artificio"). And could this be far from Teptyolkin's notion of Marya Petrovna in the first chapter--clad in silk and embodying the immutable in mutability? Where Vaginov saw a convention ripe for travesty, writers at the height of the Silver Age, and some of Vaginov's characters, were more inclined to see a manifestation of the unworldly. Blok elaborated on the "Unknown" in a lecture on Russian Symbolism in 1910: "Overall, she is not simply a lady in a black dress with ostrich feathers in her hat. She is the diabolic fusion of many worlds..." 

In his European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, Ernst Robert Curtius notes that Boethius also was reworking a literary convention of his time. Curtius saw the resurgence of mythical prototypes as characteristic of "messianically and apocalyptically excited periods," another of which could easily be Russia's Silver Age.  These prototypes, wrote Curtius, "peopled the psychological cosmos of late Antiquity: sybils, tutelary spirits, demons, supernatural redeemers and noxious creatures. In art as in the coins of the Empire, in the visions of monks as in pagan poetry, such figures confront us. Often we think that we are moving through a hallucinated world, through a world of waking dreams. Visions and dreams have immense power over men in this period. The world of the antique gods is repudiated by enlightened pagans. But it rises again in dreams."

Bolshevism is enormous. Compare to this a passage from Blok's "Downfall of Humanism" of 1919: "The main fact is, which cannot be denied: the impulse which is unfolding in the world at the present time is impossible to measure on any kind of human scale, interpret by any kind of civilized means. In the past few years civilization has made desperate attempts to adapt to the impulse; the most striking example -- the adaptation to the most vulgar and grandiose of wars, the likes of which the world has never seen till now. With its acutely anti-musical assent to this war, civilization has signed its own death warrant." In the same lecture, as in his famous poem, "The Twelve," Blok associates the impulse of revolution with the dawning of Christianity amid the decline of pagan culture in ancient Rome.

Chapter IV

Hermitage. The famous art museum in St. Petersburg, located in the Winter Palace (shown right, in view from Palace Square).


Chapter V

Asphodelyev. Some of his traits are those of the writer and critic P.N. Medvedev. While Vaginov was at work on Goat Song. Medvedev was at work on The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship. Both books might also be viewed as attempts to straddle the what were widely considered at the time as conflicting values of Formalism (literature as a self-contained body of meaning) and Marxism (literature as reflection of the world and tool for changing it). Like Bakhtin in his book on Doestoevsky in 1929, Medvedev was concentrating on the genre of the novel. The fictional Asphodelyev name refers to asphodel, the flower that, according to ancient mythology, blooms in the land of the dead. These were the pale flowers in the underworld meadow where (in Homer) Odysseus reunited with fallen comrades in the Trojan War. The flowers also embodied the gray area between extremes such as good and evil. Members of the lily family, asphodels were traditionally planted near tombs. Among the ancients, they were thought to be the preferred nourishment of the dead.  The flowers grow to about three feet, and their name comes from the ancient Greek word for sceptre.

Svechin. Based on the writer S. A. Kolbasyevich (1898-1938?). In Russian, both names have phallic connotations: Svechin being derived from the word for "candle" and Kolbasyevich from the word for "sausage."

Romances. Impassioned songs of heartbreak, loosely resembling gypsy music. They were popular at the time, and even with later generations. As Vaginov's contemporary, Vladimir Nabokov, wrote in Speak, Memory: "These were more or less anonymous imitations of gypsy songs--or imitations of such imitations. What constituted their gypsiness was a deep monotonous moan broken by a kind of hiccup, the audible cracking of a lovesick heart. At their best they were responsible for the raucous note vibrating here and there in the works of true poets (I am thinking here of Alexander Blok). At their worst, they could be likened to the apache stuff composed by mild men of letters and delivered by thickset ladies in Parisian night clubs. Their natural environment was characterized by nightingales in tears, lilacs in bloom and the alleys of whispering trees that graced the parks of the landed gentry." 

Chapter VI

Cross of St. George. Military honor conferred for valor.

signs. For selling goods, including old military wares. One of the most conspicuous changes brought about by the New Economic Policy (NEP) was a veritable stampede of signs. Describing the  "commercial renaissance" in 1922, as it appeared in Moscow, Mikhail Bulgakov wrote: "Like a colored wave, signs started climbing on the denuded walls, with each passing day new ones, with each passing day bigger and bigger. Here and there, they were done in a quick hand, sometimes merely scrawled on linen, but alongside them appear permanent ones, in the new spelling, with bright 28-inch letters. And they're nailed with enormous durable spikes." 

Chapter VII

Pioneers. Officially known as "Young Pioneers" and often referred to as Lenin Pioneers, in honor of the first Soviet leader. The Pioneers were the youngest stage of organization under the new state--starting with children at age nine. Somewhat like scouts in the west, and just as common in the Soviet Union, Young Pioneers dressed in uniforms (brown and blue, with red neckerchiefs). The group's aims combined structured recreation, indoctrination and reinforcement of group identity.


Ilyich. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.

Komsomol. Abbreviated term for "Young Communist League." This was the next stage of organization for Soviet children, beginning at age 14.

Chapter VIII

Tamara. The narrator's rejoinder is most likely an allusion to another Tamara, the Georgian princess who captivates the demon in the famous poem by Mikhail Yuryevich Lermontov (1814-1841). The poem's fame was reinforced by the series of illustrations by Mikhail Vrubel (1856-1910). His painting of the "Demon Seated" in 1891 was, in the broader sense of the word, an icon of the Silver Age.

Gilanian. From Gilan, a province in northwestern Iran, bordering Caspian Sea and present-day Azerbaijan. Area formerly under Russian imperial domination and briefly, after Russian Revolution, a Soviet Socialist Republic.

Martyrs of the Revolution Square. Before the revolution and currently the Field of Mars. Soldiers drilled there in the 18th century and later used it as a place for conducting full-dress parades. Currently a park and memorial to soldiers who died in World  War II.

Khorasanian. From Khorasan, a province in northwestern Iran, bordering on Afghanistan.

good-bye. Stricken out was the following passage that closed the chapter in an earlier version:

A few minutes after his departure, I, too, went out.
Tripping home along absolutely deserted streets, I was thinking that even I sometimes considered the unknown poet a Petersburg Pythian.

Pythian. Devotee of Apollo, the god of music, poetry, prophecy and medicine.

Chapter IX

Pryazhka. Canal located far from the center of the city, close to where the Bolshaya Neva empties into the Nevsky Inlet. In this rather subdued backwater, the canal flows past a hospital for the mentally ill. The metaphorical tangle of the last two lines might have come across to Vaginov's learned contemporaries as a parody of a passage in another work by a poet in foreign territory, "The Dunes," by Blok: "She clawed her feral glance away from my feral glance." As it so happened, Blok lived along the same canal from 1912 to the year of his death, 1921.

bishop's amethyst.  Purple stone of transparent crystal quartz, often worn on the rings of Catholic bishops, since it was thought to promote celibacy and signify piety. The stone was even thought to drive away evil thoughts and sharpen intelligence. Given the unknown poet's affinity for intoxication, it is ironic (and maybe intentionally so) that "amethyst" derives from the ancient Greek word for "not drunken." As a symbol of sobriety and antidote for drunkenness, the stone was even used as material for wine goblets. According to mythology, Amethyst was a young woman who accidentally incurred the wrath of the wine god, Dionysus, while she was going to pay homage to Artemis (Diana). To protect the young woman from Dionysus, Diana turned her into a crystal statue. When he saw what happened, Dionysus felt so bad he wept tears of wine. Hence the color.

Chapter X

Spenglerianism. For Spengler, Oswald (1880-1936). German philosopher of history. His most famous and influential work, Die Untergang des Abendlandes  (Eng. trans., The Decline of the West) was published in Germany in 1918. A translation into Russian appeared in 1923. 

Spengler challenged earlier notions of culture as a single, linear development. He argued, instead, that there were separate, local cultures that went through similar cycles of development and decay. Part of the cycle was the transition from the higher stage of "culture" (creativity) to the lower stage of "civilization" (reflection and  material comfort). A similar degeneration figures in Blok's lecture, "The Downfall of Humanism."  According to Spengler's scheme, the west had already entered an irreversible stage of decline. Among the Russian intelligentsia, this belief also re-echoed the disenchantment with western Europe expressed in the 19th century by Russia's Slavophiles. Elements of Spenglerianism can also be seen in Teptyolkin's organic conception of the "immutability" of humanity and in the unknown poet's attraction to numismatics: "schooling himself in the transience of all existence, in the idea of death, in the transmigration of himself into other countries and nationalities." Another Spenglerianism in Satyr Chorus  is the comparison drawn between the philistine iconoclasm of Bolshevism and that of early Christianity.  

Leontyev, Konstantin Nikolaevich (1831-91). Russian writer, publicist and literary critic. In his book, The Russian Idea, the philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev called Leontyev "the first Russian esthete" and ranked him as a forerunner of Spengler and Nietschze. Leontyev was a conservative pessimist who despaired of reconciling the beautiful with the good. He felt Russia was threatened by western bourgeois liberalism, materialism and uniformity. Fearing that these influences would lead to revolution, he called for a "Byzantinism" consisting of a strong monarchy and religious orthodoxy along with peasant communes and rigid class divisions. He favored closer ties with neighboring countries in Asia, and an expansion of influence into the Middle East so that Russia would become a new center of Christianity. In the 1920's, Leontyev would inspire nationalist supporters of the Communist regime in the "Changing Landmarks" movement. In their revisionist view, Leontyev becomes the prophetic advocate of a totalitarian religion-state governed by the Communists, who will restore the Russian empire and make it a bulwark against bourgeois internationalism.

Sands. A group of ten streets, each of them renamed "Soviet Street" in 1923. Their location is off Suvorov Prospekt, which runs off Nevsky Prospekt from Ploshchad' Vosstaniya. The original name refers to deposits of sand on the site before its development for offices in the late 18th century.

Kazan Cathedral. One of St. Petersburg's largest and most spectacular cathedrals (right). Located on Nevsky Prospekt, its most distinguishing feature is the enormous colonnade, inspired by St. Peter's in Rome. Built under the son of Catherine II, Paul I, the cathedral was supposed to house the icon, the Virgin of Kazan. According to tradition, the virgin had appeared to Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible) after the city of Kazan fell to the Poles. The icon is credited with helping Russia to retake the city 33 years later.

Zaevphratsky. Fictional name meaning "beyond the Euphrates." Vaginov's character is partly based on the poet, war hero and traveler, Nikolai Gumilyov, who was executed by the Soviet government in 1921.

Ekaterina Ivanovna. Based on Gumilyov's second wife, A.N. Engelhardt. His first wife was the poet Anna Akhmatova. Before more fully appreciating her talent as a poet, Gumilyov had suggested that Akhmatova take up ballet because of her slender physique.

The Lady with Camellias. The same title for the much more famous novel (1848) of Alexandre Dumas. The story is about a courtesan whose patrons are from the nobility and high society. A young man from a middle-class family falls in love with her. Stymied by a lack of independent means and social pressures, they are unable to live together in marriage. After the courtesan ends up going back to her patrons, her admirer takes offense. Following a reconciliation, he confronts her at a ball with a payment for her services. The ensuing scandal leaves her isolated and penniless as she dies of tuberculosis. Only after this does her admirer learn about her illness and undying love.

Chapter XI

Peterhof. Imperial summer palace (right), located 18 miles from St. Petersburg, on the Gulf of Finland. Once described as a "Versailles by the Sea,"  it's noted as much for its spectacular landscaping and fountains as its buildings. A veritable theme park, it pays homage to the splendors of western design and Russian history. The main palace, combining Baroque and medieval Russian features, is named Belvedere.

tower. Teptyolkin's counterpart, Pumpyansky, stayed for a while at just such a tower, at a dacha in Peterhof. Vaginov's widow says she and the author came there to visit.  

philosopher. Based on philosopher, philologist, cultural historian and literary theorist Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin (1895-1975). He conceived of literary language primarily as a social phenomenon, in which the roles of reader and creator overlapped, and in which meaning depended on context and combination or "dialogue." In the works of Dostoevsky, Bakhtin found his prime example of the author's idea coming to life through the interplay of characters with contrasting ideas of their own. Arrested in January, 1929, he was exiled to Kazakhstan. 

Cohen, Hermann (1842-1918). German philosopher, founder of the Neo-Kantian School at Marburg. Boris Pasternak, in A Safe Conduct, praised the Marburg school of thought for its fresh, inquisitive approach to philosophy, and for a scrupulous approach to history that looked beyond period terminologies to a "homogeneity in the structure of knowledge." "In Marburg," wrote Pasternak, "history was known to perfection, and they never grew tired of pulling treasure after treasure out of the archives of the Italian Renaissance, French and Scottish rationalism, and other little-studied schools. In Marburg, history was looked at through both Hegelian eyes, that is with the generalizing of genius, and yet at the same time within the strict boundaries of commonsense probability. Thus, for example, the school did not speak of the stages of the world spirit but, let us say, of the postal correspondence of the Bernoulli family, but it knew all the while that every thought, however distant in time, when it is caught on the spot and in action, is bound to be wholly accessible to our logical commentary. "[Translation: Angela Livingstone] This is a far cry from what scholarship and scientific inquiry became under Soviet rule.

Gongora. See note in Chapter XVI.

Camões. Luís Vaz de Cames or Camens (1524-80). Considered by many Portugal's greatest poet. Among his misfortunes were imprisonment, exile and shipwreck. His travels took him as far as Africa, India and China. He alludes to some of these experiences in his sonnets. What is most likely in common with Pushkin are lines the latter wrote from exile, such as a passage in Evgeny Onegin that alludes to the homeland of Pushkin's ancestors in Africa.

"The world is given." Reference to a formulation of Hermann Cohen (see note above): the world is not given, but is conceived. That is, the world, or reality, is not something complete in itself, but is something grasped through application of mental constructs, and that grasp itself is a work in progress. The theme is also touched upon just before this passage in the exchange between Kostya Rotikov and the Unknown Poet. It is perhaps no accident that Kostya Rotikov goes on to recite a poem by Gongora. If it is the sonnet Rotikov alludes to in a later chapter, then its description of physical beauty disintegrating down to "nothing" (the poem's last word, "nada") is one more argument against the self-sufficiency of tangible reality.

Summer Garden. See note for Chapter II.

Catherine Canal. Currently the Griboyedev Canal (right). One of the innermost canals from the Winter Palace. This was also the canal where Vaginov made his home. The Fontanka is another canal, farther from the palace, which used to mark the city limits. The Moika is the closest canal radiating around the palace and was once home to Pushkin. Neva probably refers to the main channel of the river, the Large Neva, which flows between the Winter Palace and Vasiliev Island.

Bronze Horseman. Famed equestrian sculpture by Falconet, depicting Peter I (thumbnail photo, left). Commissioned by Catherine the Great and immortalized in the eponymous poem by Pushkin.  The tsar and founder of St. Petersburg faces toward the west and, viewed from behind to to either side, seems poised to vault over the Neva to some new frontier. The green is oxidized copper, from age and exposure to the elements.

Châteaubriand, François René de (1768-1848). French writer, founding father of French Romanticism, and apologist for Christianity against the more secular orientation of the Enlightenment and French Revolution. Like Russia's Slavophiles, he was skeptical about western faith in rational thought as a guide to a better life. As a member of a royalist aristocratic family, he went to England to escape the French Revolution.

young man. Identified as Ivan Ivanovich Sollertinsky (1902-1944). A musicologist who spoke several languages, he was a friend of Vaginov and, from 1927 onward, one of the closest friends of the composer Shostakovich.

Chapter XII

Wrangel, Pyotr. During Russia's civil war, commanded last of the White armies. In the summer of 1920, while the Red Army was advancing into Poland, he tried to break out of his stronghold in the Crimean Peninsula. After some successes, his army was driven back and forced into exile.

16 versts. Equal to 16.96 km or slightly more than 10 miles.

Up north. The conditions are like those surveyed in a remarkable passage from Isaak Babel's story,  "Дорога" ["The Journey"], that describes Petrograd in late 1917: "Невский млечным путём тёк вдаль. Трупы лошадей отмечали его, как верстовые столбы. Поднятыми ногами лошади поддерживали небо, упавшее низко. Раскрытые животы были чисты и блестели." ["Nevsky streamed into the distance like a Milky Way dotted with dead horses, like milestones. With their outstretched legs, the horses propped up a sagging sky. The exposed stomachs were unblemished and shining."]

Ivanov, Vyacheslav (1866-1949). Symbolist poet and dramatist, as well as a classical philologist and historian. Known as the "high priest" of Russian Symbolism. After living abroad, he came back to St. Petersburg in 1905 and, together with his wife, made his apartment a famous literary salon known as "The Tower." He was influenced by the writings of Solovyov, by the Slavophiles, and by cultural figures in the west, such as Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and Wagner. In his Hellenistic Religion of a Suffering God, Ivanov tried to reconcile pagan religion with Christianity.

salvation. In Lermontov's poem, the Demon longs for salvation from his evil nature through seduction of the Georgian princess, Tamara. After her fiancé is killed as a result of the Demon's powers, Tamara takes refuge in a convent. The Demon pursues her there, shedding tears like flames that burn through stone. She finally gives in, only to perish from the Demon's burning kiss. After her death, an angel carries her soul to heaven, while the Demon reverts to his evil nature.

Chapter XIV

Army of Humanists. Teptyolkin feels more secure in their company than the unknown poet, accepting humanism largely as it was known in western Europe: a creative revival of ancient Roman and Greek culture, reconciled with Christianity. In The Russian Idea, Nikolai Berdyaev maintained that humanism in Russia was confused with humanitarianism. "It was precisely Russian thought," he wrote, "which had its own feeling of doubt, religious, ethical and social doubt, about the justification of creative culture." In their own way, Teptyolkin and the unknown poet try to overcome this doubt--one through an underlying mysticism, the other by more nihilistic means. "The intelligentsia was a Russian phenomenon and had characteristically Russian traits," wrote Berdyaev, "but its feeling about itself was that it had no ground beneath its feet. Such a feeling of having no basis is perhaps a national Russian trait. It is a mistake to regard as national only loyalty to conservative basic principles. Even a revolutionary spirit can be national. The Intelligentsia had the feeling of freedom from the burden of history, against which they had revolted. It must be remembered that the awakening of Russian consciousness and Russian thought was a revolt against imperial Russia and this is true not only of the westernizers but of the Slavophils also."  

Etienne Dolet. 1509-1546. French poet, philologist and philosopher. Published Classical literature in original and translation. Defended victims of the Inquisition and was punished.

Chapter XV

Poetess. Anna Akhmatova. From a poem dated 1919:

Чем хуже этот век предшествующих? Разве
Тем, что в чаду печали и тревог
Он самой черной прикоснулся язве,
Но исцелить еë не мог.

Ещë на западе земное солнце светит,
И кровли городов в его лучах блестят,
А здесь уж белая дома крестами метит
И кличет воронов, и вороны летят.

How is this age worse than what came before? Maybe
That, in the numbing haze of grief and anxiety,
It penetrated to the darkest sore
But couldn't make it heal.

In the west, an earthbound sun still shines
And city rooftops luster in its rays,
But, here, white death marks homes with crosses,
Calls the ravens, and the ravens take wing.

Lorenzo the Magnificent. Lorenzo de' Medici (1449-1492). Of the powerful merchant family that ruled Florence from the 14th through 18th centuries and whose patronage made the city a leading center for the arts. Lorenzo was also a scholar and poet, promoting the study of ancient Greek and Latin texts and encouraging new literature in Italian. Among the artists under his patronage were Botticelli and Michelangelo.

Frightful court. Dante, Gogol and Horace are the best known members. Like Horace, Persius and Juvenal were poets of ancient Rome. They were best known for works of social observation and commentary known as "satires." At first, the presence of Dante in this company  might seem strange, since his Divina Commedia  has little of the comedy that figures in the works of the other writers, especially  Gogol 's Dead Souls or The Inspector General. One possible explanation is that Vaginov may have been, consciously or not, crediting Dante for making something new of his religious and literary antecedents by "plunging them into the sea of life," that is, into his time and his city, and by casting such an ambitious work, "bello stilo" and all, in an amalgamation of the contemporary language spoken in Italian cities. Dante wanted his "dead souls" to reflect a cross-section of life from the sacred and timelessly mythical to local and contemporary, from the sublime to the commonplace and even the lurid. Although the title of Gogol's novel refers specifically to dead serfs, his ambitions for the work were also epic. He planned a work in three parts, encompassing "the whole of Russia," and which he referred to as a "poema," the Russian term for poetry as a vehicle for epic narrative.

Persius. Aulus Persius Flaccus (34-62 C.E.) Roman poet, author of satires. A contemporary of Horace, he was a harsh social critic.

Chapter XVI

fig sign. Non-verbal statement of defiance or disrespect, made by sticking one's thumb between the adjacent index finger and middle finger.

Gongora. Luis de Gongora y Argote (1561-1625). Poet of Spain's "Silver Age," which is described as a period of "magnificent decadence" marked by national decline and corrupt rule. Among those who led the way to rediscovery of Gongora were Symbolist poets Verlaine and Mallarmé. As Kostya Rotikov notes, there was also revival of interest in Gongora around the 300th anniversary of his death. Incidentally, a portrait of Gongora, painted in 1622 by Diego Velazquez, hangs in the Museum of Fine Art in Boston.

Marino, Giambattista (1569-1625). Italian Baroque poet.

Cheeks and neck. The discussion of Gongora by Vaginov's characters refers to a particular sonnet:


Mientras por competir con tu cabello
oro bruido el Sol relumbra en vano,
mientras con menosprecio en medio el llano
mira tu blanca frente el lilio bello;

mientras a cada labio, por cogello,
siguen ms ojos que al clavel temprano,
y mientras triunfa con desdn lozano
del luciente cristal tu gentil cuello;

goza cuello, cabello, labio y frente,
antes que lo que fu dorada
oro, lilio, clavel, cristal luciente,

no slo en plata o vola troncada
se vuelva, tu y ello juntamente
en tierra, en humo, en polvo, en sombra, en nada.

The poem's lapidary construction and the metamorphosis carried out by the "juxtaposition of words" must have appealed to Vaginov and the Acmeists as a marvel of technique. Like Kostya Rotikov, Vaginov was an avid reader of poets in Romance languages. The reverse alchemy of gold into silver might also have struck Russian readers as a temptation to allegory. With the ultimate deconstruction at the end of the poem, the allegory verges on the apocalyptical. 

Chapter XVIII

anniversary. The 10th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.

Stroganov. Palace on Nevsky Prospekt. During warmer months, the courtyard is currently used as a cafe and the tables are wired for telephones.

Visitors' Court. Gostiniy Dvor. One of the main shopping arcades on Nevsky Prospekt.

Chapter XX

Apollonius of Tyana. Biography (possibly fictitious) of the sage, traveler and miracle-worker, who may have lived in the 1st century C.E. His teachings were based on Pythagorean School and known to Roman emperors such as Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius. Iosif Brodsky described Apollonius as "the pagan prophet who lived only thirty years later than Christ, was known for miracles, cured people, left no record of his death, and, unlike Christ, could write."

Philostratus, Lucius Flavius. Scholar and author of philosophical and historical books. In the early 3rd century C.E. he compiled The Life of Apollonius of Tyana, using source materials from Julia Domna, a philosopher, humanist and wife of the Roman emperor Septimius Severus. In The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon wrote, "She was the patroness of every art, and the friend of every man of genius. The grateful flattery of the learned has celebrated her virtues; but, if we may credit the scandal of ancient history, chastity was very far from being the most conspicuous virtue of the empress Julia." She also built a library that would later be purged of philosophical materials and finally destroyed under early Christian rule. There is an obvious parallel with the dismantling of libraries and suppression of writings under Communist rule, not to mention an anticipation of what would even happen with the library compiled by Vaginov and his wife.

Piranesi, Giovanni Battista (1720-1778). Etcher, archaeologist, designer and architect, born in Venice. Made intensive study of Italy's ancient Roman and Greek architecture. Exerted influence on designers and early Romantic writers. His imaginary interiors included visions of palaces and prisons.

its own laws. As an arbiter of tastelessness, Kostya Rotikov shares a preoccupation of Daniil Kharms. In diary entries on "Vulgarity" (Poshlyatina) dating from 1940, Kharms would write, "Vulgarity can have its own theory and laws. In this there can be its own gradations and degrees." He also wrote, "Vulgarity is not a lack of the elevated or a lack of taste, or a lack of anything overall,--vulgarity is something in a class by itself, it is a fully defined greatness."

Nana. Another French woman of many conquests who dies miserably, from the 1880 novel by Emile Zola.

Chapter XXI

André Chénier (1762-1794). French poet. A sympathizer with the revolution, he later denounced its violent excesses and was guillotined by order of a revolutionary tribunal. The verse quoted says, in literal translation, "This memory always touches me and makes me feel affection."

Chapter XXII

Origen. Early Christian theologian, biblical scholar, Platonist philosopher and ascetic, thought to have been born in Alexandria in 182 C.E. As a teacher of men and women for a time, he tried to avoid any hint of scandal by practicing rigid celibacy--and castrating himself. Through his scholarship, he tried to develop Christian teachings into a theory of the universe, following the example of Hellenism. The wanderings referred to in the poem were incurred by clashes with certain church figures and periodic persecution by the Roman Empire.

Mosselprom. Abbreviation for Moscow Association of Establishments for Processing Products of the Agricultural Industry.

palace. Clearly a reference to Peterhof and the spectacular grounds, especially the view from above the fountains lining a channel of water leading out to the Gulf of Finland. For Teptyolkin, the passage is a flashback to the earlier time and idyllic setting of Chapter 11.


Verbitskaya, Anastasiya. A. (1861-1928). Popular author of of novels and stories dealing with women's emancipation.

Chapter XXIV

Test Mobilization. This chapter was written in 1929. During Stalin's consolidation of power in the late 1920's, the government tried to arouse the fear of attack, or infiltration--whether from "imperialist" powers in the west or from within--by "wreckers," be it Soviet citizens or foreign nationals. Diplomatic tensions with the British and French contributed to a "war scare" in 1927. The expectation of a coming war and the vigilance against internal enemies heightened the sense of crisis which the government tapped for public support, and which Stalin needed to strengthen his position against party rivals. Ironically, at the same time, the government was actually increasing its economic contacts and collaborations with "imperialist" countries. And, despite the talk of war, the Soviet Union's military was equipped with outdated weaponry. In their musings on a coming war, Vaginov and the government were both more prophetic than they realized.

Chapter XXVII

Solovyov, Vladimir (1853-1900). Religious philosopher, essayist, poet. Perhaps the single most influential thinker in Russia's Silver Age. His philosophy inspired Symbolist writers, such as Blok and Bely, as well as the musical and extra-musical formulations of Scriabin. Solovyov's politics were progressive and fairly westernized. His philosophy is often described as Neoplatonic, and his mysticism bridged the ascetic and the erotic. His concept of Divine Wisdom is personified as "Sophia," an equivalent of the "Eternal Feminine," whom he went to encounter in Egypt, in accordance with a mystical vision. Also see note on Boethius.

Chapter XXVIII

Visitors Court. A fairly literal translation of  "Gostiniy Dvor," also known as the arcade. It is still one of the main shopping centers in downtown St. Petersburg, and a forerunner of the shopping mall.

Chapter XXXI

In an earlier edition, this section of the chapter began: 

Now, sitting before the bottles, a drunken Agathonov was in torment. It seemed to him that all his poetry, which enjoyed so much success with his friends, was none other than the fruit of poisoned daydreams, the offshoot of poison. He remembered... 

Whatever the gain by streamlining this chapter, the passage does shed some light on themes announced at the very beginning of the book, namely the poison or venom that contaminated the old Petersburg and made its inhabitants so prone to hallucinations.

Fracastoro, Girolamo (1478-1553). Italian physician and poet. Famous for poem in Latin, "Syphilis or the Gallic Disease."

Barthelémy, Auguste Marcel (1796-1867). French poet. Works include three poems about Napoleon.

Chapter XXXII

Petiscus, Samuel (1637-1727). German scholar and philologist, nephew of a famous mathematician.

Meyerhold Theater. For Vsevolod Meyerhold, Russia's foremost stage director, starting before the revolution and continuing with innovative works in the 1920's and 1930's. Although a member of the Communist Party, he outspokenly stood up against the mandate of socialist realism. This led to his torture and execution in 1939.

Chapter XXXIII

Grand Hotel Europe. Dating from 1875, still one of the most prestigious hotels in St. Petersburg. Located on Nevsky Prospekt, not far from Gostiniy Dvor and Kazan Cathedral.

New Holland. A section of the city surrounded by canals, including the Moika. From one end, it's possible to look out along the Moika toward the Gulf of Finland.

Quiet Refuge. Term for the Institute of Russian Literature in the Russian Academy of Sciences, also known as the Pushkin House. Located on Vasiliev Island, close to the Little Neva, the institute is a repository of tradition and home of Pushkin's library. The "pinnacle of poetry in ages to come" is, undoubtedly, Pushkin. 

Chapter XXXIV

Sirin: One of the traditional birds of prophecy in pagan Slavic mythology. Two birds of prophecy appear in the opera by Rimsky-Korsakov, The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh (1904). The heroine of the opera, Fevronia, tries to save the Russian city of Kitezh after a Tatar invasion, during which she is abducted. Rather than pray for her own life, she prays for the city, which is rescued by being turned invisible. Later, when Fevronia has been abandoned in a forest, the two birds come to her. One, Alkonost, prophecies her death. The other, Sirin, prophecies her metamorphosis into eternal life. At the conclusion of the opera, Fevronia becomes reunited--in the invisible city--with her betrothed, Vsevolod, the prince who had fallen in battle against the Tatars. Readers might also recognize Sirin as the pseudonym used by another writer from St. Petersburg--Vladimir Nabokov.

Uspensky Cathedral. One of the main churches in Moscow's Kremlim. The cathedral was also built under the architectural design of a foreigner.

St. Sophia. One of the principal cathedrals of Kiev. The name also refers to the center of eastern Christianity, the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. It was the cathedral in Constantinople which is said to have inspired the conversion of St. Vladimir, who made Christianity the official religion of Kievan Russia.

Manon Lescaut. Heroine of a book with the same name by the French writer, Abb Prvost (Antoine Franois Prvost d'Exiles), 1697-1763. Before he became a monk, Prvost led a life of dissipation in Paris. Manon is a frivolous woman who leads an impressionable young man into crime.

Perrault. Charles Perrault (1628-1703). French poet famous for collections of of fairy tales.

Hotel 'Bristol.' For contemporary readers this was a thin disguise for the Hotel Angleterre in Leningrad where the poet Sergei Esenin committed suicide in 1925. There is little resemblance between his work and that of the Unknown Poet, though the suicides in both cases were foreshadowed by bouts of heavy drinking.

Chapter XXXV

In its original form, this is how the chapter appeared:



   I finished writing my novel, lifted my pointy head with eyes half-shut by yellow cobwebs, and looked at my hands deformed from birth: on the right hand, three fingers; on the left, four.

   I then took the novel and rode to Peterhof, to read it over, reflect, wander about, feel myself in the company of my heroes.

   From the station at Old Peterhof, I went on to the tower which I had overseen and described. The tower was no more.

   Under the influence of unfaded flowers and grass, there awoke inside me once again the enormous bird once felt, consciously or unconsciously, by my heroes. I see my heroes standing around me in the air, and in the company of a crowd I walk to New Peterhof. I sit down by the sea and, while my friends, pierced with sunlight, stand in the air above the sea, I start leafing through the manuscript and chatting with them.

   After returning to the city, I want to disintegrate, disappear and, stopping near the stove, I start tossing in pages of the manuscript and setting them afire.

   It's hot.

   I slowly undress. Naked, I walk up to the desk, open the window, look at the passersby, the city, and start writing. I write and observe the gait of a building superintendent, and how a Nepman walks, and how a college girl hurries along. I find it amusing to be sitting naked in front of a window and that I have on the desk a laurel the size of a little finger and a little shrub of myrtle. And, between them, an ashtray with pimples, and books, all sorts of Mexican and Peruvian conquests, grammars.

   "I'm kind," I reflect, "I'm starry-eyed, like Teptyolkin. I'm endowed with with the extremely refined taste of Kostya Rotikov, the conceptualization of the unknown poet, the simple-mindedness of Troitsyn. I'm made from the dough of my heroes." And, then and there on the desk, I start heating chocolate on the primus--I have a sweet tooth.

   All day long, I walk around my two-room apartment naked (recollections of ancient Greece), or in just a shirt. I wear velvet monastic slippers, woven with gold.

   After I finish heating and drink up, I wear out books and, wearing them out, among other things, I read them--one today, another tomorrow. Now, ten lines out of one, a few minutes later--a few lines out of another. Now, out of politics in French, then some kind of poetry in Italian, later a passage from some kind of travelogue  in Spanish, finally some sort of utterance or fragment in Latin. I call this shuttling from one culture to another.

    Over all of Europe, I suppose you'd find quite a few eccentrics like these. All told, I'm satisfied with the new life. I live in a heroic country, in a heroic time. I follow events in China with curiosity.

   If China unites with India and the USSR, it would be bad news for the old world, bad news.

   Sometimes I look at my deformed fingers and laugh contentedly: "Now you see what a monster I am!"

   My hands are always moist. I have jam on my breath. I wear a long shirt with a belt, long, unfashionable trousers, a ring on my finger with a turquoise. I love this ring for its tastelessness. Sometimes I wear a fashionable suit, yellow boots and a watch with a nice little bracelet.

   I also like gingerbread cookies with figures made of sugar in tiny little skirts reminiscent of classical ballet. I always have a gingerbread cookie like that, with a ballerina, lying on my desk alongside the pimpled inkwell and some sort of naked woman depicting Venus. Standing near her pedestal is a little plate with remains of Tanarga figurines. Slumbering right there is a bottle of cognac, and to chase the cognac, there's a bent package of colored mint gingerbread cookies in the shape of fish, lambs, rings and skates.

   My naked figure, sitting in a chair before the desk, drinking cognac and chasing it with mint gingerbread cookies, is incredibly funny. I'm optimistic about life. I suppose writing is a sort of physiological process, a peculiar cleansing of the organism. I don't like what I write because I clearly see that I write pretentiously, with metaphor, with a poetic context, which no true writer would allow himself.

   It doesn't bother me very much that my works are hardly ever published.

I wouldn't have been published in the old days either.

   "Look, take England, for instance," I smile in response, "true writers aren't published there either. Are two or three friends supposed to publish a nice, elegant little book in 200 copies with all sorts of allusions to unknown texts that no one's going to read anyhow? They're all busy with foxtrots and reading pulp fiction."

   I could live pretty well on the earnings from various professions, if it were not for my curiosity. I love to walk around, go to theaters and exhibitions, clubs, listen to concerts, travel about the neighborhoods, do the foxtrot, sit a girl down a couch, read her my passages. Not because I think my passages are beautiful, but because I think there aren't any better works in town, and because I think the girl wouldn't know what to make of them, because it's nice to not be understood, and then to head off with her somewhere, to team up with another girl, to read my passages to them together.

   When I'm at home, every evening before sleep, I read or read over some sort of pastoral novel in an early French translation, for it seems to me sometimes, especially in the evenings, that I think, not in Russian, but in French, even though I don't speak a single language besides Russian. Sometimes I come out with such heartfelt elegance, unfold such rarified philosophical thinking that I amaze myself.

   Did I write this, or did I not? And suddenly I raise my hand to my lips and kiss it. I have a jewel of a hand. I praise myself. No one I took after in my family was talented.

Nepman. Term of abbreviation (and, sometimes, contempt) for people who were allowed to set up private businesses under Lenin's "New Economic Policy" or NEP. Intended to be temporary from the outset, the policy continued after Lenin's death, into the late 1920's. A response to acute shortages of food and goods (which were often diverted more profitably into the black market), the NEP did bring some relief. Despite that relief, the Nepman increasingly became a target for resentment by people whose well-being failed to keep pace or even got worse. Nepmen were denied the right to vote and form their own associations. The fear of being abruptly shut down by a return to orthodox Communism gave them good reason to hurry and keep a low profile. As historians Mikhail Keller and Aleksandr Nekrich wrote in Utopia and Power, private enterprise "attracted mainly adventurers and speculators, whose hope it was to make some fast money and spend it quickly while keeping out of sight."

Events in China. Evidently refers to recent political developments in China. This chapter was written for the separate edition of the novel that appeared in 1928. Under orders from the Soviet leadership, already dominated by Stalin, a small Chinese Communist Party joined with China's nationalist party, the Kuomintang, which was led by Sun Yat-sen and, later, by Chiang Kai-shek. Contrary to Stalin, Trotsky favored a more radical policy, calling for the Chinese Communists to lead the struggle for revolution. The Communists were expelled from the Kuomintang and arrested in 1926, then killed off the following year in Shanghai, in a massacre organized by Chiang Kai-shek. The massacre cast doubt on the Soviet Union as a sponsor of world revolution. Because of this, the author's notion of heroic times and an alliance between the USSR, China and India appears farfetched to the point of irony, even though such an alliance might have been applauded even by the Slavophile Konstantin Leontyev. On the other hand, Vaginov's "author" is prophetic in noting how difficult it can be for "high culture" to survive in a free market driven by demand for best-sellers.  

Chapter XXXVI

red corner. Before the revolution, the term referred to a part of the home used for displays of religious symbols and icons. After the revolution, the term referred to a place for display of political symbols and images.

"Look what I got for you..." This section was added in 1929, up to "And Marya Petrovna tries once again to get on with her studies." The original text was as follows:

"Look what I got for you! I'm walking through the market and what do I see--a little book, Paul et Virginie with engravings.

   And they sit down side by side, drink tea and look over the engravings.

   First childhood. Two mothers sit with infants in their arms between two shacks. A faithful dog lies near the cradle, and in the distance are palms and mountains.

   Second childhood. Two little children are walking in the rain, covered by a skirt, and a young man is hurrying toward them, barefoot, elegant, in a wide-brimmed hat.

   There's a planter hitting a servant with sticks, but Paul and Virginie plead with him to stop.

   And Teptyolkin recalls an article by the kindly Macauley about negroes which he read while still in his childhood. And he has the feeling that, in the past, he had lofty impulses, and a heightened solemnity of mind, and striving for something as beautiful as could be. And once again the pictures come.

Mon Plaisir. Summer house for Peter I and Catherine II, one of the palaces at Peterhof. Located right on the water, the palace has a view of the Gulf of Finland and was a favorite place for the maritime tsar. The name, in French, is "My Pleasure."

Chapter XXXVII

Enormous building. St. Isaac's Cathedral, one of the main churches of St. Petersburg. The pepper-shaker and the inkwell are Vaginov's metaphorical references to the cathedral dome, which towers over the city's landscape along the Neva.

Church of Tikhon. Named for the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Metropolitan of Moscow, Tikhon, who was elected in November, 1917. Elected by the church synod as an agent of reform, Tikhon was an early opponent of the Bolshevik takeover, though he remained neutral during the Civil War. His role in organizing famine relief alarmed the government, which later placed him under house arrest. This led to another schism and the establishment of the Living Church, which was more cooperative with the government. The "performance" described at the beginning of the chapter is part of the Easter Vigil, a tradition of the Russian Orthodox faith. The celebration of Easter traditionally occupied an even larger place among the Russian Orthodox believers than among the Christians of the west. The holy day and its symbolism of rebirth were also important to Russian writers, including Vaginov. But, in Satyr Chorus, the symbolism--the poetry of the mythological--is an ironic counterpoint to the prose of a life which can be lived only once.

overboard. Along this part of the embankment of Vasiliev Island it is possible to walk along the pavement straight into the Bolshaya Neva.

Alternative ending. In an earlier edition, the following passage took the place of the last section of the chapter:



   The author was always trying to save Teptyolkin, but saving Teptyolkin was more than he could manage. By no means did Teptyolkin live in poverty after his abdication. The place he filled in life was by no means small. Never was he seized with doubts about himself. Not once did Teptyolkin think he didn't belong to a high culture. It was not himself he considered a lie, but his dream.

   Teptyolkin became a worker in the clubs, not at all poor, and a prominent but stupid official. And Teptyolkin planted no garden at all in the courtyard, and, on the contrary, he yelled at poor officials and was terribly garrulous and proud of the station he'd attained. He acquired four pairs of pants and insisted on fried chicken for dinner every day.

   But it's time to bring down the curtain. The performance is over. On the stage it's dim and silent. Where's the promised love? Where's the promised heroism? Where's the promised art?

   And a sad three-fingered author comes out on the stage with his heroes and takes a bow.

   "Look, Mitka, what freaks," says a spectator. "My, my, what a scoundrel! What an obscenity he spewed."

   "No kidding. What a horror! Are all people like that? You know, Ivan Matveyevich, there's a bit of Teptyolkin in you."

   " I'll take care him tomorrow, alright. I'll stick a mine underneath him, alright. I'll..."

   The author waves his hand. The printers start putting the book together.

   "Thank you, thank you." The author kisses the actors.

   He sheds his gloves, wipes off his makeup. The actors and actresses stand up straight and, right then and there on the stage, wipe off their greasepaint.

   And the author rides off with the actors to a cheap little restaurant. There they have themselves a feast. Amid bottles and ruined glasses, the author discusses with his actors a plan for a new play, and they argue and boil over and propose toasts to high art, with no fear of disgrace, crime or intellectual death.

   The type-setters have already put together half of Satyr Chorus and the author comes out of the little restaurant with his real friends into a lovely Petersburg spring night casting souls up over the Neva, over the palaces, over the outskirts teeming with centaurs, a night rustling like a garden, singing like youth, and flying like an arrow for the ones already flown.





Note: all photographs and graphic treatment for site by C Lovett. Cover page graphics: detail of statue on Vasiliev Island and (background) detail of columns at Kazan Cathedral.  

Afterword Cover