Petersburg Notes


1 Our Russian Empire … et cetera: this is a parody of the official title of the Russian Tsar, which included about sixty names of the lands and territories he ruled, and ended ‘et cetera, et cetera, et cetera’ (i prochaya, i prochaya, i prochaya). Rus is an archaic form of the name for Russia.

2 downgraded: in Russian, zashtatny. A bureaucratic term that meant that a town was no longer the centre of an administrative district.

3 Tsargrad: the Old Russian name for Constantinople. Nineteenth-century Russian nationalists liked to assert Russia’s claim to Constantinople, and Bely is making an ironic comment on this.

4 right of inheritance: the Right of Inheritance was founded on the cultural and political relations between Russia and Byzantium.

5 Piter: the popular and colloquial name for Petersburg is derived from the Dutch, Pieter. Pieterburg is actually a Dutch name, which Peter the Great intended to vie with Amsterdam, the city on which its design and planning were modelled.

6 for the public: in Russian, publichnyi dom (literally, public house) means brothel. There is some obvious ironic humour here.

7 It only seems to exist: here Bely is following the tradition, established by Gogol and continued by Dostoyevsky, of depicting Petersburg as an unreal city.


1 It was a dreadful time: these lines are from Pushkin’s long poem The Bronze Horseman, though Bely quotes them in a slightly altered form (O nei instead of Ob nei).

2 the very progenitor of the Semitic, Hessitic and red-skinned peoples: this is sheer wordplay, delivered in the humorous tradition of the eighteenth-century English novel, to which this opening paragraph pays tribute. ‘Hessitic’ is an invention, and ‘red-skinned’ has an ironic connotation here.

3 the Kirghiz – Kaisak Horde: the name given to the nomadic Kirghiz people during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Kirghiz were related to the Mongols who had once subjugated Russia. Russian noblemen (including the eighteenth-century poet Derzhavin) liked to trace their ancestry back to real or imaginary Mongol antecedents.

4 Anna Ioannovna: niece of Peter the Great, and Russian empress from 1730 to 1740.

5 Mirza Ab-Lai: probably a reference to the sultan and khan of the Middle Kirghiz Horde, Ablai (d. 1781). Bely may also have derived the name Ableukhov from the ancient Russian Obleukhov family, two descendants of which came to occupy a prominent position in Russian literary life at the turn of the century. N.D. Obleukhov was the editor of the weekly periodical Znamya (1899–1901) and other conservative publications, while his brother, A.D. Obleukhov, was a poet who translated Alfred de Musset. The Obleukhovs were well known in the symbolist circles that Bely frequented.

6 Ukhov: in Russian, ukho means ear.

7 Heraldic Guide to the Russian Empire: Obschii gerbovnik dvoryanskikh rodov Vserossiiskoi Imperii, nachatyi v 1797 godu, a publication that gave illustrations and descriptions of noble coats of arms.

8 the blue sash: the blue sash was worn with the medal of Andrei Pervozvanny – one of the most important decorations that could be bestowed by the Russian Empire.

9 rejected in the appropriate quarters: an allusion to the fierce resistance offered by Konstantin Pobedonostsev (head of the Russian Holy Synod) to any attempts at liberal reform.

10 the Ninth Department: a Department was a section of a higher government institution. Gogol mentions one in his story ‘The Overcoat’ (1841), and it is this link with Gogol that Bely is consciously trying to establish here.

11 the head of that department: a reference to Vyacheslav Konstantinovich Plehve (1846–1904), Minister of the Interior and Chief of the Gendarmes, who was assassinated with a bomb on 15 July 1904 by the Social Revolutionary E.S. Sazonov.

12 My senator: the members of the Senate – Russia’s highest legislative and administrative organ – were drawn from the three highest ranks in the government and military service. Their uniform consisted of gold-trimmed jacket and white trousers.

13 a humorous little street journal: the events of 1905 gave rise to the publication of a very large number of small political and satirical journals. In his memoirs, Bely mentions caricatures of Witte, and ‘Pobedonostsev’s green ears’.

14 real privy councillor: the second highest rank in the Table of Ranks, established by Peter the Great.

15 Count Doublevé: Count ‘W’, i.e. Count Witte. Sergei Yul’yevich Witte (1849–1915) was Minister of Finance from 1892 to 1903, and was one of Alexander III’s closest advisors. He was largely responsible for many bourgeois reforms in pre-revolutionary Russian society, and in many ways may be seen as a liberal. He headed the Russian side of the peace negotiations that concluded the Russo-Japanese War and were held in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, USA, in the summer of 1905.

16 borona: the Russian word is pronounced baranáh – making the pun more obvious.

17 the islands: Kamenny, Krestovsky and Yelagin Islands, which are enclosed by the two arms of the Bolshaya Nevka river. Bely also includes the large and mostly working-class Vasily Island in this expression.

18 yellow house: in Bely’s novel, as in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, yellow is the prevailing colour. It is the colour of central Petersburg, its residences and its official buildings. In Bely’s case, however, the matter is somewhat complicated by the fact that the yellow colour also symbolizes the Asiatic East, which has invaded the Europeanness of Peter the Great’s creation.

19 tramcars … 1905: the first tramline in Petersburg was opened on 15 September 1907.

20 the equestrian monument of the Emperor Nicholas: the monument to Nicholas I on Mariinskaya Square, designed by Montferrand and executed between 1856 and 1859 by the sculptors Klodt, Ramazanov and Zaleman. At this and other monuments to Russia’s former rulers, a soldier stood on guard.

21 the ending of life’s way: an ironic comment on the fact that so many senior government officials were assassinated by terrorists between 1901 and 1907.

22 the gold needle: the spire of the Admiralty building, referred to as the ‘Admiralty needle’ by Pushkin in The Bronze Horseman. The needle is a constant motif throughout the novel, and ‘The Admiralty Needle’ was one possible alternative title considered by Bely.

23 the Flying Dutchman: this image of the legendary sea-captain eternally doomed to roam the stormy seas with his ship merges in Bely’s novel with the image of Peter the Great – the connection is made plausible by the fact that Peter lived for a time in Holland.

24 German Sea: the older Russian name for the North Sea.

25 Noses: here, and in the passage that follows, Bely introduces a reminiscent allusion to Gogol’s short story ‘The Nose’ (1835). There is also possibly a reference to a popular rhyme that was current among the Petersburg public in 1905 concerning the president of the Executive Committee of the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, G.S. Khrustalev-Nosar (1877–1918) – his surname translates as ‘Noser’ – and the Prime Minister, Witte, whose nose, according to the writer Yu. P. Annenkov, was ‘unnoticeable in profile, like that of Gogol’s Major Kovalyov’:

Of premiers the Russians have acquired

An inventory rich and rare:

One premier has no nose at all,

The other premier is Nosar.

26 raznochinets (plural, raznochintsy): the Russian word means ‘an individual of no definite social rank’, and was used to describe intellectuals who did not belong to the gentry. Turgenev’s Bazarov (in Fathers and Sons) is perhaps the best-known example of such a type in Russian literature.

27 The parallel lines … Peter: Vasily Island was built and planned by the architect Trezini, following instructions from Peter the Great. There were to have been parallel canals, on the model of the canals of Amsterdam, but the project was never brought to completion, and the unrealized canals were subsequently called lines.

28 Stolovaya: public dining-room.

29 the past fateful five years: the first five years of the twentieth century, which Bely viewed as the watershed between two historical eras.

30 China … fallen: a reference to the Boxer Rebellion of May 1900, and to the conclusion, in January 1905, of the Russo-Japanese War, which dealt a humiliating blow to Russia’s national pride.

31 Coursistes: in Russian, kursistochki, the diminutive form of kursistki, who were young women attending classes at universities and other places of higher learning. Women were not formally accepted as students at the Russian universities.

32 the plaisirs of Peterhof’s nature: a reference to the Summer Palace, ‘Mon Plaisir’, built at Peterhof (Peter the Great’s summer residence outside Petersburg) from 1714 to 1723.

33 picon: a kind of essence that was added to alcoholic drinks.

34 Konstantin Konstantinovich: Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich Romanov (1858–1915), Nicholas I’s grandson, and a poet who published verses under the initials K.R.

35 And he is not: a quotation from Pushkin’s unfinished Lyceum poem ‘There was a time …’ (Byla pora …).

36 Vyacheslav Konstantinovich: Vyacheslav Konstantinovich Plehve.

37 And now it seems: a quotation from Pushkin’s Lyceum poem ‘The more often the Lyceum celebrates …’ (Chem chashche prazdnuyet litsei …, 1831).

38 And o’er the earth: another quotation from Byla pora …

39 Panteleimon: sometimes referred to as Pantaleon, ‘The All-Merciful’. A medieval physician who became one of the patron saints of physicians, and is much revered in the Russian Orthodox Church, where his name is invoked in prayers for those who suffer from ‘demonic possession’ and mental illness. His bones are interred at the monastery on Mount Athos.

40 What is truth?: the question addressed by Pontius Pilate to Christ (John 18:38).

41 Our Bat: Pobedonostsev was frequently depicted in satirical caricatures as a bat or nocturnal bird.

42 collegiate registrar: according to the civil service Table of Ranks, a collegiate registrar belonged to the last, or fourteenth class, while a state councillor belonged to the fifth class.

43 Liza’s shadow: a reminiscent allusion to a scene from Tchaikovsky’s opera The Queen of Spades (1890). Abandoned by Hermann, Liza throws herself into the Winter Canal.

44 Hercules and Poseidon: sculptures that ornament the façade of the Winter Palace.

45 Nikolayevka: a greatcoat with a pelerine, of the kind that became fashionable during the reign of Nicholas I.


1 I myself, though in books: the epigraph to this chapter is taken from Pushkin’s unfinished long poem Yezersky (1832).

2 the Comrade: a Petersburg radical newspaper, though it was not published there until 1906.

3 Daryalsky: the hero of Bely’s novel The Silver Dove, who is killed by sectarians.

4 the Chernyshev Bridge: a bridge across the Fontanka.

5 Angel Peri: the name is derived in an ironic manner from a poem by Zhukovsky, ‘The Peri and the Angel’ (Peri i Angel, 1821), which is a translation of the second part of Thomas Moore’s long poem Lalla Rookh. Peri: ‘evil genius, malevolent elf or sprite … one of several beautiful but malevolent female demons employed by Ahriman to bring comets and eclipses, prevent rain, cause failure of crops and dearth, etc.; in mod. Persian, poetically represented as a beautiful or graceful being (cf. fairy in Eng.) … In Persian mythology, one of a race of superhuman beings, originally represented as of evil or malevolent character, but subsequently as good genii, fairies, or angels, endowed with grace and beauty’ (Oxford English Dictionary). In nineteenth-century England, Europe and Russia, ‘Peri’ was often used as a complimentary epithet addressed to a woman of high society, in the sense of ‘fair one’.

6 Hadusai: the great Japanese painter and graphic artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849).

7 Duncan and Nikisch: Sofya Petrovna uses the French pronunciation of the names of Isadora Duncan (1878–1927), the American dancer, and Arthur Nikisch (1855–1922), the celebrated Hungarian orchestral conductor. According to received Russian pronunciation, the stress would fall on the first syllable of each surname.

8 meloplastics: meloplastika, a word invented by Bely as a humorous slip for mimoplyaska (mime-dance), a term invented in 1908 by the ballet critic Nikolai Vashkevich, with reference to Duncan’s dancing. Sofya Petrovna’s confusion is made all the more grotesque by the fact that meloplastika also suggests metalloplastika (metalloplastics), a craft taught to Russian schoolgirls that involved the tracing of designs with a heated needle on specially treated metal plates.

9 Henri Besançon: Angel Peri’s mind has concocted a somewhat grotesque compound of Henri Bergson and Annie Besant (the theosophist author of Man and His Bodies).

10 the Gregorian Regiment: the regiment is a fictitious one, though it is given verisimilitude by being placed under the patronage of a foreign monarch – and one of the royal hussar regiments in Russia was in fact headed by King Chakrabon of Siam.

11 khokhol-Little Russian: i.e. Ukrainian. Khokhol is the derogatory Russian name for a Ukrainian, while ‘Little Russian’ means the same thing – the two expressions form a tautology.

12 Lippanchenko: this character is probably modelled on the real-life composer S.V. Panchenko (1867–1937), who was a friend of the poet Blok’s wife, Lyubov’ Dmitrievna, with whom Bely was for a time infatuated, believing her to be an incarnation of the Holy Sophia invoked in the apocalyptic writings of the philosopher Vladimir Solovyov. Panchenko was obviously perceived by Bely as a rival.

13 dushkan: darling (Ukr.).

14 brankukan, bran-kukashka or brankukanchik: more Ukrainian endearments.

15 The Red Buffoon: Bely’s image of the ‘red buffoon’ or ‘red jester’ is derived from Edgar Allan Poe’s short story ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ (1845). Bely also wrote a verse ballad entitled ‘The Buffoon’ (Shut, 1911) in which a hunchbacked figure in a satin cape is the central character.

16 Freak, frog: possibly a reference to another story of Poe’s, ‘Hop-Frog’ (1849).

17 the Ciniselli Circus: an indoor circus, housed in a stone building on the Fontanka, that performed during the winter months.

18 civil servants of the fourth class: according to the Table of Ranks, these included real state councillors, ober-procurators, master heralds, major generals (in the army) and junior admirals (in the navy).

19 the fields of bloodstained Manchuria: most of the fighting in the Russo-Japanese war took place in Manchuria.

20 crowds inundated … clergy: a reference to the funeral of Prince Sergei Nikolayevich Trubetskoy (1862–1905), a noted liberal campaigner. His funeral acquired the character of a political demonstration both in Petersburg and in Moscow.

21 Peter’s little house: in Russian, Petrovskiy domik – Peter the Great’s Summer Palace, designed by Trezini and built in the Summer Garden, 1710–1712.

22 Torricellian vacuum: the Italian physicist and pupil of Galileo, Evangelista Torricelli (1608–47), devised the mercury barometer, demonstrating the ability of air pressure to support a finite column of mercury. A Torricellian vacuum is an airless space formed above the surface of a liquid in a closed vessel.

23 Morzhov: a comical name in Russian, suggesting a walrus. The name also has obscene connotations.

24 Gregory of Nyssa: bishop of Nyssa, who lived c. 335–94 AD, and one of the Cappadocian Fathers, the younger brother of St Basil the Great. A Platonist, Neoplatonist and ascetic thinker.

25 Ephraem Syrus: a fourth-century Christian Church father and ecclesiastical writer (c. 306–73).

26 the Apocalypse: the Church Slavonic name for ‘Revelation’, the book of St John the Divine.

27 academist: a student of the Ecclesiastical Academy.

28 Harnack: Adolf Harnack (1851–1930), German Protestant theologian who preached a Christian morality based on universal brotherhood.

29 schemonach: a monk who has taken the schema, the highest monastic rank in the Orthodox Church, demanding the fulfilment of a number of exacting tasks and statutes.

30 Narodnaya Volya: the ‘People’s Will’ movement, a populist revolutionary organization.

31 St George’s medal: a military decoration established by Catherine the Great, and extended to the lower ranks in 1807.

32 Yakutsk region: a region of north-eastern Siberia. Many political exiles were sent there.

33 I was brought out in a pickled cabbage barrel: an episode from the life of the Socialist Revolutionary activist Grigory Andreyevich Gershuni (1870–1908).

34 Helsingfors: the Swedish – and Imperial Russian – name for the capital of Finland, until 1917 a Grand Duchy under the protection of Russia, and a part of its Empire. The city is now called Helsinki (though still known as Helsingfors among the Finnish–Swedish minority).

35 Kaigorodov: Dmitry Nikiforovich Kaigorodov (1866–1924), the Russian botanist, entomologist, birdwatcher and pedagogue, whose most famous work was ‘From the Kingdom of Our Feathered Friends’ (Iztsarstva pernatykh, 1892).

36 Yesterday the eyes had looked: there is an apparent inconsistency in Bely’s text here: Dudkin’s encounter with the senator on Nevsky Prospect and their subsequent meeting in Ableukhov’s house take place on the same day.

37 A certain gloomy building: probably St Petersburg University.

38 phytin: a medicinal preparation that was used in the treatment of nervous disorders, hysteria, et cetera.

39 the perennial Horseman: Falconet’s equestrian monument to Peter the Great (1782), situated on Senate Square. It cost 450,000 roubles.

40 Finnish granite: the base of the monument is a large slab of Finnish granite.

41 lower your hooves: the images here are drawn from Pushkin’s poem The Bronze Horseman.

42 shaking of the earth: Bely uses the archaic Russian word for earthquake – trus.

43 Nizhny, Vladimir and Uglich: Nizhny is also known as Nizhny Novgorod. All three towns are situated north-east of Moscow and represent Russia’s medieval past.

44 Tsushima: the naval battle at Tsushima on 14–15 May 1905 ended with the complete destruction of a Russian squadron.

45 Kalka: the tributary of the river Kalmius at which the Russian Princes and their Cuman allies were defeated by the Mongol–Tartar forces on 21 May 1223.

46 Kulikovo Field: the site of the battle between the Russian forces, under the leadership of Dmitry Donskoi, and the Mongol–Tartar army, on 8 September 1380. The battle ended in victory for the Russians.

47 Mongol mugs: this is a reference to the Japanese delegation that visited Petersburg in 1905 in order to conclude the peace treaty between Russia and Japan.

48 Styopka: Styopka, the son of the shopowner Ivan Stepanov, is a character from Bely’s novel The Silver Dove (1909). Petersburg, which was intended as the second part of the trilogy, contains a number of references to him. In The Silver Dove he leaves his native village and disappears into the unknown.

49 Bessmertny: the name means ‘immortal’.

50 Tselebeyevo: the village in which the action of The Silver Dove takes place.

51 strange people: the mystical sectarians who are the ‘doves’ in the earlier novel.

52 a visiting barin: a reference to Pyotr Daryalsky, the principal character in The Silver Dove. Styopka relates various elements of the novel’s plot.

53 “The First Distiller”: Lev Tolstoy’s folk comedy of the same title (1886), illustrating the evils of drink.

54 temple: probably the Buddhist meeting-house in Staraya Derevnya (then a Petersburg suburb), the construction of which lasted from 1909 until 1915, and had the support of the Dalai Lama.

55 Philadelphia: in Greek, ‘brotherly love’. A town in Lydia, Asia Minor, named after its founder Attala II Philadelphos. It was the seat of one of the seven churches of Asia mentioned in the Book of Revelation (2–3), and offered certain promises for the future there (3:7–13). The Philadelphian Christians believed that they would be saved from the temptation that would affect the whole world, and their church survived in isolation in the midst of Muslim lands.

56 the cult of Sophia: the Greek word σoΦíα means ‘mastery, knowledge, wisdom’, a concept associated with the idea of the semantic completeness and organization of things. In the philosophy of Vladimir Solovyov it came to stand for the eternal feminine which he perceived to lie at the base of divinity, the collective mystical body of Logos, and the ideal man. It was closely associated with the Solovyovian concept of the ‘universal soul’. Solovyov’s poem ‘Three Encounters’ (Tri svidaniya, 1898) describes the philosopher’s meetings with the ‘eternal friend’ – one of these takes place in the reading room of the British Museum.

57 the Nizhny Novgorod female sectarians: a reference to Anna Nikolayevna Schmidt (1851–1905), the Nizhny Novgorod mystic who wrote a treatise entitled ‘The Third Testament’. She corresponded with Vladimir Solovyov, and Bely met her at the home of the philosopher’s brother, M.S. Solovyov, in 1900.

58 1912: Bely believed that years ending in 12 played a decisive and mystical role in Russia’s fate and history.

59 Even so, come Lord Jesus: cf. Revelation 22:20.


1 Though he’s an ordinary sort of fellow: the epigraph is from Pushkin’s poem Yezersky. Line 6 of Pushkin’s original reads Khot’ chelovek on ne voyennyi (‘Though he’s no military man’). Bely either misquotes, or uses a non-standard text. Many editions of Peterburg have a misprint in line 2, where Ne (No) is given as No (But).

2 A Holiday: 5 October was the name-day of the Tsarevich Alexei, heir to the Russian throne. But the holiday could also have been occasioned by Witte’s being made a count after his conclusion of the peace negotiations with the Japanese, which were accounted a great diplomatic success. The official state reception for this event was also on 5 October.

3 a shot was fired: the daily cannon-shot from the Peter and Paul Fortress at twelve noon.

4 from the third class to the first class inclusive: according to the Table of Ranks established by Peter the Great, there were fourteen classes for each rank.

5 cavalier of St Anne: originally a Holstein military decoration, included in the Russian list of honours by Paul I in 1797.

6 White Eagle: a Polish military honour, included in the Russian list of honours in 1815.

7 likhach: a smart cab and its driver.

8 bogatyr: a hero in Russian folklore.

9 My devachanic friend: in Sanskrit, Devachan is ‘the place of the gods’ – for theosophists, the name of heaven.

10 opoponax: an aromatic resin with a musky odour, obtained from the plant of the same name.

11 and from the kingdom of necessity create the kingdom of freedom: these words originate from a passage in Friedrich Engels’s Anti-Dübring.

12 Noble, slender, pale: there is an obvious similarity between Varvara Yevgrafovna’s poem and Pushkin’s poem ‘Once a poor knight there did live’ (Zhil na svete rytsar’ bednyi, 1829), in its revision of 1835:

Full of a pure love,

Faithful to a delightful dream,

A.M.D. [Ave Mater Dei, tr.] with his blood

He traced upon his shield.

Dostoyevsky makes much play with these lines in his novel The Idiot, and they were also used by Blok as the epigraph to one of his poems (‘A.M. Dobrolyubov’, 1903).

13 Apperception: a Leibnizian term, denoting the transition from a lower to a higher state of consciousness. In Russian, appertseptsiya (apperception) and perets (pepper) sound very close to each other.

14 Cohen’s Theorie der Erfahrung: the book Kants Theorie der Erfahrung (1871) by the German philosopher Hermann Cohen (1842–1918), founder of the Marburg School of Neo-Kantianism.

15 Kant, Comte: in Russian, the two names differ by only one letter (Kant = Kant, Comte = Kont).

16 Mill’s Logic: John Stuart Mill’s System of Logic (1843) was a formative influence on nineteenth-century Russian social thought.

17 Sigwart’s Logic: the two-volume work (1873–8) by the German Neo-Kantian philosopher Christoph von Sigwart (1830–1904).

18 professor of the philosophy of law: an allusion to the life of Pobedonostsev, who graduated from the Imperial Law School in 1846 and subsequently occupied the chair of Civil Law.

19 Bundist-socialist: the Bund was a national Jewish political organization.

20 Sow the useful: an inexact quotation from Nekrasov’s poem ‘To the Sowers’ (Seyatelyam, 1876).

21 a mystical anarchist: the doctrine of ‘mystical anarchism’ was developed by the writer Georgii Chulkov in his book On Mystical Anarchism (1906), and had a certain following among the Russian Symbolists, though Bely was firmly opposed to it, seeing in it a ‘profanation’ of Symbolist tenets.

22 Tam: a ‘musical’ exclamation – but the word also means ‘there’ in Russian.

23 Gazing at the rays of purple sunset: a romance by the composer A.A. Oppel, to words by Kozlov. In the original, the second line reads ‘We stood upon the bank of the Neva.’

24 The Queen of Spades: Tchaikovsky’s opera, based on Pushkin’s short story, with its hero, Hermann.

25 the Code of Laws: The Code of Laws of the Russian Empire, a systematic code of pre-1917 Russian law, published in sixteen volumes.

26 tabes dorsalis: a form of neurosyphilis, affecting the spinal cord.


1 Grant God that I may not go mad: the epigraph is the first line of an untitled poem by Pushkin (1833) that was never published in the poet’s lifetime.

2 a statue by Irelli: there is no such statue in the Summer Garden. Bely may have inadvertently written Irelli instead of Rastrelli – whose equestrian statue of Peter the Great (1743–4) is to be found on Horse Stable Square, near the main entrance of Mikhailovsky Palace.

3 Maison Tricotons: possibly the ladies’ fashion shop, Maison Annette, at No 25 Nevsky Prospect.

4 Krafft’s: Krafft’s chocolate factory was situated at No 10/5 Italyanskaya Ulitsa.

5 Ballet’s: a confectioner’s shop at No 54 Nevsky Prospect.

6 rust-red palace: the Winter Palace in Petersburg, built 1750–61. The palace’s original blue-white tint was replaced in the nineteenth century by a dark brown one.

7 Yelizaveta Petrovna: daughter of Peter the Great, Empress Elizabeth of Russia (1741–61).

8 Aleksandr Pavlovich: Tsar Alexander I (1801–25).

9 Aleksandr Nikolayevich: Tsar Alexander II (1855–81).

10 zemstvo official: a zemstvo was an elective district council in pre-1917 Russia.

11 the editor of a conservative newspaper, the liberal son of a priest: apparently a reference to the essayist, writer and publisher Aleksei Sergeyevich Suvorin (1834–1912).

12 Charleston: Charleston, Virginia, USA, where an influential Masonic lodge was based. Its head was called the ‘antipope’. The reference here is to Léo Taxil (see note 17).

13 liberal professor: the ‘professor of statistics’ is, by Bely’s own admission, a caricature of the Constitutional Democrat politician Peter Struve, though in his memoirs Bely claimed that he had not consciously intended to reproduce Struve’s features.

14 the Boxers in China: a reference to the Boxer rebellion of 1900, a revolt by the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fists, encouraged by the Dowager Empress Tzu Hsi against foreign domination.

15 Who art thou: this quartrain, like the entire scene being described, is closely connected with Bely’s poems ‘Masquerade’ (Maskarad, 1908) and ‘The Festival’ (Prazdnik, 1908), which depict the appearance of a fateful red domino at a festive masquerade.

16 a rustling stream of confetti: Bely appears to have confused konfetti (confetti) with serpentin (paper streamers).

17 Taxil: Léo Taxil, a French anticlerical writer; his real name was Gabriel Antoine Jogand-Pagès (1854–1907). He ‘exposed’ devil-worship among the Freemasons, but later confessed that his activities had been a hoax.

18 Palladism: the highest circle of Freemasonry, and supposedly also of devil-worship.

19 terrible vengeance: an allusion to Gogol’s story of the same name.

20 like a sheaf of ripe grain: this entire passage presents an image of the white domino as a symbol of Christ, standing in opposition both to political terror (the red domino) and to autocracy (the Bronze Horseman).

21 Vanka: a familiar name for a cab driver (short for Ivan).

22 And the light did not shine: there are overtones here of the Gospel according to St John (1:5).

23 Word and deed!: this expression meant, from the fourteenth century until the reign of Catherine II, that the person who uttered it had an important matter to relate concerning a person of state. Thereupon he became involved, as an informer, in the investigation of a political plot by the Secret Chancellery.

24 From Finland’s icy cliffs to fiery Colchis: a quotation from Pushkin’s poem ‘To the Slanderers of Russia’ (Klevetnikam Rossii, 1831).

25 It’s time, my friend: the words are loosely taken from Pushkin’s poem of the same title (1831).


1 When morning and its star doth gleam: the epigraph is taken from Pushkin’s verse novel Eugene Onegin (Chapter 6, Lensky’s poem), with a slight alteration in line 3.

2 Aa-ba-a-ate un-re-est of the paa-aassions: the words are from Glinka’s romance ‘Doubt’ (Somnenie, 1838), and form a leitmotif in Bely’s ‘Fourth Symphony’.

3 Allasch: a clear spirit flavoured with thyme.

4 Oh, do not suppose that those ties … shedding of blood: there is an evident allusion here to the conversations between Raskolnikov and the investigator Porfiry Petrovich in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment – one of the many instances in Petersburg where Bely invokes that novel.

5 Illegitimate … seamstress: there is perhaps a hint here of Part IV, Book 11, Chapter 8 of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, where Smerdyakov tells Ivan about the murder.

6 Colours of a fiery hue: the verses are Bely’s own.

7 a lawless comet: an echo of a line from Pushkin’s poem ‘The Portrait’ (Portret, 1828).

8 arshin, vershoks: 1 arshin was equal to 0.71 metres, 1 vershok was equal to 4.4 centimetres.

9 petit-jeu: parlour games – charades, forfeits, epigrams, et cetera.

10 Karolina Karlovna: the name of Bely’s first nursery-governess, who spoke German, and looked after him in January 1884.

11 the logic of Dharmakirti with a commentary by Dharmottara: Dharmakirti was a seventh-century Indian philosopher, and Dharmottara a ninth-century one. Bely read Dharmakirti in the Russian translation of F.I. Shcherbatskoy, published by the Academy of Sciences in 1904.

12 a Chronic aspect: a pun on chronic and Chronos.

13 Turanian: Turanians were non-Semitic and non-Aryan nomads who supposedly came to Europe and Asia before the Aryans. Rudolf Steiner believed that logic was invented during the supremacy of the Turanians and Mongols.

14 Saturn: according to Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophical teaching, the first stage in the evolution of the cosmos.

15 bogdykhan: the traditional Russian name (derived from Mongolian bogdokhan) for the Chinese emperors.


1 Behind him always: the epigraph is taken from Pushkin’s The Bronze Horseman (V, 148).

2 insect powder: in Russian, persidskiy poroshok, literally ‘Persian powder’. The ‘Persian’ theme is established here.

3 Serafim of Sarov: an elder at the Orthodox monastery of Sarov who lived from 1760 to 1833. He imposed penances of awesome severity on himself, once standing for a thousand nights in continuous prayer.

4 on the corner of Anichkov Bridge: a reference to the sculpted groups of young men with horses that adorn the Anichkov Bridge in St Petersburg.

5 credit bill: i.e. a banknote.

6 Potapenko: Ignaty Nikolayevich Potapenko (1856–1928), a belle-lettriste and playwright who was popular in the Russia of the 1880s and 1890s. In 1905 he produced a play called The New Life.

7 Shemakha: a city in Azerbaijan.

8 Young Persian: this group does not seem to have existed as such. Bely invents it on the model of ‘Young Turks’, to denote the supporters of constitutional reform in Persia.

9 In fear of God and in faith proceed: words proclaimed by the deacon during the Orthodox liturgy.

10 if one had raised their lids: a reference to Gogol’s story ‘Viy’, and the monster’s long eyelids.

11 Some girls: these verses, like the ones that follow it, are entirely Bely’s own creation – they are modelled on the Russian chastushka, a relatively modern form of humorous folk song.

12 in a Helsingfors coffee house: the images of Dudkin’s hallucination stem partly from the real-life mental illness of Bely’s friend and acquaintance S.M. Solovyov in 1911. On 26 November 1911 Bely wrote to Blok: ‘… all that you write to me in veiled hints is more than familiar: the yellow fascination: succumb to it and – the motor car, the Tartars, the Japanese visitors, and also – Finland, or “something” that is in Finland, also – Helsingfors, Azev, the revolution – it is all the same gamut of emotions … What happened to Seryozha has affected me dreadfully, for two weeks I have suffered with Seryozha: for one of the ideas that now persecutes him is the face of an Oriental.’

13 Apachés: Paris thugs and hooligans who took part in street demonstrations.

14 St Basil the Great’s prayer, the admonitory one, to devils: what is intended here is an allusion to the ‘Prayer of Exorcism for those Suffering from Devils’ in the Russian Orthodox Trebnik, or ‘Prayer Book’. There appears, however, to be a confusion with the subtitle of Vladimir Solovyov’s poem of 1898, ‘An Admonitory Word to Sea Devils’ (Das Ewig-Weibliche).

15 Dr Inozemtsev’s drops: an opium-based infusion used as a painkiller in the treatment of intestinal diseases, and proposed by the Russian physician F.I. Inozemtsev (1802–69) as a treatment for cholera.

16 Enfranshish: a number of explanations have been offered for the wordplay surrounding this verbal hallucination, which gives rise to the ‘Persian’ name Shishnarfne, in particular that it is derived from the French words ‘En franchise’ written on the containers of a brand of insect (‘Persian’) powder sold in Russia before 1917. There is also an obvious connection with the Russian word shish, meaning fig (as in not a fig), or nose (as in pokazat’ shish, to pull a long nose). Bely himself compared the Enfranshish episode with Gogol’s story ‘The Portrait’, in which a sinister figure leaps out of a portrait in order to put an end to the hero, Chartkov.

17 Yevgeny’s fate: Yevgeny is the hero of Pushkin’s The Bronze Horseman.

18 Petro Primo Catharina Secunda: the Latin inscription on the Finnish granite base of the Bronze Horseman statue.


1 Weary am I, friend: the epigraph is taken from Pushkin’s poem ‘It’s time, my friend, it’s time! The heart asks peace’ (Pora, moi drug, pora! pokoya serdtse prosit, 1834). The first line has been altered by Bely.

2 Gaurisankars: Gaurisankar is a Himalayan mountain situated near Mount Everest. Until 1913 it was erroneously believed to be the same mountain as Everest, and therefore the highest in the chain.

3 Nokkert: the real name of Bely’s governess from 1886 to 1887.

4 Acathistus: in the Orthodox Church, a hymn of praise to Jesus Christ, the Mother of God and the Saints, performed by the congregation standing up.

5 Section marks: the typographical sign ¶ – in Russian, its name is paragraf, or paragraph.

6 Konshin: Aleksei Vladimirovich Konshin, director of the Russian State Bank; his signature was reproduced on Russian banknotes.

7 vint: a card game.

8 the order of St Andrew: the highest order of the Russian Empire, established in 1698.

9 the Cabinet of Curiosities: Kunstkamera – the first Russian public museum, founded by Peter the Great. In 1718, Peter issued a ukase commanding that all human and animal ‘monsters’ were to be sent to the museum.

10 Do not te-e-e-mpt me: ‘Do not tempt me without need’ (Ne iskushai menya bez nuzhdy), the romance by Glinka, an 1825 setting of Baratynsky’s poem ‘Dissuasion’ (Razuverenie, 1821).

11 the man was sitting astride the corpse: Dudkin sits astride the dead Lippanchenko in an obvious and grotesque parody of the Bronze Horseman.


1 The past moves by before me: the epigraph is taken from Pushkin’s tragedy Boris Godunov (1825) (VII, 17), Pimen’s monologue. The last line has been changed slightly by Bely.

2 the Protection in Winter: the Orthodox Feast of the Protection (Pokrov) is on 1 October; the Nativity of the Mother of God is from 7 to 12 September; ‘St Nicholas in Winter’ (Nikolai zimniy) is the day of the decease of St Nicholas the Miracle Worker, 6 December.

3 khalda: the Russian word for ‘a brazen hussy’.

4 Mantalini: the name of a frivolous and sentimental character in Charles Dickens’s novel Nicholas Nickleby (1839). Bely was very fond of Dickens’s work, which he read often. ‘Mindalini’ has overtones of ‘almonds’, being derived from the Russian word mindal’.


1 The February sun is on the wane: Bely lived in Tunisia during January and February 1911.

2 gandurah: one of Bely’s own definitions of this word reads: ‘The gandurah is an Arabian coloured shirt that comes down to below the knees; the Arabs wear it under a cloak.’

3 chechia: ‘a round Tunisian fez with a very long tassel’.

4 Zaghouan: a Tunisian mountain range.

5 the museum at Bulaq: a museum of Egyptian antiquities, opened in 1858, and situated in Bulaq, a port of Cairo.

6 The ‘Book of the Dead’: a collection of 150 spells meant to be recited by a dead man to protect himself from injury in the world beyond.

7 Manetho: Manetho of Sebennytos, an Egyptian scholar and priest who lived around 400 BC and wrote a description of the Egyptian royal houses.

8 the piles of Gizeh: the pyramids outside Cairo.

9 Duauf: Duauf, or Dauphsekrut, an Egyptian king of the Middle Kingdom (20–18 centuries BC) whose letter to his son (‘The Instruction of Duauf’) is a celebrated work of ancient Egyptian literature.

10 Skovoroda: Grigory Skovoroda, the eighteenth-century Ukrainian philosopher and poet (1722–94), a Neoplatonist and moralist.