“Pushkin is an extraordinary phenomenon, and, perhaps, the unique phenomenon of the Russian spirit…[He] arrives exactly at the beginning of our true self-consciousness…and [his] coming mightily aids us in our dark way by a new guiding light…He is a phenomenon never seen and never heard before…because [he expresses] the national spirit of his poetry, the national spirit in its future development, the national spirit of our future…[and] the spirit of Russian nationality.”
—F. M. Dostoevsky “Celebration of Pushkin’s Birth”
Dostoevsky delivered these famous lines at the public commemoration of Aleksander Pushkin in 1880, forty-three years after the poet’s death, to honor who many regard as the father of Russian literature. Though he celebrates Pushkin and his impressive oeuvre in his speech, Dostoevsky’s larger message is clear: the effect that literature has on his nation and its “spirit”is indelible. The geniuses of Russia’s writers and poets are the “guiding lights”that embody a collective national identity. Across the transitions from imperialist Russia, to the Soviet State, and finally to the post-Soviet present, a special admiration and reverence for Russian literary figures has endured. This sense of literary pride—undeniably a powerful and unifying sentiment—is seen best in the veneration and esteem of St. Petersburg’s Literatorskie Mostki, or “Writer’s Walkway”, within Volkovskoe Cemetery. This historic burial path remains one of the nation’s most sacred memorials to its nineteenth and twentieth century luminaries. Like Dostoevsky’s speech commemorating one of Russia’s great writers, perhaps the most palpable form of remembering and paying homage to a nation’s celebrated heroes are their respective cemeteries and sacred burial grounds. This paper will explore how the commemoration of Russia’s greatest literary icons in Volkovskoe’s Literatorskie Mostki represents the Russian people’s high esteem of literature and a collective literary identity. Ultimately, the Literatorskie Mostki was—and still remains today—a necessary source of national pride as a cultural site of memory and identity.
From an imperial regime transformed into a rigid socialist state, and finally to the nation it is today, Russia has seen more change and political tumult in the last century than ever before, and the toll it has taken on the population is beyond doubt. In the span of just three generations, an entire populace—along with the standards and norms that directed their lives—was completely uprooted and thrust into three major world conflicts (including the NATO/USSR standoff) and two major political shakedowns on the domestic front. The destructive policies following the October Revolution in 1917, launched by the new Bolshevik government, was particularly “impelled by an urgent need to transform…what they saw as the products of an old and rotting culture into new Soviet men and women with new values, morals, mores, tastes, and exemplars”(Tumarkin 168). The revolution’s intent to negate the characteristics of all things representative of “old Russia”essentially was a negation of the nation’s past, and therefore an assault on its memory. When finally Russia found itself at the cusp of another political transformation, some seventy-four years later, and underwent the painfully divisive and traumatic motions of democratization and de-Stalinization, a gaping hole in an entire population’s memory and life was left behind. Russian men and women alike “lived to watch their own identities changed, shaped, and changed again as history moved under them”(Merridale 228). And yet, what Dostoevsky described as the “Russian spirit”did not break. Very few things remained unchanged during the twentieth century’s changing political and social climates. One of them was St. Petersburg’s Literatorskie Mostki.
The preservation of the Literatorskie Mostki was not a lucky anomaly. Russia’s writers and poets meant something to the populace. Literature was a powerful tool, and the Soviet government knew it (Merridale 216). The Russian literary identity was a force to be reckoned with, and the survival of the Walkway was a testament to this. In spite of “the ongoing project of remapping Petersburg…that often resembled a kind of willed amnesia occasioned by imperial caprice,”the Literatorskie Mostki proved “the counterintuitive…as the most reliable material for building an enduring monument to the past”(Buckler,Mapping St. Petersburg 219). In short, Russian literature played an integral role in the lives of the people. Russia’s writers and poets were heroes of their own kind: they imparted a unifying identity, a common heritage, and sense of stability onto a confused nation. The Bolsheviks may have embarked on a destructive campaign to purge the nation of “old Russia,”but even in the creation of “an isolated world, where news and even talk were controlled,”they knew better than to take away the stuff of the “Russian spirit”(Merridale 213). Even during World War II, “Russia’s pre-revolutionary past was called upon to help mobilize the country and provide sources of national pride and moral sustenance”(Tumarkin 168). Thus, even the Soviet state recognized and relied on the authority and influence of the pre-revolutionary past in desperate times. Volkovoskoe’s Literatorskie Mostki is a standing tribute to the influence that memories of the past—and especially Russian literature—wield over the nation.
The celebration of Russia’s highest literary prowess in Volkovskoe’s Literatorskie Mostki incited—and still incites today—a sense of collective pride and common national identity. The sacred walkway serves as an embodiment of the literary spirit and represents the endurance of Russia’s literary identity that brought generations together. The paragon of this fire of the Russian spirit is demonstrated in probably the greatest poet since Pushkin, buried in the Literatorskie Mostki: Aleksandr Blok. Like the influence described by Dostoevsky that Pushkin had on the national spirit, Blok and his memory are a great representation of the Russian identity. Born in 1880 and died in 1921, it wasn’t until twenty-three years later in 1944 when Blok was moved post-mortem from Smolensk Cemetery to the Literatorskie Mostki in Volkovskoe. When Blok was reburied, “crowds of people came to lay flowers to commemorate [his] death…and every effort was made to make the festivities worthy of the conscious of Russia”(Rylkova 617). Essentially, people flocked in droves to witness and commemorate individuals like Blok who symbolized the identity and ‘conscious of Russia’. Cemeteries—and especially the Volkovskoe Cemetery—serve as a trope of permanence across all cultures and histories. The cemetery, and its walkway of renowned writers and poets, served as an “archive of the past where Russians found their identities and cultural heritage”(Song 65). It was in this location that an entire population could manifest its collective sense of belonging.
The reburial of Blok in the Literatorskie Mostki was a sacred production, carried out deliberately and honorably. Witnesses attest that just the poet’s skull was moved from Smolensk to Volkovskoe. That way his genius could be celebrated, while still allowing his body to remain with his family (litmostki.ru/). Blok’s reburial in St. Petersburg’s Literatorskie Mostki in 1944—just one year before the end of World War II, and at the pinnacle of Soviet leadership—is quite ironic. One of Blok’s more well-known poems, The Twelve,written in 1918 errs on the side of radicalism and controversy. In what was one of the first literary responses to the October Revolution in 1917, Blok actually criticizes the Bolsheviks in his long poem:
With her big fat arse!
Freedom, freedom! Down with the cross!
Hell and damnation,
Life is such fun
With a ragged greatcoat
and a Jerry gun!
The rest of his poem follows a similar tune. Despite the irreverent tone and implication of his poem, there remains the fact that Blok was commemorated in his relocation to Volkovskoe’s Literatorskie Mostki, let alone during the height of Soviet leadership under Stalin. Perhaps in spite of his dissenting literature, and notwithstanding the aforementioned Soviet effort to negate all things “old”and slandering, Blok’s unifying and patriotic influence on Russia and its national identity took precedence. It was immeasurable “how affecting the simple flame of the memorial had been…[His burial] conferred a sort of immortality”and with “the aid of this memorial, death had been elevated from the real world into the ideal”(Knausgaard). Blok’s memorial—alongside the memorial of many other writers, poets, and luminaries in the Writers’Walkway—came to mean much more than just death. It represented the Russian people’s esteem of literature and a common literary identity.
There exists a prestige that follows the Volkovskoe’s Literatorskie Mostki. Crowded with literary talents, the walkway itself is widely known across St. Petersburg and beyond as a monumental landmark of both the history and the very heart of the nation. On the occasions that I visited this site of memory, anywhere from ten to fifteen new visitors would enter and meander through the walkway to visit graves and peruse headstones over the course of a few hours. That’s not to say that the cemetery has a crowd of regular frequenters. Rather, “visitors”would be the term better suited to describe the individuals who passed through. They comprised mostly of native Russians, though on occasion a few nonnative tourists. On my first visit to the cemetery I met two women in their late fifties or early sixties, arm in arm in front of Blok’s memorial. They said they were sisters. One of them, a teacher who lived south of Moscow and spoke English, told me she was visiting her sister, the second woman, in St. Petersburg; “I am seeing the museums and famous places in Petersburg. I don’t have family buried here. I came to see the writers.”Volkovskoe Cemetery and its Literatorskie Mostki represent more than a simple site to commemorate the life and death of Russian individuals like other common cemeteries. Volkovskoe, a trope of cultural permanence, represents the endurance of a unifying national identity and literary pride. In an interview, I asked my Russian language professor at Saint Petersburg State University if the Literatorskie Mostki was like a writers mecca. After searching and showing her Merriam Webster’s definition of mecca, as ‘a place regarded as a center for a specified group, activity, or interest,’she answered “yes, like that. But not just for writers to visit. It’s for everyone”(Gorbacheva).
The Literatorskie Mostkihas proven to withstand the tests of time. Though it became traditional to bury the nation’s greatest writers, poets, and other influential figures at this site around the mid nineteenth century, it was only 1938 when the renowned walkway became a part of the State Museum (Literatorskie Mostki). Comparable to the adapting political climates the Literatorskie Mostki weathered, the literary walkway has seen its city change from Saint Petersburg, to Petrograd, to Leningrad, and back to Saint Petersburg. And yet, the historical site endured—both spiritually and physically. Figure 1 depicts the entrance into theLiteratorskie Mostki, with its main gate and cathedral, in 1919. Nearly a century later, the historic walkway looks almost identical, and in perfect condition, as seen in Figure 2. Similarly, Figure 3 portrays Aleksandr Blok’s grave in 1960, just sixteen years since its erection. Today, fifty years later, the monument is in its original condition, with obvious signs of being well-kept and cared for, as depicted in Figure 4. The preservation and upkeep of the cemetery is remarkable and ultimately indicative of the stable and unwavering authority Russia’s poets and writers had. “National identities”—and Russia’s literary identity in particular—“depend on invented traditions, on narratives of historical continuity” and the sense of “sameness over time and space” (Noordenbos 11). In fact, it is impossible to reinvent a cultural identity, as seen in Russia. The preservation of the Literatorskie Mostki—and largely, of a Russian cultural identity—shows the significance and need for consistency and ‘sameness’ for the Russian spirit.
When analyzing the role of Russia’s writers and their works as a powerful tool for unifying a nation’s population under a collective identity, there is debate on whether literature plays a key role because of its embedded political messages, or because of the lack thereof. Some argue that language “reflect[s] reality”(Noordenbos 60). It “establishes and maintains norms, rules, and prohibitions, and thus exercises control…[It] is a regulating and potentially coercive sociocultural praxis”(60). Scholarship like this alleges that literature is as influential as it is because of its underlying politics and implications. However, with absolutely no subversive agenda, Russian literature has proven just as effective. Literature could “by no means have a political statement”and yet have the same “great political impact…possibly precisely because, lacking a political or literary agenda, it showed life for what it was and not for what it symbolized”(Knausgaard). The urgency of such escapist sentiment was extremely palpable over the past century. For a population bereft of any sense of stability and consistency, memories of a common purpose and binding identity was needed more than ever.
To be buried in the Literatorskie Mostki in the Volkovskoe Cemetery was one of the highest
honors and distinctions a writer or other literary figure could receive. Interestingly enough, this honor withstood the trials of time and political culture during the Soviet initiatives to redevelop and remap pre-revolutionary Russia. Despite the general movement away from the past and imperialist aspects of life, this antiquated cemetery and its Writers’Walkway prevailed, as a reverence for the nation’s literary and cultural icons—integral to the Russian identity—never abated. Following the disillusionment and distrust in the myths of the Communist Party after watching the Socialist state deteriorate, “a people as intensely emotional as the Russians needed to feed on stronger stuff”(Merridale 169). An urgency for a common cultural identity and purpose manifested in a literary identity and in the preservation of literary sites of memory, such as the Literatorskie Mostki. When asked what the significance of this Writers Walkway was, one of my interviewees was quick to answer that it was a place “to make Russians proud to be Russian”(Veronkova). The nation’s literary heritage was so intrinsic to the identity of the people, that no authority dared to censor it. So, while other sites of the past were re-appropriated and redeveloped by the Revolution, the most prominent
literati were relocated post-mortem to this sacred and lasting site of memory.
Russia’s writers and poets played an integral role in the lives of the people, providing a sense of stability and collectivism. The endurance and extreme veneration of the Volkovskoe Cemetery’s Literatorskie Mostki, seen in the upkeep and preservation of the site, as well in the popularity in visiting the site as a rite of historical passage, represent the Russian people’s esteem of literature and a shared literary identity.