To write thoroughly and perspicuously on the vicisitudes of this subject is not my intent. Interest, I suspect, grows dull in the presence of too many unfamiliar names, and Russian names I am informed are especially tiresome-- if it is to be wooed it will only be by a masterpiece.
But first allow me some perfunctory comments. In the visual arts the Russian Moderns have achieved some recognition. Kandinskii and Malevich are considered masters and originators of abstract painting. Chagall is known for his individual, though eclectic, style. In music, Stravinskii is tenaciously established. Diaghilev, Ninjinskii, and the Ballets Russes are also not unfamiliar. That the names Vrubel, Larionov, Goncharovna, Petrov-Vodkin, or Scriabin, elicit only a blank stare and shrug is disappointing though.
Literature, perhaps the most prolific of the arts during this period, has fared worse. Poets perhaps know Akhmatova or Mayakovskii. Pasternak is widely recognized for his later and most inostenisble prose. Bely, Blok, Gumilyov, Ivanov, Khlebnikov, Olesha, Mandelshtam, Sologub, Tsvetaeva, et alia receive little attention in the West.
Victor Terras has written an ample history which spends hundreds of pages disentangling these names. I however, having courted by means of a masterpiece, should follow through by offering a ring (in a sardine tin).
A predominant motif interweaved in Andrei Bely's Petersburg (published 1918, revised 1922) is that of an expanding sphere which is 1) the expansion of the universe, 2) a sensory experience of a protagonist, 3) his childhood nightmare, 4) a gastrointestinal sensation, 5) a dilating pupil, and 6) the detonation of a bomb. Petersburg is a dot on a two dimensional map, but expands out into other dimensions. It is appropriate that this work must inevitably center any discussion of Russian Modernism.
In the introduction of their translated, annotated edition of Petersburg Malmstead and Maguire begin by quoting Vladimir Nabokov on the great books of the twentieth century. On the shelf with Joyce (Ulysses), Kafka (Metamorphosis), and Proust (In Search of Lost Time), he places Bely-- after K., offering this as his order of esteem. This does credit to both Bely and Nabokov.
(Not that many have paid attention. From the perspective of Western literature the Russian phenomenon ends with Chekhov, the Russian novel with Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Few authors are recognized afterward-- Bunin, Babel, Solzhenitstyn; fewer are treated carefully. No mention that beginning in the 1890s there was a strong and unexpected resurgence of poetry, eventually leading into some remarkable experimental prose: Bely's Petersburg and Kotik Letayev, Sologub's The Petty Demon, Mandelshtam's The Noise of Time, Pasternak's Childhood of Zhenia Luvers. The course of Russian literature continued strong and unbroken, progressing through a number of vital movements-- Decadence, Symbolism, Acmeism, Futurism-- until Stalin's consolidation of power firmly established the hegemonic goals of Socialist Realism.)
Of the authors Nabokov mentions, Bely has been compared with Joyce most often-- "the Russian Joyce" being his curious, but false (temporally and otherwise), epithet. The comparison arises due to a certain overlap of technique (puns, alliteration, ellipses, sound symbolism, experimental syntax and narration) and setting (both Ulysses and Petersburg are urban novels), but fails to take notice of the distinctness of Bely's literary voice and worldview. Bely is as different from Joyce as is Kafka; to label him an Russian version of the Irish writer is both misleading and unperceptive.
The action of Petersburg takes place during the year of an abortive revolution, 1905. It is a novel about revolution-- in part. A bomb is to be thrown at a conservative senator. But political motivations are less unimportant since the bomb is entrusted for this task to the senator's son. It is a generational conflict, the principle of fathers vs. sons perpetuated ad infinitum (connected to mythical archetypes). Or it is a cosmic principle. Or perhaps a simple familial conflict, its roots in the mother's infidelity and flight abroad (in parody of Anna Karenina). Or it is all these, compounded and complicated by the fact that the revulsion Nicolai Apollonovich feels toward his father Apollon Apollonovich stems from the physical and habitual similarities of father and son; he is revolted by his own flesh because it reminds him of his father's, and the reverse. A mousetrap goes off as Nicolai receives the package with terrible contents; it is a detail relevant to both Ableukhovs.
But Petersburg is also a novel on the ambivalence of national identity, stuck between the east and west. Petersburg as capital city lies at the center of this conflict. The most premeditated city in the world, tyrannically imposed on backward Russia by Peter the Great, to drag her into the West, founded on a swamp at great human cost. Russian authors have been preoccupied with this theme since Pushkin's The Bronze Horseman. Bely follows his predecessor's (Gogol and Dostoevsky) concerns, and supercedes them. The statue of Pushkin's poem once again rears up, and gallops along the city cobbles in pursuit of its victim. The protagonists are infected by the city. Its myths are given the tangibility of bronze and concrete.
Events and characters are not developed linearly. Events are initiated, interrupt, reiterated, and returned too from another's perspective. Identity is uncertain. The novel is built upon motifs weaved through the text, reoccurring in different contexts, migrating from character to character. The most meaningful insights arise from noticing the patterns. All the same, suspense is maintained; the bomb is wound and ticks inevitably to the conclusion.
Yet, like Ulysses, it is also a comic novel, however grotesque and pathetic. The flappings of a domino. It manages to be both apocalyptic and mock-apocalyptic, an embodiment and parody of its time. Cultural preoccupations are laid bare, but not without deflation; Nietzscheism and neoidealism, Dionysus and Christ, Schopenhaurean pessimism, revolution and reaction, spiritualist salons with Japanese decor, Mongolism, Messianic designs.
Much more could be said, my observations are by no means exhaustive (not even on the level of plot), but I'll refrain. The odd beauty that Petersburg affords cannot be summed briefly. To hint at its structure (which is more subtle and elaborate than I've indicated), and concerns (which are more varied) has been my task. I suspect that even my greatest efforts could not bring fully to light this magnificent strangeness, and unreal, shady city.