I began really seeing
St Petersburg much later, when I was already mature. In this I was helped by my long absence from the city. When I returned to St Petersburg after two years of continuous living and studying abroad, it suddenly struck me in a different light. I had slightly ‘forgotten’ it, and now, when I compared it with everything I had seen in Europe, I began looking at it with fresh eyes, so to speak; it was then that for the first time I understood all the majesty and harmony of its wonderful architecture.
Vacant lot on Vasilievsky Island, 1921
This ‘enlightenment’ coincided with the emergence of the cult of Old St Petersburg, a cult which took shape before my very eyes. Together with my new friends – artists from Mir iskusstva and numerous architects – I became passionately involved in this movement.
But it was not merely St Petersburg’s beauty that I began to notice. Perhaps what made an even greater impression on me was the city’s underside, its ‘bowels’, due to their utterly special inexorable sorrow, narrow but utterly distinctive range of colours, and severe precision of line. These sleeping canals, never-ending fences, rear walls of houses, windowless brick firewalls, stacks of black firewood, vacant lots, and dark well-like courtyards
St Petersburg, 1914
– all this impressed me with its extremely poignant and even repellent qualities. Everything seemed unusually original, unique to this city, and full of bitter poetry and mystery […]
I lived through all the revolutionary years in St Petersburg. With the revolution of 1917 Petersburg came to an end. As I watched, the city died a death of extraordinary beauty and I tried to the best of my ability to capture its terrible, people-less, and wounded appearance. This was the epilogue to its entire life; it turned into another city, Leningrad, a city with completely different people and an utterly different life…
Mstislav Dobuzhinsky, from St Petersburg of my Childhood
Embankment of the Pryazhka, 1921
During the first years following the Revolution St Petersburg was in a state of complete neglect; it was dying. Grass grew on the people-less streets, like after a hurricane; all the streetlamps stood at angles; and the houses gaped with empty windows. In the winter, during the snow storms, St Petersburg was the true ‘city of Blok’ and his ‘Twelve’. And during the white nights, which at that time possessed an unprecedented, glassy stillness, the dead city seemed utterly spectral. In spite of its wounds and poverty, St Petersburg was, in its tragic appearance, unusually majestic and even beautiful in a new way.
Mstislav Dobuzhinsky, from Image of St Petersburg