The St Petersburg Condition

The problem of living in St Petersburg is the problem of trying to live a real life in a city which is not itself real.

Other Soviet cities have deficits in material goods: light bulbs, soap, eggs, sugar. St Petersburg has a deficit in reality. Walk through its streets at any hour or minute of the year, and you cannot escape a feeling that something here is lacking - some essential vitality or dimension, some crucial underpinning, some final justification. Look at these streets - so conscientiously, so unnaturally keeping to a pattern learnt from elsewhere, from touring trips abroad (from Paris or Vienna, not at any rate from Moscow). Look at these mansions and houses - built to be grand or bourgeois or, at the very least, solid, and yet somehow giving quite the opposite impression (insubstantial, cardboard thin, two-dimensional - not real houses, but prop-up flats from a play or film production). Look at these people - so nervous, so thin, so spectral in the blank white light of the summer sun. Can anyone please explain: what is all this doing here in the middle of a Finnish bog?


If St Petersburg is, in its very conception, an artificial city (Dostoyevsky calls it 'the most premeditated, most abstract city in the world'), Petersburgers themselves do not go out of their way to develop a closer relationship with reality.

It is not enough for them, for instance, that life in this city should be hard. They have to make it harder. They have to make it unbearable.

One way in which they do so is through the use of zamorochki.

People in other countries have problems. People in other parts of Russia have more complicated problems. Petersburgers have zamorochki.

A zamorochka is a neat way of turning an ordinary garden-variety problem into something more durable: a major headache, a five-day talking point, or, at the very least, a very extravagant muddle.

Here is a very simple example:

Markov is hungry. Markov puts on his boots to go out and buy something to eat. But then he remembers that he loathes shopping for food. He loathes standing in queues; in fact, he loathes food itself. Eating bores him. Markov's head begins to turn in disgust.

Markov drinks 100 grammes of vodka to steady himself, then another 100. Now he is no longer hungry. He is glad: there is no longer any need for him to go out for food.

Markov takes off his boots. Then he remembers that if he doesn't go to the shops he will have nothing to eat; and if he has nothing to eat, sooner or later he will die. He puts his boots back on and goes out.

Now, though, the shops are shut.

Most zamorochki look as if they could be avoided. The common-sensical onlooker who is not a native of the city will always want to interject, 'But can't you just ...?!' or 'But wouldn't it be simpler to ... ?!!', or 'For God's sake, can't you just do something!!!'. The answer is 'no'. Zamorochki are not susceptible to treatment with a brisk dab of commonsense. They are a more stubborn, psychological stain. They are inevitable because the Petersburg character is inevitable: vacillating, indecisive, passive, ill-equipped for organizing any action larger than the purchase of a bottle of something or the making of a pot of tea.

More zamorochki:

Denisov, the artist, having had one oil painting bought by the New York Museum of Modern Art, decides that he is a great artist; from now on he will sell nothing for less than $5000.

Prospective buyers come and go in Denisov's studio. Whenever a buyer comes near to making an offer for a particular painting Denisov chases him off by shouting, 'It's worth $6000 (or $10 000 or $25 000) and not a cent less!'. He sells nothing.

Six months later, Denisov dies of starvation.

People find it difficult to say whether Denisov was a great artist or not, but about one thing there can be no doubt: Denisov stuck to his principles. Rather than sell a single work for less than $5000, in the end he gave them all away - for free.

Mikhailovich in Love:

Mikhail Mikhailovich is in love with Luba Ushakova. Luba Ushakova is in love with Mikhail Mikhailovich. What's more, Mikhail Mikhailovich finds Luba Ushakova physically attractive and Luba Ushakova is similarly attracted to Mikhail Mikhailovich. All should be well, but it is not.

Why? The trouble is, Mikhail Mikhailovich and Luba Ushakova are unstoppable talkers. Mikhail Mikhailovich averages 145 words a minute; Luba Ushakova, 150. Their joint conversations last an average of 6 hours, 35 minutes. Whenever they make to kiss, a gaseous bubble of words blocks the appproach roads to their lips.

Luba Ushakova, for instance, draws near to Mikhail Mikhailovich on the sofa one evening and lets her finger brush his thigh - but Mikhail Mikhailovich is already telling the story of how Boris Davidovich, a mutual acquaintance, was sacked from his job for 'inadequate consumption of alcohol' and Luba Ushakova laughs so hard she has to go to the toilet.

Or: Luba and Mikhailovich take a twilight walk in the Summer Garden. The shady pathways are deserted. Mikhail Mikhailovich bends down towards Luba Ushakova's upturned face. But when Luba opens her mouth in response, a torrent of words gushes out. Soon they are discussing the films of Fellini.

Then one day Luba Ushakova has had enough. 'I've had enough,' she announces when Mikhailovich's bony shoulders appear in the doorway to her flat. 'Don't say a word. Go and have a shower. Then put on this dressing-gown'. Stunned and excited, Mikhailovich does as he is told. They go to bed. Ten hours later, they are still there. Mikhailovich is still hermetically wrapped up in his ten-year-old tee shirt and Luba's dressing gown. Luba is asleep. Without hurrying, Mikhailovich finishes his treatise-length disquisition on the real reasons behind the October Revolution and gets up to go.

A literary zamorochka

Man teased by sleep

Markov took off his boots and, with a sigh, lay down on the divan.

He wanted to sleep, but no sooner had he closed his eyes than the desire to sleep immediately left him. Markov opened his eyes and reached out a hand for his book. But sleep flew upon him again, and, not getting as far as the book, Markov lay down and again closed his eyes. He had only just closed them when sleep flew from him once more and his consciousness became so bright that he was able to solve two-variable algebraic equations in his head.

For a long time Markov went through agonies, not knowing what to do: sleep or keep awake? In the end, exhausted and beginning to hate himself and his room, he took up his stick and went outside. The fresh street breeze calmed him, his soul became more joyful, and soon he was wanting to return to the room where he lived.

Entering the room, he felt his body overcome by a pleasant tiredness and wanted to sleep. But no sooner had he laid down on the divan and closed his eyes than sleep instantaneously evaporated.

Furious, Markov jumped up from the divan and, without putting on either hat or overcoat, rushed off in the direction of Tavrichesky Garden.

Daniil Kharms, Happenings

Who was Daniil Kharms?

Daniil Kharms was: a pipe-smoking St. Petersburg bachelor, an author of stories for children, a wearer of outlandish clothes(1) and pseudonyms(2), a regular arrestee for alleged political offences including spying for a foreign power, and a member of OBERIU, the Union of Realist Art. He was also an absurdist poet and prose writer of the 20s, 30s and early 40s - perhaps the St Petersburg poet and prosist of his generation.

If he was so good, why isn't he better known?

Two reasons. Firstly, the bulk of Kharms' serious (i.e. adult) work was never published in his lifetime - or for long after: it was far too pessimistic to get past the Soviet authorities. Secondly, Kharms' absurdist writings are commonly supposed to be untranslatable.

Meaning: they're full of difficult words?

No. On the contrary, much of what Kharms wrote is in language so simple it could be understood by a child. What is supposed to be impossible to translate is the emotional tenor and humour of Kharms' work, the ironic or bitter or tragic slant to his absurdism. In Kharms' writings people die like flies (in large numbers, undramatically and without warning, making no difference to their surroundings); dogs fly; corpses crawl; and the dead come back to life just as suddenly and undramatically as they left it, making just as little difference to their surroundings. This may seem like so much playing around with reality for the sake of mere literary effect.

Is it?

Literarily effective? Yes, of course. Kharms was the foremost writer of his generation, remember.

No: was Kharms merely playing around?

Well, he did once write, 'I am interested only in nonsense, only in what makes no practical sense ...'; but 'nonsense' doesn't have to imply a lack of seriousness. Not all nonsense is idle nonsense. Remember that Kharms was an absurdist who called himself a realist - he was a founding member of OBERIU.

Just another playful paradox?

No, I don't think so. Kharms' absurdism is real in the sense that it reflects the real life of his time, perhaps also the real spirit of this city. If people die suddenly and in large numbers in his writings, so did people in St Petersburg at the time - from starvation, from the war, from Stalin. And so did Kharms himself(3). And if people in his writings come back to life and dogs fly, is that really so absurd compared with communism itself - or people crying at the death of Stalin; or an everyday St Petersburg zamorochka? The absurd was the only reality Kharms knew.

So, Kharms is translatable, then?

Judge for yourself. There's a translation of Kharms' The Old Woman at the back of this book.

(1) A deerstalker, golfing breeches, for example. Return

(2) 'Kharms' - perhaps a hybrid of the French 'charmes' and the English 'harms' - was only one of a large wardrobe kept by Kharms to suit every occasion. His real name was Daniil Yuvachev. Return

(3) In a prison hospital in 1942, after arrest as a foreign spy - which of course he was not. Return