Saint Petersburg was under siege but not aerial bombardment for much of World War II; as a result, as many as one million of (then known as) Leningrad’s three million citizens died during the War, mostly due to starvation, a toll greater than perhaps any other European city. And yet the 18th Century architecture of the city center survived the war largely intact.
There’s something of a metaphor there for lovers of Russian music or art or literature: that the works you love were created at the cost of enormous toil and blood. Art is essentially undemocratic- the tsarist state drew riches from an enormous territory and a subjugated people, and the lifestyle of the wealthy could soar to unmeasured heights, more luxurious even than that of the Western aristocrats whose manners and tastes the Russian elites emulated.
Or take the Mariinsky Teatr, where Swan Lake, the Nutcracker, and other works were premiered. (In 1997, tickets were $7- I’m sure it’s more now.) The theater is pretty, but it mostly feels small– you’re right on top of the stage. These works were created for a tiny elite.
National “greatness,” if there is such a thing, and the welfare of the median member of the society, have little if anything to do with one another.
I heard a voice. It promised solace.
“Come here,” it seemed so softly call.
“Leave Russia, sinning, lost and graceless,
Leave your land, pray, for good and all.
I’ll cleanse your hands from blood that stains you,
And from your heart draw back black shame,
The hurts of failure, wrongs that pain you
I’ll veil with yet another name.”
With even calm deliberation
I raised my hands to stop my ears,
Lest that ignoble invitation
Defile a spirit lost in tears.
Мне голос был. Он звал утешно,
Он говорил: “Иди сюда,
Оставь свой край, глухой и грешный,
Оставь Россию навсегда.
Я кровь от рук твоих отмою,
Из сердца выну черный стыд,
Я новым именем покрою
Боль поражений и обид”.
Но равнодушно и спокойно
Руками я замкнула слух,
Чтоб этой речью недостойной
Не осквернился скорбный дух.
Осень 1917, Петербург
-Anna Akhmotova, I Heard a Voice Мне голос был, Saint Petersburg 1917