Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

What Russian literature tells us about D.C. transportation

September 14, 2011 - 09:45 AM
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Nevsky Prospect in 1860s St. Petersburg. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Don't dismiss the works of Bely, Dostoevsky, Gogol, and other Russian writers from half a world away. Their fiction, despite originating more than a century in the past, provides a dynamic lens for understanding the role and psychology of D.C.'s plazas and streets in the broader American landscape. Although Russian writers may evoke gray, bleak Siberia before cherry blossoms, their perception of what a government capital could do to a city's workers and how planning could shape a city is more relevant than ever to the forces driving our 21st-century U.S. capital, a place obsessed with power, hierarchy, and planning just as much as the denizens of old Russia once were with maniacal fervor.

The one city that so many of these Russian writers focused on was St. Petersburg. Known as Leningrad throughout much of the 20th century, St. Petersburg was founded in 1703 by the Russian leader Peter the Great and evolved to occupy a prominent place in its country's literature for the centuries to follow. What left these writers chilled was the notion that St. Petersburg was a planned, plotted city bereft of organic growth, spontaneity, or in a sense, humanity.

Amid the carriages, pedestrians, droshkies, and other Russian transit was the central Nevsky Prospect, an avenue that occupied the attention of so many residents and even the title of a short story by Nikolai Gogol. Consider this description of the Prospect from Andrey Bely's 1913 novel St. Petersburg:

The carriage now sped along the Nevsky.

Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov rocked on the velvet cushions of his seat. Four small perpendicular walls sheltered him from the filth of the street. The walls protected him from pedestrians and from the damp red covers of the vulgar periodicals which were flaunted at street corners.

System and symmetry soothed the Senator's nerves: his nerves were constantly set on edge by the ups and downs of his domestic affairs as well as by the futile rotation of the governmental wheel.

His taste was distinguished by harmonious simplicity.

Above all, he loved the rectilinear prospect. This prospect reminded him of life flowing between two vital points.

Here the houses in measured cubes merged into a single, systematic five-storied row.

Exultation filled the Senator's soul when the line of the Nevsky was cut by the lacquered cube of his carriage: here numbered houses came into view; and here the public circulated; here, from there, far, far away, on clear day, dazzlingly gleamed: the gold needle-like spire, the clouds, the red glowing sunset; there, from there, on foggy days, one could see nothing, no one.

The transit of the Nevsky positively breathed this sense of forced sanity and order, and the avenue endures in Russia even now. Today a webcam lets you glimpse the Nevsky at all times. The very streets, from the pedestrians to the houses to the carriages, exude the sense that this is an official place

And how, you must be asking, just how does this old Russian city relate to Washington, D.C.?

Both D.C. and 19th-century St. Petersburg developed as capitals of their nations, and both carry that austere, planned sense of duty and focus. Creativity is eclipsed by power and work. The people who inhabit St. Petersburg are not so different from D.C. in the way they often labor themselves to death in a Kafkaesque realm of papers and red tape. D.C.'s streets in particular betray that same calculated tone. How do you know where you are in the District? Check the letter of the street, check the number — it's simple math to know where you are.

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St. Petersburg, 1890s (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

This idea of Petersburg, its Nevsky Prospect, and the ideological forces pearmeating its spaces resonated in countless little ways for these long-dead Russian writers. In the 1864 novel Notes from Underground, which features a retired civil servant living in the capital, Fyodor Dostoevsky refers to St. Petersburg as "the most abstract and premeditated city on the whole Earth." An undercurrent of this urban premeditation, of course, is the sinister creeping influence of bureaucracy and government. Like Washington, D.C., St. Petersburg was its country's capital, a position it occupied from 1732 to 1918, and the overwhelming presence and effect of government makes itself known in all these novels. What dominates this Russian world is gray hierarchy akin to the business sensibility of American writer Sinclair Lewis's novel Babbitt.

Dostoevsky's first novel, even, 1846's The Double, was subtitled "A Petersburg Poem" and features just that government-inspired paranoia. The government worker in this early novel raced around in fear of a doppelganger who had seemingly invaded his office and personal life. What this city and lifestyle inspired was neuroticism, embodied in its even designs and careful, sanitized, grindingly potent sense of competition and cutthroat seriousness. Gogol saw a city literally haunted in his stories. In Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, Anna's legendarily cold-blooded, calculated husband is a statesman of St. Petersburg.

D.C. sees that same attention to networking, to careers, and especially success. The magnetic power of both cities draws anxious climbers, driven by ambition rather than raw passion. This transient, restless nature creates a city that, to some, would seem less authentic than one naturally rising up with whole generations native to it. To me this evokes the comparison I frequently hear regarding the District and Baltimore. Those from Baltimore are quick to talk about how natural and spontaneous and fun their town is — and given its quirk (think John Waters or the "hons") and big events like Artscape, these people are not far off. A nickname I've heard for our town is "PC D.C." Everything is mannered and thought out, whether the streets, Metro lines, or a day's activities. As a government city, we have to struggle to avoid that predictable, thought-filtered maze. Too often the ambition and planned nature of D.C. turns its residents into robots, automatons, which has consequences. Ambitious St. Petersburg student Raskolnikov embraces wild ideas in Dostoevsky's 1866 novel Crime and Punishment and ultimately believes that a moral crime such as murder can be ethically justified by his life's ultimate ends. What sense does that make? Enough politicians in our own town have justified crimes due to such warped thinking.

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D.C.'s little boxes (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

In the Bely excerpt, we see the presence of geometry. Everything is systematic, and that's a symptom of the broader, smart-growth focus to how our city is built. Is the Nevsky Prospect so different from Dupont Circle, Logan Circle, and the streets around the National Mall as iconic transit capable of ushering traffic and driving you mad in the same ordered motion?

Notes from underground? Why, that's precisely what WMATA station manager Ozzie Andrews wrote in his rants about "these white people who hate Metro." Because eventually the abstract theory that fuels such cities meets reality. Both D.C. and Petersburg are cities that prioritize power, and in such places, people get left behind. Disparities will develop and grow with mechanical callousness. Deeply complicated dissatisfaction is possible in such environments. Neither the District nor St. Petersburg should be defined exclusively by this careerist, mapped torpor, but these qualities do lend themselves to the identity and perception of both the Russian and American national centers.

These two capitals, divided by centuries and thousands of miles geographically, are not so different as one might think. The aesthetics and mindset behind the two cities strike me as similar. Russian literature has, I suspect, lessons for Washington, D.C. in the 21st century — and the psychology that comes along with navigating our transit.

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