Public discourse in the final decade of Imperial Russia was dominated by images of darkness and dread. Discussions of “these times” and “times of trouble” captured the sense that Russians were living on the “edge of abyss” from which there was “no exit.” It was this sense of imminent doom, or simply the stasis of despair, argues Mark Steinberg in his book St. Petersburg: Fin de Siècle (Yale UP, 2011), that defined the social and cultural experience of the denizens of Russia’s “Window to the West.” And the apocalyptic visions not so much foreshadowed 1917, as they unmasked modernity’s promise of progress as an illusion.
Much of St. Petersburg: Fin de Siècle is about experience: the everyday and the emotional; the sensual and the physical. After all, the prosaic experience of modernity was not of a society ruled by the geometry of order, but assaulted by the incongruity of chaos. As Steinberg shows the clanking of street cars, the bustle of the crowd, the shadows of the alley, and the unfamiliarity of the stranger make modernity an experience wrought with anxiety, trepidation, and even trauma. St. Petersburg may be Russia’s city of light with its wide thoroughfares, colorful architecture, and white nights, but these illuminations cast dark shadows.