Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

St. Petersburg

by Andrey Biely Translated from Russian by John Cournos Foreword by George Reavey

“There is nothing like a ticking time bomb to supply fictional suspense, and perhaps no other writer has ever used the device more successfully than Andrey Biely in St. Petersburg . . . Author Biely is a crafty storyteller who can keep a reader flipping the pages while whipping up an intellectual storm.” –Time

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 336
  • Publication Date May 01, 1989
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-3158-4
  • Dimensions 5.38" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $14.00

About The Book

In this incomparable novel of the seething revolutionary Russia of 1905, Andrey Biely plays ingeniously on the great themes of Russian history and literature as he tells the mesmerizing tale of Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov, a high-ranking Tsarist official, and his dilettante son, Nikolai, an aspiring terrorist, whose first assignment is to assassinate his father.

Tags Literary


“One of the four great masterpieces of twentieth-century prose.” –Vladimir Nabokov

“There is nothing like a ticking time bomb to supply fictional suspense, and perhaps no other writer has ever used the device more successfully than Andrey Biely in St. Petersburg . . . Author Biely is a crafty storyteller who can keep a reader flipping the pages while whipping up an intellectual storm.” –Time

“Imagine a mixture of Rabelais and Dostoevsky and you have something of the flavor of this wonderful, grotesque, sad, wicked, and fabulous book . . . one of the great comic novels of our time, inhabiting that strange and rarely explored area where farce and tragedy meet.” –Robert Payne, Saturday Review

“[St. Petersburg] is in essence comedy of an incomparable strangeness . . . a virtuoso piece of horrifying black humor.” –Helen Muchnic, The New York Review of Books

“For readers who have never seen the comic side of the great 19th Century Russian writers and who persist in calling even Gogol and Chekhov gloomy fellows, the book may prove a revelation. For it is quite obviously a funny Russian novel. It is also highly serious and carefully wrought: for comedy can be profound in intention and consummate in craft.” –Richard Sullivan, Chicago Sunday Tribune

“The wild humor, the apprehension, the atmosphere of old St. Petersburg, the contact of Russian history and Russia’s future are all here. This is a thoroughly absorbing novel.” –Phil Palmer, San Francisco Chronicle

“[Biely’s] style is a combination of pictorial realism and a stream-of-consciousness technique . . . There is no mistaking his great talent and one must admire his attempt to widen the possibilities of literary expression.” –E. S. Pisko, Christian Science Monitor

“Political in tone yet highly personal, this romantically but powerfully written novel is charged with family and national tensions that, like the murder bomb, threaten imminent explosion.” –Booklist


There was a dreadful time, we keep
Still freshly on our memories painted;
And you, my friends, shall be acquainted
By me with all that history:
A grievous record it will be.


Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov came of very good stock: Adam was his ancestor. A later and more important ancestor of his in the same honored line was Shem, the forefather of the Semitic, Hessitic, and red-skinned races.
At this point, we can transfer our attention to ancestors of a less remote epoch.

These more recent ancestors had spent their lives among the Kirghiz-Kaisatsk hordes whence, during the reign of the Empress Anne, one Ameer Ab-Lai, great-grandfather of the Senator who, on his conversion to Christianity, received the name of Andrey and the surname of Ukhov, had bravely entered the Russian service. The name of Ab-Lai-Ukhov was later abbreviated to Ableukhov.
This particular Ableukhov was the progenitor of all the later generations of the Ableukhovs.

A lackey attired in gray trimmed with gold galloon was dusting the writing desk with a feather-duster when a chef’s white cap was thrust through the open door.

“Is the master up?” the cook inquired.

“He’s rubbing himself with eau-de-cologne and he’ll be wanting his coffee soon.”

“The postman said there was a letter from Spain. The letter has a Spanish stamp.”

“Permit me to remark, it’d be better for you not to poke your nose into matters that don’t concern you!”

The chef’s head suddenly vanished. Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov strode into the study.

Apollon Apollonovich’s attention was arrested by a pencil on the desk. Apollon Apollonovich instantly decided to give a refined form to the pointed end of the pencil. He stepped quickly to the desk and seized ” a paperweight which in deep meditation he turned for a long time this way and that.

His distraction was due to a profound thought that had suddenly struck him; at an unseasonable moment it had rapidly unfolded and pursued its runaway course.

Apollon Apollonovich began quickly to jot down his fleeting thoughts. This accomplished, he thought: “It’s time for the office.” He entered the dining room to have his coffee.

Then cautiously and with curious persistence, he began to question the old lackey:

“Is Nikolai Apollonovich up yet?”

“By no means. He’s still in bed.”

With a dissatisfied gesture, Apollon Apollonovich went on rubbing the bridge of his nose.

“Eh ” eh, tell me ” when Nikolai Apollonovich, so to speak “”

But without finishing his question he promptly helped himself to more coffee and glanced at his watch.

It was exactly half-past nine.

Every morning the Senator asked the same question about Nikolai Apollonovich. And every morning he frowned at his own question.

Nikolai Apollonovich was the Senator’s son.


Russia knew the Senator for the superior quality of his circumstantial speeches; subtly these speeches spread and led in certain quarters to the rejection of certain requests. With Ableukhov’s investiture in the responsible post of department head, the Ninth Department became inactive. Apollon Apollonovich carried on an obstinate feud with this Department by means of official papers and, where need be, of speeches promoting the importation into Russia of American binders and files, to which the Ninth Department had been opposed.

Apollon Apollonovich was the head of a department of some magnitude: the department of ” what’s its name?

If we compare the dry and wholly insignificant figure of our esteemed personage with the measureless immensity of the mechanisms he directed, we might pause in naive astonishment; and, indeed, everyone was astonished at the outburst of mental energy which poured from this skull box in the face of the resistance provoked across the length and breadth of all Russia.

The Senator had only just attained his sixty-eighth year. In moments of exultation, his pale face resembled the gray paperweight which in a relaxed moment he had handled a short while ago. Indeed his face was like papier-m”ch”. His stony Senatorial eyes, sunken within deep round hollows of a dark green hue, seemed larger and bluer.

Apollon Apollonovich was not a bit perturbed when he contemplated his quite green ears which had been immensely magnified on the blood-red banner of revolutionary Russia. Thus he had been lately portrayed on the title page of a vulgar comic journal, one of those “Judaic” papers with red covers which circulated in those days with astonishing rapidity and in ever-increasing numbers on the swarming prospects.


A cuckoo clock cuckooed on a wall of the oak-paneled dining room. Apollon Apollonovich sat before his porcelain cup, breaking off pieces of crust from a roll; as he sipped his coffee, he joked with the lackey:

‘semenich, who is the most honored of men?”

“I suppose, Apollon Apollonovich, no one is more honored than a Privy Councilor.”

Apollon Apollonovich smiled broadly:

“You’re mistaken–it’s the chimneysweep.”

The lackey, who already knew the answer to the riddle, also knew that he must not divulge it.

“Why do you think so? I hope I may venture to ask, sir?”

“Well, Semenich, everyone must make way for a Privy Councilor “”

“I suppose that’s right.”

“But even a Privy Councilor, must make way for the chimneysweep. The chimneysweep would soil him, you see.”

“That’s a fact, to be sure, sir.”

“Yes, that’s the way it is. There’s only one service even more honored “”

After a pause, he would add:

“It’s the man who cleans the water-closet.”


There was a gurgle of coffee being swallowed.

“That reminds me, Apollon Apollonovich, once when Anna Petrovna “”

At the last word, the gray-haired lackey stopped short.

“The gray coat, sir?”

“Yes, the gray.”

“Which gloves, sir?”

“The suede.”

“I hope you don’t mind waiting, Your Excellency. The suede gloves are in the chiffonier: shelf B-North-East.”

Apollon Apollonovich had only once intervened in the petty details of his domestic life; he had revised the domestic inventory. Order was established in the household: all the shelves and the sub-shelves were lettered and named. The shelves were lettered A, B, C, while the four walls of the shelves were named after the four points of the compass.

After putting his spectacles away, Apollon Apollonovich had made a list in his small, meticulous script: spectacles, Shelf B and N.E., i.e., North-East. His valet was given a copy of this list.

The world’s storms flowed noiselessly through this lacquered house; yet they flowed and flowed fatally.


A long-legged bronze graced the table. The lampshade of delicate violet-rose that topped it no longer sparkled. Our age has lost the secret of cunningly wrought colors. The glass and its fine design had been dimmed by time.

From every angle, the greenish surfaces of the gilt-framed pier-glasses swallowed the drawing room; a gold-cheeked cupid crowned each of them with a wing; a small mother-of-pearl table sparkled.

Apollon Apollonovich, placing his hand on a cut-crystal handle, flung open the door with a rapid gesture; his steps sounded on the small gleaming squares of the parquet floor; from all sides little heaps of porcelain trifles leaped into sight–Apollon Apollonovich had brought these trifles from Venice thirty years before, when he had visited that city with his wife, Anna Petrovna. The memory of the misty lagoon, the gondola, and the arias sobbing in the distance, flitted inopportunely through the Senator’s head.

At once he transferred his glance to the grand piano.

Leaves of incrusted bronze gleamed on its yellow lacquered cover; and again–oh, irksome memory!–Apollon Apollonovich remembered a certain white night in Petersburg. The river flowed past the windows; the moon was high; and a roulade of Chopin’s thundered; he could remember distinctly Anna Petrovna playing Chopin (not Schumann).

Leaves of mother-of-pearl and bronze incrustations sparkled on the tiny boxes and little shelves on the walls. Apollon Apollonovich seated himself in an Empire armchair on whose pale azure satin seat there was a woven pattern of wreaths. He snatched at a packet of unsealed letters from a small Chinese tray; his bald head bent over the envelopes.

He opened the envelopes. Here was an ordinary one, the stamp crookedly affixed. He mumbled to himself:

‘so, so, very well”

“A petition ”

“Another petition, and still another “”

In due course, later, he would attend to it”

He came to an envelope of heavy paper with a monogram and a seal.

“H’m ” Count Dubleve”. What’s he up to now? ” H’m “”

Count Dubleve was the head of the Ninth Department.

Then he came across a pale rose envelope. The Senator’s hand trembled: he recognized the handwriting. He stared at the Spanish stamp, but made no move to open the envelope.

“But the money was surely sent?” he thought. “Yes, the money will be sent!” he added.

And thinking that he had extracted a stub of a pencil from his waistcoat pocket when it was actually a tiny nail brush, Apollon Apollonovich prepared to make a note ”


“The carriage is waiting, Your Excellency.”

Apollon Apollonovich raised his bald head and strode from the room.

David’s painting, Distribution des aigles par Napol”on premier, in a reduced copy hung over the grand piano. The picture represented the great Emperor in a chaplet and a purple and ermine mantle.

A total absence of rugs imparted to the reception room an air of cold magnificence. The parquet floor gleamed; if the sun had lighted upon it even for an instant, one would have involuntarily blinked one’s eyes.

Senator Ableukhov had elevated his preference for coolness to a principle and now he based his whole life upon it.

This principle was personified in the master of the house, in his statues, in his servants, even in the dark brown-yellow bulldog who spent his life somewhere near the kitchen. In this house, everyone lived in a state of diffidence and embarrassment; everyone was in awe of the parquet floor, the paintings and the statues, smiled timidly and held his breath; everyone scraped and bowed, and wrung his cold fingers in fits of sterile officiousness.

Since the departure of Anna Petrovna, the reception room had remained silent, and the lid of the grand piano had been lowered; roulades thundered no more.

When Apollon Apollonovich descended into the vestibule, his gray-haired valet accompanied him, glancing at his master’s honorable ears. Apollon Apollonovich was fingering a snuffbox–the gift of a Minister.

Apollon Apollonovich paused at the foot of the stairs, seeking the appropriate word:

“What, generally, does he do? What does he do?” he asked.

“? “”

“I’m referring to Nikolai Apollonovich.”

“Nothing in particular, Your Excellency. He just greets us “”

“And what else?”

“He shuts himself in and reads books.”

“Books, eh? What else?”

“He paces up and down his rooms.”

‘so that’s it?” And how?”

“In his dressing-gown, sir.”

“Quite ” And what else?”

“Yesterday he was expecting someone “”


“A costumer, sir.”

“What sort of costumer?”

“A costumer “”

Apollon Apollonovich rubbed the bridge of his nose: a gleam of intelligence illuminated his face, which suddenly looked patriarchal.

“Have you ever had a sty?” he asked.

“No, Your Excellency, I’ve never been troubled that way.”

“And you were brought up on a farm?”

“Yes, Your Excellency.”

“And you kept no pigs?”

Apollon Apollonovich chortled.


The sleet poured down upon the streets and prospects, the pavements and roofs.

It also poured down upon the pedestrians, rewarding them with the grippe. It defied upturned collars, penetrated to the body, and afflicted equally the high school boy, the college student, the official, the army officer, and the nondescript pedestrian.

The nondescript pedestrian glanced about him sadly. He stared at the prospect; he circulated in an infinity of prospects without a murmur–in a stream of those like himself–amid the rumble and the clamor, listening to the voice of automobile roulades.

At last he stumbled on to the embankment, where all seemed to end: the call of the roulade and the nondescript pedestrian.

Far off, appearing more remote than they really were, the islands crouched apprehensively; and their buildings crouched too. It seemed that the waters might fall and submerge them at that instant in the deep and greenish mist; and in the fog, the Nikolayevsky Bridge quaked and thundered above this green, turbid atmosphere.

On that misty morning the doors of the yellow house facing the Neva were flung wide open. A carriage drawn by a pair of spirited gray horses pulled up before the entrance. A lackey with gold galloon rushed out and gave directions to the driver. The gray horses started forward and pulled up the carriage. On the door was a coat of arms: a unicorn goring a knight.

A dashing police officer who was passing by suddenly grew dumb and drew himself up like a yardstick when he saw Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov in a gray overcoat and a tall black cylinder hat on his head, gray-faced as always, quickly run out of the entrance and rush even more quickly to the footboard of the carriage, pulling on a suede glove as he hurried.

Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov cast a lightning, absentminded glance at the officer, the carriage, the driver, at the big black bridge, at the expanses of the Neva, through whose mists loomed the faint outlines of the many chimneys in the distance where Vasilyevsky Island seemed to shrink in fear.

The gray-haired lackey quickly slammed the carriage door. Impetuously the carriage sped into the fog; the police officer glanced over his shoulder into the dirtyish fog, where the carriage had so impetuously fled; he sighed and walked away; the lackey also glanced in the same direction: at the expanses of the Neva, through whose mists loomed the faint outlines of the many chimneys in the distance where Vasilyevsky Island seemed to shrink in fear.


Hanging, as it were, above the dense mist, there first appeared the indeterminate shape of St. Isaac’s which, as the carriage sped onward, gradually descended earthward; then out of the mist emerged the equestrian statue of the Emperor Nicholas and, at its foot, a grenadier of Nicholas’s day with a shaggy bearskin on his head.

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. These 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 days, 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.

There were the Neva and the islands. Very likely in those remote days when the tall roofs, and the masts, and the spires rose up out of the moss-grown marshes, piercing with their tips the foul, greenish fog–

–the Flying Dutchman had come winging on his shadowy sails emerging from the leaden expanses of the Baltic and German seas, and had brought into being here, in Petersburg, by means of illusion, his misty lands and had given the name of islands to this surge of gathered clouds.

Apollon Apollonovich disliked the islands. The inhabitants of the islands were uncouth factory workers who, in the early morning, poured in multitudinous swarms toward the many-chimneyed factories. They were certainly numbered in the population of the Empire; their census had been taken like the census of those who dwelled on this side of the Neva.

Apollon Apollonovich disliked having to think about the islands: they should be crushed out of existence!

As he peered meditatively into the boundless mists, this mighty official, who was confined within the dark cube of his carriage, suddenly expanded in all directions and soared above it all; a desire was born in him that the carriage should speed forward, that prospect after prospect should rush to meet him, that the entire surface of the planet should be embraced, as in the coils of a serpent, by blackish-gray cubes of houses; that the entire earth, prospect-bound, should in her linear cosmic rotation intersect infinity on the rectilinear principle; that the network of parallel prospects, intersected by a network of other prospects, should expand and cover the world abysses with square and cubical planes: a square to an inhabitant, in order that”

After the straight line, the square was the figure which soothed the Senator above all symmetries.

Now and again, he surrendered to a kind of aimless contemplation of pyramids, triangles, parallelepipeds, cubes, and trapeziums.

In the center of his dark velvet-upholstered cube, Apollon Apollonovich prolonged his enjoyment of the small four-cornered walls. Apollon Apollonovich had been born for solitary confinement; it was his love of governmental planimetry that had invested him in the polyhedron of his responsible post.

The wet slippery prospect was intersected by another wet prospect at a ninety-degree angle; a policeman stood at the point of intersection.

Precisely the same kind of houses rose here, and the same kind of gray human streams flowed by, and the same greenish-yellow fog hovered in the air.

Parallel with the running prospect was another running prospect with the same row of boxes, the same system of numeration, and the same clouds.

There is an infinity about the running prospects, and an infinity about the running intersecting shadows. Petersburg, as a whole, represents a sum to infinity of the prospect, elevated to the Nth degree.

Beyond Petersburg, there is nothing.