Bely’s Journey Through The Immortal Commune

MA Russian and East European Literature and Culture (UCL SSEES) Dissertation – extract, full text available on request:


Prologue: Introductory Comments
Chapter the First:
The Messianic Nature of the Russian Soul
Chapter the Second: Kitezh and the Petersburg Myth
An Introduction to the Kitezh Myth
A brief overview of the Petersburg Myth
Petersburg as Character
Water, Mirrors and Labyrinths
Chapter the Third: Transfiguring the Human
Cult of Cannibalism
Death and Food
Chapter the Forth: Time, Creation and the Word
The Transcendental
The Communality of the Word
Crossing the Planes: The Abyss and the Hidden
Concluding Remarks: An Aesthetic Utopia?

The topic of this dissertation is the exposure and exploration of the idea of the Immortal Commune in Andrey Bely’s Petersburg. At the core lies Bely’s spiritual responsibility thorough his artistic task for higher truth. The Immortal Commune is the meeting of the themes of immortality and communality in relation to the idea that the Russian soul holds a unique messianic quality in the initiation of universal salvation.The study will look at the manifestations of the Kitezh myth and Nikolai Fedorov’s common task in Petersburg, and how through various allusions to both, the analysis allows a deeper understanding and insight into Bely’s individual worldview alongside the worldview of the Russian people, and his place in Russian literature and culture. The importance between history and the myth, and the literary text and the myth, as for Karlsohn, is also a focus in this study.[1]

Prologue: Introductory Comments

‘Your Excellencies, Your Worships, Your Honors, and Citizens! What is this Russian empire of ours?’[2]

The question of national identify is undeniably a human question and inherently lends itself to the collective. Throughout its changeable geographical and political-economical structures, Russia has been situated within a complex structure that has a long and multi-layered history. When we look at the literature of Russia we can see seemingly separate and illusionary literary worlds through which one can construct individual author’s world views. The analysis of these literary worlds and how stories, themes and elements weave themselves in, out, and around reality, is an important and interesting way to shift the perspective on how we perceive and interpret Russia’s overall history and culture including political, economical, social, and everyday life. The explorations of these themes serve as a means of navigation through the amalgamation, metamorphosis, and transformation of constructions in the guise of myths.The spiritual history of Russia exposes an aspiration to realise God’s Kingdom on Earth. In both creative worlds and reality a strong spiritual mission is exemplified, a utopian vision of the highest mission of the Russian people, and in turn the whole of humanity, is to achieve a likeness with the Holy Trinity and overcome, in Fedorov’s words, ‘the hateful division of the world.’[3]

This idea leads to the Russian people as chosen or most suited to realise not only the purest form of communality, but also to realise world salvation, to which the idea of immortality appears integral. This is in essence the immortal commune: the combination of the themes of communality and immortality in producing universal salvation or a type of utopia.In a chronological movement from Kitezh – a community made immortal by God and also a representation of ideal Russia – to Fedorov’s common task – a all-inclusive universal task to resurrect every human and overcome death – Bely’s time and place are essential to his output as an author, and in his revolutionising of how the word and language – as well as themes – were used in Russian literature, and influenced a world-wide audience when finally becoming available after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Whilst not wanting to neglect the many other sources that add importance to these ideas, the scope of this study will expose links between these three sources that all point towards the idea of the Immortal Commune being a distinguishing feature in Russian literature and, by extension, culture.

On the level of mythical allusion, the Immortal Commune can be seen to be manifested in the 13th century myth Kitezh. This myth importantly shows the survival of a story or idea that has penetrated Russian collective consciousness and memory, and is one of the kernels in the meeting of immortality and communality in Russia culture. To show it as a precursor in its own right or entirety to major events in Russia’s history – for example Russia’s acceptance of communism as a political ideal – would be in itself wholly complex to prove and is beyond the scope of this study. However, the myth itself importantly embodies a community that was given immortality. With many dimensions and ways of interpretation, the Kitezh legend can arguably be seen as already familiar to Russian readers, and with this familiarity, both with Kitezh and the common task, these ideas are deeply ingrained in Petersburg and therefore complicated to extract. Running parallel to Kitezh is the Petersburg Myth.

Elements of the common task develop certain themes embodied by Kitezh, not only the magnitude, but the integral nature of community coming together to be saved from the ills of the world; to be given an eternal utopia; to be given immortality. Fedorov states that the only task which unites all of mankind is that of overcoming death. For him death represents everything that is evil in the world and only by controlling the irrational forces of nature will we succeed in universal salvation. All of mankind must voluntarily unite in this task, representing an important second stage in the building of the Immortal Commune, a difference being that Fedorov sees this as an active task of man in association with God. Fedorov sees the realisation of the common task though science which would be approved of by God, as only through the meeting of active man and God can Earth paradise –or the resurrection of Eden – become apparent. For Fedorov a heavenly paradise on Earth was where death is overcome, and this overcoming was through ultimate communality. Key ideas that lead from the creating the ultimate communal task to over death are overcoming human limitations, overcoming ‘evil’, transfiguring (trans-humanising) humans, and uniting all humans.

In Bely’s Petersburg through an extension and metamophization of the Petersburgian text, we see a further embodiment of the Immortal Commune. Bely does not however clearly present us with his idea or world view in the form of myth or philosophy, but through the creative process of the novel; through language and the word in all its beauty and complexity. Built by Peter the Great resulting in many of its builders deaths, Petersburg sits manmade on swamps that were previously inhabitable and has been represented through its literary depiction as a negative and apocalyptic symbol, as the city that opened Russia to the poisons of the West – encompassing individualism, consumerism amongst other ills. The idea of Petersburg being an incarnation of the City of Heaven is situated in polar opposite of its hell-like nature, with Peter being represented as the anti-Christ, and Petersburg being built by Satan – this motif is present in Pushkin’s The Bronze Horseman.[4] Petersburg finds its place through its myth along side cities that fell: including Rome, Constantinople, Babel, Babylon, and so on, alluding to the idea on the one hand of its greatness, and on the other, its inevitable demise into chaos and ‘evil’.

The first chapter explores the links between Kitezh and the Petersburg Myth in Petersburg, including the dominant themes of life and death antithesis; Petersburg as character; and water, mirrors, and labyrinths. The threat of the swamp destroying the city in the Petersburg Myth links with Kitezh being sunk beneath the water and leads to both the idea of city and water as a vital component to both. The threat from ‘impure’ blood, that is race, be it people from Central Asia who threaten Kitezh, or the Western threat on Petersburg (and Russia on the whole), finds Petersburg with an internal threat: symbolised through apocalyptic prophecies, and externally from the West and East.

The second chapter looks at how Fedorov’s ideas can be extracted and interpreted in Petersburg, paying particular attention to the ideas of patricide, and links to the ideas of cannibalism and parasitism needing to be overcome in order to achieve the immortality.

The third chapter looks at how both Kitezh and Fedorov’s common task are apparent in Bely’s view of the creation and the word and their connection with causing change, and ultimately world salvation.

The sources of Kitezh and Fedorov’s common task can be seen at times in Petersburg to be the background at which not only the story and themes take place, but the very essence underlying its creation. Through the symbolic relation between Kitezh and Bely’s extension of the Petersburg myth, combined with themes from Fedorov such as patricide and cannibalism, similarities, inversions, polemic, or silent dialogue that Bely has with these sources become apparent. One could even argue that both Kitezh and the common task were passed down to Bely in the collectivity of art, culture, nation consciousness and memory, as they were to his readers.

We find, then, an even more complex outcome. The existence of communality and immortality within Petersburg’s existence itself, as well as in themes within its plot, techniques within its structure, characters and other elements of its construction. One may, therefore, view Bely as an ultimately Russian author.

Bely’s Petersburg was constructed and undoubtedly influenced by its author’s placement in a key moment of Russian history. At the fin de siecle and amongst the throes of revolution, Bely stood besides the Symbolists who saw their task as one to change the world; that through their writings they could solve the political and social unrest and anxiety that existed in early 20th century Russia. Whilst aiming to bridge the gap between the common people and the intelligentsia, there were also aims within the literature itself which paralleled these social aims. Whilst one could attempt to revolutionise Russia and its people, one could also attempt to revolutionise literature. While one tries to escape byt, literature could transfigure eventlessness. While one could attempt to physicalize the idea of immortality, one could use the creative mind to immortalise the word – a rebirth of the people, a rebirth of literature

[1] Karlsohn, Irina (2009) Seeking Invisible Russia: The Legend of Kitezh in Russian Culture. 1843-1940. PhD dissertation, University of Gothenburg. English summary, p.375
[2] Bely, Andrey (1979) Petersburg, Translated and Annotated by John E. Malmstad and Robert A. Maguire, John Wiley & Sons, p.1
[3] Fedorov, Nikolai (1990) What was Man Created for? The Philosophy of the Common Task,p.39

[4] Tiupa, Valerii (2007) Mytho-Tectonics of the Petersburgian Hypertext of Russian Literature, Russian Literature, Vol. 62, Issue 1,pp. 99-112, p.105


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