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Andrei Bely

For the author of Petersburg (1913), one of the 20th century prose masterpieces, Berlin was a dream first. It then soon become the place to escape from. Few Russian intellectuals émigré experienced the Berlin dream with feelings so intense and contradictory at the same time. After his return from Germany, Bely wrote a short and lively report of this brief and intense emigration experience entitled In the kingdom of shadows (Odna iz obitelei tsarstva tenei, Petrograd 1924). In the book, the German capital had been depicted with the colors of Greek Hades and of "the gloomy place of the underworld of Egypt, where the strict Osiris carried out his horrible judgment on the deceased." In this unforgivable and repulsive Western Inferno, "the organized nightmare systematically introduced into your life," Bely had seen himself as one of many others nekto (someone), and into this undefined pronoun he translated the obsessive Ia (I) that dominated his narrative. "Night! Tauentzin! Cocain! This is Berlin!"-wrote Bely, to whom the laughable essence of the Russian Berlin in the 20s-the magnificent dream of Russian intellectuals-appeared to be celebrated in the cabarets of the Charlottengrad's Tauentzinstrasse, "the center of Russian bon vivants in Berlin."


Andrey Bely was the pseudonym of Boris Nikolaevich Bugaev. Born in Moscow in 1880, Bely was the son of the illustrious professor of mathematics, Nikolay Bugaev, owned a degree in natural science and was going to obtain a second one in philosophy when in 1892 he met Mikhail Solovev, brother of the philosopher Vladimir Solovev, who initiated him to symbolist poetry. As a symbolist poet he entered the literary world, becoming a leading figure among the Russian "young" symbolists, together with poets Aleksander Blok and Viacheslav Ivanov. Bely produced an extraordinary corpus of poetry, prose and literary criticism. He wrote a three volume memoir and several theoretical and philological works. His personality was a voluble and contradictory one: after having welcomed enthusiastically the ideas of Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Solovev, he then later dismissed them in the name of Rudolf Steiner's doctrine of anthroposophy, which he embraced passionately and that influenced many of his works. His first important experience in Europe was, in fact, related to Steiner, whom he helped to build and initiate the Goethenaum, the first temple and school of anthroposophy in the city of Dornach in Switzerland, from 1914 to His second was Berlin. Bely lived in the German city from October 1921 until October 1923, a year that was one of the most tormented and yet the most prolific in his life. When he arrived in Berlin, the city had already become the Promised Land of Russian intellectuals. Still grieving for the death of his colleague and friend Aleksander Blok, suffering from what he claimed was a general indifference towards his work in the Russian literary community, Bely went to Germany to heal his personal life and reinvigorate his public role of intellectual. He arrived searching for both personal and cultural reconciliation but experienced loss, solitude and exceptional literary fervor.

Berlin became a turning point in his life. He put to an end his marriage with Asia Turgeneva, who had preferred to him the mediocre imagist poet Kusikov. He had to put a final closure to his relationship to Steiner, who had been his spiritual father for years and who would show indifference to Bely's enthusiasm for the grandiose events of Russia: to Marina Tsvetaeva, during a casual meeting at the Pragerdiele, the favorite café among the Russian intellectuals, he confessed his dream of going to Dornach and "scream to the Doctor like a hooligan - Herr Doktor, Sie sind ein alter Affe!" Curiously enough, in Berlin Bely publishes the first edition of Zapiski chudaka (Notes of an Eccentric), the autobiographical account of the years he spent in Europe with Asia and Steiner. Berlin was the end of this journey through anthroposophy and also the ominous extra-textual resolution to the plot of his memoir.

Nevertheless, in the midst of so many personal tragedies, Bely produced an extraordinary number of works. Despite objective adversities and usual complaints, Bely published nine original new works, several reprints of older works and the reviewed version of Petersburg. He fully immersed into a whirlwind of intellectual activities, taking part also to the meetings of the Berlin sections of two main Moscow literary groups, the Free Philosophical Society (Vol'fila) and the House of Arts. And yet, for an ironic turn of destiny, if there was a relationship that in Berlin was actually reconstituted, this was the tormented one Bely had with the Russian literary culture and establishment of the Twenties: contrarily to his expectations, in Berlin he could witness the apex of the Russsian dream, but also foresee its coming decay. Disappointed and deceived, he then renounced emigration and returned to Russia, where after years of uninterrupted and fervent writing activity, he died in 1934. The image of Bely's suffering and restless soul, of his mysterious dances and delirious monologues in the German cafes, remains in the memoirs of Vladislav Khodasevich, Nina Berberova and, most of all, in Marina Tsvetaeva's A Captive Spirit. That image in the seemingly unfriendly Berlin topography of the Twenties, will be reconstructed in the following pages. [M. R.]