Russia's Treasure-House

Searching for the past on the eve of St. Petersburg's 300th anniversary, a former foreign correspondent finds the future

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When the Soviet Union collapsed, Piotrovsky says, much of the city’s economy, based primarily on defense factories, collapsed as well. Scheduled state subsidies failed to arrive. The Hermitage struggled. “The fact that the city survived and is now in a position of a little more stability is, in large part, thanks to its cultural institutions.” Once a city of power, St. Petersburg has now become a city of art.


In a cramped basement not far from Arts Square—a complex that includes the St. Petersburg Philharmonia and the RussianMuseum—St. Petersburg’s transition to capitalism can be seen in an unlikely venue. From 1912 to 1915, the cellar housed the Stray Dog Café, which played a role in Russian literary life not unlike that of the Algonquin Round Table in American letters.


Night after night, the legendary poet Anna Akhmatova sat in a corner there surrounded by admirers, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee as black as the slinky dresses she wore to recite her verse.


Through the harrowing years of World War I, Akhmatova came to personify St. Petersburg’s endurance. One by one, her loved ones, victims of war or of the Russian Revolution, were killed or sent to the Siberian gulag. Through it all she continued to write. Sometimes, rather than risk setting a poem on paper, she committed it to memory, reciting fragments to a few trusted friends, who memorized their stanzas, waiting for the day when it would be safe to reassemble and publish the verse.


Among the poems Akhmatova, who died in 1966, left behind is one about the Stray Dog Café:


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