Text: Edgar Allan Poe, Critical Notices, Southern Literary Messenger, Vol. II, no. 7, July 1836, 2:???-???


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Russia and the Russians; or, A Journey to St. Peters burg and Moscow, through Courland and Livonia; with Characteristic Sketches of the People. By Leigh Ritchie, Esq. Author of “Turner's Annual Tour,” “Schindler- hannes,” &c. Philadelphia: E. L. Carey and A. Hart.

This book, as originally published in London, was beautifully gotten up and illustrated with engravings of superior merit, which tended in no little degree to heighten the public interest in its behalf. The present volume is well printed on passable paper — and no more. The name of Leigh Ritchie however, is a host in itself. He has never, to our knowledge, written a bad thing. His Russia and the Russians has all the spirit and glowing vigor of romance. It is full of every species of entertainment, and will prove in America as it has in England, one of the most popular books of the season. In this respect it will differ no less widely from the England of Professor Von Raumer than it differs from it in matter and manner, the vivacious writer of Schinderhannes suffering his own individuality of temperament to color every thing he sees, and giving us under the grave title of Russia and the Russians, a brilliant mass of anecdote, narrative, description and sentiment — the profound historian disdaining embellishment, and busying himself only in laying bare with a master-hand the very anatomy of England. It is amusing, however, although by no means extraordinary, that were we to glean the character of each work from the respective statements of the two writers in their prefaces, we would be forced to arrive at a conclusion precisely the reverse. In this view of the case Leigh Ritchie would be Professor Von Raumer, and Professor Von Raumer Leigh Ritchie. We copy from the book before us the commencement of a sketch of St. Petersburg, in which the artist has done far more in giving a vivid idea of that city than many a wiser man in the sum total of an elaborate painting.

St. Petersburg has been frequently called “the most magnificent city in Europe,” but the expression appears to me to be wholly destitute of meaning. Venice is a magnificent city, so is Paris, so is St. Petersburg; but there are no points of comparison among them. St. Petersburg is a city of new houses, newly painted” The designs of some of them may be old, but the copies are evidently new. They imitate the classic models; but they often imitate them badly, and there is always something to remind one that they are not the genuine classic. They are like the images which the Italian boys carry about the thoroughfares of London — Venuses de Medici and Belvidere Apollos, in stucco.

But the streets are wide, and the walls painted white or light yellow; and from one street opens another, and another, and another — all wide, and white, and light yellow. And then, here and there, there are columned facades, and churches, and domes, and tapering spires — all white too, that are not gilded, or painted a sparkling green. And canals sweep away to the right and left almost at every turning, not straight and Dutch-like, but bending gracefully, and losing themselves among the houses. And there is one vast and glorious river, as wide as the Thames at London, and a hundred times more beautiful, which rolls through the whole; and, beyond it, from which ever side you look, you see a kindred mass of houses and palaces, white and yellow, and columned facades, and churches, and domes, and spires, gilded and green.

The left bank of this river is a wall of granite, with a parapet and trottoir of the same material, extending for several miles; and this forms one of the most magnificent promenades in Europe. The houses on either side look like palaces, for all are white, and many have columns; and there are also absolute de facto palaces; for instance, the Admiralty, the Winter Palace, and the Marble Palace, on one side, and the Academy of Arts, on the other. The water in the middle is stirring with boats, leaping and sweeping through the stream, with lofty, old-fashioned sterns, painted and gilded within and without.

Among the streets, there is one averaging the width of Oxford Street in London, sometimes less, sometimes a little more. It is lined with trees, and shops with painted shutters, and churches of half a dozen different creeds. Its shops, indeed, are not so splendid as ours, nor are their windows larger than those of private houses: but the walls are white and clean, sometimes columned, sometimes pillastered, sometimes basso-relievoed: in fact, if you can imagine such a thing as a street of gin-palaces just after the painting season — and that is a bold word — you may form an idea scarcely exaggerated of the Nevski Prospekt.

But no analogy taken from London can convey an idea of the — grandeur, I may venture to say, presented by the vistas opening from the main street. Here there are no lanes, no alleys, no impasses, no nestling-places constructed of filth and rubbish for the poor. These lateral streets are all parts of the main street, only diverging at right angles. The houses are the same in form and color; they appear to be inhabited by the same classes of society; and the view is terminated, ever and anon, by domes and spires. The whole, in short, is one splendid picture, various in its forms, but consistent in its character.

Such were my first impressions — thus thrown down at random, without waiting to look for words, and hardly caring about ideas, — the first sudden impressions flashed upon my mind by the physical aspect of St. Petersburg.

I have said in a former volume of this work, that I have the custom — like other idlers, I suppose — of wandering about during the first day of my visit to a foreign city, without apparent aim or purpose; without knowing, or desiring to know, the geography of the place; and without asking a single question. Now this is precisely the sort of view which should be taken of the new city of the Tsars, by one who prefers the poetry of life to its dull and hackneyed prose- St. Petersburg is a picture rather than a reality — grand, beautiful, and noble, at a little distance, but nothing more than a surface of paint and varnish when you look closer. Or, rather, to amend the comparison, it is like the scene of a theatre, which you must not by any means look behind, if you would not destroy the illusion.

It will be said, that such is the case with all cities, with all objects that derive their existence from the puny sons of men: but this is one of those misnamed truisms which are considered worthy of all acceptation for no other reason than that they come from the tongue, or through a neighboring organ, with the twang of religion or morality.

London does not lose but gain by inspection; although on inspection it is found to be an enormous heap of dirty, paltry, miserable brick houses, which, but for the con slant repairs of the inhabitants, would in a few years become a mass of such pitiful ruins as the owls themselves would disdain to inhabit. Those narrow, winding, dingy streets — those endless lines of brick boxes, without taste, without beauty, without dignity, without any thing that belongs to architecture, inspire us with growing wonder and admiration. The genius, the industry, the commerce, of a whole continent seem concentrated in this single spot; and the effect is uninterrupted by any of the lighter arts that serve as the mere ornaments and amusements of life. An earnestness of purpose is the predominating character of the scene — a force of determination which seizes, and fixes, and grapples with a single specific object, to the exclusion of every other. The pursuit of wealth acquires a character of sublimity as we gaze; and Mammon rises in majesty from the very deformity of the stupendous temple of common-place in which he is worshipped.

Venice does not lose but gain by inspection; although on inspection it is found to be but the outlines of a great city, filled up with meanness, and dirt, and famine. We enter her ruined palaces with a catching of the breath, and a trembling of the heart; and when we see her inhabitants crouching in rags and hunger in their marble halls, we do but breathe the harder, and tremble the more. The effect is increased by the contrast; for Venice is a tale of the past, a city of the dead. The Rialto is still crowded with the shapes of history and romance; the Giant's Steps still echo to the ducal tread; and mingling with the slaves and wantons who meet on the Sunday evenings to laugh at the rattle of their chains in the Piazza di San Marco, we see gliding, scornful and sad, the merchant-kings of the Adriatic.

St. Petersburg, on the other hand, has no moral character to give dignity to common-place, or haunt tombs and ruins like a spirit, it is a city of imitation, constructed, in our own day, on what were thought to be the best models; and hence the severity with which its public buildings have been criticised by all travellers, except those who dote upon gilding and green paint, and are enthusiasts in plaster and whitewash. As a picture of a city, notwithstanding, superficially viewed — an idea of a great congregating place of the human kind, without reference to national character, or history, or individuality of any kind — St. Petersburg, in my opinion, is absolutely unrivalled.

It would be difficult, even for the talented artist whose productions grace these sketches, to convey an adequate idea of the scale on which this city is laid out; and yet, without doing so, we do nothing. This is the grand distinctive feature of the place. Economy of room was the principal necessity in the construction of the other great European cities; for, above all things, they were to be protected from the enemy by stone walls. But, before St. Petersburg was built, a change had taken place in the art and customs of war, and permanent armies had become in some measure a substitute for permanent fortifications. Another cause of prodigality was the little value of the land; but, above all these, should be mentioned, the far-seeing, and far-thinking ambition of the builders. Conquest was the ruling passion of the Tsars from the beginning; and in founding a new capital, they appear to have destined it to be the capital of half the world. It is needless to exaggerate the magnitude of the city; as, for instance, some writers have done, by stating that the Nevski Prospekt is half as wide again as Oxford Street in London. Every thing is here on a gigantic scale. The quays, to which vessels requiring nine feet of water cannot ascend, except when the river is unusually high, might serve for all the navies of Europe. The public offices, or at least many of them, would hardly be too small, even if the hundred millions were added to the population of the country, which its soil is supposed to be capable of supporting.

Perhaps it may be as well to introduce here, for the sake of illustration, although a little prematurely as regards the description, a view of the grand square of the Admiralty. This is an immense oblong space in the very heart of the city. The spectator stands near the manege, the building which projects at the left-hand corner. Beyond this is the Admiralty, with its gilded spire, which is visible from almost all parts of the metropolis. Farther on is the Winter Palace, distinguished by a flag, in front of which, near the bottom of the vista, is the column raised to the memory of Alexander. Opposite this, on the right hand, is the palace of the Etat Major, and returning towards the foreground, the War Office. The group in front are employed in dragging stones for the new Isaak's church, which stands in the left band corner, although the view is not wide enough to admit it. This is to be the richest and most splendid building in the world; but it has been so long in progress, and is now so little advanced, that a notice of it must fall to the lot of some future traveller. Saint Isaak, I believe, is not particularly connected with Russia, except by his day falling upon the birth-day of Peter the Great.

Such is the scale on which St. Petersburg is built; for although this may be considered the heart of the city, the other members correspond. The very vast ness of the vacant spaces, however, it should be observed, seems to make the houses on either side look less lofty; while on the other hand, no doubt the real want of loftiness in the houses exaggerates the breadth of the area between. But on the present occasion, any thing like fancy in the latter respect would have been quite supererogatory. The streets were hardly passable. Here and there n pond or a morass gave pause to the pedestrian; while the droski driver was only indebted to his daily renewed experience of the daily changing aspect of the ground, for the comparative confidence and safety with which he pursued his way. The streets, in fact, were in the same predicament as the roads by which I had reached them: they had thawed from their winter consistence, and their stones, torn up, and dismantled by the severities of the frost, had not yet been put into summer quarters.

The greater part of the streets are what may be termed pebble-roads, a name which describes exactly what they are. At this moment, in the whole city, there are upwards of seven hundred and seventy-two thousand square sagenes* of these roads, while of stone pavement there are only nine thousand four hundred and fifty, and of wood six thousand four hundred.

The wooden pavement, I believe, is peculiar to St. Petersburg, and merits a description. It consists of small hexagons sawed from a piece of resinous wood, and laid into a bed formed of crushed stones and sand. These are fastened laterally into each other with wooden pegs, and when the whole forms a plain surface, the interstices are filled with fine sand, and then boiling pitch is poured over all. This pitch from the porous nature of the wood is speedily absorbed, and on a quantity of sand being strewed above it, the operation is complete, and a pavement constructed which is found to be extremely durable, and which seems to me to suffer much less injury from the frost than the stone causeway. The honor of the invention is due to M. Gourief; and I have no doubt he will ultimately see it adopted in most of the great towns towards the north.



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* A sagrne if seven feet.




[S:0 - SLM, 1836] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Criticism - Criticial Notices (July 1836)