Andrei Bely (Boris Nikolaevich Bugaev, 1880-1934), one of the principal writers of the Russian Symbolist movement, produced a novel considered by many literary historians to be one of the greatest of the 20th century. Peterburg was first published serially in 1913-14 and in book form in 1916. Bely revised it--largely by making more or less random drastic cuts--for its republication in Berlin in 1922. The novel was reprinted in Soviet Russia with further changes in 1928 and 1935. Several reprintings of different versions have since appeared outside Russia. (3) While the cuts of the 1916 version may have improved the novel structurally, they resulted in dangling loose ends and unpursued hints. This in turn, incidentally, has had a negative effect on translations, giving rise to passages which make little sense.
Possibly the most obvious resultant double ambiguity (one layer original and intentional, the other derived and accidental) concerns the character of Dudkin/Pogorel'sky, the revolutionary and fugitive living illegally with a false passport in St. Petersburg. In the novel Dudkin first appears characterized as the mysterious "unknown one" or "stranger" ("neznakomets") or "elusive one" ("neulovimy"). This figure has been described by some Bely scholars as characterized by sexual abnormalities, (4) but if the 1916 version is attentively read (many of the key passages were eliminated in the later versions), an interpretation emerges which removes most, if not all, of the examples of the "abnormalities" attached to it. Accompanying almost every mention of this character, whose alias is given as Aleksandr Ivanovich Dudkin (his "real" name is supposed to be Aleksei Alekseevich Pogorel'sky), is invariably the phrase "s chernymi usikami" ("with little black moustaches"). The emphatic constant repetition of this phrase attracts the attention of the reader to such a degree that he begins to suspect that there is something amiss with the little black moustache. While the act of shaving and clean-shaven faces are often mentioned relative to male figures (e.g., Lippanchenko and Likhutin) in the novel, nothing is ever said alluding to Dudkin's having shaved. In conversation, for instance with Nikolai Apollonovich, Dudkin sometimes plays with his moustache--as if it were unfamiliar to him. In sum, the "little black moustaches" seem unnaturally black and in general unnatural on Dudkin's face; they could be false, and a part of a disguise.
When Dudkin makes his first appearance, coining out of his filthy tenement building in a Petersburg slum, the following significant scene takes place:
... then a black cat, turning up at his feet ... cut across the
path, dropping chicken guts at the stranger's feet; a spasm
distorted my stranger's face; his head was nervously thrown back,
revealing his delicate neck.
These movements were peculiar to young ladies of the good
[old] times ...
(... to chernaya koshka, okazavshayasya u hog ... peresekla dorogu,
ronyaya k nogam neznakomtsa kurinuyu vnutrennost'; litso moego
neznakomtsa peredernula sudoroga, golova zhe nervno zakinulas',
obnaruzhiv nezhnuyu sheyu.
Eti dvizheniya byli svoistvenny baryshnyam dobrogo vremeni ...)
In this, Bely's earliest version of his novel in book form, it seems highly significant that we are presented with this suggestive scene immediately on being introduced to one of his four central figures. Although Dudkin, whose name we do not know at this point, is a hardened terrorist--one who has endured exile to sub-arctic regions and has escaped to Helsinki (when Finland was a part of the Russian Empire) and then to St. Petersburg, and who has apparently committed some violent crime--he cannot suppress a girlish twitch and grimace of disgust at the chicken guts, revealing a delicate, feminine neck. As readers, we are puzzled and at once alerted to be on the watch for other such signals.
Then there is the matter of Dudkin's voice. …