Magazine article History Today

The Devil's Candle? Street Lighting

Magazine article History Today

The Devil's Candle? Street Lighting

Article excerpt

Andrei Toporkov on the `new world' of power and foreboding that artificial light brought to turn-of-the-century urban Russia.

According to Genesis, the first thing the Creator did was to separate light from darkness. In the last century the `Black Fellow', as he was significantly called in nineteenth-century Russia, did the same, when he lit the oil or gas lights that illuminated the city streets each evening.

Lighting has played an important role in shaping the urban way of life in Russia. Country-dwellers - always much more closely linked to the rhythms of nature - not surprisingly have influenced, both in their habits and their beliefs, the development of urban life too. We know that in sixteenth and seventeenth-century Russia, for instance, not only the peasants, but the inhabitants of the towns and cities also rose at dawn and went to bed when the sun went down.

The rising and setting of the sun are a familiar, daily phenomenon for those who work on the land. These days a city-dweller rarely notices sunset and dawn for him is an exotic notion. Artificial lighting enables the city to go on living long after dark has descended. Indeed, nowadays, it is hard to imagine life without street lighting. However, the introduction of street-lighting to Russia cities at the end of the last century was not whole-heartedly welcomed by the urban population. The reasons for this are bound up with long-held religious and cultural beliefs firmly entrenched in the Russia psyche.

Traditionally, firelight from an open fireplace or stove,candles, small lamps and lanterns was used to heat and light human dwellings. However, there was always a danger that if it got out of control the fire could devour both building and inhabitants and this was part of its power. Harnessed by man and used for human needs, the naked flame did not differ in essence from the flame that bursts into life after a bolt of lightning has struck.

Gas lights and to greater extent electric lighting, however, have a different man-made origin. This was one reason why artificial lighting was regarded with intense suspicion when it first began to appear in Russia. It was considered to be a diabolical mockery of the Divine, a sacriligious parody of the natural God-given light source - which many believed was also a super-natural manifestation of celestial bodies, and a reminder of both the benevolence and wrath of the Creator.

The man-made, lifeless glare of the street light, by contrast, came to be viewed as a luminous emanation of the Apocalypse and a persistent image can be traced in Russia literature, of the city as an `electric hell'. Such a view was further reinforced by the notion of celestial Jerusalem, the Heavenly City: `And the city had no need of sun or moon to shine upon it; for the glory of God gave it light, and its lamp was the Lamb' (Revelation, 21:23).

A great many important values are linked with the sun. It is not only the source of light but associated with life, youth, beauty and happiness. The street lamp makes a paltry symbol in comparison. Its functions are the same, but in place of the vast light without which we could not live, the lamp hanging from a post or dangling from a wire lacks any other purpose than to light the street.

Yet when a Russia Symbolist, the poet Valery Briusov, depicted the city of the future, `electric suns' had completely replaced the sun, moon and stars. Inside buildings and on the streets outside, electricity provided all lighting: the buildings did not have, or even need, windows. The term `electric suns', appeared as early as the 1850s when electric lighting was frequently used for night-work and celebrations. By the early twentieth century the expression was already felt to be a worn-out metaphor. `The first unhealthy current of urban influence was introduced into Russia poetry by Konstantin Balmont', remarked a contemporary critic, ironically, of another famous fin de siecle symbolist: `We shall be like the Sun! …

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