Andrei Bitov was born in Leningrad in 1937 and, except for a brief period during the war, spent his childhood and formative years in that beautiful, haunted, neverquite-Russian city. Several generations of Bitovs had lived there before him, and the survivors in his day—grandmother, parents, aunts, uncles, and grandchildren—all lived together in one big apartment. Members of the old St Petersburg intelligentsia, their tastes and values harked back to pre-revolutionary times and formed a partial bulwark against the contemporary Soviet world outside. Bitov later wrote of his home that it formed ‘a whole world and comprised my whole life, and it strengthened a certain isolationism in me … providing an abundance of the best, the finest, people, painlessly dividing my life into two indisputable, a priori categories, my own personal world and the external one’.
Leningrad forms the backdrop to Bitov’s early stories and is a central feature of his best-known novel, Pushkin House (1978). But from childhood Bitov had also loved to travel; his mother, he wrote, ‘infected [him] with space’, travelling with him around the Soviet Union and inculcating in him a permanent ‘love for displacement’. This passion for travel influenced Bitov’s first choice of profession: after graduating from high school, he entered the geological research department of the Leningrad Mining Institute, earning the chance to go on research expeditions with his fellow students to Central Asia. This experience provided the raw material for early works such as ‘One Country’ and Such a Long Childhood;* and travel writings in the broadest sense—stories and essays prompted by journeys to Uzbekistan, Armenia, and Georgia—have remained a central part of Bitov’s œuvre.
The Mining Institute served a further purpose in Bitov’s literary career, for its students ran a literary society that was attended by some of the city’s most promising young writers. Bitov went to their meetings and was encouraged to try his own
* ‘Odna strana’ (dated 1960), in Bol′shoi shar (1963), and Takoye dolgoye detstvo (1965). Both have
recently been reprinted in Zapiski novichka (Notes of a Novice), 1997.