Aesthetically, Russian Symbolism emphasized the emotional effect symbols, not just as a metaphor for something else, but also the subconscious link they have with the reader: 'Symbolism is the poetry of suggestion, designed to create a mood and awaken a response by means of coded references to exotic subjects and associative thinking', wrote Valery Bryusov, an early practitioner of Russian Symbolism.
Symbolism thus positioned itself as a wholly new and independent literary movement -- that is, an avant garde one -- in so far as it presented an encompassing philosophy and worldview and was experimental in form.
Published in 1916, Bely's Petersburg, was largely written off by the Russian literary establishment for its restless, disjointed plot structure and obscure references; for these same reasons, it subsequently garnered much attention and praise in academia. Nabokov, moreover, put it on par with the best Joyce, Kafka and Proust had to offer, helping cement its status as a 20th Century prose masterpiece.
Petersburg is largely inaccessible to the casual reader, though. There is also the problem of translation, given Bely's propensity for wordplay. I got hold of the latest translation of the novel by John Elsworth, and while it is mostly readable, there are many passages that are completely lost. One involves a fascinating discussion on the absence of the Russian "ы" sound (that is roughly speaking "ее", as in "feet"; though no exact English equivalent exists) in the phonology of the civilized nations of Europe.
Despite its complexity however, there are a few interpretive approaches that might help anchor the reader as they make their way through an admittedly arduous text. One is viewing it within the context of Russia's place between West and East. Bely presents Russia as an inherently Asiatic culture that was artificially Europeanized, for which the city of Petersburg stands as a monumental symbol.
Another way of understanding the novel is as a play on consciousness. The interplay, merging even, of physical reality, consciousness and subconsciousness in and between the various characters make up some of the most alluring passages in the novel, forming the aesthetic plane over which the plot meticulously unfolds. For Bely, thoughts think themselves, consciousness 'expands, ехpands, expands', dreams represent an astral journey.
Lastly, we might view Bely's novel within the larger context of Russian lit. Bely begins each chapter by quoting Pushkin; his characters are absurd to Gogolian proportions; the setting itself, Petersburg, has a surreal quality, in keeping with the mythology of the old capital. We might add to the list the sense of Russia's impending collapse at the hands of orientals that was popular in the literature of the period; the metaphor of the Mongol invasion of Russia is prevalent throughout Petersburg.
Those searching for political and/or social commentary will be somewhat disappointed, though the ideology of political terrorism is curiously summarized at one point in the text:
the era of historically outlived humanism was at an end, and all cultural history stood before us now like an eroded ruin: a period of healthy bestialism was beginning (hooliganism, the riotous behavior of the apaches)… [they] advocated the burning of libraries, universities, and museums [and] the summoning of the Mongols.Despite the fact that the plot revolves around a brainy social misfit's attempt at killing his father, a high-ranking government official, with a bomb given to him by a terrorist group, and its setting is a Petersburg amidst political revolution, the novel is mostly apolitical. In fact, you'll find just as much if not more attention paid to the complexities and tumults of familial relations. The novel's most touching and beautiful passage involves a poetic description of the faint cry of cranes flying over Petersburg as a metaphor for recalling one's childhood.
Which ultimately make Petersburg such a frustrating read -- none of the novel's themes are developed to the extent as to unite it under a single idea, philosophy, worldview, things which in Petersburg are always fleeting or contradictory. For some it wouldn't be going too far out on a limb to say that this was taken into account by Bely; that the text's fragmented structure is a reflection of the divided, multiplicitous nature of our existence, which take on many different forms in Petersburg (here we see yet another interpretive fold). But not for me.
Nevertheless, Petersburg is probably a worthwhile read for most interested in all things Russian, especially those with post-modern tastes.