Bely’s real name was Boris Bugaev. His father was a professor of mathematics at the University of Moscow, and it was partly through acquaintance with his father’s friends that he gained knowledge of and access to the Russian Symbolist movement in literature. His own university education was in mathematics and philosophy, and he quickly became identified with Symbolist aesthetics and was branded as “decadent” by conservative critics. He had a long-lasting interest in mystical doctrines, and in 1912 devoted himself to a study of the anthroposophy of Rudolf Steiner.
Many of these concerns are put into practice in his heavily symbolic and allegorical novels. Both The Silver Dove and Petersburg are written in prose that relies heavily on poetic devices such as kaleidoscopic images, passages of fantasy, and evocative symbols. In The Silver Dove, for example, Bely introduces in an early chapter a “ragged bush” that stands beside the highway from Tselebeyevo to Likhov and from the village appears to be a “dark wayfarer.” This bush appears several times and, since it is on the road to Likhov, seems to lead mysteriously to the East and all that region’s attendant menace. Similarly, in Petersburg there are hallucinatory appearances of Peter the Great, in the apparition of the Flying Dutchman. The bush and the Flying Dutchman both contribute to the impression of a transcendental dimension to Bely’s fictional realm that can be expressed only figuratively.
Bely’s status with Soviet critics, equivocal at best, and the comparatively late translation of his works into English have hampered the development of his reputation as a major twentieth century artist. His devotion to Symbolist theory and his undeniable gift for its application make him a significant figure in the history of modernism. His sensitivity to the great changes impending in Russia led to these two novels of East and West in which so much of twentieth century history is enigmatically prefigured.