Beastly St Petersburg: humans and other animals in imperial Russia

Late imperial St Petersburg harboured an animal population that worked to support its growth and operation but also kept the city teetering precariously on the brink of a potential devolution into the noisy, smelly chaos of village life. Olga Petri investigates the spatial patterns involved in ‘civilising’ this animal population to accommodate and support the city’s conflicted or using Fedor Dostoyevsky’s term ‘distracted’ modernisation

The prominent and ambiguous roles of animals in Russian history and culture have been noted by observers of the city at different times. With regard to late imperial St Petersburg (1880–1914), a view of animals as a threatening natural element intertwined with national lore about Russia’s distinctive and intimate relationship with nature. To explore this apparent contradiction, I focus on four groups of urban animals, which have so far escaped historical attention: racehorses, canaries, domestic cats and rodents. I aim to describe a more-than-human modernity in which the city itself becomes an actor, amplifying or assembling distinctly human cultural idioms, such as a faith in permanent progress, a disgust and impatience with ‘pests’ and disease, and an openness bordering on mania towards the foreign or exotic.

These and other cultural idioms, frequently described in historical discussions of late imperial St Petersburg, have become tightly linked to a historically deterministic view of the pre-revolutionary city. I challenge this contextualisation by choosing animals as subjects without political or ideological intent, and by focusing on the spatial patterns by which these idioms played out geographically. This focus and methodological approach sets my research apart from investigations focused on detecting the ‘seeds of revolution’ in the sense of conscious struggle or resistance and allows some of the features of an under-explored and highly volatile urban configuration to appear in sharper relief than would be possible in a cultural geography focusing on humans alone.


Sale of birds on the holiday of Annunciation. Source: Tsentral'nyî gosudarstvennyî arkhiv
kinofotofonodokumentov Sankt-Peterburga (TSAKFFD SpB), 18980, Prodazha ptits na
Blagoveshchenie, photographer Shteynberg Îakov Vladimirovich, St Petersburg 1912

One such feature of the modern city, in a broad sense, is the mechanism by which the city absorbed and cultivated rural or wild populations, human and animal alike. I approach this mechanism by piecing together archival evidence to reconstruct and interpret the spatial patterns involved in breeding racehorses, domesticating canaries and cats, and combatting rodents. I position the city at the heart of my analysis to elaborate the geographical patterns by which the city reconciled conflicting tendencies of conservation and reform with a contested national identity and intensifying external influences during the final years of St Petersburg’s abortive transformation into a modern metropolis. 

A gentlemanly horse race. Source: TSAKFFD SpB, A 2752, Dzhentel'menskie skachki, unknown
author, St Petersburg 1912 

Methodological and empirical challenges require explicit emphasis in this project. Information about animals is spread across various archives, which are inevitably organized by anthropocentric themes; none of the relevant archives contain an ‘animal section’. One of the results of my research will be to improve the accessibility of the animal geographies of late imperial St Petersburg to fellow researchers. In addition, my aspiration is to transpose conceptual models from an Anglo-American historico-geographical discourse to the historical urban geography of late Imperial St Petersburg. The dual goal of this methodological approach is to make use of the explanatory power of these models in a new context and to refine the models themselves, so as to broaden the scope of their potential future application. 

Ms Olga Petri
University of Cambridge
Early Career Fellowship