“All of us here are hookers and hustlers.
We drink too much, and don’t care.
The walls are covered with birds and flowers
That have never seen sunshine or air.”
From The Stray Dog Café by Anna Akhmatova, 1913
In the brief reprieve between sociopolitical upheaval and the First World War, all of St. Petersburg’s artistic elite gathered at one time or another in the heart of the city in an inconspicuous café on the corner of Italianskaya street and St. Michael’s Square. Anna Akhmatova’s 1913 poem The Stray Dog Café (Podval Brodyachey Sobaki or Brodyachaya Sobaka) is a reflection of her time spent in the community of St. Petersburg’s artists at the dawn of a new era, and of the café in which the Silver Age came to its close. The people who frequented the Stray Dog were the leaders and revolutionaries of Russian art and thought in the early 20th century. Their time spent on Italianskaya street would influence their work and relationships with one another for the remainder of their lives, having provided them one last refuge in a violently changing world. In the pivotal throws of the beginnings of the 20th century, the Stray Dog café united Russia’s motley crew of artists in intellectualism and camaraderie.
The Stray Dog Café first opened its hallowed doors on New Year’s 1912 in the wine cellar of the Dashkov mansion. Proprietor Boris Pronin and Mikhail Kuzmin, the first openly gay writer in Russia, opened the café to create a space for St. Petersburg’s culture and art scene (Schmidt 1). It stands in the heart of the historic center of St. Petersburg, mere meters away from the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood and the Russian Museum.
Considering it is located in the most famous and well-trodden part of the city, the café itself is surprisingly unassuming and easily overlooked. In spite this of this, or in some ways because of it, this inconspicuous bohemian café on Italianskaya street came to play a formative role in facilitating transformation and innovation in Russian literature and art before the horrors of the 20th century came to a head. Over the years the Stray Dog café went by a number of names: the Stray Dog cellar, the Stray Dog cabaret, and the Society for Intimate Theatre. The café acted as a meeting place for Russia’s greatest creative minds, and as an art space to share work and inspire one another. The work created in its short lifespan, 1912 through 1915, came to define the cutting edge of thought, art, and culture of St. Petersburg (Kravstova). The café was the first to hear many of St. Petersburg’s creations, and became a contentious stage for the city’s newest poetry, debate, music, and dance. The Stray Dog also had the luxury of being just discreet enough for it to be exclusive but easily found by those who knew where to look. Artist Sergei Sudeikin painted the walls and ceilings with birds and flowers, transforming the cellar into the fantastical mural referenced in Akhmatova’s poem above (Schmidt, 1). Soon, the homely cellar attracted artists far and wide. Symbolist poet Vladimir Piast went so far as to write at the height of the Stray Dog’s popularity, “To us (me and Mandelstam, and many other friends, too) it began to seem that the whole world, in fact, was concentrated in the Dog, and that there is no other life, and no other interests, than in the Dog!”.
The café was a home to the “artistic bohemia” in the beginnings of a post-symbolist St. Petersburg, acting as a successor of sorts to Vyacheslav Ivanov’s Tower (Schmidt 2). The Russo-Japanese war in 1905 threw Russian symbolist thought into turmoil, leaving much debate as to what Russian art and literature would become. These discussions were initially held in The Tower, an apartment home to Russia’s greatest symbolist artists in the early 20th century. As symbolism diverged into futurism and acmeism, new Russian writers and intellectuals were at a loss for their own “Tower”. According to legend, Alexei Tolstoy said, “So why are we running around like stray dogs?” in regard to the city’s lack of such an artistic haven for Russia’s new generation of writers (Rogatchevskaia). The Tower’s legacy, known as the “Tower period” of Russian symbolism, and its patrons soon moved into the Stray Dog café over the next decade (Peterson 84).
The Stray Dog café was essential in the development and success of Russia’s Silver Age of literature. This epoch lasted from the late 19th century until the end of the Russian Civil War in 1922 (Peterson, 199). The revolution scattered Russia’s writers far and wide, leaving the Stray Dog café as one of the last true centers of congregation for the Silver Age poets and artists. Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, Osip Mandelstam, Alexander Blok, and Vladimir Mayakovsky were just a few of the literary minds which frequented the Stray Dog café during its short life. Varying forms of Symbolism, Acmeism, and Futurism flourished at the hands of the renowned patrons of the café. The period of the Stray Dog’s operation marked a time where these artists first met and shared their ideas before the political workings of the world drew them apart. Many would reference their time in the café in poems later on in life, reflecting with nostalgia upon their work and friendships in a pre-revolutionary Russia.
The acmeists, most notably Akhmatova and Mandelstam, formed and maintained their own Poet’s Guild during this time (Schmidt 3). This guild denounced the symbolist movement and marked a true divergence from the dominant school of symbolist thought. The acmeist’s work in the years between 1912 and 1914 proved to be their most productive and active (Peterson, 159). Similarly the writer Khlebnikov would descend from the Tower and develop futurism at this time. The futurist writer Mayakovsky followed suit, and read his poetry in public for the first time at the Stray Dog café (Kravstova). Fresh faced Marina Tsvetaeva and Boris Pasternak also began making a name for themselves in these circles. This shared departure from the mainstream symbolist school of thought in search for new forms of art facilitated the congregation of these various writers in cellar of the
Stray Dog. Increased scrutiny during the First World War would give cause for the café to close in 1915. As the war heightened and tensions soared, the political activities of the Stray Dog attracted authorities. Many cite Vladimir Mayakovsky’s reading of the poem You! on February 11th of 1915 as the catalyst that would send shockwaves through the Russian public and eventually result in the café’s demise. The poem, excerpted below, criticized the actions of the indulgent activities of the bourgeoisie as their countrymen died in battle (Schmidt 5).
“Do you know, the talentless, the multiple,
Thinking only of how best to get drunk,
Maybe right now a bomb tears out the legs
of Lieutenant Petrov?
If only he saw, being sent to death,
With wounds all over his body,
How you, with a meatball all over your lips,
Lustfully hum Severyanin !” (5 -12)
Thus, on February 20th, police raided the Stray Dog and found a stash of alcohol that was illegal during war time (Muravёva). This event gave grounds for its final closure on the 3rd of March later that same year (“Silver Age Spirit”). Throughout the violence that would pass in the coming decades, the nature of the café changed dramatically. Thirty years later during the second World War, Anna Akhmatova would look up to see Sergei Sudeikin’s painted birds and flowers covering the walls surrounding her. To her great surprise, the bomb shelter she happened upon during air raids was the same café she had frequented as a young poet (Kravstova). Beyond its use as a bomb shelter, the space went largely unused for the remainder of the twentieth century. Only during perestroika did people seriously begin to talk about resurrecting the old café, and it would prove to be many years still until reopening the café was actualized.
By 2001, literary enthusiast Vladimir Sklyarsky finally succeeded in reopening the Stray Dog in the name of the great Silver Age poets (“Silver Age Spirit”). The café is meant to act as a reminder of the art and debate that was produced during the café’s original period of operation, as well as place for new art to flourish. Reconstructed with the aid of photographs and descriptions of the café, the Stray Dog café was reopened in the image of its former glory (Kravstova). 100 years and two world wars later, Sudeikin’s mural is still evident. The brickwork is original and carries with it the memories of all who passed through its doors a century before (“Silver Age Spirit”). Walking into the Stray Dog café in 2016 is a slightly underwhelming experience. The dimly lit rooms do not speak of its historic past, only of present kitsch. The entrance hall is complete with a gallery of its former patrons as well as a small gift stand and cash register.
It is hard to imagine Russia’s finest minds dining and creating in this space; the magic and spirit of the Stray Dog is mostly absent. Further into the café, a white hallway covered in the signatures and messages of artists who have performed there is the only visual sign of the café’s current role in artistic spheres. Although the café continues promoting the arts by hosting gallery shows from time to time and weekly performances, it is difficult to classify it as an art café in the same sense as its former self. Confronted with this new Stray Dog café we may ask ourselves, is this departure from the cutting edge of Russian art a failure? Although the Stray Dog café is no longer a major contributor to the creation of new and radical Russian thought, its existence in itself continues to mean a great deal. The journey of this café reflects the lifetimes of Russia’s most iconic and influential artistic minds; from freedom and youth to wartime and new Soviet ideals and policies. From artistic hub to bomb shelter, the transformation in values from Russia’s Silver Age to utilitarian USSR are evident in the history of this dingy cellar café. Even its reopening garners significance as Russia continues to rebuild and redefine itself after the fall of the Soviet Union. Although the Stray Dog café is a shadow of its former self, the fact that it continues to live, as does the work of its patrons, speaks volumes on the resilience and vitality of the Russian peoples.
The Stray Dog café on the corner of Italianskaya Street and St. Michaels Square was a haven for Russian artists, musicians, poets, and playwrights in the early 20th century. Its three year period of operation acted as a microcosm for the attitudes of the Silver Age poets in their pre-revolution world. The friendships and ideas created there live on in the writing of its patrons, and the café stands today so that the rest of the world can experience some of the magic a century later. Over a century after its inception, the Stray Dog continues to serve as a reminder of a time of creative freedom for the great Silver Age poets, for radical thinking, and for a community of outsiders.