Ghostly fogs in a decaying empire: disoriented and melancholy experience in Russia’s metropole

Mark D. Steinberg

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This article explores the disoriented affective experience of urban modernity in the Russian imperial metropole: obsessive portrayals, by writers both famous and obscure, of St. Petersburg as a place of alleged power and intense modernity haunted by loss and feeling lost, by fragmentation and decay, by feelings of standing on shifting ground, vague disenchantment, and melancholy. With a mixture of concreteness and intangibility, this was an affective perception embodied in haunting fogs. Fog was a ubiquitous fact in the material city and an inescapable metaphor in the interpreted city. If imperial modernity represented confident knowledge and forward movement, fog represented uncertainty and disorientation, even the unrepresentable. Not least, fog embodied and nurtured anxious feelings about historical time: the experience of the modern as discontinuity, fragmentation, contingency, precarity, instability, and looming disaster. But fog also evoked dreams and possibilities of the unexpected. Fog disrupted epistemological certainties and historical teleologies. Fog disoriented the present and thus the future. As such, fog opened up vague visions of possibility and even a radical other. This essay itself seeks to disorient familiar understandings of St. Petersburg and its famous cultural ‘text’ to see through its fogs, and in fog itself, not only unstable images of a decaying imperial modern, not only the off-centred experience of that history at the heart of imperial power, but also images of vaguely imagined and unpredictable possibility. As such, this is a story that can reorient how we understand the revolution that began in St. Petersburg in 1917 and shook apart an empire.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)747-762
Number of pages16
JournalCultural Studies
Issue number5
StatePublished - 2020


  • Russia
  • disorientation
  • emotions
  • fog
  • urban

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • Anthropology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • General Social Sciences


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