Becoming Dostoyevsky in St. Petersburg, Russia

By Veronica Hackathal

During winter, dawn doesn’t break over St. Petersburg. No, dawn sneaks up on the unwary night, which fades to a lighter shade of lead.  There is no clock in my budget hotel room.  I have left my watch back in NYC.  I awake disoriented, and look out the window for a clue from the sky. It is silent and aloof.  I phone the reception, and ask the time in fumbling Russian.  The reply comes in heavily accented English, tyen Ayya Emmme (ten AM).  I look at the sky again.  It could as well be six AM.  Later, as I leave the hotel, the receptionist beams, we have sun for you today! I glance again at the sky.  It is the same color as when I awoke.  St. Petersburg has thirty-five days of sunshine each year, and I have just had a lesson in cultural relativism.

There were good reasons for visiting Russia in early December.  Plane fare and hotel rooms were cheap.  I’d have The Hermitage to myself (lines in summer stretch for blocks, but I waltzed in without a wait).  But I arrive during a cold snap.  It’s so bitter my camera malfunctions.  Heavy skies dwarf the majestic architecture that makes the entire city a UNESCO world heritage site.

This is Dostoyevsky’s city.  In The Possessed, he wrote, “Life is pain, life is fear, and man is unhappy.  Now all is pain and fear.  Now man loves life because he loves pain and fear.”  I pass these painful characters on Nevsky Prospekt, St. Petersburg’s main street.  They smoke frantically and push past me as if I were a slab of meat hanging in a butcher’s freezer.  Dodging Russians dressed in winter clothes is like navigating an obstacle course filled with linebackers.  Russians are sturdy.  Gravity pulls harder on tall, thin people like me. On the black ice, I struggle to stay upright.

Dostoyevsky lived twenty-eight years, most of his life, in St. Petersburg.  He wrote about thirty works of fiction, twenty of which are set in the city.  Born in Moscow in 1821, Dostoyevsky moved to St. Petersburg in 1837 to attend the Mikhailovsky Engineering Academy.  He wasn’t a brilliant student.  During six years of military study, he paid most attention to his favorite subjects:  history, literature, and languages.  A school friend remarked, “There was no other student so ill-suited to military studies as Dostoyevsky.” After graduating, Dostoyevsky lasted six months before swapping the military for a literary career.  He vowed, “I shall work like Hell.”  Relatives were unhappy.  To his favorite brother he justified himself, “Perhaps I am wrong, but what if I am not.”

These days the engineering academy is named Engineer’s Castle, located near the Fontanka canal.  Originally called St. Michael’s Castle, it was built in the seventeenth century for the paranoid czar, Paul I, who was strangled and trampled to death here by advisors.  In the nineteenth century the castle became the army’s engineering school.  These days it is an engineering museum.  I hail a cab on Nevsky Prospekt.  The cabbie is a male babushka.  He demands, Vhy you vant to go zere?  Better you to go to ‘Ermitaj.  I argue, I need to see Dostoyevsky sites.  The driver bosses, You vill not like it.  Ze gardens are iced over.  Engineering is boring.  And vy you vant to know Dostoyevsky?  You a foreigner. I demand, I vant to go. Take me zere.  He glares at me, lights a cigarette, and floors it.  Within minutes we arrive at Engineer’s Castle, whose cheerful, buttery façade belies its former bloody purpose.  I don’t reveal to the cabbie that I am unimpressed.  We drive in silence back to Nevsky Prospekt, where he extracts an exorbitant fare.

I boycott Russian cab drivers and catch a bus across the Neva River, frozen solid except for a slice that sparkles silver in the middle.  The bus barrels towards Trubetskoi Bastion, hemmed in by snow and ice.  The solemn walls echo with state authority.  I sit up straight and feel the urge to censor my thoughts.  This place held political prisoners like Leon Trotsky and Vladimir Lenin’s brother.  In 1849, Dostoyevsky spent eight months’ solitary confinement here for reading and threatening to distribute copies of a forbidden letter.  He was sentenced to death by firing squad and, after going through all the preliminaries for execution, it was canceled at the last minute.  This near death experience may have inspired his story, The Idiot.  Dostoyevsky’s sentence was commuted to four years’ hard labor in Siberia, where he lived among murderers and thieves.  In 1859, he returned to St. Petersburg and wrote the first novel about Russian prison.

After re-crossing the Neva, the bus veers away from Nevsky Prospekt and heads along the Moika Canal.  If I’d felt downtrodden, I would have wandered the Moika. In vain, I try to summon ruminative and suicidal thoughts akin to the Underground Man.  I study the mustachioed babushka sitting across from me.  She stolidly folds her arms across an ample bosom wrapped in beige ermine.  A matching comrade’s cap perches atop her head.  On the metro, I have seen matrons wearing similar hats in cashmere varieties, political statements adapted to the new taste for luxury.  I try to mimic the woman’s ennui, but to no avail.  Farther away from Nevsky Prospekt leafless trees appear.  They border the Moika and shake their branches at me.  Foreigner, you are weak, they say, See how we suffer?  We are Russian trees.

I know when I’m defeated.  I remain inside the warm, cozy bus, and head back to Nevsky Prospekt, where I find the Ostrovsky Square Christmas Market.  Cheerful vendors peddle caviar, honey, all manner of wool and fur outer garments (not luxury items), and crepes with caviar and mushrooms.  I buy a glass of sbiten (a warm beverage made from water, herbs, honey, and alcohol). The smiling man hands it to me in a flimsy plastic cup.  The slightest pressure from my encircling fingers caves it in, sending the liquid down my front.  Now I am wet and cold and wandering the frozen streets of St. Petersburg.

I air-dry in the Passaj Shopping Center at 48 Nevsky Prospekt.  Opened in 1848, this mall once boasted a live crocodile, the inspiration for Dostoyevsky’s short story “The Crocodile.”  Today, Russia’s nouveau riche spend their rubles at its haute couture shops, indulging extravagance that is resurgent after decades of Soviet denial.  I browse the Rive Gauche store.  I lift my chin and look down my nose, trying to put on airs.  The waif of a store clerk eyes the sbiten down my front and snobs me.

Sufficiently dry, I head back to Nevsky Prospekt, where I turn onto Sadovaya Street toward Sennaya Square.  From 1861-67, Dostoyevsky lived near this bustling intersection.  In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov grappled with his conscience along Sennaya Square’s streets.  I arrive during rush hour.  Crowds spill out of the metro, rushing past stalls that sell curios imported from China.  An old woman sits smoking inside an enclosed five by five foot glass cubicle.  She sells red roses, each one scented with tobacco.

It is evening and I am famished from the cold.  I stroll into Palkin at 47 Nevsky Prospekt.  Originally opened in 1785, the restaurant was a favorite haunt of 19th century intellectuals, including Dostoyevsky.  During Soviet times, it was replaced by a movie theater.  Now the Palkin is sumptuous again.  Bows and flowers decorate tables draped in white satin.  The menu features items cooked for the wedding feasts of Russia’s grand princes.  I blanch at the prices, but I can’t back out now.  The waiter has brought a dainty stool that keeps my handbag off the floor.

Now I understand Dostoyevsky’s problems with debt.  The clientele must not have changed much since his day.  Across from me two Russian fat cats chain smoke and drink glass after glass of hard liquor.  At a nearby table twelve business men discuss Central Asia and China.  The waiters bring endless bottles of wine.  As the evening progresses, so does the decibel level. I’m a lightweight, so I don’t linger over my dinner.  As I leave, the waiter advises, “Be careful of icicles.  We haven’t had this kind of cold in thirty years.”

The icicles are as extravagant as Russia.  Some hang down for more than a story, sharp spears waiting to pierce the hearts of the unwary.  Near Vladimirsky Prospekt, bed bug heaven when Dostoyevsky lived there in rented rooms, a glacier of an icicle crashes onto a store awning.  It is a sturdy Russian awning and does not snap.  Above, men stand precipitously close to the roof’s slippery edges.  They hammer forcefully at the icicles, knocking them loose before they can crash randomly onto passersby.  It’s a dangerous job that could easily end in tragedy.

Vladimirsky crosses Nevsky Prospekt at its southern end near the railway station.  Dostoyevsky was fond of crossroads, where stories are found in the foot traffic.  Though he never owned or stayed longer than three years in any one apartment, he usually lived at crossroads.  Many of his characters also live at crossroads.  South of Nevsky Prospekt lies the Dostoyevsky museum at 5/2 Kuznechny Pereulok.  Not coincidentally, it lays at a crossroads.  As a young writer, Dostoyevsky lived for two months in this building.  At age 57, he moved into apt. 10 on the second floor, where he lived for the last two years of his life.  The place looks respectably middle class.  Flowered paper covers the walls, and his son Alyosha’s rocking horse stands in the children’s nursery.

In this apartment, at age 59, Dostoyevsky died of a lung hemorrhage caused by emphysema from smoking nonstop while he worked.  On a table in the sitting room there are cigarettes that he rolled himself. He also suffered from epilepsy, and had a seizure during his final hours.  The museum displays some of his letters.  His cramped handwriting fills every space on the page.  Some speculative psychiatrists have termed this hypergraphia (an overwhelming urge to write, associated with epilepsy).  But is it really so out of the ordinary for a writer to be compelled to write?

In Dostoyevsky’s study sits the heavy wooden desk where he wrote “The Brothers Karamazov”, working at night when the apartment was quiet.  He wrote quickly, but had trouble getting started.  Near his desk sits the couch on which he slept when he was deep into work.  In front of the desk sits his clock, stopped at the hour of his death.

I travel still farther south, to the logical next stop:  Nevsky monastery and cemetery, founded in 1710.  At the gates, two men hesitate near the ticket booth.  By now I have accepted that, as a foreigner, I must pay double the Russian citizen’s entry fee.  I slap down my money and push past the men.  Hey, who do you think you ah?  I’m standin’ heya.  It’s a New York accent.  I am overjoyed.

I apologize for my brisk behavior.  With New York bluntness, he asks, why’re you speakin’ with a Russian accent?  I reply, so that people can understand me.  His companion says, you don’t speak Russian?  I say, no, it’s caused all kinds of troubles.  The companion laughs, You’re brave.  I speak Russian, but I still find this country confusing.  Together, the three of us search for graves.  There lies Tchaikovsky, beneath an ornate monument decorated with angels.  Near him lie Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Glinka, and Mussorgsky.  Farther away, beneath a gated, somber monument lies Dostoyevsky.  His bust reveals a thoughtful Everyman’s face.  An admirer has left a bouquet of red roses, whose frozen beauty burns against the snow’s severity.  In The Possessed, Dostoyevsky wrote about such dichotomies: “… do you understand that along with happiness, in the exact same way and with equal proportion, man also needs unhappiness.” The gray Russian sky encroaches, its unhappiness inextricable from the brilliant art which sprouts beneath.

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