Literary Travel: The St. Petersburg of Fyodor Dostoevsky
If you're ever lucky enough to go to St. Petersburg (Russia), you'd be wise to see it through Dostoevsky's eyes.
Forget standing in line for the Hermitage, abandon the thought of touring stuffy palaces, don't worry about visiting all the "must-see" tourist traps. Instead, explore Dostoevsky's St. Petersburg.
The novels of Dostoevsky are seething whirlpools, gyrating sandstorms, waterspouts which hiss and boil and suck us in. They are composed purely and wholly of the stuff of the soul. Against our wills we are drawn in, whirled round, blinded, suffocated, and at the same time filled with a giddy rapture.— Virginia Woolf
The St. Petersburg-Dostoevsky Connection
To many Russians, St. Petersburg is a place synonymous with Fyodor Dostoevsky—one of the world's most renowned writers and philosophers.
Dostoevsky called St. Petersburg "the most intentional and abstract city."
This is where Fyodor Mikhailovich spent most of his life, lived at nearly 20 different addresses, wrote his most phenomenal works, and where he was finally laid to rest.
The Mikhailovsky Palace in Dostoevsky's Times
The Mikhailovsky Palace Now
The city is also the backdrop for many of his novels, but it's so much more than that. In Dostoevsky's writings St. Petersburg is not just passive scenery; it's an essential part of his characters' lives, an active protagonist that influences the course of events.
Yet his descriptions of St. Petersburg aren't romantic or glamorous. Sometimes it seems like he even loathed the city. Speaking through his characters, he said:
"It is a particular misfortune to live in Petersburg,"
"this is a city of half-crazed people,"
"Rarely does one find a place with so many gloomy, intense, and strange influences on the human soul as in St. Petersburg."
In his novel "The Adolescent" he once again paints a picture of an unreal phantasmagorical city of lunatics and vagabonds:
"...what if, when the fog dissipates and lifts, this decayed and slimy city lifts with it, rises with the fog and disappears like smoke, and what remains is the previous Finnish swamp, and in the middle of it, for the sake of decoration, the Bronze Horseman on his steaming, exhausted horse?"
And yet this bizarre lugubrious city of dark alleys, uncomfortable suffocating apartments, ominous dead-ends and half-crazed people became his muse.This is where the ideas for his novels were conceived, "so vulgar and ordinary that it almost borders on the fantastic."
St. Petersburg's dark charm is paradoxically mesmerizing, and it infuses Dostoevsky with a passionate desire to illuminate the lives of its poor, neglected, and abused residents.
Sennaya Square (Hay Market) in Dostoevsky's Times
Many of these downtrodden residents lived near Sennaya Square (Hay Market) - a crowded marketplace and a breeding ground for crime, poverty, and prostitution. This is Dostoevsky's description of the area in "Crime and Punishment":
"Owing to the proximity of the Hay Market, the number of establishments of bad character, the preponderance of the trading and working class population crowded in these streets and alleys in the heart of Petersburg, types so various were to be seen in the streets that no figure, however queer, would have caused surprise."
"The taverns on the lower floors, the filthy and putrid yards of the houses on Sennaya Square, especially the establishments selling alcohol on tap, were all swarming with various sorts of merchants and ragamuffins..."
Sennaya Square Now
Dostoevsky's most notorious character—Rodion Raskolnikov—lived not far from Sennaya Square, too.
Although the author concealed the exact locations with abbreviations (S-y alley, K- Bridge) it wasn't hard to decode them, given that Dostoevsky often put his characters close to his own residence.
Today, most Dostoevsky's diehard fans know that Raskolnikov lived at Stolyarny Pereulok 5, the corner of Stolyarny and Grazhdanskaya, now Grazhdanskaya ul., 19. The house is marked with Dostoevsky's sculpture and a plaque that says "House of Raskolnikov."
The courtyard of Raskolnikov's house and the apartment itself are unfortunately off-limits to the visitors. Apparently, the residents were disturbed by the relentless literary pilgrims who wanted to visit their favorite character's coffin-like dwelling on the top floor.
If you're thinking: "This is crazy. Raskolnikov never existed in real life, how can he have an apartment, let alone a courtyard?" you're absolutely right. But there's so much beauty and romanticism in this lunacy!
What a wonderful world we live in where fictional people have real addresses, and where readers are so moved by a piece of literature, the characters and events on the pages of a book become as tangible as the locations on the map.
Another "Crime and Punishment" character with a real address you can visit is Sonya Marmeladova—Raskolnikov's love and savior. She lived on the third floor of this house, in a room “which looked like a barn.”
The Lions Bridge Over the Griboedov Canal
Experiencing Dostoevsky's Petersburg is unthinkable without a visit to his last apartment, now a museum, located at Kuznechny Lane, 5/2, on the corner of Kuznechny Lane and Dostoevsky Street.
Dostoevsky's Last Residence
The writer lived here with his wife Anna and two children from 1878 until his death in 1881. The clock in his study is stopped at the exact date and time of his death: Wednesday, January 28, 8:36 p.m.
This is where Dostoevsky wrote his last novel - "The Karamazov Brothers," arguably his best work, a literary megalith that every self-respecting intellectual should read at least once.
The building is the same, but the apartment unfortunately wasn't preserved in its original form. It was later restored based on notes, photographs, drawings and painstaking efforts of Dostoevsky's wife Anna.
A few personal items do remain, like Dostoevsky's hat and a tobacco box.
Dostoevsky's Original Study
Dostoevsky's Replica Study at the Museum
And if touring the Dostoevsky museum still left you wanting more, you can always rent a room at "Dom Dostoyevskogo" - a house where the writer lived from 1861 to 1863, now a mini hotel with 10 cozy rooms in the center of Dostoevskian Petersburg.
Here he wrote the novels "The House of the Dead" and "Humiliated and Insulted."
Hotel Dom Dostoevskogo
The hotel is within walking distance to many city landmarks, and the location on Griboedov Canal is very convenient for first-time visitors: even if you get lost, you can always find your way back to the Canal.
Or, by all means, stay lost in this enigmatic city that is itself one of Dostoevsky’s main characters.
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Quotes from "Crime and Punishment" and other controversial Russian novels.
A Harvard Professor's Lecture on Dostoevsky's St. Petersburg
Questions & Answers
© 2017 Lana Adler