The Petersburg Text in the 21st Century: Dostoevsky Cultural Memory in the Contemporary City

by Ksenia Stepkina

St Petersburg played a central role in Dostoevsky’s works: Poor Folk, White Nights, The Idiot are all set in and around the city, The Double bears the subtitle “A Petersburg Poem”, while Crime and Punishment is commonly referred to as a “Petersburg text”. The city was instrumental for Dostoevsky to convey his ideas to readers. Through the vivid descriptions of the living city Dostoevsky demonstrates the role of the environment on human soul and psychological state.

Dostoevsky played a vital role in building an essential part of the collective symbolico-cultural mythology of the city, which Vladimir Toporov calls “the Petersburg text of Russian literature.”1 The Petersburg text represents an aggregate of the descriptions and the symbols of the city as represented in literary works from the 19th century onward. Each text adds a new layer to the image, while carrying over the meaning of the past accumulated layers. As a result, the Petersburg text has evolved into a mass of symbols, themes, ideas about the city, which continues to inform our understanding and experience of St Petersburg today.

However, as the traveler arrives in modern-day St Petersburg, she feels that the city and its myth are frozen in time, while Dostoevsky and his legacy seem to have become a mere museum artifact. The beauty, luxury and greatness of the “Northern Capital” of Russia are striking:

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However, the city has been criticized for “selective memory”, whereby only the ideologically inspiring images of the glories of the city’s past are chosen to be preserved and highlighted, which results in a sanitized, unnatural image of the city.2 St Petersburg has been described variously as “the city in a Porcelain Snuffbox”, or a “city-museum.”3

The traveler might also suspect that Dostoevsky’s realistic ideas and the challenge they posed to the status quo have now lost their meaningful impact, becoming a source of, mainly, commercial value. After all, Dostoevsky sells really well! He has become a popular product of the city’s “brand”.

 

The great writer Dostoevsky has become an artifact, and many of the Dostoevsky sites have become museums: Dostoevsky’s apartment has been turned into a museum, the writer is memorialized by a statue outside his former apartment, and even Raskolnikov’s house is marked with a granite plaque.

 

Thus, to a casual observer, it might seem that the city has been frozen in time, and Dostoevsky’s memory has been preserved intact with great care, rendering the Petersburg text a relic of the past. Yet, a true Dostoevsky reader would know better than to look at the surface. So, as the original Petersburg text of the 19th century is not focused on the immaculate luxury of royal palaces, but rather presents the contrasts and paradoxes of the city’s vibrant life, let us go beyond the beautiful façades, onto the streets of Dostoevsky’s Petersburg. And once we take off the tourist’s superficial glasses, the true, more complex world appears in front of our eyes. This is the contrasting, conflicting, living Petersburg that holds the Petersburg text together and inspired Dostoevsky. On my trip to St Petersburg I was happy to discover that Dostoevsky’s Petersburg is alive and well, while Dostoevsky’s cultural legacy forms a new layer of the Petersburg text, which, while looking back at the past, reinvents, and adds new meanings.

I invite you to take a closer look at the three most prominent examples of how Dostoevsky cultural memory keeps the Petersburg text alive in the contemporary city: a museum, a street festival, and a theatre project.

The F.M. Dostoevsky Literary-Memorial Museum

Though the first Dostoevsky Museum in Russia was opened in Moscow, boasting a rich collection of personal items belonging to the writer, it is the museum in St. Petersburg that has become the hub of his literary legacy. The F. M. Dostoevsky Literary-Memorial Museum was opened in 1971 – the 150th anniversary of Dostoevsky’s birth – in the house on Kuznechny Lane. The writer rented an apartment in this house twice in his life, and he died there in 1881. This address links the beginning and end of his creative development: in this house, Dostoevsky worked on his early work The Double (1846), and wrote his last novel The Brothers Karamazov (1880). The apartment has been reconstructed based on the memoirs of his wife and contemporaries – museumification par excellence! But let us not judge too quickly.

The Dostoevsky Museum is not just a memorial to the writer’s memory, but a unique center of contemporary literature and arts. It is composed of the following parts:

  • The Writer’s Memorial Apartment – the museum’s main, central part:

 

  • The Literary Exhibit, dedicated to the writer’s biography and creation:

 

  • Exhibit Halls, which feature exhibits of contemporary art
  • The Theatre, home to the White Theatre of the Dostoevsky Museum, as well as the theatre-partners of the museum: theatre “Puppet Format” and “Takoy Theatre”, in addition to hosting performances from other Russian and international theater companies

Over the years, the museum’s collection has increased many times over. At present it includes a large collection of graphic and applied art and a significant collection of photographs. The museum library holds about 24,000 volumes and a small collection of manuscripts. These collections are constantly growing, in large part thanks to the gifts of visitors, friends of the museum, and Dostoevsky scholars.

Tourists flock to the former apartment of Dostoevsky on Kuznechny lane to pay homage to the legacy of the beloved writer. It’s true that as much as one’s imagination and financial resources allow, there is only so much that can be done to make a literary exhibit thrilling and exciting. Nevertheless, I found myself bumping elbows with other literary lovers while perusing the modest apartment of the late writer.

This is not your average tourist agenda. The literary exhibit, a dark cold space, can be rightfully described as a dungeon. In addition, in my experience, the museum-led 2-hour walking tour of Dostoevsky’s Petersburg in atmospheric rain, and the subsequent cold that lasts over a month, make a convincing point about the reality of living in this city, outside the comfort of a tour bus.

 

Vera Biron, the museum’s deputy director, says that the Dostoevsky Museum does not aim for mass market appeal at the expense of diluting some of the complexity of the life and work of the writer to make it more accessible to an average reader, who might be familiar with Dostoevsky’s works only on the surface, but have a weak understanding of the depth of his ideas. In addition to the preserved apartment, exhibit, and tours, the museum fearlessly experiments with art forms to bring the legacy of the writer to the public, and the projects it undertakes attract a wide and appreciative audience. I will discuss two such projects: the first is the increasingly famous Dostoevsky Day, while the second is a theatre project from 2004 called “On the Path to Freedom”.

Dostoevsky Day: Dostoevskian Carnival in the 21st Century

Celebrating its 8th year this year, Dostoevsky Day has become a major annual festival in the city happening every year on the first Saturday of July in Petersburg, around the time that the events of Crime and Punishment took place. Organized by the Dostoevsky Museum, the festival has grown each year. In 2016, multiple museums, libraries and theater companies participated in the 7th annual Dostoevsky Day, which was held simultaneously at several venues. Festivities included a parade, theater performances, film screenings, lectures, workshops, tours and scavenger hunts – all these diverse activities put their own spin on Dostoevsky’s legacy.

 

The festival has received mixed reviews. While some are skeptical, perceiving the festival to be a mockery or joke, no one was left indifferent. Everyone was moved in one way or the other. Both the intellectuals and those far removed from the big Dostoevskian questions of existence found something for themselves.

“Dostoevsky’s characters are alive, they are everywhere – just take a closer look!” reported Ogonek Magazine.

“The trio Katerina Ivanovna – Marmeladov – Dostoevsky was met with silence, which is so praised in the theater, and which is so rare for street performances. Applause was genuine” wrote Saint Petersburg’s Vedomosti.

In my view, a description in Crime and Punishment accurately describes the festival-goers’ experience: “it was dreadfully hot, not to mention the closeness of the air, the crush of people”. The festival is a fun spectacle for a casual observer, while a devoted reader of Dostoevsky will be able to recognize the Dostoevskian themes, still pertinent today, which pervade the festival. Like Dostoevsky, and Petersburg itself, the festival experience is full of contrasts and paradoxes (reminding this Dostoevsky student of Bakhtin’s carnival): serious ideas portrayed on the streets, through humor, while the main theatrical performance was played with no words!

“On the Path to Freedom” Theatre Project: “Finding Human in Human”

2004 marked the 150th anniversary of Dostoevsky’s release from imprisonment in the Omsk ostrog. To commemorate this day, the Dostoevsky Museum initiated a theater project based on Dostoevsky’s Notes from the House of the Dead (1862) involving a number of the city’s prominent screenwriters, directors, artists, actors, musicians… as well as 16 teenaged prisoners from the Kolpinskaya penal colony in St. Petersburg. Vera Biron initiated this project, and involved her family as well. She did not fully realize what she was getting into, and many were very skeptical of her ideas. She describes the experience as extremely challenging. She was exposed to a completely different world, one that lives by its own rules. She had to work with young prisoners, serious offenders (their crimes include armed robbery, rape, murder), whose job in the colony was to make coffins. During the course of the project, Biron was often subject to abusive language, while her son, participating as a violinist in the play, received multiple threats.

The production took 6 months of hard work and rehearsals with the boys, who had never been exposed to theater. Moreover, the final part involved retelling the short story “A Child at a Christ’s Christmas Party” (1876) with puppets, and, not surprisingly, the teens rebelled against “playing with dolls”. Nevertheless, the disagreements were overcome and the project continued. As the preparations progressed, everyone noticed a dramatic transformation in the teens. Mirroring Dostoevsky’s idea of the importance of freedom to the human soul, the prisoner-actors participating in the project were able to escape the realities of their everyday lives, and, arguably, experience a form of moral transformation. Dostoevsky rejected the idea that an offender might have an inherent propensity to commit crime in Notes from the House of the Dead. Biron credits the success of the project to the fact that everyone working with the young offenders treated them at all times with respect and dignity. Thus, one might say with confidence that Dostoevsky’s highest mission to “find a human in a human” was successfully accomplished in this project. This real transformation was echoed on stage: at the beginning of the play the boys were dressed in rough prison clothes, but during the finale they wore white robes and held candles.

 

The production was performed in both the colony and the museum. The audience, skeptical at first, was deeply moved by the performance.

I arrived in St. Petersburg and saw a city-museum, where the ghosts of the past roam the streets. Everything here declares the glory of the imperial past: the beautiful, reconstructed façades of the imperial palaces, the proud monuments, and the preserves of the rich cultural heritage. The legacy of the city’s famous writers is locked in memorial museums and museum-apartments: Pushkin, Nekrasov, Blok, Akhmatova, Nabokov, Zoshchenko. I squeal with excitement when I see a shelf full of Dostoevsky works with lavish covers at the famous bookstore in the Zinger building, and buy an irrational number of Dostoevsky souvenirs. The literary legacy of Dostoevsky is preserved in a shiny jar with a tight lid, and sold at a premium price. I rebel: Dostoevsky is not for sale! I look further.

Dostoevsky’s Petersburg is still there, both artificially preserved, but at the same time organically transformed. Dostoevsky’s legacy is so much more than meets the eye. It seems to be quite a stretch to extrapolate each of the (real life) examples on their own into the representations of the Petersburg text and Dostoevsky’s ideas. How does one read into the experience of visiting a museum or going to a city festival?  It is a challenge to translate or find hidden meaning in every day occurrences. But isn’t this what a devoted Dostoevsky fan is used to doing? There is meaning to be found. And not simply because these experiences uncover the other, contrasting, hidden side of “museumified” Petersburg and “pop” Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky’s cultural memory, while preserving the past, is building a new strand of the writer’s legacy – adding layers to the Petersburg text. The museum preserves the memory of the writer, but constantly reinvents ways to bring Dostoevsky’s ideas to a wider audience. Dostoevsky Day, besides being a quirky, fun tourist attraction, experiments with the ideas, with the characters, adding new depths and layers to Dostoevsky’s original texts. It is interesting that these events keep happening – and there are more of them as well – and they are shifting Petersburg from the city of museums to the city of living texts. While it is not the 19th century, and Dostoevsky has not written anything new in the past 100+ years, nevertheless, Dostoevsky continues to play with our minds, stir up the idealized image, exposing the truth, ugly at times, though necessary to feel the pulse, the pulse of the living city, of the living Petersburg text. One only has to take off the tourist glasses – and remember to put on your rain boots!

 

Images: The images of St Petersburg are © Ksenia Stepkina. All other images are in the public domain. The images of the Dostoevsky Museum – apartment interior and exhibit space – are from the museum’s website. The images of the “On the Path to Freedom” theatre project, Dostoevsky Day, and some of the Dostoevsky merchandise appear on the Museum’s social media.

Notes:
[1] Toporov, Vladimir. Peterburgskii Tekst Russkoi Literatury: Izbrannye trudy. Sankt Peterburg: Iskusstvo-SPB, 2003, 23.
[2] Goscilo, Helena, and Norris, Stephen M. Preserving Petersburg: History, Memory, Nostalgia. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008, xvii.
[3] Stites, Richard. “Cultural Capital and Cultural Heritage: St. Petersburg and the Arts of Imperial Russia.” Preserving Petersburg: History, Memory, Nostalgia. Ed. Helena Goscilo and Stephen M. Norris. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008: 182-196, 183.


The author wishes to thank:

Dr Katherine Bowers, Assistant Professor at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, for opening the doors in the thrilling world of Dostoevsky and continuous support along the way, on the path of exciting new discoveries and life-changing revelations,

Vera Biron, the Deputy Director of the F.M. Dostoevsky Literary-Memorial Museum, St Petersburg, for a warm welcome into Dostoevsky’s home,

Ekaterina Kovina, Research Officer of the F.M. Dostoevsky Literary-Memorial Museum, St Petersburg, for leading the way in the footsteps of Raskolnikov on the Crime and Punishment walking tour,

And her mom for being the greatest partner in Crime (and Punishment) on the journey of discovering Dostoevsky’s Petersburg.


Ksenia Stepkina completed her BA in International Relations at the University of British Columbia in May 2017. Her favorite Dostoevsky novel is The Brothers Karamazov. She is currently working in impact marketing and corporate social responsibility with a local film and video production company, while constantly pondering Dostoevskian questions of existence and the salvation of humanity, which she hopes to address in the near future through graduate studies in Politics and Sociology.

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