by Tomi Haxhi
After nearly eight years spent studying Russian literature, this summer was to be my first time in Russia, and given my affinity for Dostoevsky, naturally I chose to spend my time in St. Petersburg. My goal, as I told my peers, professors, and host mother, was to experience the city through a distinctly Dostoevskyan lens, for better or worse—to find love under the skies of “White Nights,” or perhaps to lose my mind, haunted relentlessly by my “Double.” Needless to say, the eighth-annual Dostoevsky Day was at the top of my list.
Since its inception in 2009, Dostoevsky Day has steadily grown in size and scope to a city-wide event that includes—but is certainly not limited to—a parade, guided tours, readings, screenings, writing and craft workshops, dance and theatrical performances, with the participation of various museums, theatres, and libraries. Looking at the schedule in preparation for the day of the event was enough to make one’s head spin with the sheer number of options. I quickly understood that it would be an undeniably Herculean task to attend even half of the day’s offerings, so I decided to keep it simple.
My day began with one of the event’s centrepieces, the so-called “Dostoevsky Carnival,” a performance on Pioneer Square (the very place of Dostoevsky’s mock-execution), featuring actor-dancers dressed as the author himself and various of his characters. A colourful sea of umbrellas spread out before the stage, the large crowd undeterred by the constant drizzle promised throughout the day. (Indeed, does a Dostoevsky Day without gloomy weather really deserve to be called Dostoevsky Day?) Among the crowd were dispersed another set of actors dressed as Dostoevsky characters, most notably Raskolnikov on massive stilts and carrying a similarly massive axe, and his victim, the old moneylender, both of whom gladly posed for photos and chatted with the eager spectators.
I was surprised to see that the performance featured not only Dostoevsky, but also Pushkin, Gogol, and Turgenev, each accompanied by a handful of his characters (Tolstoy’s absence appeared to me conspicuous and a little humorous). The performance was thus not only a celebration of Dostoevsky, but of the nineteenth-century literature of Petersburg at large. Although Turgenev may not have been a Petersburg writer per se, his inclusion was no doubt essential, if only for the face-off between the author and his parody, the highly affected Karmazinov from Dostoevsky’s Demons:
Funnily enough, the whole performance reminded me of the literary fête so humorously depicted in the same novel, though decidedly more successful than poor Yulia Mikhailovna’s literary quadrille, likewise inspired by great literature but rather haphazardly planned in comparison.
Each author had his chance to shine, all in a humourous light, with performances set to a mash-up of classical and contemporary music. Pushkin’s Onegin and Tatiana featured in a fantasy scene in which Tatiana has her revenge and shows Onegin just who’s boss. Gogol’s heroes followed, looking a motley crew to say the least. Solokha and the devil, from Gogol’s “Christmas Eve,” did a seductive little number to the beat of Ukrainian folk music mixed with heavy rock, while Akaky Akakievich did an interpretive dance with none other than his beloved overcoat.
The performance took an undeniably somber turn with the appearance of Fyodor Mikhailovich himself, though it goes without saying that he received the largest applause. Raskolnikov, Sonya, and Porfiry Petrovich performed a little game of cat-and-mouse, after which their author stepped in to resolve the conflict, addressing Raskolnikov personally. But the scene stealer, in my opinion, was the heartbreaking contemporary dance by Prince Myshkin and Nastasya Filippovna, set to Regina Spektor’s “Apres Moi,” the pain evident in the dancers’ faces and broken movements, the whole dance leading to a breaking point without resolution.
(A video of the dance can be found here, with thanks to Jack McClelland)
I devoted the second part of my day to a walking tour dedicated to Dostoevsky’s early years of activity and his earliest works, “Poor Folk,” “The Double,” and “White Nights” (another walking tour was devoted entirely to Crime and Punishment). The tours took place every 30 minutes, setting off in front of the statue of the author facing Vladimirskaya Church, just steps away from the Dostoevsky Museum, what was once his final place of residence. At each stop, a different high-school aged student, having spent a good part of the year studying the author’s life and works at the Dostoevsky Museum, would explain the relevance of the location to the work in question and to Dostoevsky’s life at the time of writing. As Dostoevsky never had a permanent place of residence, a number of his apartments are spread out throughout the city centre, allowing for a lengthy walking tour.
Dostoevsky Day, as we found out, takes place at the beginning of July in reference to Crime and Punishment, perhaps the most canonical of all Petersburg novels. It is at this time that Raskolnikov commits the murder at the centre of the novel. The tour led us from Dostoevsky’s first apartment, where he composed “Poor Folk,” to the very courtyard corner where Makar Devushkin and Varvara Dobroselova would glance at one another from their respective windows, and to the bank of the Fontanka, where Dostoevsky was first introduced to Belinsky, the famed critic who would guarantee the author’s foothold in the world of literature.
Just as the tour drew to a close, I was lucky enough to stumble onto the Bookstore Courtyard on the Fontanka, where there were hours of activities and performances planned—there was no need to look anywhere else for the third part of my day. Inside the library, a number of artists led their own workshops—from calligraphy, to colour theory, painting, and collage art, all inspired by the works of the author. Outside, meanwhile, took place a reading of the most “enigmatic” passages from The Brothers Karamazov, followed by a discussion between a playwright and a director on the topic of Dostoevsky’s works on the theatrical stage.
My favourite part, however, took place on the main stage: three monologues performed by three different actors from the St Petersburg Philharmonia, each directed by People’s Artist Yuri Tomoshevsky. The first monologue was taken from Dostoevsky’s unfinished first novel, Netochka Nezvanova, and the second from the short story “Bobok,” both of which I have never read, though the first performance, especially, convinced me that I must.
The third and most affecting was taken from Crime and Punishment and performed by an actress in the part of Katerina Ivanovna. The scene in question: chapter III of part V, Marmeladov’s funeral, when Luzhin accuses Sonya of stealing the hundred-rouble note from his room, leading Katerina Ivanovna further into her fragile, semi-lucid state. Performed with great breadth of feeling, the actress brought to life one of my favourite characters of the novel in a scene that was, in all honesty, difficult to watch. She captured not only the pitiful helplessness of the character, but likewise her aspirations to dignity, as well as her earnest love toward Sonya.
After the monologues followed a short round of trivia (where and how, for example, does Raskolnikov hide the axe on the way to the murder?), and a screening of the 1957 Italian adaptation of White Nights directed by Luchino Visconti followed the trivia—but after six hours of performances and activities, I was wiped. For the latecomers or the truly dedicated, events were planned well into the night.
In the end, I was heartened to notice that Petersburg’s love for Dostoevsky cuts across all generations. Families with children, groups of friends, and many lone spectators of all ages could be seen throughout the day. Not only the spectators, but the participants themselves ranged in age from adolescence to the elderly. And although Dostoevsky has a certain reputation for being undeniably gloomy, the audiences and participants turned to the author not only with great respect, but with great humour.
As I mentioned earlier, I chose to spend my time in Petersburg because of its famed literary reputation. I feared, however, that its literary engagement may have waned in the current day, a trend we have all noticed, at least in the West, in the age of smartphones and immediate gratification in 140 characters or less. I am happy to say that Dostoevsky Day proved all of my fears unfounded. Dostoevsky continues to inspire artists and audiences alike with his unwavering faith in the beauty, goodness, and strength of the human spirit.
Tomi Haxhi is a PhD student in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Columbia University. He received an MA in Slavic Languages and Literatures from the University of Toronto in 2016. He hopes to return to St Petersburg soon, having hatched a madcap plan to make a Napoleon of himself.
All of the images that appear in this post are © Tomi Haxhi