Russian Culture in Landmarks: Dostoevsky’s Memorial Plaque in St Petersburg

by John Freedman

I’m coming to you with Dostoevsky today because I have been inside of Dostoevsky’s head all morning and afternoon. I began my day at my computer early this morning as my wife slept and I translated (portions of) Dostoevsky’s The Idiot into English on an empty stomach. It was one of the most memorable few hours of my life not only as a translator, but of my life, plain and simple. By the time Oksana came out and we shared our breakfast of oatmeal, I felt as though someone had plugged me into an electrical outlet. I think my eyes were giving off light. I think my skin was twitching. I could feel the air move through the hairs on my arms. I was as alive as one gets on a Sunday morning before breakfast. When she got up, Oksana asked me the usual question, “Did you have your glass of water?” I said, “No. I’m translating Dostoevsky. I’ve never felt so alive.”

Dostoevsky has followed me my entire adult life. He came quickly after Tolstoy when I was in high school. It was War and Peace then Anna Karenina then Crime and Punishment. I don’t remember the order anymore, but the next three reads were: The Brothers KaramazovThe Demons (The Possessed), and The Idiot, whatever the order was.
As I said, I was with The Idiot this morning. One of the segments I was translating (for supertitles for a theatre production of The Idiot) was the famous description of a condemned man waking in the morning, thinking he has a week to live – a whole, long week – and he finds out he has hours left to live – whole, long hours. It’s one of the great passages in world literature and I was privileged to have it pass through me today and emerge in English of some kind.

Dostoevsky is surely the most crooked, whacked-out, unorthodox, clumsy, prolix, confusing writer that ever put pen to paper. And therein, of course, lies his greatness. He is one of the chosen few who trusted his own instincts to the very end and went with them. Nobody ever wrote like Dostoevsky, clunking, tripping, stumbling, slogging along with interjections, bare naked adverbs, truncated thoughts, U-turns in logic, ellipses run amok, feverish exclamations, sentences jammed into one another that seem never to end, falling over commas, semi-colons, colons, dashes and whatever other signs he could conjure up and throw in between his words. And every trip and every stumble and every whip-around back in the opposite direction drives deeply into your heart, your soul and the soft matter of your brain. That man, that writer, was plugged into the truth. The truth is messy and complex and Dostoevsky, writing the truth, wrote messily and complexly. He is hell on steroids for a translator, and I’ve never enjoyed hell as I have done translating large excerpts from The Idiot these last weeks. Today was an epiphany, it was fireworks, it was the piece de resistance, the cornerstone of the work I’ve been doing. It was as if I climbed Olympus and Homer was there to greet me. Only Homer had Dostoevsky’s beard. It was joy, sheer, unadulterated joy.

In honor of this splendid day I have spent, I am showing you ground zero in St. Petersburg: the building in which Dostoevsky lived when he wrote Crime and Punishment. Surely when you think “Dostoevsky,” you think Crime and Punishment. As I say, it was the first Dostoevsky novel I read, and it was my third Russian novel in a youthful, drunken literary spree that – thank you, Lord – took me in different directions from Brett Kavanaugh. But my connections to Crime and Punishment are deeper than that, for I have lived the last quarter century with one of the seemingly peripheral characters of Dostoevsky’s great novel of suffering, discovery and redemption. By that I mean to say that Oksana Mysina, my wife, has, for 25 years, played Katerina Ivanovna, the wife of the drunkard Marmeladov, in Kama Ginkas’s great (the word is used properly here) production called K.I. from ‘Crime’, which, in its two and a half decades, has performed in some 20 countries even as it continues to run in Moscow. I could write a book about what it’s like to live with a character shaped not only by a genius writer, but by a genius theater director, but I won’t say a single other word about that now. That’s a whole other can of worms.

The building pictured here (now a light pink – I don’t know what it was like 150 years ago) stands at the corner of Stolyarny Lane 14 and Kaznacheiskaya Street 7. (Kaznacheiskaya was called Malaya Meshchanskaya Street when Dostoevsky lived there.) The plaque hanging on the wall on the Kaznacheiskaya side declares: “Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky lived in this house from 1864 to 1867. Here was written the novel Crime and Punishment.” But that only tells one quarter of the story of this street crossing. Dostoevsky lived or spent time in all four of the buildings that stand on this corner!  Two have plaques, one has information put up by a cafe proprietor, and the other was under reconstruction when I photographed it this summer. I couldn’t tell if anything was written there. But the point is, when you stand in the middle of this intersection, Dostoevskian winds blow at you from all sides – rather like they do in his novels.

When Dostoevsky lived here the building belonged to Ivan Alonkin, a merchant, tea-seller, and apartment-house owner. Dostoevsky occupied Apt. 36 on the second floor. In addition to Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky wrote the novellas Notes from Underground and The Gambler while living here. The building was originally erected in 1822 and was rebuilt/restructured several times since.

This is the place where Dostoevsky declared his love for his stenographer Anna, who subsequently became his wife and, quite probably, saved his life. Thanks to Anna’s memoirs, we even know a little about Alonkin and the apartment. According to an online Dostoevsky encyclopedia, Anna recalled Alonkin describing Dostoevsky as a “great worker. When I go to morning prayers and I see the light on in his study, it means he is working.” Anna went on about Alonkin: “He never bothered reminding us about the rent, knowing that when money would come in, Fyodor Mikhailovich would pay him. Fyodor Mikhailovich loved talking to the venerable old man. In my opinion, Fyodor Mikhailovich relied on his [Alonkin’s] physical appearance to shape the merchant Samsonov, Grushenka’s patron, in The Brothers Karamazov.”

The rent for Apt. 36, Malaya Meshchanskaya was 25 rubles a month. Dostoevsky paid two months in advance (without signing a rental contract), plus a 10 ruble deposit the day before he officially rented the space.


John Freedman is a translator and writer based in Moscow. An expert in Russian drama and theatre, he has written or edited and translated 11 books on the subject. He was a theatre critic for The Moscow Times for 25 years and now is Assistant to the Artistic Director of the Stanislavsky Electrotheatre. An archive of his writing can be found here and his personal website is here.

This blog post first appeared on his blog Russian Culture in Landmarks on Sept 30, 2018 and appears here with his permission. The images are his and also appear with his permission. He has written a number of other posts there about cultural landmarks related to Dostoevsky’s life including on the Dostoevsky Bust and Plaque in Wiesbaden; the Dickens and Dostoevsky Non-Meeting and Dostoevsky at Haymarket in London; the Dostoevsky Monument (Part 1 and Part 2) and Birth Plaque in Moscow; and Dostoevsky on the Moika.

 

 

Commemorating the 140th Anniversary of “The Dream of the Ridiculous Man” at the Dostoevsky Museum in St Petersburg

by Vadim Shkolnikov

“The Dream of the Ridiculous Man” comprises something like a Dostoevskian genealogy of morals.  When the story’s narrator, who has been driven to the brink of suicide and, as it would seem, utter indifference towards his fellow human beings, realizes that he still cannot extinguish an irrepressible spark of moral compassion for a suffering little girl, he sees a dream that fantastically unfolds the source this moral feeling.  In the process Dostoevsky takes us on a journey through time and space, to a distant planet where a beautiful people live in harmony and bliss—until we witness their shocking descent into the deceit, violence and suffering with which we are so familiar.  Yet in the end the narrator finally understands!

Dost exhibit 9The ongoing exhibit at the Dostoevsky Museum in St. Petersburg, dedicated to the 140th anniversary of “Dream of the Ridiculous Man”—“Фантастические миры Достоевского” [The Fantastic Worlds of Dostoevsky]—presents a wide array of materials that aim to contextualize Dostoevsky’s artistic vision and illuminate its genesis.

Considerable attention is devoted to tracing the diverse forms of “the fantastical” throughout Dostoevsky’s writings: from the schizophrenia of The Double to the frivolity of “The Crocodile”; from Raskolnikov’s dream in Siberian exile to the satirical vision of the afterlife in “Bobok.”

The exhibit is, moreover, divided into visions of “paradise” and of “hell,” reflecting the duality depicted in “The Dream of the Ridiculous Man.”  The story is thus shown to resonate with a multitude of other works: literary, religious, and visual, including Dante’s Inferno, the bathhouse scene in Notes from the House of the Dead, and Hieronymous Bosch’s remarkable 16th-century triptych “The Garden of Earthly Delights.”

There are various historical artifacts from Dostoevsky’s own time, including manuscripts and a scientific brochure on trichina, which Dostoevsky researched before composing Raskolnikov’s Siberian dream.

To top it all off, you can watch the 1992 animated adaptation of “The Dream of the Ridiculous Man.”

The exhibit runs through December 29. You can read a public domain English translation of “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” here.

Dost exhibit 7

The author, enjoying the exhibit!


Vadim Shkolnikov is a dotsent in the Department of Comparative Literature and Linguistics at the Higher School of Economics in St Petersburg.  He is currently writing on Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground and its (unintended) connection to Russian revolutionary terrorism.  And having now lived in St. Petersburg for a year, he feels that he has learned all there is to know apropos of wet snow!

September Notes on July Impressions: Dostoevsky Day 2017

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.

rasknolnikov

A massive Raskolnikov on stilts!

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: 

turgenev and karmazinov

Turgenev and Karmazinov face off

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.

nastasya-and-myshkin.jpg

Nastasya Filippovna and Myshkin dance

(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.

posters

Event posters

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. 

katerina ivanovna

Katerina Ivanovna’s monologue

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