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

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:

SPB_KS

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.

Dostoevsky on the Moscow Metro

by Jack McClelland

In June of 2010, a Dostoevsky-themed station opened on the Moscow Metro’s Green line, displaying marble-paneled depictions of his most memorable works, as well as a stern portrait of the Russian author welcoming Muscovites to their morning commute. Although many of Dostoevsky’s novels, such as Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, and The Double occur in St. Petersburg, it cannot be forgotten that the Russian author was born and spent his childhood in Russia’s capital. The station, named Dostoevskaya (Достоевская), features several murals by Russian artist Ivan Nikolaev, depicting scenes from Dostoevsky’s novels Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, and Demons, among others. The scenes range from Sonya Marmeladova’s retelling of the tale of Lazarus with a frantic Raskolnikov (Crime and Punishment), to (Spoilers!) the suicide of Nikolai Stavrogin at the close of Demons.

The murals stirred up controversy when the station first opened, with concerns that the darker depictions weren’t appropriate for a metro station, as well as fears that this station would turn into a suicide hotspot for troubled Muscovites. Mikhail Vinogradov, the head of a Moscow Psychological Help Centre at the time, appeared on Russian television shortly after the opening of the station, and spoke to Russian news agencies criticizing the artwork, referencing its inappropriate placement in a common setting such as the Moscow underground.

In an NPR piece, then-foreign correspondent David Greene explored some of the negative, as well as positive, sides of these images of death and suicide entering a public sphere in the Moscow Metro. Balancing the opposing sides of criticism, Greene writes, “Like other psychologists who raised concerns in Russia and abroad, [Mikhail] Vinogradov says gripping images can induce violent behavior — and a subway station is the last place for that… But Natalia Semyonova, another clinical psychologist in Moscow, defended the artist and the author, whose books she uses in lectures and to treat patients…Using powerful literature to help overcome challenges in one’s own life, she says, is very Russian”. Surrounded by this controversy in early 2010, the Moscow metro did delay the opening of the station several months ahead to June. However, to this day no suicides or axe murders have taken place in or around the station.

Upon entering the station from the street, one takes a long escalator ride alongside two silhouetted figures drawn on the marble walls, rushing just as you are to catch the next train. Once reaching the bottom of these stairs one enters a long corridor with the large marble mural of the Russian author offering an ominous welcome to the Moscow underground. Following a few additional steps down to the train platform, one can explore the various murals depicting the imagined world of the station’s namesake. One of the more memorable murals depicting Dostoevsky’s 1866 novel Crime and Punishment (Преступление и наказание) features a number of scenes from the novel, including Raskolnikov’s murder of two women by axe. In Greene’s words, the artist Nikolaev says his task was, “to draw out the meaning, creativity, and entire life of Dostoevsky”.

Crime and Punishment subway

The Dostoevskaya metro station. Photo by Lerik Gadskii (2013).

To better understand Nikolaev’s Dostoevskaya station, let us take a moment to imagine ourselves entering Moscow’s historic metro, escaping either the freezing cold of a Russian winter, or maybe the uncomfortable-heat of the city’s humid summer. And as we descend the 3-minute escalator ride, we take ourselves below the tangible surroundings of Moscow’s surface streets, and into the heart of the Russian capital. Stops along this spanning network of tunnels and stations allow us to glimpse into the foundation of this functioning cosmopolitan system, and begin to understand the internal workings of the Russian capital as it exists today.

“Осторожно! Двери закрываются,” warns a fuzzy and familiar intercom, as doors slam shut, and your train accelerates along the green line of the Moscow Metro, now quickly approaching your destination: Dostoevskaya Station (Станция Достоевская). After a short trip through the city’s Soviet-built underground tunnels, you re-emerge into a spacious, marble-walled station, and as the doors open you come face-to-face with a contemplative Raskolnikov, the hero of Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment. The mural in front of you tracks Raskolnikov’s movements through the 1866 novel, from his introspective strolls along St. Petersburg’s Neva River embankment, to his axe-wielding moment of crime in the apartment of Alyona and Lizaveta Ivanovna. As you walk around this station, explore the various murals depicting the imagined world of the station’s namesake. Other titles represented on these marble-panels include Бесы (Demons) and Братья Карамазовы (The Brothers Karamazov), each providing a visual summary of Dostoevsky’s philosophical masterpieces. With the looming face of the Russian author’s massive portrait glaring at you from the exit, muster the courage to continue exploring Moscow’s beautiful underground labyrinth. As each of Dostoevsky’s novels reveal to us their own distinguishable insights into the expansive and nuanced Russian heart and soul, one stop along the Metro’s Green Line will only grant you a fleeting glimpse into the infrastructural beating heart of Russia’s capital city.


Jack McClelland minors in Russian at the University of British Columbia, where a foreign-language course requirement inspired a passion for the language, literature, and culture of Russia. He recently spent a summer studying abroad in St. Petersburg, and hopes to finish reading Crime and Punishment in original Russian before his hair goes grey.