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Fyodor Dostoyevsky: The Bard of a City in Ferment

This ‘extraordinary phenomenon of the Russian spirit’ was surprisingly most at home in a fairly circumscribed area in the heart of St Petersburg.

Our only brush with urban Russia’s underbelly – over the course of the three weeks we spent travelling around the country – happened at a place that wouldn’t have surprised Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

We were coming out of the Vladimirskaya metro station in St Petersburg on our way to the Dostoyevsky house-museum at 5/2 Kuznechny Perelouk just round the corner. I had a large city map which I had very foolishly opened out in full, trying to locate the Church of the Vladimir Icon, which I knew was nearby,  where the writer used to pray regularly.

Hunched over my map, I didn’t notice where the three burly men who suddenly accosted me had sprung from. In animated Russian, they asked me the way to some place I hadn’t heard about.

The next thing I knew, they had pinned me to a sidewalk wall – pretty much hiding me from view of passersby. I felt a hand grasp at my coat pocket where my wallet, stuffed with a wad of rouble notes I had just acquired by exchanging dollars, bulged conspicuously. I gripped that hand hard and shouted ‘Politsia’ in panic. My friend who was a few yards ahead of me, taking in the sights and sounds of a beautiful summer’s day, looked back in my direction, surprised. My three uninvited guests vanished into thin air.

A strapping young police officer manning the Vladimirskaya Prospekt traffic light had started to walk towards me when I beamed a big smile back at him. Reassured, he turned away. My wallet had survived the ambush.

Dostoyevsky’s statue near Vladimirskaya metro station, St Petersburg.

A few minutes’ walk, down Kuznechny Perelouk (Russian for ‘lane’) and past a number of  grandmotherly babushkas vending cherries, mushrooms, cucumber and the like on the pavement, took us to the museum. It is an apartment block where Dostoyevsky had lived twice: briefly in 1846, when The Double, which has intrigued and charmed critics in equal measure, made its appearance; and for the last two-and-a-half years of his life (October 1878 to February 1881), when he wrote his last major work, The Brothers Karamazov, one of the landmarks of 19th century fiction.

The third-floor apartment he lived in last, along with wife Anna Snitkina and two young children, forms the core of the museum which now has three other sections as well – a spacious exhibition hall dedicated to the writer’s life and work, a set of galleries displaying contemporary art, and a theatre that regularly features performances by the museum’s partners including a puppet theatre group.

An extensive library, boasting over 24,000 books and periodicals as well as some original manuscripts, has also been put together over the years. The museum was inaugurated in November, 1971 to mark the 150th anniversary of Dostoyevsky’s birth.

The living quarters were lovingly recreated on the basis of memoirs left behind by wife Anna and some of the writer’s friends and the items displayed here came both from the family heirloom as well as from donors. An excellent audio guide, available in all major European languages including English, helps the visitor around the museum.

Every year in November, the museum complex hosts an international conference with ‘Dostoyevsky and World Culture’ as its central theme.

Thirty-two years were always going to be a long time in the life of a person who died at 59. But the 32 years that separated Dostoyevsky’s two stints on Kuznechny Lane were as truly transformative for him as they were for Russia.

In April 1849, Dostoyevsky had been arrested by the Tsar’s police for ‘sedition’, his and his friends’ crime being that they were members of some kind of a utopian fraternity that read and discussed the works of Vissarion Belinsky, the great Russian liberal intellectual whose passionate indictment of serfdom had made him persona non grata in his homeland.

Incarcerated in Petersburg’s Peter and Paul Fortress for a while, Dostoyevsky faced an elaborate trial, was sentenced to death but was pardoned at literally the last minute when he was being marched out to be executed.

Four years of hard labour in Siberia followed, then a spell of compulsory military service. It was only in 1859 that he could return to Petersburg to pick up the threads of his literary career. Life was hard, and the writer was often deep in debt, obliging him to move house often enough so as to steer clear of his creditors.

Indeed, Dostoyevsky is believed to have lived in as many as 20 apartments, all within a radius of two miles of Petersburg’s Sennaya Ploshchad (Hay Market Square) in the 30 years he lived in the city as an adult. The Kuznechny Perelouk apartment, close to the Griboedov Canal, is also no more than three kilometres from Sennaya.

Changing landscape

Even as Dostoyevsky resumed writing, and turned out, one after another, Notes from the House of the dead, The Injured and the Humiliated, Notes from Underground, Crime and Punishment and The Gambler, momentous changes were sweeping across Russia.

In March, 1861, Tsar Alexander III passed the historic decree that finally emancipated Russian serfs from hereditary slavery. As the freed, but impoverished, villagers began to pour into the cities in search of a new life, Petersburg’s social structure was turned upside down.

Sennaya Ploshchad, once a sleepy town square, now swarmed with poor locals, petty thieves and prostitutes, ‘with derelicts, drunks and the destitute’ presenting a stark contrast with the elegant crowd promenading around the near-by Palace Square in Russia’s opulent capital city.

A copy of Crime and Punishment in the museum gallery, with hand-written notes on the inside cover page.

This is how Dostoyevsky sketches for the reader of Crime and Punishment the locale of its protagonist, Rodion Raskolnikov:

Close to the Hay Market, thick with houses of ill repute, the neighbourhood crawled with a population of tradesmen and jacks-of-all-trades who clustered in those central streets and lanes of Petersburg, creating such a panorama of motley characters that almost nothing or nobody could cause surprise any more.

As the city’s population rose steeply, Sennaya Ploshchad grew steadily more chaotic, dirty and discordant while Dostoyevsky hopped from one rented apartment to another in the vicinity. Raskolnikov’s tortured existence so faithfully mirrors the travails of a life lived around Sennaya that Petersburg now has a walking tour built specifically around his narrative. At 5, Stolyarny Perelouk, a five-story tenement building – Dostoyevsky himself lived in a building across the road when he wrote the novel – bears the following legend on a plaque:

Raskolnikov Building

Here is where Rodion Raskolnikov lived

The tragic fates of the people of this part of Petersburg served Dostoyevsky

As the basis for his pessimistic sermons on good for all humankind

A large bronze relief of the author, with a furrowed forehead and clenched hands, sits above this legend. Indeed, the walking tour is complete with: a peek into the tavern where Raskolnikov is supposed to have first conceived of the idea to kill Alyona Ivanovna, the elderly pawnbroker; a stop in front of the shop where he overheard the pawnbroker’s sister telling somebody that she would (conveniently for our hero) be away from Alyona’s apartment at the hour Raskolnikov had chosen for the murder; and of course a visit to the pawnbroker’s wretched and cramped apartment, the scene of the crime.

The yellow guardhouse, or the Police Bureau, where Raskolnikov is interrogated, exists and is functional till today. Dostoyevsky himself was held for two nights in the same Guardhouse after his arrest in 1849.

A gambling man

The story of Dostoyevsky’s life bristles with many extraordinary episodes other than his return from death’s door as well. For years, he was a compulsive gambler who often teetered on the brink of bankruptcy and yet, when both his (first) wife Maria and brother Mikhail died in 1864, he found himself as a single parent to stepson Pavel as well as the sole provider for his brother’s family. He was perhaps the first major writer who engaged the services of a stenographer when he found it hard to meet deadlines on commitments made to publishers.

When Anna Snitkina, the able stenographer, became his wife in February, 1867, Dostoyevsky had no money with which to take her on a honeymoon. But eventually, when they did proceed on the honeymoon in Europe in April, they never returned to Russia till more than four years later, in July, 1871. The Idiot was published in 1869 when he was still in Europe while Demons (or, The Possessed), another major work, came out in 1872. Dostoevsky had had epileptic seizures off and on since his youth, and Sigmund Freud later studied the writer’s symptoms in detail from extensive medical and other records.     

The writer’s desk, with the clock stopped at 8.36 pm on January 28 (February 9, by the Gregorian calendar), 1881, when Dostoyevsky died.

The roomy and comfortable apartment contains both usual domestic bric-a-brac and interesting period items such an attractive tea-service, framed photographs of prominent contemporaries, a miniature enamel portrait of Pushkin (in whose memory Dostoyevsky made his remarkable ‘Pushkin Oration’ only a few months before his own death) and some delightful toys which his little children (Lyubova was 11 and son Fyodor 9 when their father died) played with.

Part of the MS of The Brothers Karamazov are also on display here. One particular detail is bound to stay with the visitor. When Dostoyevsky died in the evening of February 9 (January 28, by the Julian Calendar which was then in vogue in Russia), Lyubova scrawled the words ‘Papa died today’ on a matchbox.

The matchbox, with the child’s scrawl, is still preserved. Also on view is the wall-clock hanging in Dostoyevsky’s study when he died. Today, the clock can still be seen on a stool by the side of his writing desk, its hands frozen at 8.36 pm on January 28, the precise time of his passing.

Anjan Basu is a writer, translator and commentator living in Bangalore. He can be reached at basuanjan52@gmail.com.

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