By Veronica Hackethal
What happens when a New Yorker follows the trail of Dostoyevsky’s characters in wintry St. Petersburg? A transformtaive tale of literary intrigue peppered with cool humor.
During the St. Petersburg winter, dawn sneaks over the unwary night, which fades to a lighter shade of lead. There is no clock in my budget hotel room. I have left my watch back in New York City. Disoriented, I look out the window for a clue from the sky. It is silent and aloof. I phone the reception and ask the time in fumbling Russian. The reply comes in heavily accented English, tyen Ayya Emmme (ten AM). Judging from the sky, it could as well be six AM. Later when I leave the hotel, the receptionist beams, we have sun today! I glance again at the heavy-handed sky. This subarctic city has thirty-five days of sunshine each year, and I have just had a lesson in cultural relativism.
There were good reasons for visiting Russia in early December. Plane fare and hotel rooms were cheap. Summer lines at The Hermitage stretch for blocks, but in winter I’d have the museum to myself. But I arrive during a cold snap, which is serious business in Russia. It’s so bitter my camera malfunctions. The sky hangs low over majestic architecture that has earned all of St. Petersburg a place on UNESCO World Heritage list.
More than during any other season, winter-time St. Petersburg is Dostoyevsky’s city. In “The Possessed”, he wrote, “Life is pain, life is fear, and man is unhappy. Now all is pain and fear. Now man loves life because he loves pain and fear.” Oh, Dostoyevsky, your characters still exist on Nevsky Prospekt, St. Petersburg’s main drag. They smoke frantically and push past me as if I were a slab of meat hanging in a butcher’s freezer. Dodging Russians dressed in winter clothes is like navigating an obstacle course full of linebackers. Russians are sturdy. Gravity pulls harder on tall, thin people like me. On the black ice, I struggle to stay upright.
Dostoyevsky lived twenty-eight years– most of his life– in St. Petersburg. He wrote roughly thirty works of fiction, of which twenty are set in this city. Born in Moscow in 1821, Dostoyevsky moved to St. Petersburg in 1837 to attend the Mikhailovsky Engineering Academy. He wasn’t a brilliant student. A school friend remarked, “There was no other student so ill-suited to military studies as Dostoyevsky.” During six years at the academy, he neglected his studies in favor of history, literature, and languages. After graduating, Dostoyevsky lasted six months in the military before swapping it for literature. He vowed, “I shall work like Hell.” Relatives were unhappy. He had to justify himself even to his beloved brother. “Perhaps I am wrong, but what if I am not,” he wrote.
These days the engineering academy is named Engineer’s Castle and lies near the Fontanka canal. Originally called St. Michael’s Castle, it was never a cheery place. The paranoid czar Paul I built it for himself in the seventeenth century, only to be strangled shortly after completion by advisors in the dead of night. In the nineteenth century the castle became the army’s engineering school. These days it’s an engineering museum. I hail a cab on Nevsky Prospekt. The cabbie is a male babushka. He demands, Vhy you vant to go zere? Better you to go to ‘Ermitaj. I reply, I’m in search of Dostoyevsky. The driver bosses, You vill not like it. Ze gardens are iced over. Engineering is boring. And vy you vant to know Dostoyevsky? You a foreigner. You cannot understand ze Russian soul. My voice takes on a demanding, Russified tone, I vant to go! Take me zere! He glares at me, lights a cigarette, and floors it. Within minutes we arrive at Engineer’s Castle, whose prim, buttery façade belies its former bloody purpose. I don’t reveal to the cabbie that I am unimpressed. We drive in silence back to Nevsky Prospekt, where he extracts an exorbitant fare.
I boycott Russian cab drivers and catch a bus across the Neva River, frozen solid except for a silvery slice sparkling in the middle. The bus barrels towards Trubetskoi Bastion, hemmed in by snow and ice. The solemn walls echo with state authority. I sit up straightly and feel the urge to censor my thoughts. This place held political prisoners like Leon Trotsky and Vladimir Lenin’s brother. Here, in 1849, Dostoyevsky spent eight months’ solitary confinement for reading and threatening to distribute copies of a forbidden letter. He was sentenced to death by firing squad and went through all the preliminaries for execution before being granted a last minute reprieve. This near death experience may have inspired his story, “The Idiot”. Dostoyevsky’s sentence was commuted to four years’ hard labor among murderers and thieves in Siberia. In 1859, he returned to St. Petersburg and wrote the first ever novel about a Russian prison.
After re-crossing the Neva, the bus veers along the Moika Canal. If I had felt suitably downtrodden, I would have wandered the Moika, in search of Dostoyevsky characters. I try to summon ruminative and suicidal thoughts akin to the Underground Man. I study the mustachioed babushka sitting across from me. She stolidly folds her arms across an ample bosom swathed in beige ermine. A matching comrade’s cap perches atop her head. On the metro, I have seen matrons wearing cashmere varieties of these hats, political statements adapted to the new taste for luxury. I try to mimic the woman’s ennui, but to no avail. The leafless trees bordering the Moika shake their branches at me. Foreigner, you are weak, they say, See how we suffer? We are Russian trees.
I know when I’m defeated. Inside the warm bus, I head back to Nevsky Prospekt, where I trace a route from north to south, in search of Dostoyevsky. At the Ostrovsky Square Christmas Market, cheerful vendors peddle caviar, honey, all manner of wool and fur outer garments (not luxury items here), and crepes with caviar and mushrooms. I buy a glass of sbiten (a warm beverage made from water, herbs, honey, and alcohol). The smiling man hands it to me in a flimsy, Communist-era plastic cup. The slightest pressure from my fingers caves it in, sending the liquid down my front. Now I am wet and cold and wandering the frozen streets of St. Petersburg.
I air-dry in the Passaj Shopping Center at 48 Nevsky Prospekt. Opened in 1848, this mall once boasted a live crocodile, the inspiration for Dostoyevsky’s short story “The Crocodile”. Today, Russia’s nouveau riche spend their rubles at its haute couture shops, indulging extravagance that veers towards savagery after decades of Soviet denial. I browse the Rive Gauche store. I lift my chin and look down my nose, trying to put on airs. The waif of a store clerk eyes the sbiten down my front and ignores me.
Disheartened, I head back to Nevsky Prospekt, where I turn onto Sadovaya street toward Sennaya Square. From 1861-67, Dostoyevsky lived near this bustling intersection. In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov grappled with his conscience along Sennaya Square’s streets. I arrive during rush hour. Crowds spill out of the metro, rushing past stalls that sell curios imported from China. An old woman smokes inside a five by five foot enclosed glass cubicle. She sells red roses, each one scented with tobacco.
It is evening and I am famished from the cold. I stroll into Palkin at 47 Nevsky Prospekt. Originally opened in 1785, the restaurant was a favorite haunt of nineteenth century intellectuals, including Dostoyevsky. During Soviet times, it was replaced by a movie theater. Now the Palkin is sumptuous again. Bows and flowers decorate tables draped in white satin. The menu features items cooked for the wedding feasts of Russia’s grand princes. I blanch at the prices– now I understand Dostoyevsky’s money problems. But I can’t back out now. The waiter has brought a dainty stool that keeps my handbag off the floor.
Across from me two Russian fat cats chain smoke and drink glass after glass of hard liquor. At a nearby table twelve business men discuss Central Asia and China. The waiters bring endless bottles of wine. As the evening progresses, so does the decibel level. Cigarette smoke drives down the oxygen saturation in the air. In Russia it’s not easy being a teetotalling, non-smoking vegetarian. I gulp down my cabbage, trying not to think about the cost. As I leave, the waiter advises, “Be careful of icycles. We haven’t had this kind of cold in thirty years.”
And it’s true, the icicles are as extravagant as Russia. Some hang down for more than a story, sharp spears waiting to pierce the hearts of the unwary. Near Vladimirsky Prospekt, bed bug heaven when Dostoyevsky lived there in rented rooms, a glacier of an icicyle crashes onto a store awning. It is a sturdy Russian awning and does not snap. Men stand precipitously close to the roof’s slippery edges. They hammer forcefully at the icycles, knocking them loose before they can crash randomly onto passersby. It’s a dangerous job that could easily end in tragedy.
Vladimirsky crosses Nevsky Prospekt at its southern end near the railway station. Dostoyevsky was fond of crossroads, where stories are found in the foot traffic. Though he never stayed longer than three years in any one apartment, he usually lived at crossroads, as did many of his characters. South of Nevsky Prospekt lies the Dostoyevsky museum at 5/2 Kuznechny Pereulok. Not coincidentally, it lies at a crossroads. As a young writer, Dostoyevsky lived for two months in this building. At age fifty-seven, he moved into apartment ten on the second floor, where he lived for the last two years of his life. Respectably middle class flowered paper covers the walls. His son Alyosha’s rocking horse stands in the children’s nursery.
In this apartment, at age fifty-nine, Dostoyevsky died of a lung hemorrhage caused by emphysema, which in turn was caused from smoking nonstop while he worked. On a table in the sitting room there are cigarettes that he rolled himself. He also suffered from epilepsy. The museum displays some of his letters. His cramped handwriting fills every space on the page. Some speculative psychiatrists have termed this hypergraphia (an overwhelming urge to write, associated with epilepsy). But is it so extraordinary for a writer to be compelled to write?
In Dostoyevsky’s study sits the heavy wooden desk where he wrote The Brothers Karamazov, working at night when the apartment was quiet. He wrote quickly, but had trouble getting started. Near his desk sits the couch on which he slept when he was deep into work. In front of the desk sits his clock, stopped at the hour of his death. Like the clock, I stop to consider this great artist’s life and writing, as complicated as the Russian winter.
Then I travel still farther south, to the logical next stop: Nevsky monastery and cemetery, founded in 1710. At the gates, two men hesitate near the ticket booth. By now I know that foreigners must pay double the Russian citizen’s entry fee. I slap down my money and push past the men. Hey, who do you think you are? I’m standin’ heya. It’s a New York accent. I’m overjoyed. I apologize for my Russian behavior. With New York bluntness, he asks, why you speakin’ with a Russian accent? I explain, so that people can understand me. His companion enquires, you don’t speak Russian? I say, no, it’s caused all kinds of troubles. The companion laughs, You’re brave. I speak Russian, but I still find this country confusing.
The three of us search for graves. There lies Tchaikovsky, beneath a curlicued monument decorated with angels. Near him lie Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Glinka, and Mussorgsky. Farther away, beneath a gated, somber monument, lies Dostoyevsky. His bust reveals a thoughtful Everyman’s face. An admirer has left a bouquet of red roses, whose frozen beauty burns against the snow’s severity. Dostoyevsky wrote about such dichotomies in “The Possessed”: “… do you understand that along with happiness, in the exact same way and with equal proportion, man also needs unhappiness.” As I shiver before the monument, the leaden sky encroaches, strange but necessary nourishment for the brilliant art sprouting beneath.
Veronica Hackethal is originally from Los Angeles and currently lives in New York City. She studied anthropology at Harvard and Oxford Universities, and fiction at the Prague Creative Writing Workshop. After her studies she traveled widely for several years. She has lived in a hut on the African savannah, slept under the stars in the Australian Outback, gotten her rental car stuck in the capillaries of a mountaintop Sicilian village, and made a half circle of the Mediterranean from Morocco to Turkey.
Veronica has published travel narratives on internet sites such as Literary Traveler, Transitions Abroad, and Matador. She has won several awards for her writing, including first place in a national short story competition and runner up in Transition Abroad?s 2008 Narrative Travel Writing Competition.
Veronica also has nine years of training in classical ballet. She is currently writing her first novel, which is inspired by her love of travel and dance.