My husband and I have just finished a refreshing three-day class at the Dallas Institute discussing Gogol’s Dead Souls, Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener and some relevant, thought-provoking films, two of which featured Russia and Russian. On top of being delightful, it engendered a sharp nostalgia for my time in St. Petersburg. Outside of Dallas, it is the place I have spent the most time. I have not been back in twelve years, and I miss it very much.
My first trip to St. Petersburg was in November 1995. I was compelled to go by my burgeoning love of Dostoevsky, whom I had just begun to read. At that point, I was gripped by his first major novel, Crime and Punishment, in which the hero, Raskolnikov, commits a brutal murder, suffers tremendously, and is finally beautifully redeemed.
I was studying for the semester on U.D.'s Rome Campus, and I decided to go to Russia during my ten day break . I spoke one word of Russian ("where"), managed to barely learn the Cyrillic alphabet on the train up, and everything I knew about the country came from Russian literature. I was determined to make a Dostoevskian pilgrimage, however. I planned to visit the Dostoevesky Museum (located in the flat where he wrote The Brothers Karamozov), the flat where he wrote Crime and Punishment, the Haymarket (where Raskolnikov fell to the earth and confessed), and to walk the alleged route of Raskolnikov from his hovel to the flat of Alyona Ivanovna, Raskolnikov's murder victim (or rather, the flat that Dostoevsky imagined her to live in).
I took the train up through Germany, Denmark, Sweden, got on an overnight boat to Finland, and continued by train into Russia. I arrived after four days of eventful travel around 11 pm on the night of 6 November. I was met by a dark, snow-shrouded city full of scowling, silent, fur-clad pedestrians. I took a cab (paying a ridiculous amount, as ignorant foreigners do) to the hostel where I was staying. The robust lady at the front desk was the only person I met on that first visit to Russia who spoke any English. Though I spoke no Russian, I had been taking German, which enabled me to communicate with a group of elementary school Russian girls staying at my hostel who also had a very basic knowledge of German. They were the only Russians I conversed with during my time there and they taught me my first words in Russian - "dog" and "cat".
I checked into my room - a long, thin, drafty place with a twenty-foot ceiling. A row of six iron beds stood in a row against one wall, leading down to a tall window which rattled and knocked in its inadequate attempt to keep out the wind. It seemed to me at the time that there was no working heat in the building (I discovered later that in the old buildings in St. Petersburg the heat doesn't come on until the Super gets cold and decides it is time.) Providentially, as I was the only tourist booking in at the time, I was able to borrow the course wool blankets from all six of the beds. Bundled in all of my clothing (including my coat and hat) and huddled under six woolen blankets, I wrote in my journal about the joys of being in the country of such a great author and my delight at experiencing first hand what Raskolnikov himself might have felt living as a dirt-poor student in a dilapidated, drafty flat. I felt like I had stumbled into a Dostoevsky novel, and I was glowing.
The next morning I set out to find the Dostoevsky Museum, see the Hermitage, and explore the city. When I did find it, however, it was closed. I could not understand why, not knowing any Russian, and none of the Russians I encountered outside of the hostel spoke any English. (I did get to go the following day, in case you were worried). I trekked through the freezing sleet looking for Sennaya Ploschad (the Hay Market) and the apartment that Dostoevsky based Raskolnikov's apartment off of (5 Stolyarny Pereulok). In 1999, a bronze relief of Dostoevsky was installed, along with a plaque reading, “RASKOLNIKOV'S BUILDING/ THE TRAGIC FATES OF THE PEOPLE OF THIS PART OF PETERSBURG SERVED DOSTOEVSKY AS THE BASIS FOR HIS PASSIONATE SERMONS ON GOOD FOR ALL HUMANKIND” Not having that plaque in 1995 and with a middling reading knowledge of Cyrillic, I struggled to locate it. After I finally did, I used the map I had copied into my journal and began walking down Stolyarnoi Pereulok, crossed over Canal Griboedeva, making my way to 15 Srednaya Podyacheskaya (the apartment of Alyona Ivanovna) following the same route that Raskolnikov walked on his way to put an axe in her skull.
After I had seen all the Dostoevskian sites that I could see, I decided to wander down Nevsky Prospect to the Winter Palace in hopes of viewing the brilliant art collection of Catherine the Great. When I passed under the great arch into Palace Square, to my alarm, I encountered troops of soldiers and crowds of people carrying the familiar red flags of Communist Russia, cheering and listening
to a gruff-voiced Military commander over a loudspeaker. I did not realize what day it was, and hoped some frightening political uprising hadn't happened since I had arrived the night before. Luckily it was only the cheery supporters of the Stalinist Regime spending the day out in the ice and snow, publicly reminiscing about the good old days of communal living and dependable dinner rations.
Later, when I was living in St. Petersburg (across the street from the Dostoevsky museum, incidentally, on the corner of Candle Lane and Dostoevsky Street), I appreciated the two days off work we all got for the anniversary of the Bolshevick Revolution, renamed "the Day of Peace.” Since I moved away, I have heard Putin, not wishing to celebrate the overthrowing of governments by revolutionary armies, has decided Russia will instead celebrate a “Day of Unity” on 4 November in honor of the Russian victory over Poland. It is also the feast day of Our Lady of Kazan, at least alluding to a happy contrast to the religious oppression of the Communist regime.
After just two-and-half days in this amazing city, I had to begin the long train and boat journey back to Rome to resume my classes. But St. Petersburg made a lasting impression on me. I knew after that brief sojourn that I would be back again someday.
Having just read Dead Souls again, thinking of Russia as a “spirited troika” that “rushes on, full of divine inspiration,” and longing to experience the “mysterious force, hidden in this troika” while once again walking under the midnight sun, I have started teaching all the children Russian and making plans to resume study myself, resurrecting the Russian that has lain dormant over these past twelve years. I am thinking of taking a small group on a sort of literary & cultural pilgrimage next summer...if you have a passion for Russian literature, iconography, & great art and an interest in joining us, please let me know. Marc will throw in Russian history and politics, as well. We could enjoy some delicious champagnskaya, blini, and pirogi skapustoi, walk in the summer gardens, and take a boat ride down the Moika...
As an added bonus, we would also visit Money Honey Rockabilly Saloon, where I used to swing dance with Russians sporting pompadours and very small cowboy hats...more about that another time.
* Please excuse the quality of the photography...these are the photos I snapped with a disposable camera in 1995, taken from my old scrapbook and photographed with my phone