Being an ardent fan of Russian literature since childhood, I chose ‘A Walking Literary Tour of St. Petersburg’ out of the several offered to a tourist in the city. Rightly guessing my interest in Russian classics my guide in the city, Mikhail, asked as we exited at the Vladimirskaya metro station, “I am sure you have read Dostoevsky, how do you like him?” Before I could tell him that he had always been one of
my favorite authors and the reasons for this, he already led me to the basement of a building which he said was dedicated to the legendary author and philosopher of the 19th century. In fact, the basement leads you all the way up to Dostoevsky’s private apartment where he lived twice with his young second wife Anya Snitkina and their four children. While climbing the spiral staircase, Mikhail told us that Dostoevsky composed some of his notable writings including the masterwork The Brothers Karamazov and The Double: A Petersburg Poem in this apartment. The apartment-cum-museum looked very dull, though. As I visited Dostoevsky’s personal study where a clock shows the exact hour and time when Dostoevsky died in 1881, the family kitchen, Anya’s office, and a darkened room where his biographical photos, personal paraphernalia, and a few published books were displayed, I felt a pang of gloominess within, resembling the man himself and his writings. And a line from Crime and Punishment, one of his most riveting works, came effortlessly to my mind, “With a sinking heart and a nervous tremor, he went up to a huge house which on one side looked on to the canal, and on the other into the street.” From the window on the third floor I looked down and saw a busy food market nearby and also the exuberant onion-domed Church of the Vladimir Icon, where the writer and his family used to worship. Mikhail said that Dostoevsky had an affinity for corner apartments for out of 20 apartments that he lived in St. Petersburg most were on road corners. I tried to find house 104, the house of the old moneylender in Crime and Punishment, which was located on the waterfront of the Griboedov Canal, in close proximity to the writer’s house, but failed. Dostoevsky often described the homes of his characters as being near to his own. Apart from the six-room memorial apartment, there are two other rooms devoted to an atmospheric display of his literary heritage, his travels, and legacy. A small theater is attached to the museum to host conferences and poetry readings.
After exiting the museum, Mikhail asked if I was interested in visiting some more of Dostoevsky-related sites. “St. Petersburg and Dostoevsky are very closely related and his legacy is alive in most parts here, particularly in Nevsky Prospekt,” said Mikhail. “Even people who know little or nothing of Russian literature often choose ‘Dostoevsky’s St. Petersburg’ or ‘Dostoevsky Zone’ tours designed, especially for the students, teachers, and lovers of the writer’s works. They take you to a sinister world in the city filled with dirty alleys (Rodion Raskolnikov, Crime and Punishment’s protagonist lived at Grazhanskaya Ulitsa 19/5), cheap taverns, and dilapidated rooms of suffocating apartments where Dostoevsky and his characters lived. Tours also include the Catherine Canal (many scenes in The Idiot and Crime and Punishment unfold on the Catherine Canal), trendy shopping complexes, and the Hay Market (now beautiful Sennaya Square) immortalized in the pages of Crime and Punishment. You can even rent a room at Dom Dostoyevskogo, a house where the writer lived from 1861 to 1863, and wrote The House of the Dead and The Humiliated and Insulted. Now, it is a mini hotel in the center of Dostoevskian Petersburg. Often the tour guide has several stories and entertaining descriptions that give a vivid picture of the St. Petersburg’s middle class in the 19th century.”
Since I had limited time in hand and wanted to have more insight into what inspired Russian writers to become titans of world literature, I asked Mikhail if there is any museum in the city where I could see various canonical Russian authors -Tolstoy, Chekhov, or Solzhenitsyn- all under one roof. Mikhail shook his head in disappointment but promptly said, “Let me show you the Pushkin House -the last accommodation of Russia’s national and most celebrated poet Alexander Pushkin, also considered the ‘Father of Russian Literature.’ There are two state museums after him in Moscow, as well.” I instantly went back to my school days recalling how hard I had found writing a review of Pushkin’s poem “The Bronze Horseman” in 10th grade. The narrative poem is widely considered to be the Romantic poet’s most successful and one of the most influential works in Russian literature. Exiting at the Sportivnaya metro station, as we walked up to the River Moika Embankment, Mikhail added to my knowledge that most apartment-turned-museums focus on the life of the author but Pushkin’s Memorial Apartment is dedicated to Pushkin’s death. Inside, audio guides and Russian- speaking guides are available. Diverse translations in Russian, Finnish, English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Chinese indicate the international popularity of the museum. The huge museum complex serves as a prime example of a typical residence that the nobility enjoyed during the 1830s. Most exhibits are Pushkin’s personal belongings, lifetime portraits, and manuscripts. Also displayed are objects and the tragic circumstances surrounding Pushkin’s untimely death in a dramatic duel, including a set of revolvers, his death mask, and the waistcoat he wore when he died. Incidentally, the next day, I happened to see “The Bronze Horseman” monument on Senatskaya Ploschad which is the most famous monument to Russian tsar Peter the Great, the founder of the imperial city.
Playing a warm hospitable host in the city on a cold winter evening, Mikhail asked if I would like to have a cup of coffee in a nearby café, also adding that Russia’s traditional drink is not coffee, but black tea and I can have it served in a samovar if I preferred. I readily agreed and within a 10-minute walk we were in Literaturnoye Café (Nevsky Prospekt 18) -a favorite of Pushkin where he had his last meal. Before that, on our way, Mikhail stopped and brought me close to a “nose” which he said is based on the character of a story by Nikolay Gogol, another legendary Russian literary titan. I vividly remembered the story in which the “nose” of Officer Kovalev had a habit
of leaving its owner and strolling around the city by itself. The monument is made from pink Ukrainian marble, imported directly from Gogol’s home country. Touching it hesitatingly, I left laughing seeing one of the most interesting and unusual monuments during my travels. Housed in a two-floor building, Literaturnoye Café has been serving literary luminaries such as Taras Shevchenko, Mikhail Lermontov, and Dostoevsky since the beginning of the 19th century. Many pictures of these Russian writers and several others hang on its walls. Sipping my Russian black tea I felt proud to be a part of the place where world-famous musicians such as my all-time favorite Tchaikovsky and Feodor Chaliapin once frequented. Tchaikovsky, Mikhail told me, is said to have ordered a cup of water that turned out to be infected with cholera at the café, from which he died. During our conversation, as if revealing a secret to me, Mikhail told me that Piter -as the city is affectionately known- is not as it is depicted in most writers’ works: depressing, sad, or miserable. Without a doubt, the city has contributed phenomenally to Russian iconic literary output. He added with a contagious enthusiasm, “If you love Russian literature, St. Petersburg is a dream destination, isn’t it?” I couldn’t agree more.