In St Petersburg with Dostoevsky

11892244_1663017743941952_1526921402800482230_n

“On an exceptionally hot evening early in July a young man came out of the garret in which he lodged in S. Place and walked slowly, as if in hesitation, towards K. Bridge.” Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment

The restless Dostoevsky moved about St Petersburg, coming and going, moving apartment, never staying anywhere more than three years, after he was sent there, against his will, at 16, to the military engineering school in the Mikhailovsky Palace (the Engineer’s Castle), now an art gallery and minor stop on the tourist trail.

He managed an unhappy year as a military engineer with one of the few steady incomes of his life, then gave it up to write and, along the way, got involved in radical politics, which in turn got him thrown into the political prison in the St Peter and Paul Fortress which dominates the right bank of the Neva. It was a sort of Oxford and Cambridge of Tsarist Russia; alumni included Leon Trotsky, Josip Tito, Maxim Gorky, Mikhail Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin. The old prison is open to the public, now, a dank and oppressive curiosity among the gilded spires and domes and crenelated walls of the fortress.

11954728_1664221923821534_1468799443482064288_n

From there, Dostoevsky was marched to what is now Pionerskeya Place and put in front of a firing squad, but it was an early example of what we would now call a mock execution; his real sentence was eight years – commuted to four – in Siberia.

He drifted back to St Petersburg, moving from apartment to apartment, pursued by angry creditors. Mostly he lived in the claustrophobic streets around Sennaya Ploshchad (Hay Square), where he set Crime and Punishment. It was the cheapest and grimmest corner of St Petersburg, then: half a dozen blocks west but a world away from the splendour of Nevsky Prospekt:

“The heat in the street was terrible: and the airlessness, the bustle and the plaster, scaffolding, bricks…. The insufferable stench from the pot-houses, which are particularly numerous in that part of the town….

Owing to the proximity of the Hay Market, the number of establishments of bad character, the preponderance of the trading and working class population crowded in these streets and alleys in the heart of Petersburg, types so various were to be seen in the streets that no figure, however queer, would have caused surprise.”

DSC_0653

The Hay Market is long gone and the neighbourhood has been regenerated several times; but many of the old buildings remain, and the old atmosphere clings to them like soot from steam locomotives. It is still a lot shabbier than the avenues and squares of the main tourist trail with its murky courtyards, flaking paint, rusted railings and crumpled Ladas.

You emerge from the Metro on Sennaya Ploshchad among grimy kiosks where daytime drinkers sprawl on benches worked into the shape of carriage wheels in allusion to the vanished market. Across the road is the porticoed guardhouse in which Dostoevsky was locked up for two days in 1874 for breaching censorship laws.

IMG_4182

There are still dive bars on Brinko Lane, where Raskolnikov – the main protagonist of Crime and Punishment – met the drunken civil servant, Marmeladov, and each of them looks like the sort of place in which a Marmeladov or a Raskolnikov might drink.

Brinko Lane tips out on Sadovaya Street and the first right takes you over the Kukushkin Bridge and onto Stoliarny Lane, reversing Raskolnikov’s route in the novel’s opening lines:

“…a young mancame out of the garret in which he lodged in S[toliarny] Place and walked slowly, as if in hesitation, towards K[ukushikin] Bridge.”

DSC_0657

There is a bronze relief of Dostoevsky – looking his usual cheerful self – on the corner of No 5, where Raskolnikov rented his:

“tiny cupboard of a room about six paces in length…with its dusty yellow paper peeling off the walls, and… so low-pitched that a man of more than average height was ill at ease in it and felt every moment that he would knock his head against the ceiling.”

DSC_0802

Carry on down Stoliarny Lane to the next cross street, ul. Kaznachieskaja, turn left and at number 7 is the building in which Dostoevsky was living when he wrote Crime and Punishment; he had lived before at numbers 1 and 9.

Raskolnikov “walked along quietly and sedately, without hurry, to avoid awakening suspicion” on a roundabout way to the home of the old pawnbroker he planned to murder and rob. You can follow him to the end of Stoliarny Street, over the Kukushkin Bridge, onto Sadovaya Street, past the Yusopov Gardens and along Rimskogo-Korsakova until you get to Griboyedov Canal. “And by now he was near; here was the house, here was the gate.” The pawnbroker lived at Griboyedov Embankment, 104:

“a huge house which on one side looked on to the canal, and on the other into the street…let out in tiny tenements and…inhabited by working people of all kinds- tailors, locksmiths, cooks, Germans of sorts, girls picking up a living as best they could, petty clerks, &c.”

11885370_1663982863845440_3761472976908192121_n

On your way, you pass another of Dostoevsky’s twenty addresses in St Petersburg, Rimskogo-Korsakova, 3 – between the Ambassador Hotel and Azaliya restaurant, a few doors from a whimsical monument to The Nose from Gogol’s short story.

It is quicker and pleasanter to walk back along Griboyedov Canal. Near the top of Voznesensky Avenue, the last street before Stoliarny Lane, is another of the apartment blocks – at No 29 – in which Dostoevsky lived. Over the bridge, at the next corner is Griboyedov Embankment, 73, then an “old green house of three storeys,” now a yellow house of four storeys, where Marmeladov’s daughter, Sonia, had her apartment:

“…a large but exceedingly low-pitched room… a very irregular quadrangle and this gave it a grotesque appearance. A wall with three windows looking out on to the canal ran aslant so that one corner formed a very acute angle, and it was difficult to see in it without very strong light. The other corner was disproportionately obtuse….”

11903855_1663982947178765_8440764896803783230_n

Over to the west, the powder blue, star-dotted dome of the Trinity Cathedral rises above the rooftops. Dostoevsky – then a 45-year-old widower – was married there in 1867 to his 19-year-old stenographer, Anna Grigoryevna.

His clumsy proposal started with an ‘idea for a novel’ in which a painter married his much younger assistant and moved on to the hypothetical  question,“Imagine I am the painter, I confessed to you and asked you to be my wife. What would you answer?” Her answer – also couched as hypothetical – was “I love you and I will love you forever”.

DSC_0842

It is a good job she did. It is usually drink with writers, but with Dostoevsky it was gambling. Despite the royalties from Crime and Punishment, which was published the year before, Anna had to sell some of her things to help pay his gambling debts, and the couple eventually had to leave Russia in a hurry and spend the next four years travelling around Western Europe, where Dostoevsky continued to lose much of what he earned, often more.

They went back to St Petersburg in 1871, at first to the same neighbourhood near the Hay Market, then a series of apartments south of the Fontanka River, and finally further east to Kuznechny Lane, 5, where Dostoevsky wrote The Brothers Karamazov.

11896207_1663672797209780_3568472620762327910_n

He died in 1881, at the age of 59, and was buried with Mussorgsky, Borodin, Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov in the Tikhvinskoe Cemetery two stops on the Metro to the east. Anna, though still only 35, never remarried.

The house in which he spent his last three years is now the Dostoevsky Museum; his apartment has been carefully recreated. The first cross street to the east and the nearby Metro station have been named in his honour. And, just a few blocks to the west is the square in which, as a young man tentatively starting to make his name as a writer, he stood before a firing squad.

© Richard Senior 2016

Reading Round the World

image3

In Thailand I started with the backpacker novels. Alex Garland’s satirical classic, The Beach, is a useful guide on how not to travel: cocoon yourself with other Westerners, see little of the country, experience nothing beyond the beaches and drugs, never interact with locals, and feel smug and superior all the while.

Richard Arthur’s I of the Sun is more inspirational, although I had covered much the same ground as the narrator by the time I read it. The novel well captures the moodswings of long-term travel: the conceit, one minute, that you have got some rare insight into the local culture, and the realisation, the next, that you know nothing; and the way that you go from being forever impatient to move on to the next town, the next country, the next continent, to hardly being bothered to leave the guesthouse for days on end.

I had never heard of John Burdett until I found one of his Sonchai Jitpleecheep novels in a book exchange on Phi Phi. They are just detective stories, but then you could say that about Chandler too, and they are written well enough and contain more insight into Thai culture than a thousand pieces about “Nineteen Things to Do in Bangkok,” or whatever.

James Eckardt’s The Year of Living Stupidly careers from Bangkok via Phuket to Phnom Penh and took me across the border from Thailand to Cambodia. Once there, and in a radical shift of mood, I started reading Loung Ung’s harrowing account of a childhood under the Khmer Rouge, First They Killed My Father.

In Saigon, it was predictably Graham Greene’s The Quiet American; and that led me on to a bootleg copy of Michael Maclear’s The Ten Thousand Day War, which I bought from a beach vendor in Nha Trang, and in turn to Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War, which tells the familiar story from the forgotten perspective of the North Vietnamese conscript: not the fanatical communist usually portrayed but a scared, cynical kid, like the GI’s on the other side.   

In Laos, it was Another Quiet American, Brett Dakin’s account of the two years he spent living in Vientiane and working for the Lao Tourism Authority. It was going on fifteen years since he had written it and it was equally remarkable to see how much had changed as how much had stayed the same.

I turned to old favourites in the States: Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in Las Vegas and Kerouac’s Big Sur in San Francisco. (I had read On the Road for the umpteenth time a few months before.)

image1 (8)

Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries and Matthew Parris’s Inca Kola saw me through Peru and Bolivia, and I had just started Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits when I crossed into Chile. Her memoir, My Invented Country, and Marc Cooper’s Pinochet and Me kept my head in Santiago when I got home.

Hemingway was inevitable in Kenya and Tanzania: The Green Hills of Africa and The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Then in Malawi, Jack Mapanje’s And Crocodiles are Hungry at Night taught me a lot I did not know about the paranoid regime of Hastings Banda, while Paul Theroux’s The Lower River made me paranoid about present-day Malawi.

I had read NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names, set against the eviction of white farmers and beating of opposition supporters, before I went to Zimbabwe, and read Doris Lessing’s African Laughter – written in the early, optimistic Mugabe years – while I was there. I topped that up after I came home with Lessing’s The Grass is Singing, Peter Godwin’s Mukiwa and The Fear and Alex Fuller’s Let’s Not Go to the Dogs Tonight. In South Africa, then, I read JM Coetzee’s Booker-prize-winning Disgrace and, around the time I saw the cell on Robben Island where he started writing it, Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom.

Ian Buruma’s Japanese Mirror is dated now but still relevant. It explained idiosyncrasies like the wearing of white gloves by police officers, train dispatchers, taxi drivers and so on (a symbol of purity, apparently). I had moved on from Tokyo by the time I started Alan Brown’s novel, Audrey Hepburn’s Neck, but whenever I picked it, I was taken back and reminded of details like the cans of hot coffee in vending machines on every street corner.

I was a Law student, like Raskolnikov, when I first read Crime and Punishment, but I bought another copy in St Petersburg at the iconic House of Books on Nevsky Prospekt and re-read it as I walked the streets which Dostoevsky alludes to. By the time I got to Moscow, I had moved on to Martin Sixmith’s compelling history simply named Russia.

Now, freshly home from there, I have a pile of Bulgakovs, Gogols, Pasternaks and Solzhenitsyns to work through.

© Richard Senior 2015