St. Petersburg: Dostoyevsky

August 4, 2011 • 5:48 am

While I didn’t tote up all the votes for the various aspects of St. Petersburg for this week’s show-and-tell, the top three choices seemed to be Dostoyevsky, cats, and food.

Let’s start with Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881; 60 years was a good long life then). I won’t recount his biography, as you can find that in numerous places, including Wikipedia, but I will say that I find him among the world’s very best authors, with Crime and Punishment, set in St. Petersburg, as his best book (The Brothers Karamazov, with its stirring episode of The Grand Inquisitor, detailing the interrogation of the returned Jesus and touching on the conflict between reason and faith, runs a close second).  I have to add that although I consider Dostoyevsky the greatest Russian writer, I think the greatest Russian novel is Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.  I should also add that I’ve read all of his (and Tolstoy’s) novels in the Constance Garnett translations, though I hear there are better ones now (readers, please weigh in here).

Here he is (I took all the pictures in his last apartment; click to enlarge):

He is one of those supreme talents who seem to come out of nowhere.  An epileptic, a chain-smoker, and an inveterate gambler, he rushed out (can you imagine!) Crime and Punishment to settle his gambling debts.  That story, of course, also takes place in St. Petersburg, though I did not visit the building where Raskolnikov was supposed to live, nor the place where he supposedly hid the purse he took from the woman he murdered.

As part of a clique of young intellectuals, Dostoevsky was imprisoned in the Peter and Paul fortress, the original site of St. Petersburg.  In 1849 he was subject to a mock execution: he and several others were placed in front of a firing squad, expecting to die. At the last moment the execution was called off—it was only a ruse to scare the prisoners. One can only imagine the effect this would have on one’s life. Here’s the fortress today; the tall golden spire belongs to the SS Peter and Paul Cathedral, where all the tsars since Peter the Great are buried, including the recently-interred Romanovs who were shot by the Bolsheviks.  (I’ll show that place later.)

He was later exiled to Siberia, a dire experience that produced his House of the Dead.

Dostoyevsky returned to St. Petersburg in 1859 and lived there the rest of his life.  He changed apartments every few years, and had few possessions.  After his first wife died, he married a much younger woman, Anna Grignorevna, who served as his assistant and amanuensis (I’m told that he often dictated his novels to her).

His last apartment, where he lived from 1878 until his death in 1881, is located on Kuznechny street, a short trek from the Nevsky Prospekt.  He lived on the second floor of this building:

There is a plaque on the outside:

The apartment is a small warren of rooms, the most famous being  his study, where he would write all night and smoke.  The couch behind his desk—the desk where he wrote The Brothers Karamazov—was where he often slept. Note the clock.

Here’s is a copy of Crime and Punishment, along with a reproduction of one of the manuscript pages.  My Chicago colleague Ilya Ruvinsky has kindly furnished translations and explanations:

The title page of a book is indeed “Crime and Punishment”. Judging by the date (1867) and that it says “corrected edition” it is either not the first edition, or the first edition as a stand-alone book that was corrected compared to the previous publication (1866) in a literary magazine.

Here’s the desk where Anna Grignorevna would correct Dostoyevsky’s manuscripts, handle his correspondence and finances, and help market his books:

And here is the salon in which that desk resides:

Beside the desk is an autographed portrait of Dostoyevsky, which Ilya translates as

“To my kind Anya from me. F. Dostevsky. 14 June/80 y(ear)”.
The word used for “kind” is a bit unusual in such a context. It is not “dear” for example. I assume “Anya” refers to his wife A. N. Snitkina [Anya Grigovrevna].

On the sideboard beside the desk are two papers, translated by Ilya as:

The printed letters say
“Book sellers
F. M. Dostoevsky
(exclusively for out-of-towners (or nonresidents))
S. P. B. (which is an abbreviation for St. Petersburg) Kuznechny lane, 5 (unclear)

I can’t make out every word of the letter below, but it goes something like this:
Kindly issue (not clear to whom, probably to FMD, and by whom) 1 book of “David Copperfield” in exchange for my publications which will be delivered on Monday, Jan. 26.
Jan. 24 1881, F. Dostoevsky”
(Note, this was written just a couple of weeks before Dostoevsky died.)
I can’t read the writing on the right, except for the top (title) line that stats with “Chapter 5…”

Here is the dining room:

and the children’s room:

Here is Dostoyevsky’s hat, the only item of clothing recovered from his “estate”.  Oh, how I wished that I could have put it on!

Dostoyevsky died on February 9, 1881. His clock was stopped at the moment of his death (Ilya notes, “Which reminds me that the dates as written refer to what is known as OS [“Old Style”, i.e. Julian calendar]. Russia used it until after the Revolution.
For instance, Dostoevsky’s date of death is now given as Feb. 9.”)

To me the most poignant item in the museum is this: a box of Dostoyevsky’s cigarettes signed by his daughter.  Fyodor loved to smoke, even though his doctors forbade it because of his emphysema.  On the day he died, his daughter Lyubov wrote on the bottom of the box, “February 28, 1881. Papa died.”  She was 12.

Here is Dostoyevsky’s death mask:

And his statue in the nearby Vladimirskaya Place:

Sadly, I didn’t have time to visit his grave in the nearby Alexander Nevsky Monastery, but here’s a photo, not taken by me:

Here’s to a very great writer and a great, though flawed, man.

58 thoughts on “St. Petersburg: Dostoyevsky

  1. I am working from memory, but I remember reading a review of a translation of _Crime and Punishment_ that best conveys the darkness of the novel. The review stressed that regardless of how competent the translator, it is impossible to fully convey the darkness and depression in _Crime and Punishment_. No translator or translation can compete with the effect of Russian version.

    Most interesting to me is the suggestion that Dostoevsky read, admired and may have been influenced by 19th century British writers Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell.

  2. I’m currently reading the Demons (it used to be called the Possessed) in the Richard Peavar-Larissa Volokhonsky translation (Vintage, 1994).

    I know no Russian, but it reads easily and is obviously much more up-to-date than the Garnett version, which I read many many years ago. The print is also fairly large, which helps.

    I’d say that Tolstoy is a better literary craftsman than Dostoyevsky, who cannot resist putting in sentimental sub-plots reminiscent of Dickens, but that Dostoyevsky’s concerns touch me more.

    1. Tolstoy wasn’t exactly immune to the romantic sub-plot. The whole Kitty and Levin thing in Anna Karenina, for example.
      Although I’m a sucker for that sort of thing, so I don’t mind at all.

      I’ve had War and Peace sitting on my desk in front of me for months, but haven’t plucked up the courage to make a start on it yet.

  3. I have read Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, and The Idiot, each translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Granted, I have no basis for comparison, but I enjoyed these translations immensely; I can assure you that the “darkness” of these novels was not lost. Highly recommended!

  4. Dostoyevsky is timeless:

    But I do believe—I believe in God, though I have had doubts of late. But now I sit and await words of wisdom. I’m like the philosopher, Diderot, your reverence. Did you ever hear, most Holy Father, how Diderot went to see the Metropolitan Platon, in the time of the Empress Catherine? He went in and said straight out, ‘There is no God.’ To which the great bishop lifted up his finger and answered, ‘The fool hath said in his heart there is no God.’ And he fell down at his feet on the spot. ‘I believe,’ he cried, ‘and will be christened.’ And so he was. Princess Dashkov was his godmother, and Potyomkin his godfather.”
    “Fyodor Pavlovitch, this is unbearable! You know you’re telling lies and that that stupid anecdote isn’t true. Why are you playing the fool?” cried Miüsov in a shaking voice.
    “I suspected all my life that it wasn’t true,” Fyodor Pavlovitch cried with conviction. “But I’ll tell you the whole truth, gentlemen. Great elder! Forgive me, the last thing about Diderot’s christening I made up just now. I never thought of it before. I made it up to add piquancy. I play the fool, Pyotr Alexandrovitch, to make myself agreeable. Though I really don’t know myself, sometimes, what I do it for. And as for Diderot, I heard as far as ‘the fool hath said in his heart’ twenty times from the gentry about here when I was young. I heard your aunt, Pyotr Alexandrovitch, tell the story. They all believe to this day that the infidel Diderot came to dispute about God with the Metropolitan Platon. …”

    It would have been great had Dostoyevsky anticipated Dan Barker’s response to Psalm 14:1 by quoting Jesus in Matthew 5:22: “Whoever saith, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire!”

  5. I 2nd and 3rd the Pevear-Volokhonsky translations. They also get some subtle religious things right that Garnett misses, like certain differences between Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic liturgical practices.

    1. Re: differences between Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic liturgical practices.

      In a live performance of Shakespeare’s _Measure for Measure_ the actor playing Isabella makes the sign of the cross with her left hand. During a discussion after the play, a fellow student commented that the actor must be Russian Orthodox because although Roman Catholics make the sign of the cross (bless themselves) with their right hand, the Russian Orthodox use their left hand.

      Can anyone verify this?

      1. I don’t remember for sure about which hand to use from my orthodox days (which lasted a full year before my current journey into atheism), but orthodox do cross up-down-right-left as opposed to up-down-left-right for R.Catholics. Something about going right first acknowledges the East while going left first acknowledges the West (and Rome).

        1. That difference was used to comedic effect in a production of some opera — can’t remember which — that we did at ASU’s Lyric Opera Theatre many years ago.


            1. I’ll try, but I’d probably have to pull up a list of what we did, and I have no clue where Id find such ancient history.

              It was something set in the Middle Ages, and the knights had just converted…I think….


  6. I definitely prefer Pevear/Volokhonsky to Garnett as translators of Russian works.

    For reference, I’ve read the Pevear/Volokhonsky translations of:

    Tolstoy – Anna Karenina
    Checkhov – some of his stories
    Bulgakov – The Master and Margarita
    Gogol – some of his stories

    And the Garnett translations of:

    Dostoevsky – The Double, The Idiot, The Brothers Karamazov, Crime & Punishment, Notes from Underground

    There’s no direct comparison there, but I did read one page of Anna Karenina side-by-side in both translations (the end of part VII), and what I found was that while Garnett chose words that worked perfectly well, Pevear and Volokhonsky chose words that carried deeper meanings that enriched the text. I’ll try and explain without giving away any spoilers, but people who haven’t yet read Anna Karenina should be wary.

    Garnett describes the train as ‘relentless,’ whereas in the P/V it’s ‘implacable.’ Implacable captures the notion of relentlessness, but it also brings in an element of hostility (since to placate is to make less hostile). Given the situation, I think this makes implacable a richer word for the context.

    At the very end, Garnett uses the word “crackled” where P/V use “sputtered.” Crackled suggests a liveliness inappropriate to the situation, whereas “sputtered” suggests confusion and disarray. In this context, I feel sputtered is a more appropriate and evocative word.

    One of my favorite things to do while reading is to look up words, even and especially words I already know, in order to get a full sense of their meanings and the role they’re playing in the context I read them. When I do that with P/V, I get much the same sense of careful word choice as I get reading English originals. I’ve heard that Garnett is more literally true to the original, but since neither actually is the original, I’d prefer a substitute that enhances the plot with more evocative language, even if some literality is lost in the process. The writing in P/V translations is better than the writing in Garnett translations.

      1. $2.50!? Fares are only $1.75 here in the Valley of the Sun, and an all-day pass will only set you back $3.50.

        …then again, our transit system sucks (but only because it’s seriously underfunded…what we do do with what we have is pretty impressive, all things considered).


        1. I think it varies depending on hour of day and whether it’s a bus or a train. The CTA is a mess and under-serves the people who need it the most. If you want to go downtown, OK; if you want to go anywhere else, good luck. It has also been underfunded for decades. I never take it anymore, so I don’t know all the ins and outs. In my 20s I lived in Lakeview, Wrigleyville & Ravenswood (north side). All I needed was a monthly CTA pass and a bike.

          And now, back to Dostoyevsky…

  7. I’ve read the Constance Garnett version of War and Peace, and am currently reading the P&V version. There’s no comparison, reading Garnett felt like reading Great Expectations, reading P&V feels like reading something else entirely. And with War and Peace especially, P&V’s commitment to leaving non-Russian text in the original and translating it with footnotes is nice. Garnett left some of it, but not all, and so you never quite knew which “I love you”s were meant to be genuine.

  8. Decades ago I started one of his – can’t remember if War & P or Crime & P, but never got very far. But here’s a question – were any of his works translated to English in his time, or only sometime after his death? And, when did his fame in the English-speaking world begin to grow?

  9. I took a Russian literature class in high school. I remember reading Crime and Punishment in one frenzied but enjoyable sitting.

    The Brothers K was something else altogether and, in retrospect, was mostly beyond the ken of this hormone-crazed seventeen-year-old. I still have my high school copy of the Brothers, a battered paperback, spine rebound with masking tape, class notes and doodles in the margins.

    I have resisted (without much difficulty) the urge to read it again as an adult. I fear I may have lost my window of opportunity, and that my last five years of ardent atheism and investigations into Christian origins would make a rereading too exasperating to endure for very long. And that book takes no small amount of endurance in any case, if I remember it correctly!

    1. It makes a great case for atheism. And you can look for the without god everything is permitted ‘quote’.

      1. It’s been more than forty years since I read the book, and my recollections are very murky at best, no doubt not made more coherent by a fairly prodigious recreational use of psychedelics back then, but I seems to remember that God wins the final round in Battleship Karamazov?

        1. It’s been a while since I’ve read the Brothers K. myself, but I recall that Ivan, the atheist brother, is never fully refuted in the book nor does he convert to Christianity.

          The conclusion of the Brothers K. is, as I recall, not that God exists, but that if God does not exist, all is permitted, an ethical life is not possible and hence, religion is necessary as a basis of morality.

          It’s a cynical or perhaps cowardly conclusion and an obviously false one, but none the less interesting in the context of the novel.

    2. If atheism prevents you from enjoying Dostoevsky then the religious fundamentalists automatically win the argument that widespread atheism would make the world unimaginably worse.

      1. LOL. That’s it then. Game, set and match!

        Who knew that atheism would sink or swim based on my enjoyment of of a densely-written 19th-century despair-riddled Christian morality play?

  10. Thank you for this. Amazing. Brings back memories, esp. as I made it out to the Fortress and saw many graves (I remember Tchaikovsky’s the best).

    I didn’t know Dostoevsky was imprisoned in the fortress, nor that he was shipped to Siberia.

    One of the weirdest feelings I got out there, was a sense from all the locals I met that they were “survivors”. Everyone was descended from somebody who barely escaped the abysmal purges of Stalin, ravages of war, disease, or even the more modern terrorism of the police state, the KGB, etc. A real eye-opener for this country bumpkin.

  11. A “great man”?? He was a Russian Orthodox Christian in the extreme! In point of fact, it is impossible to fully understand his writings without understanding Russian Orthodox religious philosophy. He was a vehement member of the religiose! Which definitionally means of course that he was a deluded fool, and deluded fools are not worth taking seriously, at least outside of the realm of psychoanalysis.

    1. No, he was a deluded genius. Wrong at a higher level than you. He could put your position much better than you could.

        1. To A.N. Maikov, in 1870:

          “The whole destiny of Russia lies in Orthodoxy, in the light from the East, which will suddenly shine forth to Western humanity, which has become blinded and has lost Christ. The cause of the whole misfortune of Europe, everything, everything without exception, has been that they gained the Church of Rome and lost Christ, and then they decided that they would do without Christ.”

          Dostoevsky: Letters and Reminisces, Fyodor Dostoevsky, trans. S.S. Koteliansky

          Yes, silly me! Silly me, indeed!

        2. Oh, and being a genius and being a fool are not mutually exclusive. I would go so far as to submit that all the greatest fools were geniuses, and necessarily so.

    2. Such vehemence! If we stopped reading great literature because the authors were religious, we would deprive ourselves of one of the great pleasures of life. Shakespeare may have been a closet Catholic. Was Shakespeare “a deluded fool”?

      Even if you think so, take the advice of some literary scholars: ignore the biographical and enjoy the fiction.

      1. Indeed.

        If you were to ignore all religiously-themed music, you’d not only have to eliminate Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, Handel’s Messiah, every requiem ever written, and all of gospel music, you’d also have to stick your fingers in your ears for the Ring and every opera ever written about Orpheus. And that’s just for starters!




        1. Yes! Bach is my favorite and appears to have dedicated a great many of his compositions and to have taken inspiration from his imaginary friend. Genius in one zone does not preclude foolishness in another.

          1. To be fair, I think it was pretty reasonable in the early 1700s to be religious. This was long before Darwin, and right at the beginning of The Enlightenment. Christianity had been assumed true for so long that it didn’t even occur to anybody to question any of it — the same way it doesn’t even occur to us today to question the heliocentric model of the solar system. The value of empiricism wasn’t yet fully understood.

            It hardly seems reasonable to expect a musician of the period to independently discover philosophical concepts and scientific facts that nobody else would for quite some time — even if he did revolutionize the world of music.



      2. If he was religious, then it follows:

        1. Genius (by his works)
        2. Deluded (by his beliefs)

        Most of us are deluded about something (seems to me.)

  12. Thanks all on the translation votes. I’ve been mulling over which to read for a while. I have limited tolerance for Russian novels …

    I so much prefer non-fiction (to alomst any novels — I probably have thoroughly cretinous taste in novels (though I see Sam Harris is reading GRR Martin …)) and I see all the wonderful nonfiction boks on the shelf and … and … I go for them instead.

  13. In the interests of nitpicking–the text on the bottom of the cigarette box says “28th of January”, not “February”. This matches the clock…

  14. I remember from reading his Lectures on Russian Literature, that Nabokov had a very low opinion of Dostoyevsky, ranking him far below Tolstoy, Chekhov, Gogol and Turgenev.

    Perhaps I risk being banned to Siberia for saying this, but I tend to agree. All these overly emotional, semi-hysterical characters in D. irritate me immensely. Give me Chekhov any time.

    1. Karamazov, that’s actually a pretty nice book, but yeah, I’ll join you. I really don’t like his standard stock characters. Or the didactic speeches and Disputations About Serious Matters. And I’ve never understood how anyone could call him a deeper psychologist than Tolstoy.

      1. That’s because many people equate psychology in literature with an overt display of emotions, or with crude and implausible motivations for an act like the murder in Crime and Punishment.

      1. I will be moving abroad soon. The last thing I want right now is more books 🙂

        But thanks for the offer.

  15. Please read the Pevear/Volokhonsky translations! Compared to Constance Garnett, they are like encountering entirely new books. Incomparably superior! War and Peace especially is a transformation and revelation. My Russian-born wife sampled several other modern translations before recommending them to me and she was absolutely right.

  16. I visited St Petersburg a few years back and had the same awed response – to the Hermitage, Dostoesveky’s fairly luxe apartment, to the apartment where the great Anna Akhmatova lived and where she spent a night talking with Isaiah Berlin.

    As for translations, the lions of the moment are the team of Peveare and Volokhonsky, working their way through the great Russian canon. Quite splendid, though other translations, such as David Magarshack, Rosemary Edmonds and Briggs (forget his first name) have their supporters.

  17. Change of tack: I’m amazed at how 20th century the apartment and its furnishings look. Early, but 20th.

  18. Northrop Frye in “Literary and Mechanical Models” (1989):

    “I remember the shock of picking up a copy of [Dostoevsky’s] The Brothers Karamozov and seeing it described as ‘the book of the film’. . . .”

  19. I might have chosen a poor translation, but when I read Crime and Punishment years ago I remember finding it infuriatingly unbelievable. There were so many times when all the protagonist needed to do was simply *not say anything*, yet he would always open his big mouth and blab and blab in the most idiotic way and give the game away for no apparent reason. I remember thinking “shut up, shut up, shut up you moron!” throughout the book.

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