It’s fitting that St Petersburg flies the flag as Russia’s capital of culture: the city has, throughout its history, nurtured some of the country’s most enduring creative talent. But there’s one particular literary genius with which the city is indelibly linked: Fyodor Dostoevsky. The novelist spent most of his life in the erstwhile imperial capital, and it was in St Petersburg that he penned his most venerated accomplishment, Crime and Punishment.
The novel’s protagonist, 23-year-old student Rodion Raskolnikov, may appear an unlikely tour guide. However, tracing his footsteps through St Petersburg leads visitors away from the opulent palaces and fairy tale churches to offer a rare glimpse of the living, working city. For Crime and Punishment enthusiasts, and those hoping to see behind St Petersburg’s gilded façades, here’s how to explore the setting of one of Russia’s most famous literary masterpieces.
The enigmatic ‘S. Place’ and ‘K. Bridge’ of the novel’s opening lines would mean very little had Dostoevsky’s wife Anna Grigoryevna not filled in the missing letters following his death. It follows, then, that a tour of Crime and Punishment’s St Petersburg begins at Stolyarny place, adjacent to Grazhdansky street—Raskolnikov’s address. The corner is marked with a stone plaque and a relief sculpture of the novel’s mastermind, the 13 steps a nod to Raskolnikov’s climb up to his humble lodgings in the roof. The surrounding neighbourhood’s mood is bleak and sullen, just as Dostoevsky described it.
Track the anti-hero’s footsteps along Stolyarny street to Kokushkin Bridge. This unassuming road across Griboyedov Canal marks a central point in the novel’s geography. Turn left from the bridge, and you’ll discover the home of the long-suffering Sonya, who was forced by poverty into prostitution. Her dilapidated three-storeyed green apartment block is, in reality, much taller and has been repainted yellow. Turn right from the Kokushkin Bridge and follow the canal towards the fated apartment of Alyona Ivanovna, the unscrupulous pawnbroker who Raskolnikov murders.
Branch off from Alyona’s block to discover the underground tavern where Raskolnikov meets Sonya’s vodka-soaked father, Marmeladov—it was one of innumerable basement bars in the area that have since closed. Marmeladov’s ‘smoke-blackened door’ is further down Bolshaya Podyacheskaya, but is barely recognisable thanks to the street’s gradual gentrification over the century or so since the book was published.
The real heart of Crime and Punishment’s St Petersburg is Haymarket Square, now Sennaya Square, where Raskolnikov hatches the idea to murder Alyona. Described by Dostoevsky as ‘a kaleidoscope of odd characters’, it was marked as a scene of chaos, debauchery and vice, jostling with ragged beggars, thieves and prostitutes. It has since shaken off its unsavoury past, but continues to bustle as a busy bus terminal.
End the tour on Nikolaevsky Bridge, now Annunciation Bridge, where Raskolnikov pauses to gaze out at the city. It’s the only moment in the novel where there’s a sense of space, and it’s easy to see why. Spectacular views across the Neva and the city beyond offer a moment’s respite from the city’s incessant throng.