There is a dreamlike quality to Russia’s St Petersburg. It’s a city that’s drenched in history with an ambience that’s amplified and intensified by the belye nochi—the luminous midsummer nights when the city seems cast in a lilac glow. Perhaps that’s why it has been the muse and home of so many artists, writers and thinkers. This is the place that produced Pushkin, Shostakovich and Nabokov. It was Lenin’s revolutionary capital and Ayn Rand, who exalted American free enterprise, was born within its boundaries. It was Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky who called St Petersburg ‘the most abstract and intentional city in the world’.
And it is Dostoevsky with whom St Petersburg has become synonymous. More than any other writer, he has come to be seen as the pre-eminent creative figure in a city known the world over for its artistic and cultural tradition. He was a true son of the city: he lived at almost 20 different addresses in St Petersburg and spent most of his life in this magical place. It was only fitting, therefore, that the city be the setting for most of his novels.
For a sightseeing with a difference, sidestep the many museums for a day or so, and instead explore the St Petersburg of Dostoevsky. The Mikhailovsky Palace, with its tall gold spire and grand façade, was Dostoevsky’s first residence in the city. It was here that for five years he studied as a cadet at the engineering school. The castle is remarkable because it offers a unique profile from each angle. The architects who built it for Emperor Paul I combined elements of different styles; visitors circumnavigating it may rightly wonder if they’re looking at the same building.
A 30-minute stroll away is Sennaya Square, or the Hay Market, described in Crime and Punishment in less than flattering terms. Now a bustling area with a hub of metro stations, it was, in Dostoevsky’s time, the city’s underbelly, a place with ‘establishments of bad character’, taverns and houses with ‘filthy and putrid yards’. It’s one of the ironies of the city that the St Petersburg of Dostoevsky was so often described by the writer as filthy, crowded and crime-ridden, even if he acknowledged its charisma and charm.
Dostoevsky always chose to live in apartments from which he could see the domes of a church. His most famous character, the tortured Raskolnikov, didn’t, however. From Sennaya Square, head north and across the canal, then head west; here you’ll find the apartment in which the protagonist of Crime and Punishment lived. In his books, locations like these are coded or abbreviated, but the author’s tendency to place characters near to where he was living at the time meant it wasn’t long before these codes were deciphered. Today, the building is adorned with an image of Dostoevsky and a plaque marking it as ‘Raskolnikov’s House’.
Dostoevsky wrote The Brothers Karamazov, his last novel, in a corner apartment on the second floor east of Sennaya Square, overlooking the Fontanka River. This is now the Dostoevsky Museum, where there is a replica of his study and a stopped clock showing the exact time of the writer’s death. He had lived there with his two children and his wife Anna, and it is thanks to Anna’s meticulous efforts that a replica could be made. Some items of Dostoevsky’s do remain, including his hat and his tobacco box.
As well as seeking out these literary hotspots, you could meander the streets of the city and come across traces of Dostoevsky without ever intending to do so. There is the Hotel Dom Dostoevskogo, once the house in which the writer wrote The House of the Dead and Humiliated and Insulted, and the Lion’s Bridge, which is near the home of the old pawnbroker murdered in Crime and Punishment. Dostoevsky’s mark on this great Russian city is indelible, and even if St Petersburg were to ‘rise with the fog and disappear like smoke’, as the writer once wrote, it would certainly live on his novels.