Peterburg is home to many famous Russians besides Mr. Putin. The name that comes to mind for me is the famous author Fyodor Dostoyevsky. His work delved into “innermost existential depths in response to repression from without.” It seems to fit with the recurring theme in Russia. That theme is dense, fatalistic, philosophical, lyrical, haunting, bleak, and passionate.
It turns out that most Russians are well read. And knowing just a little about the famous Russian writers helps make sense of this trip, the art, the people, the museums, and monuments.
Russian writers did not blossom until the Nineteenth century, long after most European cultures had established literary traditions. Serfdom was still enshrined here in the early 1800s. And even more so, literacy belonged only to the upper classes. They preferred European literature to Russian to show their western mind set.
But you can thank none other than Napoleon Bonaparte for Russia’s literary habits. The Russian victory over Nappy helped Russians embrace their art and culture.
Alexander Pushkin became revered as the father of modern Russian literature. He applied
everyday language to poetic forms. His work became more accessible to the common man or woman. At the young age of 37, his death raised him to icon status.
Despite the more playful Pushkin romantic works, Dostoyevsky revealed a darker and more troubled side. His Crime and Punishment deals with the turmoil of a poor student who murdered a pawn broker. Imagine that I had to read this as a college freshman! For the first time in my life, I had to read something unlikable but much too believable..
Likewise, his Notes From Underground is about a man expressing his free will by sinking into depression. It sparked many conversations and debates about free will in my Berkeley dormitory during my freshman year of college.
Other great authors followed, the likes of Gogol, Lermontov, Chekov, Nabokov, and of course, Solzhenitsyn. The names sound like Russian hockey players, instead of famous authors. In fact, many people suggest reading Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky on the long plane ride to Russia, just to properly acclimatize to the Russian mindset.
Peterburg was a central theme in Dostoyevsky’s works. I must visit his home which has become a house museum. He might be the most famous Russian poet or writer of 19th century Peterburg, despite Pushkin. People name pets, cafes and bicycles after Pushkin. Nobody names their dog after Fyodor Dostoyevsky!
The house is quite middle class and cheery. Not what you would expect from Crime and Punishment. Desperate characters dominate his work. A closer look at his life reveals the ups and downs of his life and career from debts to imprisonment for revolutionary activity.
He died of lung disease just after finishing Brothers Karamazov with his wife’s help. Yes, he smoked, even rolled his own cigarettes. Self inflicted wounds, as they say.
He was born on November 11, 1821 in Moscow. Some sources say his birthdate was October 30. He is buried in the Alexander Nevsky Monastery here in Peterburg. He suffered from epilepsy. He attended military engineering school here. He was in the Russian army for 2 years, as an engineer with a rank of lieutenant. He was a political prisoner in a labor camp in Tobolsk, Russia from 1850 to 1854. He was saved from execution by Tsar Nicholas I at the last moment. He was said to have a gambling addiction as well.
To call him a genius is said to be an understatement. His literary brilliance lives on today for all of us. Many literary experts feel he is the most influential writer that ever lived. His work consists of eleven novels, three novellas, seventeen short stories, and numerous other works. His work has been translated into more than 170 languages.
Now where is that dog?
PS: a big thank you to my friend Jon in PG for reminding me to visit this historic home and museum.