by Sheila Kohler
We had just arrived in St. Petersburg, Russia: my daughter Cybele, my granddaughter Masha, and I. I had not seen Cybele, who lives in Berlin, or Masha, who is at university in England, for a year, and was very fearful of missing them at the airport in St. Petersburg. I had to fly from New York to Paris to change planes there, and I was afraid of delays, strikes, or simply summer crowds. When I stood in the hall of the airport in St. Petersburg and saw neither one of them or even the man who was supposed to pick us up, I was in an extreme state of anxiety. With what joy I heard a glad cry, “Gogo!”—the name my granddaughter calls me—and saw a beautiful girl with pink cheeks and brown curls come flying through the crowd. Soon we were all embracing happily.
There was a fourth person present, however, at our reunion: the ghost of Dostoevsky. I am here, thanks to the university where I teach, with the intention of walking in Dostoevsky’s footsteps. I’m in the process of writing a book much inspired by his Crime and Punishment. (I don’t want to give too much away, so I won’t tell you more than that.) We’re even staying at the Sonya Radisson hotel. You will remember the saintly prostitute in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Sonya Marmeladov, who will save Raskolnikov, the murderer, with her love. There’s a quote from one of Dostoevsky’s books up outside of every room in the hotel.
The three of us—or should I say the four—will take a train from St. Petersburg to Moscow and on from Moscow to Omsk in Siberia, where Dostoevsky was imprisoned, after his mock execution in 1849.
On December 22, the members of what was known as the Petrashevsky Circle, a Russian intellectual literary group, were taken from their cells in the fortress of Saint Peter and Paul and sent to Semyonov Square. With the soldiers lined up and pointing their rifles, fingers resting on the trigger, the first three prisoners were tied to a stake, black hoods over their heads. They waited for imminent death. When a messenger rode up waving a white flag, they were told that, in a “show of mercy,” Tsar Nicholas I had supposedly spared the men. This was actually a means of fostering terror, and gratitude, something Dostoevsky would use in various ways in his subsequent great novels, including Crime and Punishment. He would always remember that moment of terror and how precious life suddenly seemed to him.
What struck me, though, on arriving here, after the first moment of great elation at the airport—is how different the city seems to me from Dostoevsky’s dark description in Crime and Punishment.
I will admit we have only been in this city built by Peter the Great in the eighteenth century for less than a week, and all has been colored by our joyous reunion and exceptional sunshine. Together we have taken a boat on the canals, admired the great works of art in the Hermitage, and visited the fortress where Dostoevsky was imprisoned. We have seen the houses where he lived and the one Raskolnikov was supposed to inhabit and the place where he was to murder the pawnbroker.
Obviously, St. Petersburg has changed much since 1866 when Dostoevsky wrote his famous book. It was then, as he describes it, flooded with the newly freed serfs who flocked here in search of work in the factories and the budding industries of the great city. Yet, the wide boulevards, the orderly layout of the city, and the baroque buildings which line the Neva, as well as many of the churches with their glittering onion-shaped domes, date from the eighteenth century, and must have looked much as they do today, and surely the weather has not changed that much.
In the book, which starts in the summer, like our visit, the city is dusty, filled with dank odors which rise from the polluted water of the canals; drunkards, who stagger down the sweltering narrow streets, or youthful prostitutes who wander precariously, half-clad in the summer heat followed by dangerous predators. Dostoevsky writes, “It was terribly hot out and moreover it was close, crowded, lime scaffolding and bricks, dust everywhere and that special summer stench known so well to every Petersburger who cannot afford to rent a summer house.”
Obviously, like the history portrayed in the fortress of Saint Peter and Paul, where Dostoevsky was imprisoned, the city can be seen in many different guises and disguises, and the way it appears in Crime and Punishment serves the author’s purpose. He uses the place to skillfully echo and evoke concretely the emotions of his troubled and conflicted hero as well as to provide motivation for his crime, and ultimately to create suspense.
Though our hotel room is certainly not palatial, it has large deep windows, and the sun continues to stream in until late at night. I am writing this at eight-thirty without one light lit in the room. The enamel basin and bath shine with cleanliness, and the towels are fluffy and white, whereas poor Raskolnikov, Dostoevsky’s murderer, in Crime and Punishment lingers on in a stifling closet of a room that Dostoevsky likens to a “coffin.” It has yellowing wall paper (all the rooms seem to have yellowing wallpaper) and an accumulation of dust on the books which he can no longer bring himself to read, sunk so deeply in the lethargy of his depression.
It is at least partly this dire poverty which drives Raskolnikov to stumble down the stairs and slink past his landlady’s quarters (he owes the rent) and out into the stifling streets in the first pages of the novel in a sort of “rehearsal” of the crime he will ultimately commit.
In the streets he will come across the young girl who seems destined for prostitution in her drunken and disorderly state. Someone, Raskolnikov fears, has taken advantage of an innocent girl and a predator who follows her will bring about her ruin. This chance encounter in the streets of the city echoes Raskolnikov’s inner dilemma: his own loving sister Dunya is contemplating a disastrous marriage with a pompous and dastardly man, Luzhin, in order to obtain the money her brother needs for his education—surely a prostitution of a respectable kind.
Dostoevsky gives us precise details which serve the author’s purposes exactly. The reader sees, tastes, and smells this concrete world and feels, with increasing terror, for this young man with his generous impulses to help the Marmeladov family, as well as to rise above the circumstances of his life. We fear he will commit murder, and then we tremble that he may confess and be caught. We are brought by the verisimilitude of the descriptions of place to believe this young student could kill the old, avaricious, and cruel pawnbroker brutally with an axe and steal her money. The reader both understands rationally and also feels emotionally that this young man with his impulses to both give away all he has and to grasp what is not rightfully his own might actually strike not only a defenseless elderly woman with an axe but her innocent step-sister who happens to walk in on the crime.
St. Petersburg, with its crowded and claustrophobic atmosphere, its courtyards and dank back staircases, the police office which smells mysteriously of new paint, all of this drives the murderer onward first to commit his absurd and senseless crime and finally, thanks to Sonya Marmeladov’s love and devotion and the detective Porfiry’s skillful questioning, to confess to what he has done, and ultimately to redemption. The inner conflict, the split in his mind—the reasonable thoughts about his family, his relationship with Sonya, and the irrational desire to rise above the law—is echoed by the world outside of him: good and evil abounds around him. In this place where I have come to find my darling daughter and my dearest granddaughter, a place so filled with light and, it seems, love, I have found a new understanding of Dostoevsky’s art and mind.
Sheila Kohler is the author of fourteen books, and the winner of the Willa Cather Award and two O. Henry Prizes for her fiction. Born and raised in South Africa, she has lived in the U.S. for many years and teaches at Princeton University. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.