Book: The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
A GUEST POST BY KATHRYN LANCE
Dostoevsky and Me
The year I turned sixteen, I fell in love with a book that changed my life forever. The book was The Brothers Karamazov, and I read it compulsively, finishing in three days. To me it held the answers to everything I was searching for in philosophy, ethics, religion, and general worldly knowledge. As soon as I finished I re-read it and then devoured all of Dostoevsky’s other novels.
I enrolled in Russian classes in college, and in 1967 was able to fulfill my dearest dream: to travel to Mother Russia to see the places Dostoevsky had written about and to meet real Russians. I was part of a study group that traveled on the Alexander Pushkin, the Soviet Union’s star cruise ship.
The ship was so Russian that I felt I was almost there already. It had a distinctive smell that I think was composed largely of strong Russian cigarette smoke and cooked potatoes. The crew members, most of whom spoke way better English than I spoke Russian, were friendly and curious.
The night before we arrived in Leningrad (now and in Dostoevsky’s time called St. Petersburg) I was so excited I was unable to sleep. The early dawn revealed dense forests of ghostly white birch trees, slipping endlessly past the ship. Although I had never lived anywhere but the desert, I had the strange sense that I was coming home.
Leningrad was everything I had hoped for and more. Here were the 19th-century buildings, parks, and streets that my hero had so lovingly described, everything gloriously pastel in the eerie light of the northern White Night. It seemed so old and otherworldly that I half expected to see a horse carriage or a troika around every corner. I was charmed by everyday Russians who showed up on the same tours we took, many of the men with vodka and sardines on their breath, even in the early morning. I loved it!
A couple of Russian graduate students took me to some places off the beaten path. They were Dostoevsky fans too, and one showed me the route Dostoevsky had traced in Crime and Punishment from Raskolnikov’s house to the house of the old pawnbroker he murdered. We could not go inside because people were living there. People were also living in Dostoevsky’s last Petersburg home, which is now the Dostoevsky Museum.
My friends walked with me on Nevsky Prospekt, the broad boulevard mentioned in every Russian story or novel sent in Petersburg. I saw the beautiful Neva river, whose many small islands and canals gave Leningrad the sobriquet “Venice of the North.” I visited the Tikhvin Cemetery, where Dostoevsky is buried along with such other notables as Tchaikovsky. I was very pleased to see that someone had placed fresh flowers on Dostoevky’s grave.
I discovered later that the more politically-minded members of our tour found exactly what they had been looking for as well: evidence everywhere–in the martial signs and statues and the uniformed schoolchildren–of communist totalitarianism. Russia seemed to be a giant Rorschach test where you saw whatever you wanted or expected to see.
I have not been back in the 43 years since that trip, but I’m told that things have changed, that Leningrad and the other major cities are more modern, busier, not much different from an American city like Washington. Yet I believe that were I to visit again I would still find the 19th century St. Petersburg of my dreams, waiting for my imagination to make it real.
Kathryn Lance is a writer and editor living in Tucson, Arizona. She is due soon to re-read The Brothers Karamazov for the 27th time. Reach her at her website.
I was delighted when Kathryn suggested writing about the Brothers Karamazov for A Traveler’s Library. I had much the same experience that she did with the book–devouring it in my Freshman year in college. I visited St. Petersburg in the late 1990s and found plenty to remind me of the glory days, just as Kathryn did in the 1960s. (Remind me to tell you about visiting the childhood home of my favorite writer, Vladimir Nabokov.) This is a book that belongs in the traveler’s library, and a city that belongs on the itinerary of every world traveler.
Have you been to Russia? Did you think about favorite Russian writers? Chekhov? Gogol? Dostoevsky? Nabokov? Others??