The Brothers K introduces Russia

Kathryn visits Doestoevky's grave in Leningrad (1967).

Destination: Russia

Book: The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky


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.

Kathyrn Lance

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??

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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

10 thoughts on “The Brothers K introduces Russia

  1. I’ll try to check out everyone’s blogs soon. Just another note about Russian hospitality. The way the tour went, we ended up back in Leningrad. My grad student buddies had a party for me. Nobody had any money, but they still put on a spread with caviar, chocolate, strawberries, and vodka. Lots and lots of vodka.

  2. This reminds me of when I went to St. Petersburg about 15 years ago. It was wintertime and my friends and I had misunderstood our train itinerary and ended up a day later then we’d expected. Thankfully, our hostel reservations were still good, but we felt a little overwhelmed after our train trip, which we didn’t realize would take a day and a half. A Russian family took pity on us, invited us over for dinner and then took us on a tour of the city pointing out all of the historical–and literary spots. It all felt magical.

  3. While I’ve never been to Russia, I do love Dostoevsky’s book bought so wonderfully to life with this article. You sound like you had a special experience with friends in St Petersburg, the kind of experience that makes travel so educational and memorable.

  4. Thanks, Edie and others. Something I didn’t mention in the essay is that I got giardia (or so I assume from subsequent research) the day I arrived in Leningrad, and was sick the whole trip. But I loved Russia so much I didn’t care.

    1. Oh, that is really awful, Kathryn. But you were young enough that you could cope, I guess. It gets harder and harder as you get older.
      Edie: Love your hippie honeymoon.
      We loved St. Petersburg so much. It was worth the hassle of getting a visa to spend time on land, rather than take the easier route of staying on a cruise ship. Walking around at midnight in the white nights of summer between 10 and midnight….
      We spent most of our time on the Peter and Paul fortress bank of the river, and otherwise close to the river along where the Hermitage is. We also visited Peterhoff and marveled at the way the Soviets had meticulously restored and rebuilt this glorious showplace of the former royalty.
      My brother and his wife visited about when Kathryn and Edie did, during communist times, and wandered away from their guides so they could try to see “forbidden” things. They were amazed to see ordinary people bringing flowers to the graves of Peter and Catherine the Great, et al in the chapel near the citadel.
      Although I had also read Brothers K, a biography of Peter the Great was our best preparation for the trip.

      1. I totally blocked it: I got giardia in Russia too and thought how ironic it was that I was safe throughout India and all those places you’re warned about and then got sick in “the west.” But I guess the fond memories of St. Petersburg won out.

  5. I went to Moscow and Leningrad on what I like to call my hippie honeymoon — we also went to Afghanistan, Iran, India, Nepal — and had the opposite agenda of the people on your trip: I was convinced that all we heard about the Soviet Union back home was propaganda. I came away convinced that they were “poisoning our bodily fluids,” to quote Dr. Strangelove.

    And also discovered that Leningrad was the most beautiful city that I had never heard about. I had known about Moscow’s architecture — those ubiquitous pictures of St. Basil’s — but had no idea about the canals, the Hermitage… all the things that surprised and enchanted me.

    Thanks for your wonderful piece. It brought me back to that time of wonderful discovery.

  6. This is what I love about travel: “…a oouple of Russian graduate students took me to some places off the beaten path.” Meeting people and exploring the secrets (if you will) of a place. thank you for sharing this visit! (Side story – in a College Bowl competition, I correctly identified Dostoevsky as the answer to a question, but had to say his name three times to get it right…I don’t say english names correctly let alone other languages). -r

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