October 30, 2021

At Home with Dostoyevsky

At Home with Dostoyevsky
Curb appeal. At least we assume there's a curb somewhere under all that snow. Griffin Edwards

I have a confession to make. This is difficult to do, but it's necessary. I hope you won't think less of me for it.

Here goes.

I'm not a huge fan of Dostoyevsky.

Let me put it this way: I appreciate Dostoyevsky, but I wouldn't go out of my way to read his work. Yeah, I skimmed (a liberal use of the word) Crime and Punishment for a college class, and tried to start Brothers Karamazov and didn't finish it. They're fascinating works, but hidden under so. many. words. Sorry, but I'll take the cleverness of Pushkin and Chekhov instead any day. And Dostoyevsky will never be able to hold a candle, in my eyes, to Gogol, my hilarious, surrealist, proto-Kafka bestie.

But sometimes you find yourself in a small town without many options, and you make the best of what's in front of you.

I was studying abroad in Veliky Novgorod, a hundred miles south of St. Petersburg, and a bus had taken us to the other side of Lake Ilmen to see the sights of Staraya Russa, an ancient town now known for its mineral water resort. I remember the trip being pervasively frigid and blanketed with ice and snow. It was only after looking through my photos that I realized that the excursion took place on Dostoyevsky's birthday: November 11, squarely in the crisp fall for those of us in milder climes.

Like many Russian villages, Staraya Russa is a bit sparse, with large, squat buildings far apart on large lots, punctuated by church spires and birch trees. Dostoyevsky's place sticks out, its dark green walls facing the river.

View from Dostoyevsky's house
Staraya Russa from Dostoyevsky's front yard. Also a glimpse at northern Russia in mid-November. | Griffin Edwards

It's a pretty comfortable house, as nineteenth-century dwellings go. The ground floor is utilitarian: what would have been storage, the kitchen, servants' quarters, and the like. Today it houses a couple exhibits and a small lecture hall where readings, discussions, and performances are held. Upstairs is the restored and historic part of the building, where Mr. and Mrs. Dostoyevsky lived and little Dostoyevskys' feet once went pitter-patter.

dostoyevsky's table
Dostoyevsky's family's dinner table. "How was your day, honey?" "Fine. I ruminated on nihilism and killed someone with a hatchet because I could." | Griffin Edwards

Dostoyevsky first occupied this house in 1876, after he had already achieved some literary acclaim. The first house he ever bought, it served as his family's dacha in the summers (I assume it's warmer then) until he died in 1881. He wrote significant portions of The Brothers Karamazov and Demons, as well as portions of other works, here, with his wife acting as editor. By "here," I mean at this desk:

Dostoyevsky's massive wooden desk
If I had a desk like this, I'd spend a lot more time writing. | Griffin Edwards

The house-museum provides a remarkably well-preserved slice of Dostoyevsky's life. The table is set, the bed is made, a pencil on the desk waits to be picked up. It's not a spacious house, but it's lived in. In the living quarters, there are a couple bedrooms, as well as an office, dining room, and living room, all worn in and surprisingly warm.

I could see someone living here and liking it. Dostoyevsky reportedly did, enjoying a backyard garden and strolls through the neighborhood on rainy days (edgy). Some say that Staraya Russa was even the basis for the town portrayed in The Brothers Karamazov.

The museum provides a surprisingly intimate glimpse into the fairly plain daily life of one of Russia's most foreboding literary giants. Dostoyevsky's house is modest, even, given his literature rock star-dom. Especially compared to Pushkin's country manor. But even Dostoyevsky gets a little shrine on the first floor where schoolchildren can lay flowers:

HBD, Dostoyevsky
Flowers for the birthday boy. | Griffin Edwards​

I couldn't recommend the trek to Dostoyevsky's house to anyone but the most dogged Dostoyevsky fan. If you have a Raskolnikov cardboard cutout in your room, by all means, take the trip. The long drives through flat country will only add to the feeling of pilgrimage. But it's not an easy place to get to for dilettantes like myself. For us, it's a good place to stop if you're in the area.

If literature's really not your thing, you can always check out the recreated medieval saltworks down the street. It's Putin-approved.

Eat salt with the president
Salty guy. | Griffin Edwards


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