Article - Summer 2020

Adrift in Sunlit Night

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When searching St. Petersburg for the shadows of Dostoyevsky, Gogol, and Pushkin, the best strategy may simply be to get lost

By André Aciman | June 2, 2020
Near this spot on the Kryukov Canal, night after night, the narrator of “White Nights” meets Nastenska, until fate eventually intervenes. (Dr_Verner/iStockPhoto)
Near this spot on the Kryukov Canal, night after night, the narrator of “White Nights” meets Nastenska, until fate eventually intervenes. (Dr_Verner/iStockPhoto)

On an intensely bright morning in June, I find myself roaming the streets of St. Petersburg, looking for the 19th century. I have always meant to roam the city. That’s what I thought you did in St. Petersburg. You shut your door, head downstairs, catch yourself blinded by the sun, and before you know it, you’re wandering to places and squares you never thought you’d be passing through. A guidebook won’t help, and neither will a map, for what you want is not just the thrill of getting lost when you stray off the chart and discover corners you hardly expected to find and might actually grow to love; what you want is to drift along the streets in as flushed a jittery state of mind as everyone does in Russian novels, hoping that some internal compass helps you find your way about a city you’ve been imagining since your bookish young teens. Stop thinking, shut down everything, and for once, go with your feet. This is supposed to be déjà vu, not tourism.

Part of me wants to visit Dostoyevsky’s city as it once was. The heat, the crowds, the dust. I want to see, smell, and touch the buildings on Stoliarny Place and hear the bustle of Sennaya Ploshchad, where hawkers, drunks, and all manner of slovenly people still come close enough to jostle you as they did 150 years ago. I want to walk along Nevsky Prospect, St. Petersburg’s major artery, because it appears in almost every Russian novel. I want to get a firsthand feel for this boulevard that was once peopled by wretched waifs on one end, affluent fops on the other, and in between by a flotsam of petty, hapless, embittered, backbiting civil servants whose only task, when they weren’t drafting mindless reports or copying them forever again, was to spend their hours groveling and gossiping and feeding off each other’s blighted lives. Call this paleo-travel: searching for what’s underneath, or for what’s no longer quite there.

I want to see the building where Raskolnikov lived (5 Stoliarny Place), scarcely a block across from where Dostoyevsky himself had lived and written Crime and Punishment; the bridge Raskolnikov crossed on his way to the murder on 104 Ekaterininsky (now renamed the Griboyedov) Embankment; and a few steps away, at number 73 on the same street, the place where the meek and sweet prostitute Sonia lived. All these places have hardly changed since Dostoyevsky’s time, though Raskolnikov’s five-story building has four floors now. The house on Stoliarny where Gogol himself had lived no longer stands, and the old wooden Kokushkin Bridge, which Gogol’s Poprishchin crosses in Diary of a Madman, is now made of steel.

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