Eastern Europe

Get lost in the 18th century culture. A literary Sankt Petersburg

Literature lovers don’t need special days of celebration or commemoration to visit the places that witnessed the life changing decisions of their favorite novel characters. And it’s nothing about being a fanatic, trying to physically transpose yourself somewhere to better understand the wishes, needs and reasons of despair of historically (not just literary) important fictional characters. And most of the times you don’t even need to make an effort to step in their shoes, as going to the right places can make this entire experience happen for you.

Crime and Punishment

‚The darker the night, the brighter the stars,
The deeper the grief, the closer is God!’

(Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment)

 

There’s no evidence of the formerly ironically called ‘Crystal Palace’ in today’s Sankt Petersburg, yet you won’t need one to sense the apathy in Raskolnikov’s voice when asking for a cup of coffee while reading a newspaper in that place of sorrow and debauchery. Simply walking the streets of Moskovskii prospect that’s marked by the tower is enough for any Dostoevsky lover to imagine the older appearance of the place – home of a messy tavern where the protagonist’s voice would have frozen time with his spectacularly pained yet heavy voice, while he almost confessed his crime. But Sankt Petersburg today won’t only make footage shots fill your head every other step, and what you’ll discover is the astonishing chromatic discrepancy between the way the city seemed to him and Leo Tolstoy, and the way it looks today. The clear, clean streets drowning out the city noise as hurried colorfully dressed people pass you by will still remind you of the old city of sins and untold confessions, the place of monumental tragedies that it used to be.

And this is, perhaps, why you’ll love it. This huge discrepancy of colors emphasizes the true dimension of the catastrophes, their intensity and acuity, especially since the only modern changes to the place consist in technological inventions and vivid, colorful people and ads. But as walking down the streets along 73 kanal Griboedova, it will be impossible for you not to think of Sonia cleaning her ugly, irregularly shaped apartment, while you’ll almost search for her eyes in a balcony, radiating kindness and compassion. The bridges still do justice to the book’s descriptions, as do some of the old buildings restored in a very classy way, keeping the spirit of that time alive, despite all the modern world’s additions on the side. The place has preserved some of its natural, unimpaired characteristics, and one of the best examples is Yusupov Garden, where you’ll be carried away imagining how fresh the place would look like with some artesian fountains, the way that Raskolnikov himself did on his way to commit murder. You’ll find this huge, fatalistic spirit of Russia still alive, heartbroken for hundreds of years. And what’s going to strike you most is that it’s not only the descriptions, but the people’s hearts as well that still vividly fit the author’s descriptions, making him almost two centuries ahead of his time.

Anna Karenina

 

‚Now you slow down, that’s the matter,
You, my heart, that suffered a cold jet.
And the land of calico birch pattern
Hardly tempts my feet to walk o’er that.’

(Sergey Yesenin)

 

And since today we commemorate 103 years since Leo Tolstoy’s death at age 82, you must know that his Sankt Petersburg wasn’t that different either. But what he did emphasize a lot more than Dostoevsky is the enormous opposition between Moscow, the idealized city to live in and the place that somewhat magically gathered all the positive emotions and perspectives and Sankt Petersburg. The latter’s one of the consistent dualities in Anna Karenina, thing that you can predict from the very first paragraph depicting poor and wealthy families in contrast. This interplay that follows ‘War and Peace’ is one of the places, more than just one of the narrative juxtapositions and ideological, moral perspectives.

The shallow cosmopolitanism of the then St. Petersburg is something you can experience yourself today, as decayed in hedonism and physical beauty and delights as Tolstoy himself saw it, centuries ago. The book describes the whole city of sins revealing the true unhappy and impure nature of both characters and their feelings, while its lack of conservationism, the lack of cohesion between the important families and the politicized social life make it corrupt and lacking in any national spirit.

What you can’t miss visiting for a better immediate internal understanding of the former Russian capital’s cosmopolitanism is Neva. To get to this majestic river you’ll walk Nevsky prospect, following the steps of Karenin visiting his wife who’d just given birth. The streets here are so beautifully lit, like they would highlight the vintage, coquettish air of the city, along with its still preserving 18th century urban elegance. The best walk in the city is following Nevsky until you get to Dvorstoviy prospect, after which you can follow the river, listen to its never ceasing calming whisper. Spring and autumn are the most recommended times to visit, when the natural framing seems to adorn the city with some more naturally fitting jewelry.

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