I was thirty when I first went to St Petersburg (then Leningrad, of course); in thrall to Dostoevsky as a schoolboy, I learned to read him in Russian at university. I talked the talk, but had not yet walked the walk, particularly the perambulations of the murderer Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment.
St Petersburg in 1973 was neglected, in places deserted. But it was friendlier and more old-fashioned than Moscow: people jostled you less, and, if they did, they apologised. Most of the buildings, reconstructed from the ruins of the siege, looked as if they had barely been touched since Dostoevsky’s times. In those days, despite Joseph Stalin’s enthusiasm for The Devils, Dostoevsky’s novels were marginal to the Russian school curriculum and his complete fiction could only be obtained by subscribing to a ten-volume edition. There were then none of today’s tourist excursions following in Raskolnikov’s footsteps over canal bridges and up staircases. On the other hand, access to buildings was not yet barred by steel doors with entry codes, and the inhabitants still lived crowded in 19th-century squalor.
It was September. I bought a newspaper, not to read, but to put between shirt and sweater as insulation against the cold, wet blasts from the Gulf of Finland. I relied on Dostoevsky’s phenomenal topographical memory: even when living a thousand miles away, he could count the number of paces his characters needed to get from A to B. In Crime and Punishment the hero is too poor for cabs and is strangely unaware of St Petersburg’s new horse-drawn trams (St Petersburg, being flat, was ideal for horse-drawn transport, the double-decker trams merely requiring a spare horse, stationed by each canal bridge, to help them over the arch). The Idiot is a novel less gratifying to the walker: characters are millionaires and take cabs, and their mansions, rather than the streets, create the claustrophobic atmosphere.
I began by sneaking into Raskolnikov’s house on Stolyarny Lane and climbing the last thirteen stairs to his attic room. Even though the building lost its basement in 1970 and the yard was now tarmac, I was still left immersed in the novel. The age-old smells of stale cabbage, wet tea leaves and unemptied chamber pots now had a subtle Soviet overlay of cherry-scented floor polish and petrol fumes from the street. From there I crossed the Griboyedov (in Dostoevsky’s day the Ekaterina) Canal and followed, battling the merciless wind, the murderer’s 730 paces to the pawnbroker’s quarters up the stairs of 28 Srednyaya Podyacheskaya Street. Neither the landing where Raskolnikov hid nor the doors to the pawnbroker’s had changed in a century. From there, just across the canal, it was ten minutes to the quarters of Sonia Marmeladova, the prostitute who saves Raskolnikov from perdition. The last, exhausting trek along the endless pavements of Sadovaya Street took me to the old police building that was the site of Raskolnikov’s self-expiating Calvary (it is today an Apple Store).
St Petersburg, like Dante’s hell, is built in concentric circles, with alternating canals and roads. Raskolnikov could walk himself to exhaustion but never escape. The circles bring you back to the same place. An early Dostoevsky story, The Landlady, has a hero in search of cheaper lodgings walk to the edge of the city; he keeps walking and finds himself back home in the centre. That spider’s web structure is one reason why Russian writers so often portray St Petersburg as hell, Moscow as purgatory and rural Russia as paradise. In Dostoevsky’s work, except the last two novels, St Petersburg may be hell, but it is home. The buildings, monumental on the outside and squalid on the inside, are central to understanding the heroes’ moods. The sight of the house, at 28 Gorokhovaya, of Parfen Rogozhin, who murders the heroine and destroys the mind of the hero of The Idiot, is as shocking as Dostoevsky’s evocation of the horrors within, even if the house is now mauve, instead of ‘dirty green’.
As a boy in the 1950s, reading David Magarshack’s translation of Crime and Punishment in the new red-trimmed Penguin Classics edition, I identified Dostoevsky’s St Petersburg of the 1860s with Earls Court, where I lived. We were all at home in the novel: the civil servant who one evening drank himself to death in the flat above; his hysterical widow flinging the television from the third-floor window because it was spying on her; the demented Polish countess opposite; the Jehovah’s Witness next door with thirteen cats; the Svidrigaylov-like pervert accosting boys around Kensington Gardens; myself and a school friend with similarly intransigent radical views, living, unsupervised by adults, on tea, bread and omelettes, roaming the streets with jetsam picked out of the Thames. With a schoolboy’s tenuous sense of chronology, when I read The Brothers Karamazov (I too am one of three brothers), I was astounded that Dostoevsky had met my father, a man, like old Karamazov, with whom you went to a restaurant in the certain knowledge that you would be too embarrassed by his behaviour ever to eat there again.
Reading Dostoevsky leaves you feeling that his novels are constructed as a series of confrontations, on ill-lit staircases, in attic rooms, at police stations, in bars. There are interrogations, confessions, philosophical arguments, declarations of love, or those uninhibited rows that Russians call ‘clarification of relationships with excursions onto the staircase landing’. But the outside world, especially St Petersburg, impinges very heavily on the characters. Crime and Punishment occurs during the hottest and haziest summer in the city’s history; The Idiot plunges its heroes, after two sleepless nights in a third-class railway carriage, into a chilling November fog. Exhaustion, malnutrition and sleeplessness accelerate the disintegration and reformation of the heroes. Those states are harder for a modern tourist to experience in today’s St Petersburg. But the city’s freezing winds, undrinkable water, fevers, darkness in winter and perpetual light in summer, and above all paucity of nature (there are no more trees or birds in Dostoevsky’s St Petersburg than in hell) focus the mind on the obsessions and passions of the characters even more than reading the novels in an unfurnished prison cell might do.