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I haven’t written much about Dostoevsky here. Which is pretty silly, since there are only two other Russian writers who can claim to have influenced my life as much – Leo Tolstoy and Nikolai Erdman. Dostoevsky blows open young American, and not only American, minds. He did mine when I was in high school and I read his great novels one-after-the-other, consuming them like candy. (Sometimes feeling just as wrecked by them, as I would have been by a candy binge.) He was a mess and he was a genius. He took his own personal demons and enriched the world with them. His books made the world smarter, wiser and more aware of the abyss we stand on every moment of our every day.
I was recently in a hurry to get from one place to another. My subway route took me through the fabulous Dostoevskaya stop on Moscow’s metro. I have written about that elsewhere on this blog, if you’re interested. I love the artwork on the platform columns there and I occasionally get out when I’m passing through just to walk around and look at the mosaics until the next train comes along. I have been planning for ages to do more than that. You see, the home in which Dostoevsky was born is located almost directly on top of that metro station. And it’s been a long time since I paid my respects. So as the train approached ‘Dostoevskaya’ the other day, I pulled out my pocket watch and calculated how much time I could spare and still make the show I was going to. If I hustled, I could make it.
You can see the building in which Dostoevsky was born on November 11, 1821, in the three photos following immediately below. This is the right wing of the Mariinsky Hospital for the poor, where Fyodor’s father Mikhail worked as a doctor. These days the three-story structure is rather dwarfed by the monstrous Russian Army Theater located right next to it. Today the street is called Dostoevsky Street and the building number is 2. When Dostoevsky was born here, the street had the name of Bozhedomka, which sounds rather like “God’s home.” That little-known fact is “published,” if you will, in the entrance to the metro stop. It’s still another touch that makes the ‘Dostoevskaya’ stop my favorite. Everybody walking into or out of that stop is greeted with that information, as you can see in the second photo above. It doesn’t mean anybody pays it any attention, but, hey, that’s the way it is with all knowledge. It’s up to you whether you see stuff or not. Now, Dostoevsky lived in his parents’ apartment in the right (South) wing of the hospital for another two years before moving to a different apartment in the left (North) wing. The plaque honoring Dostoevsky’s birth usually hangs in the proper place, but, at present, the structure is being renovated, so the plaque has been moved temporarily to the other wing (see first photo above). A temporary paper note bearing that information is nailed to the wall beneath the granite plaque. This second one reads: “Memorial plaque has temporarily been moved in connection with the restoration of the right (South) wing. F.M. Dostoevsky lived in this (North) wing from 1823 to May 1837.” So, thanks to these little informational plaques, we get a picture of the first 15 years of the future writer’s life. Two years in the crib on one side, 13 more years running around loose on the other.
In between the two wings is the main building of the former hospital, an imposing, columned structure that, at least now, is painted in that luscious Russian yellow that combines so beautifully with a blue sky dappled with white clouds. A very interesting statue of Dostoevsky stands in the courtyard before the main house, which you can see from a distance in the photo immediately below. I’ll do a separate post on that monument, probably sooner than later.
So the building that actually is most closely connected to Dostoevsky’s life is the one you see in the last three photos below. Here he went from being a toddler to being a young man. It was largely here, inside these walls, that Dostoevsky’s world view came together. Fittingly, I guess, it is also in this wing where the small Dostoevsky museum is located. I’ve never been inside. I’m actually not a big fan of these kinds of museums. I’m thrilled they exist. They provide a very important service. But somehow they usually leave me unmoved. But on this day when I was running around, photographing, I didn’t have time to stop, and, anyway, the place was closed.
For the record, the museum was opened by a remarkable woman named Vera Nechaeva in 1928, something that is actually a minor miracle. Dostoevsky was not a popular writer with the head Soviet honchos. He was officially considered a sick writer of sick, dangerous problems, and his novels were published rarely and in smaller press-runs than other “likable” writers such as Tolstoy or Chekhov. Of course, his novel The Devils (often The Possessed in American English – that’s how it was known when I first read it) was a huge no-no. Its depiction of revolutionaries as cruel, thoughtless and opportunistic was – what? – it hit too close to home, I guess you could say. Timing is everything, of course, and Nechaeva was “lucky” to have opened her museum just prior to a time when cultural policies went south seriously. She would never have been able to open the museum ten or even five years later, maybe even one or two. Dostoevsky Street replaced the old name of New Bozhedomka in 1954. Note that that is just one year after the death of Joseph Stalin. The renaming of this street was a sign that Dostoevsky was about to be “rehabilitated,” as it was that a Thaw was about to begin.
Finally, one more tidbit on the street name Bozhedomka. I found this on the tribuna.ru website:
“A Lord’s house, or more properly, a poor house for deprived, poverty-stricken people was the name used in Russia for a place where the bodies of deceased, unidentified wanderers, or those who died violent deaths, were brought.”
So that’s precisely where Dostoevsky grew up, in an institution whose job it was to heal and care for the poor sick, and where the bodies of the abandoned dead were brought. A little bit of food for thought.