From Chekhov to Tol­stoy, ex­pe­ri­enc­ing lit­er­ary Moscow and St Petersburg

The Financial Express - - FRONT PAGE - Lu­cas Peter­son

Ex­pe­ri­enc­ing lit­er­ary Moscow and St Petersburg

CHEKHOV,” I kept say­ing. “Check-off.” Natalya, my kind, ma­ter­nal Airbnb host­ess, fi­nally nod­ded. “Ahh,” she said, un­der­stand­ing. “Chekhov,” she re­peated, mak­ing the ‘e’ sound like ‘ee’ and the ‘kh’ more gut­tural. “Yes, I love him,” she said, clutch­ing her heart. “He writes about my life. He is funny; he is sad.” Among her com­pa­tri­ots, she is cer­tainly not alone in her ad­mi­ra­tion of An­ton Chekhov, widely con­sid­ered one of the finest short-story writ­ers. Rus­sians are fiercely proud of their lit­er­ary tra­di­tion, which pro­duced, par­tic­u­larly in the 19th and 20th cen­turies, some of the finest and most well-re­garded nov­el­ists, play­wrights and po­ets the world has ever known. I set off to spend part of my time in Moscow and St Petersburg ex­plor­ing their lives and lear ning about—fru­gally, of course—a num­ber of Rus­sian lit­er­ary icons whom I ad­mired.

Dur­ing my stay in Moscow, I vis­ited the homes of two gi­ants of Rus­sian lit­er­a­ture: Chekhov and Leo Tol­stoy. The two men hap­pened to be con­tem­po­raries, as well as friends, though they had a com­pli­cated re­la­tion­ship with each other’s work. At Natalya’s en­cour­age­ment, I headed out to the Chekhov mu­seum, a house west of the Moscow city cen­tre where he lived be­tween 1886 and 1890. The Chekhov house, which con­tains fur­ni­ture, draw­ings, posters and personal pos­ses­sions (as well as English trans­la­tions), is on SadovayaKu­drin­skaya through a small gate on the side of an unas­sum­ing build­ing. Ad­mis­sion to the mu­seum is 250 rubles (about $4) and an ex­tra 100 if you want to take pic­tures—even ca­sual ones with your cell­phone.

While Rus­sians re­vere Chekhov, their re­la­tion­ship with Tol­stoy, at least pub­licly, is slightly more com­plex. He clashed with the Rus­sian Ortho­dox Church and was ex­com­mu­ni­cated in 1901. The Tol­stoy House Mu­seum, where Tol­stoy and his fam­ily lived dur­ing win­ters in the 1880s and 1890s, is on a well-groomed, rus­tic par­cel, just across the river from Gorky Park. For 350 rubles, vis­i­tors can walk through the 16-room house; a high­light is the large sa­lon where Tol­stoy once en­ter­tained the likes of Rach­mani­noff and Rim­sky-Kor­sakov (it’s an ad­di­tional 350 rubles here if you want to take pic­tures). Moscow may be the cap­i­tal, but St Petersburg is widely con­sid­ered the cul­tural cap­i­tal of Rus­sia and has no short­age of im­por­tant lit­er­ary land­marks. The city, fa­mous for its end­less sum­mer ‘white nights’, also has a Dos­toyevsky fes­ti­val, cel­e­brat­ing the life and work of this 19th-cen­tury nov­el­ist and es­say­ist. I found Visit Petersburg, the city’s of­fi­cial tourism por­tal, a source for use­ful Fy­o­dor Dos­toyevsky in­tel. There is an ac­com­pa­ny­ing app, which, de­spite some flaws (con­stantly crash­ing be­ing the most egre­gious), has some great in­for­ma­tion, in­clud­ing a va­ri­ety of walk­ing and driv­ing tours.

The fes­ti­val hub was a pale yel­low struc­ture, built in 1820 as a guard­house, which stands across from the Sen­naya Ploshchad metro sta­tion. I could hear a tremen­dous clam­our as I got closer— drums beat­ing, peo­ple shout­ing and a large crowd con­gre­gated around a small group of per­form­ers. Done up in face paint and quickly thrown-to­gether cos­tumes, the group banged on buck­ets and chanted a fever­ish call-and-re­sponse I couldn’t un­der­stand.

I speak no Rus­sian, and of­ten found my­self in sit­u­a­tions in which no one spoke English. At pop­u­lar tourist sites like the Her mitage, in­for ma­tion in dif­fer­ent lan­guages is read­ily avail­able; more niche gath­er­ings like the Dos­toyevsky fes­ti­val, how­ever, are geared to­wards the lo­cal pop­u­lace, with ex­pla­na­tions and ac­com­pa­ny­ing lit­er­a­ture in Rus­sian (if avail­able at all). I iden­ti­fied a cou­ple of fes­ti­val vol­un­teers by their T-shirts and asked if they could help me un­der­stand the per­for mance I had just wit­nessed, but was met with shy shrugs and apolo­gies.

I had bet­ter luck with a map I got in­side the old guard­house from a friendly young guide. I was able to fol­low that down Sadovaya Street and up over the Kokushkin Bridge past one of Dos­to­evsky’s old apart­ments (he was sup­pos­edly plagued by money prob­lems and moved fre­quently). Af­ter a few more blocks, I came to a small group of peo­ple lis­ten­ing to a tour guide out­side an apart­ment build­ing with a crum­bling fa­cade. This time, I had bet­ter luck com­mu­ni­cat­ing. When I asked the tour guide (whose name hap­pened to be Fy­o­dor, co­in­ci­den­tally) if he could pro­vide me with an English ex­pla­na­tion, his girl­friend, Maria, swooped in to the res­cue. “This is the Raskol­nikov apart­ment,” she said, re­fer­ring to the anti-hero of

Crime and Pun­ish­ment. But wasn’t he a fic­tional char­ac­ter? I asked. “Yes,” she replied, “But Dos­toyevsky liked to use real-life places in his books.”

In­deed, the novel be­gins: “On an ex­cep­tion­ally hot evening early in July a young man came out of the gar­ret in which he lodged in S. Place and walked slowly, as though in hes­i­ta­tion, to­wards K. bridge.” The ‘K’, Rus­sian his­to­ri­ans even­tu­ally deter­mined, meant Kokushkin, the name of the bridge I had just crossed. The ‘S’ in ques­tion stood for Stol­yarny, the street on which we now stood. Crime and Pun­ish­ment made a big im­pres­sion on me when I read it in my early 20s. Vladimir Nabokov, who found Dos­toyevsky ‘medi­ocre’, ex­plored sim­i­lar themes of moral quandary and men­tal an­guish in his po­lar­is­ing land­mark work, Lolita. It was mon­u­men­tal not be­cause of its con­tro­ver­sial sub­ject mat­ter, but rather for the ex­hil­a­rat­ing vir­tu­os­ity of Nabokov’s prose. That he wrote in English, rather than in his na­tive Rus­sian, made this 1955 novel all the more im­pres­sive.

Nabokov’s child­hood home on Bol­shaya Morskaya in the cen­tre of town is now open to the pub­lic (the first floor, any­way; when I tried to go up­stairs I was firmly rep­ri­manded). The free mu­seum con­tains many in­ter­est­ing items that be­longed to the au­thor: eye­glasses, manuscripts, but­ter­flies and a but­ter­fly net (Nabokov was an ob­ses­sive lep­i­dopter­ist), as well as the in­dex cards on which he fa­mously wrote many of his works.

Nabokov, though, while well-re­spected, did not seem beloved by the city he left as a young man. The poet Alexan­der Pushkin seemed to be the most cel­e­brated—or at least most ro­man­ti­cised—lit­er­ary fig­ure in the city, per­haps in part be­cause he died af­ter be­ing shot in a duel with a French of­fi­cer at age 37. Pushkin, who was born in Moscow, but spent for­ma­tive artis­tic years in St Petersburg, is le­gendary for his drama Boris Go­dunov and

Eu­gene One­gin, a se­ri­alised novel in verse. His apart­ment on Reki Moyki, where he died, has been care­fully pre­served and is now a mu­seum. Ad­mis­sion to the apart­ment is 120 rubles, and an ac­com­pa­ny­ing au­dio tour costs 190.

A lit­er­ary tour of Rus­sia, in­ci­den­tally, doesn’t have to mean only mu­se­ums: oc­ca­sion­ally, you have to eat. Dur­ing my crawl, I stum­bled upon Bi­b­lioteka, an an­i­mated, three-storey culi­nary ex­pe­ri­ence on Nevsky Prospekt, St Petersburg’s main drag, worth a stop. Af­ter pe­rus­ing paint­ings by lo­cal artists, I parked in a com­fort­able chair on the third floor and en­joyed a pot of spicy, or­ange­flavoured tea (450 rubles), as well as a slightly cu­ri­ous cor non-the-cob that had as­pi­ra­tions to be Mex­i­can street corn (200 rubles). True bib­lio­philes can head down the block to Dom Knigi, one of the most fa­mous book­shops in the city. My last stop was at the site of Pushkin’s fa­tal duel—a small, tri­an­gle-shaped park (un­named, as far as I know) in the Pri­morsky Dis­trict. It was a quiet, sunny day. I passed sun­bathers, fam­i­lies and pic­nick­ers, as I trudged through tall grass to the cen­tre of the park. There was an obelisk with a pro­file of Pushkin, a mod­est bou­quet of pur­ple flow­ers at its base, memo­ri­al­is­ing the duel with a French of­fi­cer whom Pushkin ac­cused of spread­ing scur­rilous ru­mours about Pushkin’s wife. I no­ticed a cou­ple of other peo­ple mak­ing this mini-pil­grim­age as well, walk­ing slowly and gaz­ing up at the mon­u­ment. We didn’t speak, but it was clear that a re­spect for these ti­tans of Rus­sian lit­er­a­ture meant, iron­i­cally, that no words were nec­es­sary.

St Petersburg is widely con­sid­ered the cul­tural cap­i­tal of Rus­sia and has no short­age of im­por­tant lit­er­ary land­marks

(Left) Ac­tors per­form a play based on a story by An­ton Chekhov at Me­likhovo, his house in Moscow; and the house of Leo Tol­stoy in Yas­naya Polyana, near Tula, Rus­sia

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