RUSSIA’S LITERARY ICONS, EXPLORED ON A BUDGET
From Chekhov to Tolstoy, experiencing literary Moscow and St Petersburg
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