Despite the grim oil paintings adorning the walls—one depicting the Last Supper (in the dining room, of course) and another, in the drawing room, showing the biblical Agony in the Garden—nothing suggests that Dostoyevsky, psychologist of tortured outcasts, was anything but a conscientious family man, born to the gentry class. His sanctum sanctorum was his study, a modest chamber with green-patterned wallpaper, a parquet floor, and a desk the size of a pool table, covered in green felt.
To the accompaniment of heavy ticktocks—in the hush, the grandfather clock in the adjacent drawing room sounded loud—I stood perusing an explanatory placard, marveling that Dostoyevsky could have been quite so domestic, even if a night owl. “The least disorder would annoy father,” one of his daughters reported. Starting at 11 p.m., he wrote in candlelit solitude, tolerating no interruptions. Around dawn he would retire, burrowing into the bed in his study, with his overcoat laid on top of the sheets. He slept until noon. He adored super-strong tea, scalding coffee, Kiev jam, chocolate, and blue raisins, which he shopped for on nearby Nevsky Prospekt, to this day the most glamorous commercial avenue in St. Petersburg. He enjoyed reading his works in public, in his “high but piercing sharp voice.”
The kindly docent posted in the sedate drawing room sabotaged my calm, supplementing the homey scene with her own narrative. Emperor Nicholas I, unsettled by the revolutions of 1848 in Europe, began cracking down on subversives not long after Dostoyevsky started attending meetings of the Petrashevsky Circle—intelligentsia who gathered to read the forbidden works of European Socialists. My guide spared no details of the special punishment the emperor had in store for Dostoyevsky and his fellow members. Arrested and ultimately thrown into the city’s hulking prison, they were first stripped to their underwear in minus-30-degree weather to face a firing squad, sacks over their heads. The drums rolled—and then, instead of gunshots, they heard a messenger galloping up to grant them commuted sentences. Dostoyevsky got four years in prison and exile in Siberia. He also got material for House of the Dead, one of the great prison novels of world literature.
Heading out into the wind-whipped streets, I went in search 104 Griboyedov Canal Embankment, where, on the third floor, in apartment 74 of entryway No. 5, the troubled young antihero of Crime and Punishment, Rodion Raskolnikov, splits open the skull of a usurious old pawnbroker with an ax butt—a scene so graphic and disturbing that I suffered nightmares after first reading it three decades ago.
When I had last visited, in September 2000, I had opened the door to the entryway and climbed the stairs, inhaling a reek of mold and urine. Standing before the apartment, I had examined its door (covered by a layer of reddish leatherette, as I remember): here Raskolnikov had hesitated before he knocked, his ax concealed beneath the folds of his ratty coat. I had the feeling that nothing, not the decrepitude, the smells, or the sepulchral light, had changed since Dostoyevsky’s day.