Seeing Crime & Punishment through Dostoevsky’s eyes in St. Petersburg

Statue of Dostoevsky on Raskolnikov's Stairs in St. PetersburgJames Boobar admits that this is a tour you will not find in any conventional guidebook, not the way he does it. The Dostoevsky Walk: the descent-via-ascent into the private hell of Dostoevsky’s most famous literary character, the murderous, haunted Raskolnikov of Crime and Punishment.

Boobar leads the walk for the interested writers and readers attending the writing workshops of the Summer Literary Seminars in St. Petersburg, Russia. It’s a way not to get to know “Dostoevsky’s Petersburg” (after all, this is a city whose histories of literature, war, hardship, and wealth would take centuries to excavate), but to get a feel for what may have helped Dostoevsky narrate the way Raskolnikov felt the world closing in on him.

For those who haven’t read the book, a short synopsis would be in order. Raskolnikov, a poor student who sometimes believes he may be a genius, conceives a theory whereby different classes of men get to live by different rules. He persuades himself that men like him are allowed certain crimes that would not be permissable to the common masses; therefore, he proceeds to murder a greedy elderly woman moneylender. Unfortunately, he gets caught by the woman’s not-so-bright half-sister, and murders her, too.

Long story short, the crime begins to prey on Raskolnikov’s mind. He is racked not by guilt so much as self-doubt. It’s a very psychological book, but not annoyingly so, and one I highly recommend reading.

Locked gates in St. PetersburgI admit, I initially found the tour a little too post-modern for my taste. As we stood in a square and saw four dead-end streets whichever way we turned, Boobar talked about the symbolism of the dead ends, how Dostoevsky may have seen and used them, reflected in his character’s desperate life after he kills an old woman pawnbroker. I don’t have much patience for that kind of thing. Get into an argument about “art for art’s sake” and I’m generally going to leave the room.

And yet, as I think back on the tour, it exactly reflects my own belief in how very deeply place affects a writer. The place you’re living, the place you grew up, the place your heart broke, the place you were poor, the place you felt rich. Maybe Dostoevsky could not have written so masterfully about the cage Raskolnikov’s guilt builds around his mind if the author had set it in, say, Buenos Aires. A Russian tragedy needs a Russian setting.

The tour winds through Dostoevsky’s little world, passing by a wallside statue in his honor, depicting the winding, entrapping stair of Raskolnikov’s life. A charcoal statue, brooding and dark, much like many of Dostoevsky’s works — much like his life, in fact, the life of a compulsive gambler.

Graffiti sympathetic to Raskolnikov at the site of the fictional character's possible apartmentOur quest climaxes at the top of stairs that give the same sense of confinement and an inability to see choices ahead. This is possibly or possibly not the setting of Raskolnikov’s student life and the scene of his self-torture. A locked iron gate, a yellowing courtyard beyond, and then the set of stairs. The walls are covered in graffiti in many languages, Dostoevsky’s pilgrims pleading to Raskolnikov, or for him, or for themselves as they identify with him.

The tour made me rethink the way I viewed literary criticism, and literary influences. St. Petersburg has lovely, wide avenues, and long views over the river and across the islands. But it is full of brooding buildings. Their graceful windows may be open to the street, but the courtyards and life are all behind locked doors. The closed-in aspect of the buildings could lead a person to think of trapped minds and dead ends, of unique Russian fatalism.

Either way, it certainly made me appreciate Crime & Punishment, and Dostoevsky, all over again.

To read Boobar’s own account of St. Petersburg and the Dostoevsky Walk, originally published in Post Road Magazine, click on the Summer Literary Seminars link above, and find the link on the right-hand side of the page.

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